The Poles don't realize they have too many consonants in their language, and not enough vowels, probably a result of trying to put a Slavic language into Roman letters, unlike, say, the Russians. So they have put little dashes and diacritical marks (not reproduced here) on some of the 26 letters familiar to us, which change pronunciations radically. We look at the name of Lech Walesa, the labor leader who helped bring down the Iron Curtain in 1989, and don't see that in Polish, his name is pronounced Lek Vawensa, for example. On top of this, parts of Poland were once in Germany, just as a part of Poland is now in the Ukraine, and names change. The once-German city of Breslau is now Wroclaw (pron. vrot-swav), for instance. The dual nature of the place makes it all the merrier, moving toward a unified Europe someday, perhaps. (Poland is already a member of the European Union and will adopt the Euro as currency soon, perhaps in 2009.)
Heavily damaged under a four-month siege by Russian artillery in World War II (it was then German, remember, and 70% of the city was wiped out), Wroclaw today is mostly rebuilt, much of its pretty city center replicating exactly its 17th and 18th century architecture. You can ignore the newer sections of town, including a vast reclaimed area boasting as one of its thoroughfares an avenue named for Ronald Reagan.
The big cultural event here (since 1966) is the Cantans, in June and again in September, featuring oratorios and cantatas from the likes of Concerto Italiano, the Gabriel Consort & Players, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (from a 2007 program). More details at www.wratislavia.art.pl. In July and August you can listen to the International Festival of Organ and Chamber Music. You can see opera from time to time in the vast Centennial Hall and watch the sets (for Boris Godunov when I was in town) arrive by railway car if you plan ahead.
Already a thousand years old, Wroclaw is a beautiful city with a splendid Old Town Square, the latter only occasionally marred by huge advertising posters hung from its rooftops. The magnificent Old Town Hall was built in 1327-1504, and houses the city's historical museum as well as a great beer hall in the basement. It was not completely destroyed during World War II, though much of the square, one of Europe's largest, was. Thanks to the Odra River, its tributaries and several canals, Wroclaw is called "the city of 100 bridges" (actually, there are about 125) and is built on some dozen islands. Cathedral Island is impressive, with its 13th-16th-century Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
On your walk around Old Town, look for the Old Shambles, Stare Jatki, which was a butchers' street and now houses art galleries and some bronze statues of various farm animals. Keep an eye out also for some of the 15 dwarf statues scattered around the place, one perching on the windowsill of the Old Jail, now a tavern. Although of recent origin (since 2005), they remind locals of similar works of art created by artists opposed to the Communist government back in the late 1980s, who enjoyed the spectacle of the police then trying to figure out what to do with them, as arresting the statues was not an option, apparently.
One of Poland's largest academic centers, Wroclaw has about 130,000 students in its 20 some institutes of higher education, of a population of only 634,000 people, Poland's fourth largest. About 20,000 graduate each year, over 97% of them claiming knowledge of English. (Of the ten Nobel Prize winners associated with Wroclaw or former Breslau, one is recognizable to any medical student, namely, Paul Ehrlich, inventor of the "magic bullet," a cure for syphilis, his prize in 1908.) The city is trying hard to become a European technology center, with about 3,000 foreign companies doing business here.
Wroclaw has one UNESCO World Heritage Site (among Poland's 13 total), the People's Hall (formerly Centennial Hall), seating 7,000 and said to be the one of the world's first reinforced concrete buildings (1913), but it looks distinctly dated today. Among war-ruined examples of fine Baroque design that have been restored, you might want to visit the Wroclaw University's Oratorium and Leopoldine Hall, created in 1733 and 1732, respectively.
On the first of my three visits to Poland, I fell in love with the buffet breakfast, not only for its cold cuts, cheeses, yogurt and array of baked items, but for the pickles. Ranging from tiny round onions to various forms of cucumbers drenched in vinegar, and beets and other veggies, I felt in the presence of a truly advanced civilization. On my last visit, however, I noticed a big decline in these "peasant" delights and much fancier creations, looking like leftover canapés, on the breakfast tables, so I curse once again the advance of global gentrification.
