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Ostrów Tumski – Cathedral Island



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.


Posted by Kathrin_E 09:33 Archived in Poland Tagged wroclaw Comments (1)

Latarnik – Meet the Lantern Lighter




The street lanterns in Ostrów Tumski are still gas lanterns like they were in use a hundred years ago (read: again, because Ostrów Tumski suffered significant damage in World War II and the originals are long gone). I could not believe that they weren’t electrified fakes but they indeed aren’t. They issue a special, unique light, warmish but very bright.

Gas lanterns need to be lit one by one. The city employs a "Latarnik", a lantern lighter ­- this extinct profession still exists in Wrocław. Every night at dusk he walks the lanes around the cathedral to Most Tumski in his long coat, carrying a strange tool with a long „snout“, and lights the lanterns.

If you come for a walk at dusk you might spot him, the hissing sound of his tool is also a good indicator that he is near.

I was lucky to see him twice.

Ostrów Tumski is Wrocław’s most romantic evening walk, when the gas lanterns are lit and the churches are illuminated.

The ‚blue hour‘ is also the finest option in town for night photos. Enjoy the sunset on the banks of the river, then walk the lanes around the cathedral while the sky is still dark blue and contrasts with the warm light of the lanterns and illuminations.

I walked there one evening, and there was a man playing the guitar. He played well and his music echoed through the quiet lanes, which added a lot to the atmosphere.

At 9 p.m. sharp, listen to the bells of the cathedral, they play a melody then.

Ostrów Tumski and the streets on Sand Island are safe to walk alone after dark and quite popular with both tourists and locals. But I would avoid the parks on the other islands and on the river banks in the evenings.


Posted by Kathrin_E 10:06 Archived in Poland Tagged wroclaw Comments (2)

Hala Stulecia, the Needle, and the Japanese Garden


Hala Stulecia seen from my window
Under the huge dome
Children's chess tournament
The Dancing Fountains behind the hall

Originally named Jahrhunderthalle, Hala Stulecia is an extraordinary example of early armed concrete architecture. The architect Max Berg designed it in 1911, two years later the magnificent dome was completed. The free width of the dome is 65 m and at that time it was the largest dome in the world. Its stepped outline has become a landmark in the eastern parts of the city.

The hall is part of the exhibition grounds which was designed in the early 20th century. The so-called Jahrhundertausstellung (century/centennial exhibition) took place in 1913 to commemorate the centennial of the victory over Napoleon. The grounds combine buildings, park and open water in a way which was ultra modern at that time. In the 1920s and 1930 more exhibition halls were built. So don’t overlook the other buildings which were also part of the concept. The Japanese Garden and the little wooden church in the park (see separate tips) are remains of that exhibition, too, dito the entrance with the columns, the fountain and the pergola. The former entrance gate of the exhibition grounds is now the main entrance to the zoo on the opposite side of the street.

In the socalist era the hall was renamed Hala Ludowa, People’s Hall. In some city maps this name still appears. Only since very recently the common name is Hala Stulecia again, the Polish translation of the original German name.

Entering the grounds is free. Only the Japanese garden charges a small entrance fee. In some side rooms of the Hala there is a small exhibition about the buildings and their history which I did not see, though. I cannot tell you about the official rules for visiting the interior of the hall. I was lucky and got in twice without paying anything. The first time there was a chess tournament for children taking place, they just had intermission and families, coaches, spectators and whoever walked in and out, so I just walked in and pretended to belong there. The second visit took place on their ‘open day‘.

The large basin behin Hala Stulecia is the site of the Dancing Fountain. In the summer season there are daily performances with different programmes, music and light show. Since these take place rather late in the evening and I would have had to go all by myself, I did not get to see the show, though.

Iglica, the Needle



The Needle in front of Hala Stulecia is a post-war addition. In 1948 an exhibition with political intentions took place in the now Polish city; it presented the „re-acquired territories“ and the three years of rebuilding since the end of the war. Its symbol was the steel needle, originally surrounded by three arches. Its total height is 96 metres - originally it was even 10 metres more but the top was damaged in a thunderstorm soon after its completion. Together with the huge dome of Hala Stulecia, the Needle has become a landmark in the eastern parts of the cityscape.


Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden is part of the exhibition grounds around Hala Stulecia. Actuelly was created for the exhibition of 1913. Destroyed in later decades, it has in recent years been carefully restored. The garden was designed with the help of Japanese experts in accordance with the principles of traditional Japanese garden art (which unfortunately I cannot explain to you! Experts will find some boards with further explanations in the garden.)


The gardens is fenced off from the pergola and park and a very moderate entrance fee is charged. From the entrance, visitors enter the gardens through a wooden gate and past a pavillon which overlooks a stone and grass garden, a cascade and part of the pond. The whole garden is centered around the pond. Footpaths, partly gravel, partly large stone slabs through the edge of the water, lead around the pond. A wooden bridge with a pavillon in the middle crosses the pond and divides it int two parts. Within the pond there is a small island with a stone lamp and carefully cut and shaped bushes.

My photos were taken during my first visit, on a sunny afternoon with the garden in its best shape. Two weeks later I had a visitor and took him there, and we were less lucky: not only was there a a noisy rock band rehearsing for a big concert which was to take place by the fountain that evening, but for some reason (cleaning?) they had also lowered the water level of the pond so that some pipes stuck out and the muddy bottom was visible along the banks.


