Beyond the river Odra, a different world begins. Ostrów Tumski, the Cathedral Island, is the seat of the Archbishop and several church institutions. Nowhere else the density of clerics, monks and nuns is higher.
Once upon a time Ostrów Tumski has really been an island. The branch of river behind has long been filled with soil, though, the ponds in the botanic garden are the last remains of it. Now it is connected with the quarters on the northern bank of the river, and nobody understands why it is still called an island.
Ostrów Tumski has a spectacular skyline with the steeples and spires of its churches, best seen from the opposite river bank. I read somewhere that there are seven churches on the island, the sacred number of seven, but I found only six: the cathedral, the double church of the Holy Cross and St Bartholomew, tiny St Egidius, and the two small churches of St Peter and Paul and St Martin on the western tip by the river. The Archbishop of Wrocław has his seat in the yellow neoclassical palace. A rather modest palace it is. Then there is the Seminary, a school, and the baroque orphanage.
Cathedral of St John the Baptist - Katedra św Jana Chrzciela
The cathedral is a gothic building. Its completion took several centuries, and further changes were done in the run of the centuries. The first church was built here already before the foundation of the diocese in 1000 A.D. About nothing is left from the Romanesque era, though. The present cathedral dates mostly from the 13th and 14th century. The latest medieval additions, built in the 15th century, were the two majestic steeples in the west. The early modern era added side chapels to the eastern part.
The cathedral is open to visitors all day except during mass. Access to the main nave is free. The chapels in the back of the cathedral are behind a gate and not accessible freely, though. Visiting them requires paying a moderate entrance fee of 4 PLN, which they delare as „tourist offer“, ha ha. Anyway, these 4 PLN are well invested. The passage and the chapels around the chancel contain the best art works and most impressive interiors of the cathedral. The church in general is rather dark and the passage is even darker, so exploring it and discovering what is hidden there feels a bit mysterious: frescoes, epitaphs, sculptures, ornamental portals etcetera. The middle chapel was built in the 14th century and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It contains the tomb of its founder, Bishop Preczław of Pogarell.
The bigger the surprise, though, when you enter the side chapels. The two side chapels are baroque additions and their interiors are entirely different in style. Both are covered by high domes that let in the light from above, and richly decorated with frescoes and sculptures.
The chapel on the right (1671-1682), dedicated to St Elizabeth, was donated by Cardinal Friedrich of Hessen-Darmstadt as his burial site - let's remember that the patron saint, Elizabeth of Thuringia, was in fact his ancestor!
On the left there is the Electors' Chapel (1716-1724), designed by the Viennese court architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach on behalf of Franz Ludwig von Pfalz-Neuburg.
View from the steeple
A visit to the top of the cathedral's northern steeple provides a great view of the city, the river, and the islands. It can be done in a short amount of time and with little effort, thanks to the fact that there is a lift that takes you to the top in 40 seconds. However, to reach the cash desk and the bottom of the lift you have to climb about 50 steep narrow steps. Despite the existence of the lift, this viewpoint is not suitable for people with major walking difficulties. Young children will also have problems with the high steps. Once you have reached the lift, though, everything is a piece of cake. The lift is closed (no glass) and the walk around the top is on solid stone with a solid stone railing, so this is easy even for people like me who have a fear of heights. Entrance fee: adults 5 PLN, children and concessions 4 PLN
Church of the Holy Cross and St Bartholomew
The second large church on Ostrów Tumski is actually two churches in one. The upper church is dedicated to the Holy Cross, and below in the basement there is a second church, dedicated to the Apostle Bartholomew. The lower church is unfortunately closed most of the time, I did not manage to get in during my four-week stay.
The double church is a work of the gothic era, built in the 13th and early 14th century. The ground plan is a Latin cross. The upper, Holy Cross church is accessed via the stairway that leads up to the main portal at the height or the surrounding houses's first floor. The upper church is a hall of three naves with elongated transept and choir. The tall windows let in plenty of daylight. The church owns a copy of the Shroud of Turin, a gift from Pope John Paul II.
