Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Wroclaw, Poland

Posted on November 18th, 2005

I’m getting far too old and delicate for multiple overnight train journeys in the same week. The train from Gdansk to Wroclaw (pronounced “vrots-wahf” for some anti-tourist reason) was seven hours long, leaving at 10:30PM. The conductors in these trains clearly need to cut back on the coffee or find hobbies or something, because they had nothing better to do all night than sweep the train continuously, checking our tickets. So even if one had the ability to fall asleep in one of those god awful eight person compartments with no leg room, you were totally effed anyhow as you would be roughly shaken awake by an amped up conductor often enough throughout the night to constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention.

I was dropped of in Wroclaw station at 5:30AM, minutes away from bursting into tears from psychological torture. The Stranger Hostel was only about a block from the station, but it was 5:30 and I didn’t want to be one of those idiots that wakes up the staff and half the hostel by leaning on the doorbell at an uncivilized hour, so I sat down at the train station McDonald’s with the drunks and homeless and read my Harry Potter book before getting the nerve together to ring the bell at 7:00AM. Turns out The Stranger Hostel has 24 desk staff on duty and I wouldn’t have been waking anyone up at all. This was just the first of numerous details that eventually led me to happily ranking the Stranger Hostel in Wroclaw on my list of greatest hostels of all time. The beds were comfortable, the bathrooms were clean and newly refurbished, there was free Internet (with wifi!), free coffee, free breakfast, free giant projector TV with DVD library, Xbox and a couch that was so big two or three couples could get lucky on it simultaneously and not have any idea that they had company.

I slept most of the first day away, but when I finally emerged I was treated to a much kinder and gentler version of Poland’s weather than what was on offer in Gdansk. It was remarkably warmer and there was almost no wind in Wroclaw. I only brought a sweater along – dashingly tied around my waist no less! - when I finally headed into the Old Town for some late afternoon walking and pictures. The city was hitting the peak of its fall color changes. Red, orange and yellow leaves were falling everywhere and the parks and canals were so charming that it bordered on vulgar and unfair to the other cities.

These city gnome were inconspicuously placed all over Wroclaw

I found this little door next to St. Elizabeth Church. Coincidence?

It appears that underestimating walking time is a country-wide art form in Poland. First it was the “three minute” ten minute walk from the train station to my hostel in Gdansk and now I was privy to the “ten minute” 20 minute walk from the Stranger Hostel to the Rynek, Poland’s second largest old market square (behind Krakow) and one of the largest in Europe. I’m sure that all of this walking time low-balling is done in the friendly, but misleading pursuit of attracting tourists, but it’s also possible that there’s some kind of sprint walking that the Polish are doing that I haven’t been privy to just yet. At the urging of the hostel clerk, I cut over to Swidnicka street to make my approach to the Rynek, which turns into a pedestrian-only shopping mall just after you cross the canal that encircles central Wroclaw. Aside from the innumerable shopping opportunities along this street, there are several minor visitor attractions, including a huge church and progressively cooler looking architecture as you get closer to the Rynek. There’s also the prominent hoard of beautiful women parading by that rivals Romania and Norway in intensity. It was difficult to remain focused. Giant church, sunning blond in knee-high leather boots with a five inch spiked heel. Gnarly architecture, achingly cute girl, giving me a long, inquisitive return stare. Poland and Germany have a similar social tendency for people/strangers to shameless stare at one another as they pass each other in the street. My eyes were constantly met by women (and probably men too, but I can’t rightly say), who had no quibbles about locking and sustaining eye contact for what would be considered far longer than socially acceptable in most countries. I’m still virtually immune to being stared at after spending five months in Asia earlier this year, but at least when I’d catch people doing it there, they’d look away immediately. In Poland, there’s no self-conscious shame in ogling, particularly the women I was encountering and if I weren’t already deeply aware of my raging sex appeal, I’d be in danger of developing delusions of grandeur.


