[...Wroclaw, Poland October 2011...]
I look at Wroclaw like an oyster – you have to get past the rough and scraggly outer shell to get to the pearl inside to appreciate its beauty. And by the pearl I mean the heart of the city that Wroclawians call Rynek, the old market square where one can find the city’s prized possession tucked safely inside four colorful corners.
When I arrived in central Wroclaw by airport bus, I decided to walk from the bus station at Dworkowa Street to take me to the old town where my hotel was. Passing by the old Glowny Station and the busy Swidnicka Street, I found the city on the brink of mid-afternoon rush. There was a vigorous chill in the breeze that swept past me as I walked with one gloved hand inside my pocket and another dragging my luggage behind. It felt unseasonably cold this time of the year, and my decision to pack more layers than I had originally planned was suddenly the smartest thing I’ve done.
There was nothing worth noting about the “outer layers” of Wroclaw – mostly your routine gray buildings, dusty glass-fronted shops, and stacked apartments that look common enough for a city working to be a modern metropolis. I could probably have been anywhere in Poland and would not have known the difference. But why did I choose a lesser-known Polish city over Warsaw or even Krakow as my first Polish city? The bridges have once again sold me.
There are 120 bridges in Wroclaw’s river Oder, but don’t let that alarming number fool you into thinking that they’re all magnificent. The river Thames has over 100 bridges as well, but many of these are architectural marvels. Most of Wroclaw’s bridges, however, are your typical structures that merely serve their functions as passageways. There are at least 2 (really 3, but I did not make it to the other one) that I wanted to include in my portfolio: the Tumski and the Grunwalkdzki bridges. These 2 historic structures have great soul and character – something I always strive to capture in a place.
It is safe to assume that since it has this many bridges, it must either have a long river or has many islands. Wroclaw, in fact, is made up of 12 islands and has several streams and canals. Because of this, it is also dubbed as the undiscovered Venice of the North, which leads me to think that every city that has a canal in it seem to inherit a nickname with Venice attached to it, so much so that it diminishes the value of the real Venice. Venice, to me, is still in a league of its own, and a canal city liken to it still pales in comparison.
But even if its canals are not Wroclaw’s biggest draw, the market square makes this city still worth seeing. I’ve seen many of Europe’s market squares, and I think Wroclaw’s Rynek is one of the most colorful and the prettiest that I have seen. It is also strangely lively yet somehow quiet. It actually surprised me how peaceful Wroclaw seem, and by this I don’t mean only the city but also the people – as they are also friendly and helpful. It’s that aspect that I really liked, plus the fact that I found it to be one of the few cities that I felt safe walking around even during dark hours.
They say it’s best to navigate the city on foot, and I usually like to do that but once I had walked the first kilometer going to Plac Grunwaldzki from Ostrow Trumski, I started to think that wasn’t a good idea. Wroclaw is big in a photographer’s point of view. I realized this at magic hour when the speed of light traveled faster than my little feet could and I was rushed to settle down in one location to get my shots. I somehow ended up at the Centennial Hall (Hala Stulecia) where I was once again lucky to find that the evening fountain had just started its animated light display and at a perfect time – sunset!
It was a peaceful scene that I wished I could’ve savored longer, but I was pleased to find afterwards that other fountains – at least the ones I was interested in the area of Rynek – are kept on and lit through the night, which in a way lengthened my experience.
Water plays a big part in the city, whether it be the river Oder or the fountains, or even the Zen pond they have at the Japanese gardens in Szczytnicki Park.
I should not forget to mention that not only is Wroclaw known for its colorful market square, but also for its University. It is interesting to note that 1 out of 7 residents of Wroclaw is a student, and that high ratio tells us that the city is being taken over by the young population. As youthful, vibrant and energetic Wroclaw is, it is another surprise to me how on the weekend night that I was there, I saw the people out partying in Rynek, yet somehow the atmosphere remained fairly mellow. I can only speculate that either I was there on an off-night, or this well-poised behavior is typical here. Or, it also could be that the story of Hugo Lederer has set a good warning to the young folks.
The early mornings and late nights I had spent either behind or without the camera across the river overlooking the cathedral island of Omstrow Tumski were the most memorable moments for me during my stay here. It was a liberating experience, especially that even as I stood in the dark shadows I felt safe and unthreatened – I found that to be quite rare in my experience traveling. Now I understand why during my research, I had not read many, or if any at all, a bad word about Wroclaw. It is well justified once you discover it on your own.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that Rynek’s slogan is “The Meeting Place.” Although probably not only intended as a literal meaning as it’s supposed to have a more profound symbolism – like a place that bridges the gap of generations and culture. It is a “city that unites” different nations, cultures and religion as how Pope John Paul has once referred to it as.
How a little-known city like Wroclaw achieve that is in itself an attraction and a marvel that even the best of its iconic landmarks can’t possibly top.