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Poland – Part 7: An Official Tour of Wroclaw

June 20th – 10:45AM

After waking, cleaning up, and eating breakfast, the whole bunch of us left the hostel to meet a guide for a tour of Wroclaw that Tamara had arranged for us.  As usual, our feet guided us to the market square, and that’s where we met Ella, our tour guide.

One of the first interesting things Ella taught us about Wroclaw was about the market square.  Apparently, a lot of the “ancient” looking buildings around us were actually only a few decades old.  They’d been designed and constructed to look old from the outside and to fit in with the historical look, but the insides were supposedly super-modern.  Part of me found that fascinating, another part was a little disappointed.  Tricked by architecture.

Ever heard of Max Berg?  I hadn’t.  Max Berg was a German architect who was appointed as the senior building official for Wroclaw in 1909.  According to Ella, Berg got caught up in Post WWI “skyscraper fever”, and wanted to  modernize the market square of Wroclaw with epic skyscrapers like the ones in New York.

Anyhow, it didn’t go over very well.  He got one up, and I saw it, and it just didn’t work.  The building itself was alright, but it just didn’t fit in with the surroundings.  This is probably why the buildings around it have been constructed to fit into that ancient style – anything else just looks ridiculous.

Oh, and some irony – the address for that New York style skyscraper?  #9/11.  Go figure.

Here’s a a link to an article about Max Berg, and his attempt at modernizing Wroclaw, if you’re interested.


See this monument?  I’ve been trying to find out more about it.  According to what I heard from Ella (which was kind of garbled, since I was hanging out at the back of the group at this point), the monument marks a horrific event that happened sometime in the 17th Century.  Apparently, an influential Italian priest told the residents of Wroclaw to put to the fire all of their earthly possessions.  So, they built a big fire, and started tossing things in.  And then things got out of control, and 41 Jews were apparently burned there as well.

You’d think I could find some information about this monument somewhere on the Web, but no luck so far.  The closest I could get was St. John Capistrano, who may have been the alleged priest – though Capistrano lived during the 1400s, which doesn’t fit in at all with the 17th Century time frame.  Anyhow, if anyone has some information on this monument, I’d be glad to hear it.

Moving on, we started walking towards the Old Town Hall of Wroclaw.  Nearby were some discolored stones on the road which marked a square:


According to Ella, that square marked where the “mad house cage” was originally located.  People who didn’t behave according to the social standards of the time (drunkards, trouble-makers during mass, women who wore trousers, etc) were put into that cage for the whole market square to see.  Yeesh.

Then we walked into the Old Town Hall.  It has been converted into a type of museum, with roped off areas, info placards, etc.  According to my journal, the insides smelled “like a fishing tackle box”.  Here are a few shots from the inside:


Yev remarked that this next room was creepy because this is where people were sentenced to be hanged:


We walked back outside.

The Old Town Hall is more or less in the centre of the market square.  Attached to it is a restaurant.  According to Ella, this restaurant is currently the oldest restaurant in Europe! Wow!  And guess what – this was the restaurant we ate at while discussing CLEANSED the other night.  And we had no idea that it was so ancient.  Go figure.


We also saw the “flogging pole” outside of the Old Town Hall.  As you can guess, petty criminals used to be roped to this thing, and flogged for the public to see.


After seeing this, we started to leave the market square.  We stopped at a little booth and had some barbequed goat cheese (salty and smoky…not bad).  We also saw another gnome – this one atop a giant finger:



Ella led us towards a tram stop, where we were soon picked up.  It was a really old looking tram – unpadded wooden seats, a wooden floor, and a guy who went up and down the aisles collecting our 3z tickets.


I was lucky – landed one of the few seats!  So did Tara, who sat next to me.  Here she is, after telling me that the parents in front of us should be slaughtered for the haircuts they gave their children:


So, riding the tram, we exited the downtown core of Wroclaw.


I think I’ve remarked about this several times already (if not on this blog, then to others in person), but Poland is interesting because parts of it look like they’re centuries old;  ancient, majestic architecture that just screams history.

And parts of Poland look just like Hamiltion:


Our tram eventually led us to the Centenary Hall.


Centenary Hall serves the same function as the Air Canada Center in Toronto – it hosts sporting events, talks (like from the Dalai Lama), or anything that involves large numbers of people.

Apparently, this building, also designed by Max Berg, got the same welcome that the new ROM got when it was completed in Toronto.  The public absolutely hated it, calling it ugly.  Despite that judgement, here’s a beautiful shot of the Centenary Hall:


We couldn’t actually go inside the Hall, so the visit was really just an opportunity to see the grounds.  Here are a few shots of what we saw:


From what I remember, these fountains were shooting up into the air in various patterns.