Like the rest of Poland, Wroclaw’s Rynek area was all but flattened during the war. I normally don’t get too jazzed about restored buildings/castles/paintings in Europe, particularly when there is so much of the original thing to be seen, but the restoration work in Wroclaw has been so exquisitely well done, that my usual prejudices weren’t in effect. I slowly circled the Rynek, taking dozens of pictures, stopping for a hard earned kebab, then taking even more pictures before exiting the Rynek at the opposite corner and entering the massive St. Elizabeth Church. The church has an 83 meter (272 foot) tall viewing tower, which my 2003 Lonely Planet reported was free of charge, but in the interim someone had erected a quick and dirty shack outside the entrance and was charging 5 zloty (zl) (US$1.60) entrance. I passed on the tower climb extortion and went inside the church - still free, for now - to slowly and silently circle the interior, taking care not to disrupt the numerous worshipers and poke around in the back, trying to find a backdoor into the tower stairway. Photography wasn’t forbidden in the church, but it I was the only tourist in the place at the time and I didn’t feel comfortable whipping out the camera and snapping away with so many worshipers doing their thing. And, sadly, again the interior of St. Elizabeth Church was yet another victim of the now all too familiar Polish minimalist church décor style, so skipping the photos wasn’t much of a sacrifice.

St. Elizabeth Chuch

Out the other end of the Rynek, I continued down Kuznicza street, ogling architecture, statues and various women whose raw beauty would have started wars 500 years ago until I reached the Odra River. Here is where you can snap about ten megabytes of photos of the staggeringly quaint structures on the other side of the river as well as the river’s islands, distant churches and passing boats. After exploring the trails and small parks on a few of the islands, noting that the sun was making a quick exit, I headed back to the hostel for an easy evening, viewing several DVDs and relieving numerous knobs of their pretend money on PartyPoker.net.

Despite being the first night in a strange place and sharing my dorm room with an Irish couple, my exhaustion overrode all of my light-sleeper and selective-insomnia mental blocks and I slept like a kitten on a warm milk bender for a solid 10 hours. Rejuvenated and with three cups of yummy free coffee swimming through me, I set out to take in the rest of Wroclaw late the next morning. As I headed out to reconnoiter the church and cathedral on the other side of the Odra River I scanned the street for a milk bar or sandwich stand for an early lunch. Unfortunately, it was November 1st, All Saints Day, and virtually everything was closed. Even the kebab stands. (Attention tourists: When the Polish do holidays, they really do them.) I walked 30 minutes without spying a single open eatery. Having reached my objective without seeing so much as an open convenience store, I put off my hunger needs to walk the alluring streets north of central Wroclaw. The streets and buildings here are picturesque and, on the day I toured, ghost town quiet. I wandered up and down the main cobblestone street (sorry, no idea what this street was called… the street wasn’t labeled on my deficient map and there were no signs to be seen, but just look for the two-towered cathedral from across the river and you can’t miss it) until the gigantic appeal of the cathedral finally drew me inside for a closer look. Unlike most of the churches in Poland which are all grandiosity on the outside and mostly plain and unremarkable inside, the Wroclaw Cathedral’s interior is like you would expect in Europe, dark, gratuitously ornamented and super old looking. A sign at the entrance invited visitors to take the elevator to the top of one of the spires, but I snooped in every corner and the location of this supposed elevator never revealed itself. I was happy enough to slowly shuffle around the ground floor and take in all the heavily decorated nooks and the harder to appreciate stained glass, which was set so high and dimly lit that many of them were unappreciable from the floor.

Wroclaw Cathedral

From the cathedral I impulsively detoured to the nearby riverbank to soak in the atmosphere and watch two dogs play in the leaves until my stomach decided that I had put off eating long enough and took control of the situation. I had to find food fast. It was now 3:30PM and I still hadn’t seen anything open, so I hastily returned to the Rynek where out of pure desperation I had intended to give the Pizza Hut slice window my business, but I found the local Sphinx Restaurant opened and since I was being trailed by a small entourage of persistent winos hitting me up for change, I happily escaped into Sphinx to partake in a spicy kebob, rice, veggies and a free bathroom.

Wroclaw Town Hall

I passed another night watching DVDs, raking in the fake cash at PartyPoker.net through The Stranger’s free wifi service and making my plans for getting to Krakow the following day. There are a number of reportedly fine hostels in Krakow, but when I learned that there was yet another Stranger Hostel there I had the Wroclaw staff make an reservation for me immediately. Then I went online to Poland’s rail web site, one of the best designed and dynamic, multi-lingual transportation sites I have ever seen, and made a plan to catch the 11:00AM train to Krakow the following morning, giving me plenty of time to sleep very late in the dorm room that I now had all to myself and lazily drink obscene amounts of coffee before crossing the street and boarding my train. Couldn’t be easier, right? Yeah, I should really know better by now…

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