Next Stop; A Polish City Feels Its Future Has Arrived

04.25.10
Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra
The New York Times

By Charly Wilder

ON one side of Tumski Bridge in Wroclaw, in southwest Poland, the Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist hovers agelessly over Ostrow Tumski, the city’s oldest quarter. Nearby, a boot-sized brass dwarf sits fishing over the river’s edge, one of more than 150 such statues placed throughout the city since 2001 in honor of the Orange Alternative, a Dada-influenced resistance movement that is widely considered to have had a hand in bringing down Poland’s Communist regime in the 1980s.

On the other side of the Odra River, the restored old central square is a mishmash of architectural styles that speaks of the varied cultural influences on a place that was at different times claimed by Bohemia, Prussia, Austria, Germany and, of course, Poland.

In that historic center, still hemmed in by Communist-era apartment buildings, the grinning dwarf statues have come to be a kind of absurdist glue holding the disparate city together: a place where quirky shops and low-lighted bars line streets that jump-cut from the modern to the medieval, and the imprint of several cultures is never hidden far beneath the surface.

This city of eccentricities and contradictions, formerly the German city of Breslau, has yet to make a name for itself on the European travel circuit. But that may be changing.

Though Poland is currently suffering through the loss of its president, Lech Kaczynski, in a plane crash earlier this month, the years since the country joined the European Union in 2004 have largely been ones of progress and optimism. Riding that upswing, Wroclaw (pronounced VROTZ-waf) has become one of Eastern Europe’s emerging hot spots, primed for cafe culture and a vibrant night-life scene. In 2007, it was chosen as one of the host cities for the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, something certain to usher the city further into the spotlight.

“Once people visit, they always end up coming back,” said Krzysztof Albin, an original member of the Orange Alternative who helped the city’s tourism board develop the dwarf statue campaign.

The members of the Orange Alternative movement incorporated absurdist elements into their protests — the most famous being images of those dwarfs — which they scattered across the city. And it’s clear that the playful spirit that made the Orange Alternative a highly successful element of the wider Solidarity movement is still alive in Wroclaw.

“We’re getting some fresh air, a breeze of contemporary ideas,” said Kamil Przybos, an actor who grew up in Wroclaw and now tends bar at Szajba, a nightclub and gallery that opened in January.

Szajba, which vaguely translates as “something between madness and fury,” attracts a young, well-coifed crowd with its airy ‘60s living-room-style ambience and vast selection of cocktails, showily mixed by an eager bar staff. The walls are peppered with old American magazine advertisements and a plethora of vintage tabletop transistor radios.

Some of Wroclaw’s best offerings are to be found only in dingier, more offbeat corners of the city. Opened five years ago by a local painter, the sepia-toned Graciarnia Pub and Cafe is covered floor to ceiling in mid-century ephemera. Billowing opera costumes, donated by thespian friends of the owner, hang in the bathrooms, and patrons can enjoy their vodka and apple juice cocktail — a Polish favorite — while sitting in antique wooden wardrobes or at sewing machine tables.

Tucked away on a darkened row of sex shops underneath a stretch of train tracks near the city center, you’ll find Armine, a small, family-run Georgian restaurant with painted-on brick walls and mountain range murals that shake every few minutes as trains pass over the building. But Armine’s signature dishes, like red beans and fried nuts or beef sautéed with green beans and bell peppers, are so delicious you’ll understand why Wroclaw’s popular and charismatic mayor, Rafal Dutkiewicz, is rumored to make frequent visits.

Finding cheap, authentic Polish food in central Wroclaw is not as easy as one might like. But if you don’t mind listening to cheesy Polish pop radio and ordering your food in a fake thatched hut, Chatka at Jatkach in Old Town serves up well-prepared regional dishes, like ribs with fresh cut potatoes and sour cabbage, at very reasonable prices.

Swing around the corner to the tiny cobbled Stare Jatki, site of a 13th-century slaughterhouse, and browse old butcher stalls that have been converted into galleries and high-end souvenir shops. Don’t miss the local dwarf — a butcher, of course — or the cluster of miniature animal statues at the end of the street that graze next to a plaque inscribed, “In honor of the slaughtered animals — from the consumers.”

In recent years, Wroclaw’s formerly neglected Old Jewish Quarter, with Wlodkowica street as its anchor, has become one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods, thanks largely to the work of Bente Kahan, a Jewish-Norwegian singer who serves as founding artistic director of the Jewish Cultural and Education center of the White Stork, the city’s only remaining synagogue.

