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Waterways of Wrocław: Frivolity, Fractals and Fault Lines

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

Dzień Dobry! (Good Day from Poland)

Wrocław is my second stop in Poland in twelve months after a weekend stay in Warsaw last October. Both experiences made big impressions on me for different reasons, but this essay will focus on Wrocław. Euro cities are layered like onions and yet my first impression more-often-than-not mirrors my last. Wrocław shimmered in summer sunlight bouncing off reddish rooftops and weathered stone streets interspersed with light blue rays skipping along serpentine river ways. While it was my first trip, it felt nostalgic, homey, as if transported back to the summers of my youth.

The journey to get there was eventful. Summer travel in Europe is like a continental game of bumper cars. Seemingly, every airport, train station, tram, ferry, bus etc. is packed like sardines. Traveling on weekends is particularly hazardous so avoid it at all costs if you can. For me, the route to Wrocław started in first class on a train from Vienna, connected through Katowice on a packed, shoulder-to-shoulder standing room only car at the back of the train buried under my travel bags, and terminated at Wrocław Główny (train station shown below) where I gorged on a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese (not my finest moment). What carried me through was the warm weather, some poorly uttered words in Polish meshed with broken English from a tandem of jovial train conductors; conviviality is boilerplate Polish hospitality.

Wrocław is centered in southwestern Poland and is drastically different from Warsaw for reasons of culture, history, and geography. Like many prized strategic locations in Central Europe, its possession was heavily contested, and centuries of conflict ensured it would change hands many times (Bohemia, Hungary, Austria, Prussia, even the Mongol Horde once threatened its borders). For an Anglo like me it was an oasis, a relaxation chamber, a home away from home in a world changing beyond recognition five thousand miles away.

Wrocław is charming, quaint, and accessible.

Wrocław is charming, quaint, and accessible. The atmosphere is scenic, streets are walkable, buildings are variegated in dashes of prismatic color, blending styles and influences – Gothic, Renaissance, Post-Modern – in an architectural fashion fusion whose sum is greater than its parts like a blended family of eccentric step-children. The myriad churches (St. Mary Magdalen, St. Cyril, St. Elizabeth etc.), townhalls, and Four Denominations District (Roman Catholic, Jewish, Luther, Orthodox) exemplify this theme. The Old Town Hall (below left) dates to the 13th century and pulls city inhabitants and visitors into its orbit like a star's gravity. Wrocław is a hydropolis like Amsterdam and expertly managed by an advanced “metropolitan hydro node…a complex hydrotechnical system of floodgates, barrages, canals, dams, and other contraptions,” which is why some have dubbed it the “Venice of the North.”

Rynek (“market”) Square is where the Polish communal spirit comes alive. Poles in Lower Silesia are animated, casual, friendly, warm to the touch, as most Slavs seem to be. There are few Americans – Yankees flock to Kraków – so speaking English remains somewhat foreign, exotic, dare I say a tinge of cache. However, many speak English fluently or conversationally and are happy to do so, especially the younger generation. Germans seem to be the largest foreign contingent other than Ukrainians of course (more on that later) and a smattering of other Euros too but not in conspicuous numbers. In sum, it is a less touristy spot than most European cities of equivalent size and attraction, although I am sure locals would disagree.

Waterways, College Kids, and Togetherness

The best way to sees Wrocław is to walk, bike, boat or simply sit at the amphitheater along its five or so rivers. I was in luck on my first day and met an English teacher from Denver (two hours from where I grew up in Colorado Springs) who was relieved to hear a voice from back home and happy to sherpa me about town. We walked along the Odra River, a historic demarcation between Slavs and Germans, crossed at Tumski Bridge to Ostrów Tumski (“Cathedral Island”) (the oldest part of the city) where supposedly Giacomo Casanova once stayed, and gazed in awe at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (an entire history could be devoted to the church). From there we meandered through narrow streets, passed by the botanical gardens, crossed brisk bridgeways, and spotted several of the over one hundred dwarfs darting through the city. (Rumor has it you can commission your own dwarf if interested.)