Practical Hints:

Opening times: from April 1 to October 31, daily 9.00 - 19.00
Entrance fee: 4 PLN for the Japanese garden
Website: http://www.ogrod-japonski.Wrocław.pl/
Getting there: Tram 1, 2, 4 or 10 stop next to Hala Stulecia.

The Little Wooden Church



A relic of the 1913 exhibition is hidden among the trees of park Szczytnicki behind Hala Stulecia: a little wooden church, built around 1600, that had been transferred here from the village of Kedierzyn. The walls and the steeple are built from logs. The roof is covered with wooden shingles. A low wooden palisade encircles the church and forms a small oval churchyard.
The building is not used as a church any more. Inside there is nothing left of the church interior, just the structure and the gallery in the west. I found the church open; there are paintings on display, rather folk art, I assume they were for sale.

Posted by Kathrin_E 12:09 Archived in Poland Tagged wroclaw Comments (2)

The Zoo

Indian palace for the elephants

Main entrance

Wrocław Zoo is located in the eastern part of the city, close to Hala Stulecia. The entrance gate is a relic of the 1913 century exhibition, it used to be the main entrance to the exhibition grounds and was later adapted. In fact the zoo occupies a part of the former exhibition grounds. Its origins are older, though - it was founded already in 1864, opened one year later, and is classified as one of the oldest zoos in Europe.

The old buildings cause some problems because they are not up to modern standards and not adequate for the animals' needs. The zoo is undertaking many efforts to create new, larger and better homes for the animals. In 2014 there was a huge construction site in the middle of the zoo grounds, which is going to be the new Afrykarium, which will show mostly water-dwelling animals from Africa. Another project is the Odrarium, where visitors will see and learn about life in Wrocław's river. Already completed are for example the new vast enclosures for lynx and wildcats, the rhinoceros house, the Madagascar pavillon.


My enthusiasm comes with a few grains of salt, though. At many enclosures the visitors are rather far away from the animals - which is good for the animals because they have their peace and quiet, but not so good for the visitors as it is often hard to spot the animals in the distance. Also, other zoos are better at hiding the electric fences and other security measures. Here, some enclosures have a distinct prison flair, for example the one for the brown bears which is actually a wide stretch of forest and rocky land and a perfectly fine home for the bears, but as a visitor the first thing you notice are the fences. Some older enclosures urgently need renovation and modernizing - but of course they cannot do everything at once.

Future home of the fur seals at the Afrykarium

I visited the zoo a few months before the opening of the new Afrykarium. The Afrykarium hosts various animals from Africa in modern surroundings and, according to more recent reports, it is now the zoo's greatest attraction.

Historical Buildings at the Zoo

The zoo in Wrocław was opened in 1865. Apart from seeing the animals, to architecture enthusiasts the buildings are also of interest. The oldest part on the western side of the grounds has a number of historical animal houses which are still in use, though modernized inside and/or their purposes were changed if they did not seem suitable any more. These buildings were designed in the era of historism, the styles were adapted to the inhabitants. While the bears lived in a medieval castle, for the elephants and monkeys 'oriental' styles were chosen.

The former restaurant now hosts the Terrarium and the butterfly hall.

The monkey house has an 'oriental' look.

The „castle“ by the riverside hosts the owls nowadays. Originally it was built for the bears. It is hard to imagine that they kept grown bears in these narrow compartments. Poor beasts. We can be glad that times have changed.

Practical hints:

For up to date information on entrance fees and opening hours, please check the website: http://www.zoo.Wrocław.pl/index.php - in 2014 the entrance fee was 30 PLN for adults.
Since the grounds are large, paths are winding and navigation is difficult despite signposts and info boards, it is wise to invest 3 PLN more and buy a zoo map.
Website: http://www.zoo.Wrocław.pl/index.php

Animals at the Zoo

Mama and baby gibbon are resting in the sun and watching humans

Zebra lunch

Lions are sleeping under the apple tree

Żubry, European Bisons - a symbolic and iconic animal in Poland

Mother and foal, a moment of tender care

Takins play-fighting

Butterflies having a healthy snack

Posted by Kathrin_E 12:25 Archived in Poland Tagged wroclaw Comments (0)

Dworzec Główny – Central Station: A Castle for Trains




Wrocław's main train station deserves to be classified as a sight because of its architecture. Unless you have to run for a train, take your time to wander a bit round and look at the details. The castle-like station building has been renovated and refurbished before the European soccer championship in 2012. Now it is all shiny in bright Indian yellow.

The neogothic station building was opened in 1857. This is a rather early example of gothic revival in (then) Germany; English neogothic buildings were used as model for the design. The front with the main entrance, restaurants and offices, and the side wings are stone buildings. Behind, it's steel and glass. The main entrance is flanked by two towers that make the central wing resemble a neogothic castle-palace.

The transversal hall with the ticket and information counters was the original arrival hall. One train track was not sufficient for long, so the vaulted station hall with four platforms was added behind it, and the first hall became what it is now. Ticket counters and information desk reside behind pretty woodcarved framing.


When looking for your train, note that there are two different numberings, and two numbers displayed on the timetable. „Peron“ is the platform, „tor“ the track. There are platforms 1 - 4 and tracks 1 - 8. Platform 2 has the tracks 3 and 4, for example.

Central station seen from Skytower

Posted by Kathrin_E 12:48 Archived in Poland Tagged wroclaw Comments (0)

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