The 19th-century White Stork was once the center of one of the largest Jewish communities in Germany. Since 2005, when Ms. Kahan assumed directorship and started a private foundation to finance community efforts, the White Stork has seen extensive renovations. On May 6 the synagogue will officially reopen to the public at a ceremony unveiling a permanent installation about the history of Jewish life in Wroclaw.

The surrounding neighborhood has also been given new life. Spots like the student-friendly watering hole Mleczarnia, and Sarah, a candlelit restaurant that serves up takes on traditional Jewish dishes, have turned the out-of-the-way Wlodkowica street into one of Wroclaw’s most fashionable avenues.

“It’s a very young town, and you can see this vitality here,” said Mateusz Kornacki, a 25-year-old graduate of Wroclaw University, whose year-old company, What’s Up Wroclaw, offers English-language tours of some of the city’s off-the-beaten-path spots.

“This is the real Wroclaw,” said Mr. Kornacki, who moved to the city from eastern Poland with his family when he was 12. “If you look behind the dirt and the collapsing facades, you’ll find beauty.”

IF YOU GO

HOW TO GET THERE

Lufthansa, United and LOT Polish Airways fly from New York to Wroclaw but require a stopover, usually in Frankfurt or Munich. A recent Web search placed round-trip fares for travel in May at around $970.

Though Poland is served by a sometimes-unreliable network of regional trains, Wroclaw is well connected to Germany and the Czech Republic by highway. Trams and bus lines make getting around the city easy; taxis are reasonably affordable, if sometimes difficult to track down.

Poland has yet to adopt the euro; at around 2.78 zlotys to the dollar, United States currency goes a long way.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Szajba (Sw. Antoniego 2-4 brama B; 48-606-116-092; szajba.wroclaw.pl) caters to Wroclaw’s young hip set.

At Graciarnia Pub and Cafe (Kazimierza Wielkiego 39; 48-71-795-66-88; graciarnia.com.pl), you can drink your vodka in a turn-of-the-century space resembling a costume closet surrounded by vintage Cognac bottles filled with wildflowers.

Sarah (Wlodkowica 5; 48-71-792-49-56), in the Old Jewish Quarter, serves traditional Jewish comfort food in a homey setting. The English menu indicates dishes that are “not Jewish cuisine but also delisious” [sic] with crossed-out menorahs.

Despite its humble surroundings, the family-run Georgian restaurant Armine (Wojciecha Boguslawskiego 83; 48-71-367-15-31) is one of Wroclaw’s best-kept secrets.

Chatka at Jatkach (Odrzanska 7; 48-71-342-72-20; chatkaprzyjatkach.pl) serves cheap, well-prepared Polish specialties out of a fake thatched hut.

Another highlight of the Old Jewish Quarter, Mleczarnia (Wlodkowica 5; 48-71-788-24-48; mleczarnia.wroclaw.pl) is a favorite among Wroclaw’s large student community.

WHERE TO STAY

Part of the respected Likus Hotel and Restaurant Group, the stunning Art Nouveau Hotel Monopol (Modrzejewskiej 2; 48-71-772-37-77; monopolwroclaw.hotel.com.pl) offers top-of-the-line European luxury for half what you might pay in Western Europe. The hotel also has two restaurants that are among the best in the city. (Try the foie gras with fried apple and rye toast, 45 zlotys.) Standard rooms start at 300 zlotys, or $108.

In the heart of Old Town, the historic Art Hotel (Kielbasnicza 20; 48-71-787-71-00; arthotel.pl) is a charming boutique hotel in a renovated building dating back to 1520. Unlike many establishments in the city, Art Hotel boasts free Wi-Fi and a restaurant that’s more than passable. Without breakfast, standard rooms start at around 240 zlotys a night.

TOURS AND EVENTS

There are several good English-language walking-tour companies in Wroclaw, but Mateusz Kornacki of What’s Up Wroclaw (48-668-80-1937) provides a look at some of the city’s most fascinating hidden gems.

White Stork synagogue (Wlodkowica 5; 48-71-782-81-23; www.fbk.org.pl), which houses the Jewish Cultural and Education Center, gives a fascinating overview of Wroclaw’s Jewish history. From June until the end of August it will hold a Sunday concert series that will include performances by contemporary European klezmer and folk musicians.