After spending the better part of a day in Ula’s pottery studio, five of us squeezed into our VW and headed to the nearby city of Wroclaw. Boasting a population of over a half million, the city is the largest in western Poland. With its fascinating mixture of Baroque and Gothic architecture, classy shopping district near Market Square, and relatively low European prices, it’s not a surprise that the city is increasingly popular with tourists and has been nominated to be the European Capital of Culture for 2016.
One of my first discoveries in the city was the statue of a tiny little dwarf carrying his shopping bags at the mall. I was delighted! Why are miniature things always so cute? Not to mention that I harbor a secret fascination with faeries, forest nymphs, and all things magical.
Rana laughed and offered to take my photo, explaining that the little statues are all over the city. The first of Wroclaw’s Dwarves appeared in 2001 in support of Poland’s subversive anti-communist Orange Movement, which was popular in the 1980s. Surprisingly, local officials allowed the little feller to stay, and other artists followed suit. Now, over 300 dwarves call the city home.
Visitors can peruse a map to try to locate all of the figurines, search for a specific character by name, or check “Dwarf Rumors” for breaking news. Finding them utterly enchanting, I continued to search for more during the remainder of my time in Wroclaw, and each time I spotted one hanging from a light post or taking a nap near his cellar, I couldn’t help but smile.
After dropping off Dorota’s sister and her boyfriend to meet other friends in town and leaving Dorota at a hair salon, Ula directed me to her pottery shop in town where I could leave the car while she gave me a tour of the heart of Wroclaw. Just minutes from her shop, we entered a walled perimeter and meandered along several old streets before arriving at one of the main streets that forms part of Market Square. Despite the chill, kids were giggling and chasing large bubbles a man was sending into the air. Even in the dwindling light of day, the ornate architecture was stunning.
Ula led me to the Church of Saint Elizabeth, pointing out the memorial for Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer that stands prominently in the court yard. A Breslau-born German who courageously spoke out against Naziism, Bonhoeffer was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler and was hanged at Flossenbürg just two weeks before Allies liberated the concentration camp.
We walked through the interior of the church, where Ula continued to point out interesting features, including a miniature replica of a massive organ displayed in a large glass case.
Built in 1761, the church’s original organ was damaged numerous times over the centuries until it was finally completely destroyed by a fire that gutted the church in 1976. The town now has plans to rebuild the organ, which will be so massive the size is difficult to appreciate until you see the size of the mezzanine where it will be placed. It’s quite impressive.
Joining us later, Dorota led us around the exterior of the church and shared an additional story about the church tower. Asking if we’d noticed that the Gothic architecture of the church building and its more modern Renaissance tower were vastly different, she explained that the original 130-meter church spire was destroyed by severe weather in 1529. Buffeted by high winds and hail, the spire toppled from its high perch and plummeted to the ground. Incredibly, nobody was injured, leading many to believe that angels had intervened.
A stone carving depicting round-faced cherubs gently catching the tower and lowering it to the ground is embedded in the church facade at the base of the tower. The spire was later replaced, but the much shorter 92-meter tower lacks its predecessor’s sharply imposing silhouette.
Within site of Saint Elizabeth’s Church is perhaps an even more stunning example of Gothic architecture: the Wroclaw Town Hall.
Though the building is open to tourists and has a restaurant downstairs, Rana told us that Wroclaw has something even better: a Cinnabon, an American-chain pastry shop that makes thee best, warm, gooey cream-cheese-icing-smothered cinnamon rolls in the world. Most Europeans we’ve met have much less of a sweet tooth than your typical American; Dorota and her family are no exception, but to my delight, Ula still finished an entire cinnamon roll while I tucked into a caramel pecanbon. Pure Heaven!
Wayyyy back when I was still just a tiny tater, my older sister, Deb, went off to college and discovered the Big City of Seattle, introducing our family to Cinnabon in the process. I haven’t been to one in years, but every time I even smell their pastries, it reminds me of my sister and brings a flood of sweet childhood memories.
Once Dorota’s sisters and Rana rejoined us in Market Square, we wandered for a bit, again passing by the Town Hall and admiring its warmly lit facade, before finally arriving at Steinhaus, an intimate little restaurant with elegant decor. My heart sank. Trav and I rarely dine out, mostly because we’re fairly thrifty and dining out feels to me like wasting money. The more expensive the restaurant, the harder it is for me to set food inside. Assuming the prices would be high from the classy interior, I was surprised to see the menu after we were seated. 17 zloty for a meal – less than 5 bucks!!
We had come for pierogi, traditional Polish dumplings that Dorota recommended, so I ordered cheese and potato pierogi and sat back to enjoy the evening in the company of five interesting and funny women. The others ordered goose and buckwheat pierogi so we could all share when our meals arrived. We had more than enough food, but a mix-up in the kitchen left us with an extra order. By the time we left, I was so full I could barely walk!
l left Wroclaw feeling as if I’d just barely scratched the surface of a great city, knowing that it was a far richer experience because I was able to visit not just as a tourist, but as a guest of Dorota and her family. Who makes for a better tour guide than a local? They shared their city, their culture, and even their home with me, bringing Poland alive for me in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. I can only hope to have the chance to visit again someday!
- If you’re planning to travel to Poland, make sure to have local currency, zloty, and not euros.
- Official website for Wroclaw’s Dwarves (CZ, ES, RU, DE, EN, PL)