After a visit it’s not hard to see why everyone loves Wrocław. The city is a historical blend of Poles, Germans, Austrians and Czechs, each of which have left their mark on the city’s character and architecture. Located on the Oder river, with it’s 12 islands and 130 bridges, in western Poland near the border with Germany, Wrocław is the capital of the region of Silesia and the fourth largest city in Poland.
What’s in a name?
One of the first things people notice about Wrocław is its name, a little strange to say the least. The city is believed to be named after a Czech Duke, Vratislav I of Bohemia with many believing the first name of the city, dating back to the 10th century, was Vlatislava. The Polish name Wrocław derives from the Polish Wrocisław which is the Polish equivalent of Vratislav
Wrocław primarily developed because of its location at the junction of two major trade routes, Via Regia which primarily ran east-west, and the Amber Way, which primarily run north-south. Founded in the early 10th century, the city was soon conquered by Mieszko I of Poland in 985 and with time the name gradually changed to Wrocław.
As the amount of trade and commerce increased the city began to grow in both wealth and size. Originally built on the right bank of the Oder river, the city moved to Wyspa Piasek (Sand Island) and then onto the left bank. By the end of the first millennia the town had a population of more than 1000.
The 13th century saw Poland attacked by the Mongols. It was decided to abandon and destroy large tracts of the city for defensive reasons. Wrocław castle on the left bank however, defended by the Henry II the Pious, was successfully saved and afterwards became the focal point of the new town. After the Mongol invasion, the town was partly repopulated by German settlers who in the ensuing years gradually became the dominant population. As a result, the German name of Breslau first appears in written documents around this time and the city became, again, part of Bohemia.
The city joined the Hanseatic Trading League in the 14th century which brought the city wealth. This new money was used to rebuild the fortifications with some, such as the Fosa Miejska (City Moat), still visible.
These new trade links also brought the Reformation and the religious wars associated with it. To combat the protestant threat, catholic orders, including the Franciscans, Jesuits, Capuchins and finally the Ursuline Nuns, were invited to locate in the city to try and preserve catholic ideas. Unfortunately the German influence continued to grow and eventually in 1741 the city became part of the German state of Prussia and was officially renamed Breslau. Being one of the most eastern parts of the German Reich, the city was heavily fortified and played a key role in the battles towards the end of WWII. As the Red army approached in 1945, people unwilling to fight were exceuted by the Nazis and by the time the war finished, 75% of the city had been destroyed and 30% of the population had perished. Any remaining Germans were expelled and the city was repopulated with people from Poland’s eastern regions, regions which had been taken by Russia.
Wrocław’s main market square, it is the second largest in Poland after Kraków. The Town Hall, which is a collection of buildings, took almost two centuries to complete and is crowned by a wonderful 66m tower.
Hansel & Gretal Houses
Standing on the north-western corner of the Rynek, are two charming houses commonly known as Hansel & Gretal which are linked by an archway dating back to 1728. The arch once led to the town cemetery and still bears the inscription, in Latin, “Death is the gateway to life”
Wrocław’s pride and joy, is a circular painting on a giant canvas measuring 15m (50ft) x 114m (375ft). Viewed from above, on an elevated balcony, it depicts the 1794 Battle of Racławice, one of the last victories for Poland before it was partioned for the third and final time in 1795.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Built between 1224-1590, it is located on Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island, which is where the original settlers to the region, the Slavic Ślęzanie tribe, built their stronghold in the 7th & 8th centuries.
For many visitors to Wrocław, the main memory is not the cathedral or town square, it is the army of gnomes, Krasnale in local dialect, you see scattered throughout the city. They are the result of the Orange Alternative, a movement which started in in the 1980’s which used absurdity and nonsense as a form of peaceful protest against the communist regime. Today there are more than 400 of them scattered throughout the city.