Wroclaw, Silesia, Polska

9 December 1999

After a wonderful few days in Krakow, it was time to move on. We would have liked to spend a few more days, at least, in West Galicia (Southern Poland) but we were feeling pressured because we only had about 2 weeks total in Poland (not NEARLY enough!) so we felt it was time to move on.

I have wanted to visit Wroclaw ever since i was a kid, partially because, as an adult, i have heard wonderful things about the city, it's history, university and people, and partially because of the reallly cool name. Wroclaw which is pronounced 'Vrotswahv', should have the uniquely Polish crossed L, but the computer (neither ASCII or HTML) will not print one and there is no subsitute in Polish (like the adding an 'e' as a subsitute for an umlaut in German). It was called Breslau by the Germans, which despite my general like for most things Germanic, i think is a terribly boring name at best.

So we woke up and went to the Barcalona Milk Bar one more time. On the sidewalk out front someone commented on the Polish flag on my shoulder, the first person to do so. I was very pleased. He said, first in Polish, and then in English, that he thought it was really cool, and that a friend of his had done the same thing (covering the German flag on the army jacket with a Polish flag).

The train ride seemed very long, although it was really only about 4 hours. One of the things that happened to us in Poland is that we began to feel very filled up - we had seen and done so much in such a short period of time it became hard to digest more. I found myself trying to absorb sights and sounds and experinces so that i could think about them later, not even able to comprehed some of it. Part of this was, of course, just not writing as much as i would like and being behind in my Travelogues (although many of you may think i am writing these for you, i am really doing it for me!), but part of it was just... wow, we have seen so much!

We were alone in our compartment again, which ment that there were no Polish people to talk to. We went through the huge industrial city of Katowice, which all the guide books say is awful so i would really like to visit there. And after that it was just very flat agricultural land with a little bit of snow. As i have mentioned before, my lifelong powers as the world's best snow repelent were in full force in Eastern Europe. Everywhere we went the locals bemoaned the fact that the snow was late, and usually it snowed as we left town. It is very frustrating! I love snow! When we arrived in Wroclaw, there was no snow on the ground. Big surprise.

After struggling with our packs, which had gotten pretty damned heavy in the 2 months since we had been to Bonn, in city after city, we decided that the best course of action was to leave our packs at left luggage while we ran around town -- we'd get them when we had a place to stay lined up. The Wroclaw train station is large, and like many stations in Poland the train stops a fair distance from the main building. The building has been turned into a bit of a mall and we found it kind of difficult to locate the necessities, but it is a GORGEOUS 19th centruy building with huge castlelike towers outside and a giant glass-roofed main hall inside!

Left luggage cost quite a bit more than we were expecting. Ten Zloty, or about $2.50, for both of us together. That is extremely expensive for Poland: we got a big meal for two at the Barcalona Milk Bar for that! From the station we walked down the main street, which was all dug up while they replace the tram tracks. We found a Milk Bar and had a much needed, overdue lunch, and then walked into town, stopping at both official hostels on the way, only to find that they were full. We visited several cheap hotels, including the REALLY COOL Sport hotel, which is much like a hostel in layout and cost. But they were all also full.

We finally had to settle for the Teacher's hostel, which was FAR FAR more than we had planned to pay, almost 9 bucks per night each for a private room. We decided that we couldn't spend very much time in town at that price. We were exhausted and frustrated when we finally got our packs and returned to the hostel. We walked through several of the very busy squares and interscetions in town and were disgusted to see a TGI Friday's in one place!! It is a very striking city, especially in the architecture. We walked past Hitler's favorite hotel, with a balcony where he made many speaches -- that was eerie.

Wroclaw is a very interesting city in that it is a very Polish city that was only German for about 500 years. Of course it has always had a large Polish population, but it had been within the borders of Prussa since about 1450. After WWII the peace settlment essentially moved Poland a couple of hundred kilometers to the west. (Churchill supposedly proposed the solution with matchsticks on the dinner table!) This moved Wroclaw back into Poland, but moved Lvov out of Poland and into the USSR (now Ukraine). So the entire German population of Breslau (Wroclaw) was removed, forcibly, to Germany and the entire Polish population of Lvov, and all the institutions such as the University, were moved almost a thousand kilometers to Wroclaw. The city has a weird feel to it.

Breslau was where the Nazis made their last stand, even after Hitler had been killed, and was victim to a long long seige. The Nazis talked about FORTRESS BRESLAU, but it was just a city, not a fort. So unlike Krakow, it was virtually destroyed at the end of the war; therefore the city center is all reconstructed and outside of the city center everything is from the 1950s or later. The Rynek (town square), however, is absolutely amazing. Unparalleled; in my opinion the most gorgeous city we have seen in Europe. The coblestone square is HUGE, almost as large as Krakow's. And unlike most Squares it is more like a doughnut, (therefore Rynek, polish for ring) with buildings in the center as well as around the edges.

One of the buildings in the center was the town hall, an exquistly detailed churchlike building with several large, and famous clocks. There was of course, also a church.

But around the edges, both around the center and the outside, were Burgher houses. These were the houses of the rich merchants in town in the 17th and 18th centuries (when it was officially a German city) and they are amazing. They are all about five stories tall, and of course, pressed against each other. They are painted very bright colors and highly detailed, but all very different. They all have different designs and angles and sometimes it looks like one or another is leaning towards you! It is really a sight to see and i loved wandering around it.

There were also three tiny alleys, sometimes just tunnels, that ran through the center block. And just kitty cornor off the Rynek was another, newer square, called the Flower Market which was more active, less touristic and almost as pretty.

