A CITY OF SURPRISES
Jeremy Head trips over dwarves and explores Nazi hideouts in the Polish city of Wroclaw
Ever heard of Wroclaw?
I hadn’t either. It’s Poland’s 4th biggest city and I expected a drab industrial cityscape. In fact it was full of surprises.
I found a romantic old town with an ornate medieval Town Hall, pastel-coloured gabled houses, a tinkling fountain and narrow cobbled streets. And a bearded lady in bright green stilettos.
She (he?) almost fell flat on her face as she tripped across the cobbles. Apparently she’s a bit of a local celebrity with her own You Tube channel.
And then there were the dwarves. Hundreds of the little fellas. Bronze statues at knee height playing instruments, cooking, reading and err, pole dancing. Up to mischief, they kept almost tripping me up (and no I wasn’t wearing stilettos).
The big daddy – dwarf number one - stands on the tip of a large bronze finger outside a funky new cafe called Barbara. It’s a hub for alternative events involving locals painting, photographing, dancing and more. It’s also home to a funky café.
I ate herby Polish pasta called Peirogi and sipped cappuccinos as Arleta my guide explained that the café was formerly where intellectuals and poets cooked up campaigns of dissent against the authorities when Poland was under communist control. The dwarf was a symbol of rebellion. They stencilled them on communist propaganda posters – a bit of cheeky graffiti – two fingers to the establishment.
The little statues of dwarves dotted all over town take their inspiration from this. There’s even an official form you fill in to request a dwarf for your business. And an official ‘dwarf lady’ who creates them.
The city’s communist past can be found in other places too. Those ornate Baroque buildings have mostly been restored after the Nazis destroyed them in World War II. As a result they’re almost too pretty.
But just as I was getting fatigued by the swirling flourishes and romantic spires, I stumbled into a wide square with monumental blocks of Soviet-era flats on all sides. Each one was almost identical to the next. Uniform, square, angular, I found this honest concrete brutality oddly refreshing - particularly from a photographic perspective. They made moody shots for my Instagram feed. I doubt the residents feel the same way, judging by the crumbling state of many of the balconies. Some had been boarded up and were in a very precarious state.
Wroclaw was once known as Breslau and was part of Germany. Early 20th-century concrete architecture from this era is much more stylish than Soviet-era apartment blocks. Star of the show is Centennial Hall, the centrepiece of a complex in Szczytnicki Park. It was created to commemorate the centenary of Germany’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. A concertina of concrete circles rise steeply upwards with a vast dome at the top. Inside there’s a forest of sIoping buttresses that support the vast roof. It took a little perseverance to sneak inside, but was worth the subterfuge. (Just stick nose in guidebook and walk past No Entry sign).
Back in town, the Central Market Hall dates from the same era. Despite its more working class clientele, the architecture is no less spectacular. More vast concrete arches support a space flooded with light that’s packed with stalls selling colourful fruit and veg. I took a walk up to the mezzanine level. Here I found a great little shop selling chunky, colourful pottery made at nearby Boleslawiec. With their vaguely vintage-style swirls and flowers the mugs and teapots were perfect souvenirs.
Another (pleasant) surprise was that Poland is cheap. It’s not in the Eurozone. With nearly six Polish Zloty to the pound, the souvenir pottery cost just a few quid. And even better, a pint came in at only around £1.50. The perfect place to sup local brews is Spiz, a microbrewery in a cellar bar under the Town Hall. Later in the day, I sat surrounded by locals quaffing smoky dark lager served cold from shiny copper pumps in the dimly lit, buzzing bar. I ate at a traditional Polish restaurant called Karczma Lwowska which was on the main Market Square. The food was hearty stuff – dark purple borscht soup with stuffed pasta bobbing about in it, pork steak in plum and horseradish sauce and local potato dumplings called kluski. Prefect grub for a chilly spring evening and big portions at, err, dwarfsized prices. The whole lot was about £12.
Here’s another one I didn’t see coming. Next day I took a trip into the countryside to discover an old wooden church at Swidnica. It’s a 40-minute drive or about an hour by train. Outside the church looks plain – simple wooden beams and white plaster. But inside, wow! A phantasmagorical feast of swirling cherubs, brightly painted ceilings and delicately carved columns. And – get this – all of it in wood. Not a single nail is used in its construction.
And then there was the fairy-tale castle with a gruesome secret. Ksiaz Castle, 15 minutes’ drive away, sits atop a vast lump of granite. I trooped around historic rooms with vast fireplaces and portraits of hairy aristocrats on the wall. It all lulled me into a false sense of security.
A hidden door in a corridor suddenly revealed a 50-metre deep concrete lift shaft down into the rock below. This was a Nazi command centre in World War II. Many of the rooms I’d just seen were to be living accommodation for Hitler himself. The hidden elevator was an escape route should the castle be taken.
I explored some of the tunnels under the castle that the shaft leads to. The Nazis built them using slave labour. Sinister and spooky, the place feels like a villain’s lair from a James Bond movie. Recent rumours about other tunnels in surrounding hillsides that hide a Nazi ‘gold train’ laden with booty stolen during the war have provoked a bit of a gold rush of tourists. You can even buy fake gold bars in the castle souvenir shop!
Next day as I nearly jumped out of my skin coming face-to-snout with a monster crocodile in the new Afrykarium hall at the city zoo, I had to admit I’d been bowled over by this city of surprises. One thing you can be sure of if you visit, you won’t be bored. Just keep an eye out for those dwarves.
Getting there: Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies daily to Wroclaw from London Stansted
Staying there: The 4* Art Hotel (www.arthotel.pl) is comfortable and ideally located. Typical cost is £60 for a double room.
Eating and drinking: Spiz micro brewery – www.spiz.pl
Karczma Lwowska Polish Restaurant – www.lwowska.com.pl
Find out more: Polish National Tourist Office - www.poland.travel
Wroclaw tourist office www.wroclaw.pl
Lower Silesia Tourist Board - www.dolnyslask.info.pl