Wrocław is a university town and feels like one. The University of Wrocław attracts over one hundred thousand students to the city so summer nights are booming: pubs, bistros, and market squares are packed. Throughout the city there are plenty of brunch spots, cafés, restaurants, lounges, and night spots. A few I found interesting were: Café Berg right on the water was my favorite café, Forma Płynna is one of many beach bars in Wrocław, Gorąca Pączkarnia F-Wiatrak has the best pączkis (jelly donuts) in town and check out Bułka z Masłem for a cocktail. Whatever recreation you fancy, kayaking, biking, eating, drinking, smoking, frivolity is expected so cut loose and partake if you can.

There is a new exuberance about life, a bemusement with the West, and a fetish for brand Americana.

Wrocław offers many of the bells and whistles of European travel but most rewarding of all is its togetherness. (see my video here) Countries in the Eastern bloc enchained behind the Iron Curtain of the tyrannical Soviet Empire not so long ago are just now beginning to shed their skin. There is a new exuberance about life, a bemusement with the West, and a fetish for brand Americana. Many Poles, like their Slavic kin, are feeling their way forward gingerly in this strange new world saturated by pop culture, social media, ubiquitous US brands (McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC), sleeve tattoos, and the cancerous spread of wokism. Fortunately, Polish ties to history are emotive and community is strong, while the mirage of utopia across the Atlantic is fading beneath an endless horizon of tent cities, social neurosis, and acute poverty.

War and Peace

The War in Ukraine is tangible here. Since last year, Wrocław, a city of about seven hundred thousand has been inundated with over a hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees from the violent tragedy next door; this added to the large minority before the war make Ukrainians about one third of the population. I was told that when the war broke out, and refugees began to pour into the city the national government lacked a coherent response, so it was left to locals to bear the strain, as it always is. Similar problems beleaguer Warsaw and is raising concerns about how prolonged conflict or escalation will affect Poland going forward. So far Poland has been the most stalwart supporter of Ukrainian resistance in Europe but that could soon change if the refugee crisis continues to deteriorate.

Living in the past is dangerous, especially if emotional scars and old wounds entrap you in an endless fractal of unlearned lessons.

Poles are no strangers to war and conflict so the zest for peace is higher than most appreciate. Certainly, there is a difficult balancing act for any nation steeped in its history. Living in the past is dangerous, especially if emotional scars and old wounds entrap you in an endless fractal of unlearned lessons. Poland is straddling that line now; a sensitive devotion to history and identity alongside a fresh sense of optimism, of life improving, and the promise of peace. As in the past, Poles are stuck between two global powers yet again, and sorting out how best to walk that line has never been easy for them. Today is no different.

On Fault Lines of Future-Past

Fortunately, my sense is that the Poles, who cherish cities like Wrocław more than ever as they should, have both eyes open even if one is transfixed on the past. Surviving the Soviet period, before that World II, and bloody iterations of imperial clash and liberation over centuries makes them wary. I was invited to attend a memorial march on the anniversary of the Volhynian Massacre (read more here) during my stay. The march and ceremony was something few Americans would recognize today; it was too visceral, too transpersonal in all the ways American national consciousness has been benumbed. However, it demonstrates that folkish bonds of togetherness transcend “the whips and scorns of time.”

Perhaps that is why I felt at home, a welcomed member of a close-knit tribe, a people, a group, embraced for little more than shared humanity and cultural solidarity. If there is one bit of the contemporary American ethos I would pass along to my Polish friends, it would be to cultivate their newfound hopefulness. Americans tend to believe the future will be better than the past and the glimmer of a similar optimism is flickering in Poland. Remember the past, embrace your future and keep both eyes open so the fault lines of the past don’t reflash in the immediate future. If perceptive enough, maybe a trip to Wrocław might help you square that circle too.

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