As we left the grounds, I could hear Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries start to play in the distance.  Perhaps we had just left before some kind of water show.  We’d never know.

We boarded the tram again, and started heading back down town.

During the ride back, I talked to Linn about web development (she’s a fellow web architect) and also established “Mike’s Nose-picking While Driving Law”, which states:

The likelihood of seeing a solo driver pick his or her nose while idling at an intersection increases with every second of observation.

We also spotted a woman walking a galloping wiener dog, but I couldn’t get my camera out fast enough to capture the moment.

Eventually, Ella led us back to the Wroclaw University that we had briefly visited a few days before.  A few of our group decided to take a break from the tour, but a couple of us decided to walk around the University to see the sights.

First of all, the University of Wroclaw sports some pretty impressive alumni:


Traveling upstairs required a ticket (I think they were only 6z though).  The first thing we saw when we went up the stairs was the University of Wroclaw’s equivalent to UofT’s Convocation Hall.  It was quite a bit smaller, but what it lacked in size, in more than made up for in ornate-ness:


According to Ella, this room was designed with a “counter-reformation” attitude in mind by some Jesuits.  So, instead of being reserved, they went all out with gold and sculpture.  Nice.


We continued up the stairs to see more exhibits:


We saw the 17th Meridian, marked out along the floor as it passed through the University:


We also saw this sign:


According to Ella, the sign said that the University of Wroclaw houses an extensive set of climate data, going back about 300 years.  If any Polish readers out there want to send me an actual translation, I’ll gladly post it.

(Updated:  May 15th, 2010)

Piotr Waszkielewicz from Wrocław wrote in with the following translation:

“At this place
behind northern windows
of astronomical observatory
in February 1791
has been started systematic

Collected data makes
one of the longest
climatological series in Europe
and is a precious informacion source
for climate change research

Thanks Piotr!

Continuing up the stairs eventually led us onto the roof.  Once again, a spectacular view from the rooftop of a tower in Wroclaw.  This one had statues on each of its corners – with each one representing a particular discipline:









I could only take photos of their backs though, since they were facing outwards towards the city.

After breathing in the fresh air, we went back down and met up with the rest of our group.  We finished the tour by going to a “milk bar”, which is basically a no-frills cafeteria that serves standard meat & potatoes meals.  I instantly fell in love with it.  I had a plate of pierogies, and some mineral water, and topped it off with some amazing Wroclaw ice cream.

Once we were done eating, Tamara told us that we were free to explore the city until the shows that night.  We split up into several groups.  I chose to travel with Sonia and Ryan.

We walked back through the market square, and paused to see a busker send some massive bubbles into the sky:


Eventually, the three of us wandered over to St. Elizabeth’s Church.  A wedding was going on inside, and we didn’t want to intrude, but we did find an entrance way to get up to the top of the tower.


A 5z ticket later, we started our climb.

And what a climb.  Something like 300 steps in a dark, spiraling, claustrophobic space.  It didn’t help that there were people coming down as we were going up.  There was barely enough room for one person to go up, let alone two passing one another.


With aching thighs, we managed to reach the top.  And again, what a sight…here are some of the photos I took up there:


Remember those statues at the University?  Here they are, seen from the church tower:


Here’s what it must look like during a fall from the church tower:


And remember the Witches Bridge from this blog post?  Here it is from the outside:


And to top it off, a few photos of me up there:


The walk down the steps was better on our legs, but they were still wobbly once we reached bottom.  We stopped at a restaurant, got something to drink, and then headed back to the hostel.

We hung around the hostel for a bit.  Ryan introduced me to a YouTube phenomenon called David’s Farm. Basically, it’s this guy named David, who does some pretty crazy stuff up at his farm.

Crazy stuff like this:

Want to see a really bad idea?  Fast-forward to about 2:52 into this video.  Yikes.

Anyhow, it was almost time to see that evening’s shows.  That evening was different, because we had some choice in what we were seeing – there were several different “streams” that we got to choose from.  Most of us saw the same stream (as most of the other streams had been sold out), which had us seeing two shows that night.

The first show I saw was called MARLENE DIETRICH. ABOUT BROKEN NAILS, starring Anna Skubik.  It turned out to be a one-woman puppet show, and I absolutely fell in love with it. Skubik had beautiful puppetry technique, and I totally bought that there were two characters on stage.  It was playful.  I really enjoyed it.  It made me happy.