Right in the center part of the Rynek, only 2 blocks from our hostel, was a kind of westernish, Vegitarian Milk Bar, called Bar Vega. It was WONDERFUL, albeit a bit more expensive than we were used to. We wound up eating all of our meals there! That first night we also went out for chocolate pastries at one of the several shops around the square - not half bad. To try to avoid the hotel search at our next stop, we phoned the hostel in Poznan - Now i really CAN manage enough German to reserve a bed, but for some reason, when she said she didn't speak English, but did speak German, i couldn't put two words together and kind of babbled nonsense. Finally i got myself collected, only to confuse the other person by confusing yesterday and tomrrow (but i do that in English anyway!). Finally i figured out my error, with Cheryln's help and started saying, morgen, morgen, morgen, over and over again. She was satisfied... We also tried to make reservations at a hostel in Florence, Italy, but they would not take them, saying that they were not full this time of year.

So the following day we explored the Rynek a bit further, which was enjoyable, and then we wandered out to the river, where there are a couple of islands which is where the Silesian tribe first set up it's permanent residence. They are now completely covered with churches, although we also found a playground on it's own small island where we sat and watched a family of very cute kids for a little while. Also, they had part of the river drained and were repairing the bottom! One of the things you quickly notice about Europe is that most of the rivers have bricked or concrete banks and beds!

From the island we went to the market hall, which was a huge brick building with lots of stalls selling everything from soup to nuts, literealy! I also saw some 70% chocolate, the first i had seen in Eastern Europe, but the stand was closed and i couldn't buy it. But it was a good sign! One thing that we did not find in Wroclaw was English newspapers, although we looked and looked. We were still interested in news from Seattle. We did find an expensive copy of Newsweak Europe -- in a large nasty hotel, which had a short, extremely pro-WTO, anti-protester, 'news' story... but we didn't buy it.

We went shopping in the evening at the big huge department store/grocery store on the Rynek. We got some snack food, but the purpose of our shopping trip was to find something to make miniture Scrabble(tm) tiles. We often play games in the evening, and sine we lost the cribbage board, we were limited to Yahtzee. We just had to have a speed scrabble fix! We needed some kind of nice cardbord... after kind of arguing a bit with the clerk we finally found a nice white notebook cover for about half a cent and it wound up working great. It took us a week or two of email to get the number of letters correct, but we now have a nice set. Thanks Jennhx!!

While we were on our way out of the department store we found (i have a nose for these things) the chocolate section. So far in every western country we have been in, excepting one store in Vienna, we have found one or fewer 70%+ chocoalte bars, but never more than one. Here in Poland they had FIVE!! So we bought them all, of course. And it turns out that Polish chocolate is really good! Who woulda thunk it? Poland turns out to be the one of the top three or four countries we have been in for chocolate, after France, Germany and the Netherlands.

So that evening we sat in the Vega Bar watching the automatic pole go up and down. There were these four big poles sticking up about a meter in the middle of all of the streets that led into the Rynek. You see the Rynek was a pedestrian only zone, and since this was not Italy, people respected that -- even the motorbikes. But the city hall was in the Rynek, so important people had to get through and what if an AMBULANCE had to get through! So one of the poles, on one of the streets could be operated by remote control, like a garage door. A big important person would come by, push their button and the pole would magically sink in to the ground, allowing the car to pass. It was amusing. Ok, so maybe we were a little bored...

We wanted to make an excursion to the country and we thought we had found the perfect spot, a small village called Sobtka which had some old pagen religious sites and was at the edge of a stunning mountain range. It was also the religious center of the Silesian tribe. It was going to be a difficult connection because upon returning we were going to go on to Poznan (where we had reservations at a hostel), but when we woke up that morning Cheryln wasn't feeling well and we both decided a down day before the train trip was a better idea.

At one point that morning Cheryln was off at the post office while i was sitting writing post cards in the Rynek. Just as i finished a postcard to my aunt Cathie a very Polish (aka, brown hair) looking young woman sat down next to me and started reading. We sat there without speaking until Cheryln returned and when she heard me and Cheryln talking she turned around and said, in an american jewish accent, "oh, you speak English, where are you from?" We told her we were from Seattle, and talked about our trip and then asked her where she was from and when she responded "Chicago" i asked where. When people are from these towns that i am fimilar enough with to have lived there i always respond as if i had lived there. She said Winetka, and i exclaimed that that was where my aunt lived, and even showed her the card i had just addressed to Winetka IL!

We were all excited and talked for a while. Karen was in the Peace Corps teaching English down near Srobtka. Then i started trying to figure out her age, wondering if she went to school with my cousins. I asked if she went to New Trier, and she said she had, and i asked if she knew Matthew or David Westbrook. She said, no, but she her mother was good friends with a Cathie Westbrook!!!! So we all reveled in the connections - i even put a note on the post card to Cathie that we had met her friend Joan Vatz' daughter in Wroclaw and she invited us to visit the village she is staying in if we get back to the region, which we might do and then her Polish boyfriend arrived and she left and we went to the train station.

But first we discoverd that the whole huge bunch of postcards that we had sent from that postoffice in Krakow went surface mail, not airmail and we were bummed because it meant that people might not get their postcards for MONTHS!

In the train station, as usual, was a bunch of kids playing cards. A bizarre thing that we saw throughout Poland, and in Slovkia as well, was they way that they played cards. You often saw people playing cards in pubic, usually teenagers, and the games seem to require throwing your card down as hard as possible. Without fail when it was time to play a card the player would wind up and throw the card down so hard everyone around could hear it hit the table. It didn't seem to be done in anger, or to make a statement, it was just part of the game.

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000

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