It was a warm evening in Wroclaw and we were eating dinner outside on a quiet cobbled street in the shadow of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Cathedral Island, or Ostrów Tumski. This is the most ancíent part of Wroclaw, but it wasn’t the delicious food or atmospheric surroundings that held our attention. As the sun set and dusk descended, a sinister-looking man wrapped in a black cape, wearing an eye catching top hat and carrying a long pole, stalked the streets.
This was the city’s Lamplighter, a job dating back to 1846 and still going strong in this one small area of town where gas street lighting survived into the electrical age. Every few yards he stopped to ignite one of the 103 gas lights that line the streets. He reverses this feat every morning and extinguishes the lights as the sun rises. Gas lights were replaced in the rest of the city in the 1960s, only on Ostrów Tumski did they survive.
This tradition seemed to sum up the blend of ancient and modern, traditional and progressive, that we found so intriguing about Wroclaw. The city is well over a thousand years old and, despite the wholesale destruction of the Second World War, it retains a strong sense of history. At the same time, one in every five inhabitants is a university student, lending it a vibrant air, as well as some great cafes and bars.
We were staying on peaceful Ostrów Tumski a short stroll from the main sights in the Old Town just across the River Oder. On our final day we were up early to explore the city, crossing over the 19th century iron footbridge that connects Ostrów Tumski with Wyspa Piaskowa, the largest of a group of interconnected islands in the river and home to a 14th century church. Ostrów Tumski was perfectly reflected in the slow moving water.
We arrived into the old town and wandered the quiet streets, had a delicious lunch of mixed meat and veg pierogi in the beautiful old Market Square, Rynek, and then wandered some more. It was warm and sunny and we soon found ourselves camped outside the funky Art Cafe Kalambur sampling some of Wroclaw’s famed beers. It’s a relaxed place, and small enough to walk around the historic centre in a day.
On the side of the Old Town Hall stands Ernest Moritz Geyger’s charming statue of Bärenbrunnen or the Bear Well. Even today, 75-years after the former German city of Breslau became the Polish city of Wroclaw, it’s still better known as the Breslau Bear. Originally it was a water fountain, tug its collar and drinking water poured from its nose. People rubbed its outstretched tongue for good luck.
In 1930, Theodore Francis Green, an American visiting Breslau, commissioned the sculptor to make a copy that he donated to his alma mater, Brown University. The original was lost or destroyed during the Second World War, but a copy of the copy was made and returned to the square in 1998. This one doesn’t dispense drinking water, but the superstitious still rub its tongue for good luck. It is rightly a symbol of modern Wroclaw.
After wandering the Old Town we visited The Passage, a sculpture by Jerzy Kalina commemorating those killed or arrested during martial law in Poland in the 1980s. Fourteen people, seven on each side of Swidnicka Street, sink into the pavement and reemerge on the opposite side of the road.
It is reflective of how the Communist authorities forced people to live their lives underground and offers a sobering reminder of the threat venal, authoritarian regimes pose to human dignity.