The second show was called SMYCZ.  How do I descibe that show?  It was, to me, variations on a theme, where the theme was “leash” (which is “smycz” in Polish).  It was absolutely mesmerizing.  Total rollercoaster.  The performer, Bartosz Porcyzk, was absolutely incredible – I’d never seen anything like him.  Everything he did absolutely held my full attention, even though I didn’t understand a word, and had to read the subtitles (which didn’t help when he’d go off script and improvise).  He could sing, he could dance, his acting was phenomenal.  His movement was flawless.  His voice, suberp.  The music behind the show was incredible.  The show completely won me over, and most of the rest of us too.  I’d definitely see the show again if I could.

Besides the show website, the best I can do to convey what we saw is show you this “trailer” that I found.  It’s just some of the songs with some still photos, but it’s better than nothing:

Here are a few shot of us after having our minds blown by SMYCZ:


Nothing revs up drama kids like seeing an amazing show.

After the show, a few of us went to Wizard Hat to talk about it.  When we got there though, we ended up spending our time talking about how our presence (as loud, North American drama students) was being perceived in Wroclaw.   Ryan (I think?) noticed that another table had been staring at us, and that one guy looked like he wanted to punch all of us.  That table eventually left.  Maybe we were being too loud and obnoxious.  Poland has certainly been smacked around a lot – maybe they don’t look kindly upon loud North Americans coming in and being obnoxious?

Then we got into a big discussion about European and North American stereotypes.

Jiv said that his darker skin colour had drawn a lot of looks his way.  Tara said something similar.  I said I hadn’t noticed anything for me, and Jiv said that it’s probably because I’m “ethnically ambiguous”, which helps me blend in.  Nice.

I was getting tired.  After an incredibly satisfying day, I left Wizard Hat, walked back to the hostel, and fell asleep.

Click here to go to Part 8:  A Boat Ride, Eating, Videos, AJAX, and More Eating

Click here to go back to Part 6:  A Taste of Total Freedom

Poland – Part 6: A Taste of Total Freedom

June 19th – 10:00AM

This day started out amazingly.  First, Tamara handed us our second 200z installment of cash.  Second, she told us that besides seeing the festival show that evening, the rest of how we wanted to spend our day was up to each of us.

Total freedom in Wroclaw.  Excellent.


So, while chewing on some bread with jam, and playing with the Wrotswog the Hostel Dog, I mentally went over my to-do list:

  1. Get an international phone card, and call home
  2. Get some postcards to send home
  3. Find some souvenirs
  4. Do laundry!

So, I slammed down my toast, got cleaned up, walked out into the warm and humid Wroclaw air, and hit the streets with a few others.

As usual, our feet eventually led us to the market square.  On one street, with large stone spheres as dividers, some booths were set up where people were hocking their wares.


There were lots of little knick-knacks, but I actually didn’t see much that I hadn’t seen at other similar markets in Toronto.  I was looking for gifts that were unique to the area, and it took me a while to eventually find them.

Here’s a shot of us checking out some wares:


One highlight was a booth where a German man was selling hand-made wooden puzzles.  He was a good salesman (though I’m pretty sure he was hitting on Linn the whole time), so I bought one of his puzzles.  If you’re interested, and you read German, here is his website.

Here we are trying to solve some of his puzzles:


Very perplexing.

After a bit more shopping about, we decided to get some lunch.


I was about to get my first plate of pierogi since landing in Poland, and I was starving.  After glacing at the menu,  I ordered “pierogi ruskie” (basic potato, cheese, and onion pierogi), and a Sprite.  Linn was upset because the waiter told us that they were out of the meat pierogies, and didn’t have any without cheese (Linn is lactose intolerant).  So, she ordered fries instead.


Her fries showed up.  Our pierogies didn’t.

Something like 30 minutes passed.  Eventually, the waiter came back and told us that they were fresh out of pierogies.   Devestated, and famished for real Polish pierogi, I finished the rest of my Sprite, and we decided to try someplace else.

Ironically, Linn was the only one who ended up getting a meal there.


We found another restaurant that looked good, and sat down.  Unfortunately, there were no pierogies on the menu (was there a pierogi shortage?  In Poland?  Impossible!), so I ordered “penne spinaci”.  It was relaxing, sitting out there in the market square under the tent.  A couple of musicians with guitars and accordions played for us.  We got into a conversation with a local.  It was heavenly.  And it felt good to know that there was no rush to do anything – we could play the day however we liked.

And that’s pretty much how the afternoon went – we’d go to some restaurant, sit down, eat and drink for an hour, and then wander around until we got hungry and found another restaurant.  It was awesome.

It was also during that trip that Ryan and Jiv found what we would eventually name “Wizard Hat” – a bar near the Wroclaw University that sold 5z pints of beer.  This would eventually become one of the main watering holes for our group while we were in Wroclaw.

