As we entered the market square next to the one hundred and thirty metre high St. Elizabeth’s Church it was immediately worth remembering that what we were seeing was an almost perfect reconstruction because after the siege of 1945 this was almost totally destroyed and almost completely annihilated by the Soviet fury of 1945. By the time the white flag was raised there was only eighteen- million cubic metres of rubble covering what had once been a jewel on the River Oder.
But reconstruction was thankfully swift and in less than twenty years since sustaining a degree of apocalyptic devastation almost unimaginable in its brutality the city had largely rebuilt itself.
Wroclaw’s market square and much of the urban grid around it was laid out by medieval town planners in 1241. It is rather like Krakow and after that neighbouring city claims to be the second largest medieval square in Europe, although you really have to be careful with these sorts of claims because there is always somewhere else ready to challenge them. This is however very impressive and at the centre is the elaborately decorated Town Hall, a masterpiece of medieval vision and architecture which originally took two hundred and fifty years to build in the Middle Ages, a month or two to demolish in 1945 and twenty years or so to restore after the war.
The middle of the square and the Town Hall building is the centrepiece of the square but for me the best of the buildings are on all sides where pastel coloured medieval tenement houses compete with each other for grandness and attention in architectural styles ranging from Gothic, through Baroque to Art Nouveau and like strutting peacocks competing for attention they showed themselves off magnificently in the mid afternoon sunshine. Photographs on postcards show that during the Summer the square is full of tables and parasols of the restaurants and cafés but today it was quite empty and it was possible to appreciate the buildings without the pavement decoration.
It isn’t all colourful and picture book perfect however because in one prominent corner is a drab grey ten-story office block building of a Polish bank which looks frightfully out of place. It was completed in 1931 and was the beginning of a mad project to modernise the square, to demolish the elegant town houses and build a modern city with twenty-story concrete buildings. Thankfully after some deliberation the city authorities rejected the plan but sadly, in my opinion, the destruction of the city in the siege of 1945 didn’t manage to destroy it and I am rather surprised that as part of the reconstruction they didn’t demolish it anyway and replace it with something more appropriate.
Next to the main square is a second called Salt Square because in the past this is where there was significant trade in salt which had been transported here from the salt mines at Wieliczka near Krakow which we had visited a year or so previously.
We made a second circuit of the square and briefly visited the Town Hall and then moved away into the streets that leaked away in all directions and here the quality and attractiveness changed quickly creating an immediate contrast between the resplendent Market Square with the brutal ugliness and drab functionality of concrete and steel as we passed through the shopping streets and into residential areas where crumbling cement and corroded steel presented an alternative image of Wroclaw. If the main square was the good then here was the bad and the ugly!
Even if you were to strip away the façades of the old town reconstruction to reveal the utilitarian concrete of the communist regime that lies behind them at least the area of the Old Town was reconstructed with respect to its historical significance but areas outside the city’s medieval centre essentially presented post-war architects with a blank slate. The officially accepted style of the time was Socialist Realism – a severe artistic style following strict guidelines from the Soviet master plan, based on a uniform granite grey and one which architects were not allowed to deviate. One of the best places to see this form of architecture is the Communist model city of Nowa Huta near Krakow.
There is a lot of concrete in Wroclaw as in other Polish cities because during the reconstruction there was a desperate shortage of bricks. After 1945 the Polish government gave total precedence to the rebuilding of Warsaw and there the Old Town of the capital was carefully rebuilt using reconstruction materials recovered from the western cities under an official programme called ‘bricks for Warsaw’ and it was achieved at considerable expense to other Polish cities, especially those in the ‘recovered territories’ of the west that were way down the reconstruction priority list.
Wroclaw’s contribution to this project was indeed its bricks and at it is estimated that at one stage they were being sent to Warsaw at a rate of one million every day which meant the loss of original material to rebuild the city. These are only my very rough calculations but if an average brick is 2.5kgs that is 2,500 tonnes per day transported in 20 tonne capacity railway trucks at 15 trucks per train that would have been about ten fully loaded trains every day transporting bricks out of Wroclaw. Szczecin, another previous German city in the north-west, fared even worse and was actually required to demolish its undamaged buildings to provide the bricks for Warsaw.
The afternoon was starting to slip away now and by four o’clock the sun had disappeared below the building line, there were some ominous heavy clouds moving in and it was beginning to get cold so now was just about the right time to find a warm bar and on the way back to the hotel we came across the perfect place called simply the ‘Drink Bar’ (because you know where you stand in a place with a name like that) which was situated inside either the Hansel or the Gretel house but I am not sure exactly which one, where Kim had coffee and wine and I introduced myself to the Polish beer Zywiec.
Later we used the spa facilities at the hotel and then after rejecting its restaurant on account of its beyond our budget prices returned to the Market Square to find an alternative. It was bitterly cold now and the chilled fingers of a strong wind reached inside our coats like a pick-pocket and loosened our scarves and pinched our cheeks as we walked around the perimeter for a third time and were surprised that despite the weather the place was still full of local people out walking with their families and friends.
I generally leave restaurant selection to Kim because she is so much better at it than me and has an uncanny knack of picking a good place to eat just from a casual glance at the menu and the table arrangements and tonight she selected a rustic Georgian restaurant with a short but modestly priced menu. It turned out to be very satisfactory and we had a meal, wine and beer all for just over one hundred zloty or a very reasonable £20. So reasonable in fact that I really didn’t mind leaving an above average tip!