A tale of three cities
Fairy-tale town squares, buzzing bars and friendly locals – Tim Richards heads to the west of Poland to uncover some hidden gems.
I don’t think I’m staying in Adolf Hitler’s old room. At least, I hope not. The 20th century’s most infamous dictator is not someone you’d want to be associated with, even at seven decades’ remove.
But while it’s had its share of dodgy guests, the five-star Hotel Monopol in the Polish city of Wroclaw (pronounced “Vrotswahf”) has also welcomed plenty of the right sorts through its doors since it opened in 1892, including Pablo Picasso and Marlene Dietrich. Equipped with an impressive façade and a slick marble foyer, the recently renovated Monopol is a symbol of the city’s stunning heritage.
Western Poland is dripping with historical significance, having changed hands frequently between Polish and German rulers over the centuries. Its beautiful architecture and lively culture is best exemplified by three major cities: Wroclaw, Poznan and Torun (reached from nearby Bydgoszcz) and now, just before winter strikes, is the perfect time to visit.
Food, drink and Communist kitsch
Despite its long and complex history, Wroclaw isn’t a museum piece. Courtesy of its large student population, the city has a lively entertainment scene in the streets around its central square. The dining is also diverse, as Mexican and Italian joints vie with Polish cuisine from classic restaurants like Karczma Lwowska, where you can enjoy beer served in traditional ceramic mugs.
The king of bars in Wroclaw, and a surprise to the Western tourist with negative impressions of the bad old Cold War days, is PRL. This pub on the main square has a Communist nostalgia theme with a sense of humour, and is decked out with period items salvaged from local attics. Busts of socialist worthies decorate the walls, propaganda banners hide intimate alcoves, waiters prance around in red tracksuits, and 1970s music plays over the sound system.
However, the most interesting sight in Wroclaw was banned for years by the Communist authorities. The Panorama Raclawice is a huge 19th-century circular painting that depicts a famous battle in 1794, when a Polish peasant army defeated a much larger Russian force. Housed in its own building, today visitors view the artwork from a central platform, with various objects placed in between to enhance the 3D effect. In one place a painted scythe is joined by a real wooden counterpart and the effect is very convincing. Just for a moment, it’s tempting to leap across the guard rail and join the fray!
Mechanical goats and cobbled squares
Another legendary tussle involves the town hall clock in the city of Poznan, the next of my three cities. Every day at 12pm exactly, two mechanical goats pop out above the timepiece and knock their horns together a dozen times. It’s said to commemorate an incident centuries ago when two goats escaped from the clutches of a cook determined to turn them into dinner for the mayor and his guests. Heady with freedom, they charged up the tower and butted each other. Legends like this are everywhere in western Poland and no self-respecting town would be without one.
But as I walk through the main square, I’m less concerned about errant goats than vanishing hotel rooms. Unwittingly, I’ve arrived on the eve of the fashion fair, one of the many trade events that Poznan hosts throughout the year. Luckily, a hotel near the square has a room to spare, so I turn my attention to the city’s attractions.
Like Wroclaw, Poznan’s centre of gravity is its attractive main market square, and it’s a city that also does a good line in museums. There are various sites devoted to historical and military subjects, including an army museum on the ruins of a Prussian citadel destroyed in 1945. At the lighter end of the scale are the Palm House, which contains thousands of species of exotic plants, and the Museum of Musical Instruments.
As night falls, I’m drawn to the cobblestone square, superbly atmospheric with its mellow lighting and numerous bars and restaurants. The venues are surprisingly diverse, and I can’t walk past Lizard King without stopping in. The pub features a giant lizard above the bar and an equally large guitar affixed to its outer wall. A mix of casual food, a friendly vibe and energetic live music, it seems the perfect symbol of Poznan.
Architecture and astronomy
A suitable finale to my western Poland tour, when I step out of the train station at Torun I know I’m somewhere special. The Vistula River flows broad and impressive here on its way to the Baltic Sea, and the city centre looms low on the opposite bank, ancient rooftops peeking over the old city walls.
A bus drops me off at the old town, and I walk through an arched brick gate into Poland’s most impressive Gothic-era city. Although it follows the layout of Wroclaw and Poznan, the red-brick architecture here is more serious. Torun’s founders, the medieval Teutonic Knights, evidently preferred churches that looked like fortresses, and constructed solid civic buildings that will still be standing long after climate change has seen us all off.
But there’s an even more famous local boy made good: Nicolaus Copernicus. The astronomer who first theorised that the Earth travels around the Sun was born here, and the town has never forgotten him. A magnificent statue stands outside the town hall, there’s a Copernicus Museum, and you can even buy Torun’s famed pierniki gingerbread in his form.
Standing on the edge of Torun’s mega-Gothic square, I bite into a zapiekanka, a toasted roll topped with cheese, mushrooms and ketchup. It’s not fancy, but it’s dirt cheap, and should help ward off the coming winter chill. I’ve decided I like this city. The architecture is impressive, the people are friendly, it has some fantastically atmospheric cellar pubs, and there’s a laid-back country town feel almost everywhere you go.
And to cap it off, there’s a statue in the main square of a violinist, playing happily away while a group of frogs peer up at him. It turns out he’s the local equivalent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Anywhere else, the frog-enchanting violinist might seem a little bit silly. But here in western Poland, with centuries of folklore on display at every turn, and delightful towns reminiscent of fairy tales, it make sperfect sense.
2 UL MODRZEJEWSKIEJ, WROCLAW,
TEL: +48 (0)71 772 3777,
2 UL SZEWSKA, POZNAN,
TEL: +48 (0)61 855 7351,
Hotel Pod Czarna Roza
11 UL RABIANSKA, TORUN,
TEL: +48 (0)56 621 9637,
EAT & DRINK
4 RYNEK, WROCLAW,
TEL: +48 (0)71 343 9887,
10 RYNEK RATUSZ, WROCLAW,
TEL: +48 (0)71 342 5526,
86 STARY RYNEK, POZNAN,
TEL: +48 (0)61 855 0472,
29 RYNEK STAROMIEJSKI, TORUN,
TEL: +48 (0)56 662 5252