Here’s why it’s called Wizard Hat:


See it?


After chewing on some of the gummy candies that Tara had bought at some booth in the market, I decided to head back to the hostel on my own to see if I could find a way to call home.

Outside of our hostel was a convenience store, and somebody in our group had told me earlier that I could get a phone card from there.  So, I walked inside, and (after a lot of gesturing) was able to purchase a 20z “card” (really, just a receipt with a code on it).

So, I walked back up into the hostel, borrowed the hostel phone, and after some trial, error, and help from Tamara (the instructions were all in Polish!), I managed to phone home.

And nobody was there.  Nobody was at my girlfriend Em’s place either.  So, I put it on my “to do” list to try calling again that night after the show.

Putting back the phone, I walked into the common room, where the BBC was reporting on events in Iran.  Riots on the streets, total news blackout (except for social media)…our group watched the news in Iran carefully, especially Tara, who had planned on visiting there after Poland.  It wasn’t looking good.


A few hours passed.  There’s a gap in my journal, so I don’t really know what I did.  All I know, is that at 6:13PM, I was in a theater about to see TEBEK-JARAN (“The Stabbing of the Horse”) by the Gambuh Desa Batuan Ensemble; a Balinese troupe.

So how was The Stabbing of the Horse?

Hypnotic.  I found a YouTube clip posted by someone who was recording the show.  Check it out:

It’s really quite fantastic what she’s doing with her body – very precise, very controlled.  It was impressive.  The whole company moved like this.  It was really other-worldly…I felt like some kind of scientist watching an alien ritual.  Quite incredible.

But, at the time, I have to admit my eyes got pretty heavy after about 20 minutes of that music and movement.  I didn’t understand the language at all, and had no idea what was going on even though they’d handed out a piece of paper explaining the story.  Plus, it was super warm in the theatre.  I won’t lie, I had to struggle to stay conscious.

And then they brought out the horse!  Which was awesome – it was clearly just some actor in a horse costume – but it was freaking hilarious.  The horse came out, played with the audience for a bit, and that perked me right back up.

And then they killed it. They stabbed the horse, my favourite character, just as it was getting good.  But I shouldn’t have been surprised – the title of the show was The Stabbing of the Horse.  What did I expect?

Hrmph.  Maybe if I knew more about the culture, I would have gotten more out of the performance.  Oh well,  I gave it my best shot.

After the show, Tamara gave us the option to see a performance of Macbeth.  Personally, I was completely drained from the last show, and decided to head back to the hostel.

Back at the hostel, I successfully called both my parents and my girlfriend Em.  It was good to hear their voices, and totally crazy to think that it was only 3PM back home.  It was like time travel.  My mind boggled.

Eventually, we met up with the people who saw Macbeth – and apparently, it was incredible.  I’d write more about it, except that I didn’t see it.  But according to them,  it was awesome.

After we met up with them, a few of us stopped by a Greek restaurant for some gyros.  We discussed the shows a bit, and I heard more impressions about Macbeth.  After our discussion, we left, and started heading back to the hostel.

We were just walking through the middle of the market square, when all of a sudden, it hit me:  I didn’t have my camera on me.  I’d forgotten it at the gyro restaurant!  I peeled out, and flew back to the restaurant.

The restaurant was empty – it looked like they were about to close.  And my camera was nowhere to be seen.  Finally, the European thieves and pick-pockets that I’d been warned about had struck.

And then the manager came out and gave me my camera back.  I felt like quite a shmuck.


After thanking the manager, I left the restaurant, and ran smack dab into another group of my fellow travelers who had taken a different route back from Macbeth.  They were hungry, and I was up for hanging out, so we stopped at another restaurant.  This one was a fancy Italian place.

Have you been keeping track?  Let’s count how many times I sat down to eat that day:

  1. Breakfast at the hostel
  2. Failed pierogi mission
  3. Penne spinaci, with accordian music
  4. Wizard Hat
  5. Gyros at the Greek restaurant
  6. Fancy Italian restaurant

Holy smokes!

So there we were:  Jiv, Ryan, Una, Linn, and Sonia, sitting at this fancy Italian restaurant, being loud and obnoxious, as per usual.  It took us about 20 minutes to finally realize that we were sitting in a restaurant geared towards romance, and that many of the couples around us weren’t appreciating how much noise we were making.

So we paid our bill and left.

And we went home.  And slept.  I hadn’t bought any postcards, and I still had laundry to do.

Oh well.  Plenty of time for that.

Click here to go to Part 7:  An Official Tour of Wroclaw

Click here to go back to Part 5:  Exploring Wroclaw