It's not too late to get non-processed foods, however, especially if you order traditional Polish dishes, especially the soups. I can recommend sour rye soup (veggies, bread, garlic, onion, sausage), beet soup (with little dumplings) and sauerkraut soup (with ribs), to start with. Look also for pierogi, sausages and pancakes, and you can't go wrong.
By the way, Poland is still a nation of heavy smokers (the nation is a big production center for cigarettes), so be prepared for tobacco clouds in restaurants, though a few have no-smoking areas, usually in Siberia-like parts of the building.
Karczma Lwowska (the Livovian Inn), named for the town in the Ukraine whence came many of Wroclaw's citizens after 1945, is a popular and elegant restaurant on the Old Town Square. Traditional Polish and Livovian cuisine prevail, including charcoal barbecue ribs and a Livovian beer. Traditional grilled Polish meats cost 50 zlotys ($19.93), a mug of beer 8 ($3.19). Cheapest main dish is 18.50 zlotys ($7.37), they say. Lowoska, Rynek 4, tel. 011 48 71/343-9887, website www.lwowska.com.pl.
JaDka also specializes in traditional Polish cooking and is not far from the Old Town Square. Check out the sausages, which can be a starter or the basis of your main course. I had a fine roast duck with apples and pears, costing 72 zlotys ($28.80). Dishes run from 38 to 81 zlotys ($15.15 to $32.29). JaDka, Rzeznicza 24, tel. 011 48 71/343-5617, www.jadka.pl.
HP Park Plaza is one of Wroclaw's best-sited hotels, located on the Odra River, a 30-minute walk from the city center. 177 rooms (some non-smoking) with bath, TV are complemented by business and fitness centers, most luxury conveniences. Good breakfast buffet included in prices, which start at 470 zlotys ($187.35). The restaurant is working on its nouvelle European cuisine, avoiding traditional peasant specialties, to my dismay. HP Park Plaza, ul. Drobnera 11/13. tel. 011 48 71/320-8400, www.parkplaza.pl.
The Radisson SAS Hotel is located about 30 minutes from the Old Town also, near a park and the River Odra. With 162 rooms (one-third reserved for non-smokers), it is considered one of Wroclaw's two or three best establishments, with amenities that include a neat fitness center and a very good restaurant. Double rooms from 116 Euro ($168.39) and up, not including breakfast. Radisson SAS, 10 Purkyniego Street, tel. 011 48 71/375-0000, www.wroclaw.radissonsas.com.
The best located hotel in town is the newish Dom Jana Pawla II (John Paul II House), with 60 rooms. Founded in 1997 by the Pope himself, it is open to guests of all religious backgrounds (or none, I suppose), and the rooms are airy, comfortable and modern, though each contains a crucifix over the bed. Double rooms start at 340 zlotys ($135.53). Near the Cathedral in the oldest part of the city, it was built to celebrate the Pope's second visit to Wroclaw. Facilities include sauna, beauty parlor & barber, underground garage, chapel and a fountain replenished by rain from the roof. Dom Jana Pawla II, Sw. Idziego 2, tel. 011 48 71/327-1400, www.pensjonat-jp2.pl.
Getting to Wroclaw
There are direct flights here from several western European cities (Barcelona, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Rome, London and Munich), not to mention Warsaw. Three cheap airlines serve Wroclaw from London (Ryanair, which has 44% of Wroclaw Airport's traffic, from Stansted, Wizz Air from Luton and Centralwings from Gatwick). If you want one-stop service from the USA, I recommend you fly into one of the London airports and transfer, or into Munich and use Lufthansa all the way.
For all details on Wroclaw, check out the Tourist Information Center, Rynek 14, tel. 011 48 71/344-3111, www.itwroclaw.pl.
A note on prices: The zloty is still official currency (at 2.50 zloty to the US dollar), but in anticipation of joining the European monetary union, many hotels and restaurants list in Euros (at 69 cents to the dollar).
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