Wroclaw, a phoenix from the flames

What’s in a name? Driving through Saxony en route to Wroclaw in Poland, we passed road signs directing us to ‘Breslau (Wroclaw)’. During its history, Wroclaw has had at least two dozen different names, but this was still surprising because although Breslau was the once thriving capital of the German region of Silesia, it hasn’t been part of Germany or officially called Breslau for the last 75 years.

Cathedral Island, Wroclaw, Poland

Whatever it has been called over the centuries, Wroclaw has a long and storied history dating to before it was first recorded in the 10th century as the Bohemian stronghold of Vratislavia. Sadly, a thousand years of existence is largely defined by one of the most turbulent, brutal and tragic recent histories of any city in Europe.

It’s said that it was Frederick the Great himself who gave Breslau its name when it became part of the Kingdom of Prussian in 1741. This crowned 500 years of German migration to the region and Prussia’s victory over Austria in the early stages of the War of Austrian Succession, a conflict that made Prussia a European power.

Katyn massacre memorial, Wroclaw, Poland
Cathedral Island, Wroclaw, Poland
Rynek market square, Wroclaw, Poland
Rynek market square, Wroclaw, Poland

Already a city of some renown, Breslau became a major economic, educational and cultural centre with a magnificent architectural legacy. Fast forward to May 1945 and Breslau lay in ruins. Crushed by the ferocity of the Soviet Red Army after Hitler declared it Festung Breslau, a fortress to be defended at all costs. German survivors were brutalised and murdered by Red Army soldiers.

Breslau’s post-war fate had been decided by the victorious Allies at the Yalta Conference just days before the Russian’s encircled the city on 15 February 1945. Shortly after its surrender (four days after the fall of Berlin) on 6th May, it was renamed Wroclaw and ceded along with swathes of formerly German lands to Poland as compensation for Polish lands given to Soviet Russia.

Rynek market square, Wroclaw, Poland
Jewish Memorial, Plac Solny, Wroclaw, Poland
Rynek market square, Wroclaw, Poland
Old Town, Wroclaw, Poland
Rynek market square, Wroclaw, Poland
River Oder, Wroclaw, Poland

Over 70 per cent of the city lay in ruin, 170,000 civilians had died thanks to the Nazis’ refusal to evacuate, and Russian troops rampaged through the city. In the aftermath, tens-of-thousands of ethnic Germans were either killed or forced out of their homes and deported to within the new borders of Germany. They were replaced by ten-of-thousands of Poles forced from their homes in the East.

This truly tragic history makes it seem all the more unlikely that we’d find Wroclaw a delightful and welcoming city in which we instantly felt at home. Yet that’s exactly the effect this vibrant and youthful place had on us. Easy going, excellent food, an heroically rebuilt and preserved historic centre, and a politically liberal progressive city government.

Rynek market square, Wroclaw, Poland
Rynek market square, Wroclaw, Poland
Memorial to the victims of Stalinism, Wroclaw, Poland
Wroclaw, Poland
Old Town, Wroclaw, Poland
Rynek market square, Wroclaw, Poland

There are, it’s fair to say, some spectacularly ugly reminders of Breslau’s rebirth as Wroclaw. Despite historically accurate rebuilding, Poland’s Communists couldn’t afford to reconstruct the whole city. One of the most hideous results is Plac Nowy Targ, a once pleasant square known as the Neumarkt until 1945, and now a desolate space surrounded by aesthetically challenged buildings.

It’s not the only example, and hardly seems to matter as you wander across Cathedral Island (this is a town of islands), walk through the beautiful Rynek, the former market square surrounded by colourful gabled town houses and now home to cafes, restaurants and bars, or meander the atmospheric Old Town’s cobbled streets. Wroclaw’s preserved glories are many.

Cathedral Island, Wroclaw, Poland
Cathedral Island, Wroclaw, Poland
Old Town, Wroclaw, Poland
Cathedral Island, Wroclaw, Poland

This helps explain the continued use of Breslau, and the ‘nostalgia tourism‘ that draws Germans in search of their roots, including from the once thriving Jewish community of 20,000 people. It was Germany’s third largest Jewish community before the Nazis came to power, those who had not fled by 1938 were transported to near-certain death in the concentration camps. It’s a history reflected in the White Stork Synagogue – the only one to survive the violence of Kristallnacht.

Absent of tourists thanks to the coronavirus pandemic (which also closed many museums), Wroclaw was fascinating and we wished we had more than weekend to explore it.

11 thoughts on “Wroclaw, a phoenix from the flames

  1. Wroclaw is Breslau? You don’t say.
    So much Beauty in Europe. Intertwined with so much tragedy…
    Than ks for the tour

  2. When I said that please keep to yourself I meant it as a joke but forgot to put the 😉 in there hehe

  3. This is my favourite city in Europe….my partners family are there so we visit often. It really never gets boring though. However please keep this secret to yourself. Did you get to try Vega bar… I see you included a photo of it? The most yummy vegan dumplings, even meat eaters love them. I hope not too many people discover this amazing city!! I loved the history of it too I didn’t know enough of it. This is a city that has shed it’s past though…the vibe is buzzing, can’t wait to return 🙌

    1. We really liked Wroclaw, such a pleasant and friendly place. We tried quite a lot of pierogi, we’ve had them in different cities (Berlin, Warsaw) but there were a lot of different varieties (meat and veg) in Wroclaw. Most were delicious. WOuld also love to go back for a little longer.

      1. I hope you get the chance soon 😘

  4. There are more reasons than one to call it the “former communist bloc(k)” when you see some of the godawful buildings that went up in a lot of places! Sadly, although it looks lovely, and you say it has a liberal council, the Polish government has effectively removed the country from the list of places I’m willing to spend my pink pounds… It does look glorious, and perhaps things will change enough in the future so that we can go.

    1. One of my colleagues comes from Wroclaw and it’s pretty progressive, but I know that’s not really the point. Law and Justice and their allies are hostile on so many issues and towards so many people, particularly the LGBTQI community. Not much consolation after the 2020 presidential elections, but they got thrashed in Wroclaw at the last city elections.

  5. A very neat and charming architecture, what a wonderful weather!

  6. I’m really fascinated by the buildings on market square. Love the shapes, details, colors. I hope someday to get to Poland, but until the coronavirus is taken care of, it doesn’t seem likely. Your posts make virtual travel possible!

    1. The architecture feels very familiar thanks to the city being at the heart of a Central Europe cultural intersection for so many centuries. You could think you were in Poland, Germany or the Czech Republic. Let’s hope real travel will be a possibility in the near future!

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