In summer 2014 - can't tell how long it would have stayed - there was an exhibition on modern church art, mostly centered around Pope John Paul II. The paintings reach a level of kitschyness which I have hardly ever seen anywhere else... My 'favourite' is the Internet Madonna with the laptop… Those are our modern times!
Romanesque Church of St Egidius
The little church is hidden behind the cathedral and easily overlooked. It is probably the smallest among the churches on Ostrów Tumski (and surely the cutest). There is no exact date known for its construction but the Romanesque style points to the 12th century. It is built from bricks; note the ornamental freeze on the facades.
The portal is rather plain but well-proportioned; its white stone columns contrast with the red bricks.
The church is usually closed except for mass. It takes a bit of good luck to find the door open - one day it was. We could only peep in through a wrought-iron gate but better than not seeing the interior at all.
The „Dumpling Gate“
The arched gate between St Egidius church and the chapter house is connected with an entertaining legend:
Once upon a time a widowed man was on his way home from the market. He was very tired and sat down to rest. He fell asleep and dreamed of his defunct wife, and her extraordinary cooking skills. Her speciality and his favourite had been dumplings. When he woke up, he found a bowl full of his favourite food, hot and steaming and tasty... Very moved, he promised to leave one dumpling as a mamorial but he could not control his appetite. But when he started on the last dumpling, it was taken away by an invisible hand and put on top of the gate, where it petrified and can be seen to this very day...
Baroque Gardens behind the Canons' Houses
Behind the canons' houses towards the river there is a series of baroque gardens. These are public and can be entered for free during the daytime. There are some construction works going on along the river bank currently (summer 2014) but nevertheless the gardens are a pleasant and quiet place. There is also a garden cafe on the terrace.
A visit can turn out a bit tricky, though, because there is a gate and I heard that certain people found themselves locked in because the gate was closed when they wanted to leave the gardens. That happened to us, too!
Female ingenuity figured out the way to the rescue, though: At the foot of each gatepost there is an unlocked flap of black plastic. Open the flap and turn the little yellow handle underneath, and voilà...
Museum of the Archdiocese
The Archdiocese of Wrocław has a museum of art in two historical buildings, one baroque and one gothic, on Ostrów Tumski right behind the cathedral (between the seminary and the little church of St Egidius). It hosts church art from churches in the area. They have one amazing treasure which makes the museum worth visiting for art enthusiasts: the „Madonna under the Fir Trees“ by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The painting itself is a masterpiece, and its tale sounds like a detective novel. The original was exchanged for a copy by a priest, who then smuggled it across the border. For decades everyone had thought the copy was the real one, until the original reappeared and finally returned to Wrocław. Visit the museum mto learn about the full story...
Otherwise the quality of the collection ranges from some rather good medieval pieces of sculpture and vasa sacra to mediocre copies of famous baroque paintings (including Raffael’s Madonna Sistina, yes the one with the to cute angels), some newer vestments, and a mix of other things like a lifesize sculpture of St George on horseback which was probably used in processions. The setting in the historical rooms is quite nice, though. Entrance fee: 10 PLN
Most Tumski, and the Love Locks
Most Tumski, the „cathedral bridge“, connects Ostrów Tumski with Sand Island. This is the usual access when coming from the city centre, and the most beatiful. The bridge is a steel construction from the late 19th century. Its turquoise-green coat adds a splash of colour to the river panorama.
The tacky but seemingly inevitable custom of attaching love locks to a bridge has reached Wrocław, too. Most Tumski is the most popular spot for this. The rails are literally covered in padlocks. I wonder how many of these „forever“ lovers are actually still together...
However, if you must... Some guys have set up a stall right by the bridge where they sell locks. So there is no need to run around shops trying to find a suitable padlock, you can buy it on the spot. The price is 10 to 15 PLN depending on the size. They also have Edding pens ready to write your names on the lock.
I am not in favour of this silly vandalism. Scratches in the coat of paint and rusty patches are impossible to overlook. A closer look gives an idea of the damage that the padlocks do to the iron rails.