Tag Archives: Breslau

Entrance Tickets – The Royal Palace in Warsaw

Warsaw Royal Castle

At the ticket office the clerk explained that the whole of the castle was not open today but by way of compensation entrance was free.  This seemed like a good deal, no money changed hands and only half a museum for Kim!

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Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

A Return Visit to Wroclaw, Poland

Spring  always seems to be a good time to go away if you ask me and this year I found some cheap Ryanair flights at only £50 return to Wroclaw, the fourth largest city in Poland and as we had thoroughly enjoyed a January weekend there two years previously the decision was quickly made to make a return visit the historic capital of Lower Silesia.

So why go to Wroclaw in the first place you might ask (and some people did) and having been once why go for a second time?  Well, quite simply because it is a fine European city and has a great deal to offer…

… It is classified as a global city with a ranking of high sufficiency and living standards and in 2015 was among two hundred and thirty cities ranked as “Best Cities to Live“. In 2016, the city was a European Capital of Culture and the World Book Capital. Also in a busy year Wrocław hosted the Theatre Olympics, the World Bridge Games and the European Film Awards. In 2017, the city is the host of the The International Federation of Library Associations’ Annual Conference and The World Games which is an international multi-sport event, meant for sports that are not contested in the Olympic Games

And where Iceland has Huldufólk and  Zurich has GnomesWroclaw has Dwarfs…

Before leaving my friend Dai Woosnam provided me with some lessons on pronunciation because although Wroclaw looks easy enough on paper it can prove quite tricky to get absolutely right and is correctly pronounced as ‘Vrotswaf’ with the added complication of a rolling ‘r’.  In attempting to say this difficult word it is necessary to sound like a bronchitis sufferer with a throat full of phlegm. 

I suggest that the easiest way to achieve it would be to fill your mouth with pebbles to suppress any possible movement of the tongue and force the sound into the back of the mouth; either that or go into the garden shed and find a live moth, swallow it and then try to cough it up and you will achieve roughly the same combination of sounds that is required to get the correct pronunciation!  

It is all very well for Dai of course, he is from Wales and the Welsh are used to dealing with unpronounceable place names, like possibly the most absurd of all –  Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch* because even the Germans don’t have place names as long as that and the longest that I can find is Villingen-Schwenningen but that cheats and includes a hyphen and is really two places next door to each other.  On that same basis I am also passing over the claim of L’Annonciation-de-la-Bienheureuse-Vierge-Marie-de-Nazareth which is somewhere in Quebec in Canada.

No one seems to know for sure but the city is traditionally believed to be named after Wrocisław or Vratislav, Duke Vratislaus I of Bohemia sometime towards the end of the tenth century.

But it hasn’t always been so difficult because it only reverted to the name of Wroclaw in 1946 when the city and the whole region of Silesia was taken from Germany and handed over to Poland as the borders of central Europe were redrawn to satisfy the demands of Stalin at the post-war Potsdam Conference.

Up until that point in history Wroclaw had not been a part of what you might call Poland for over six-hundred years and it went by the German name of Breslau, which is a lot easier to pronounce and was an almost exclusively German in a city that had once been part of Prussia, The German Empire after unification in 1871, The inter-war Weimer Republic and the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler.  I’ll tell you some more about that in a future post.

I am always interested to discover how far a place name has travelled but not surprisingly I am unable to find another Wroclaw anywhere.  There is however a Breslau in Ontario, Canada and another in Pierce County Nebraska, USA. There used to be one more, in Suffolk County, New York but just like its Polish counterpart it was renamed – as Lindenhurst in 1891

We left a cloudy and rather dismal East Midlands Airport near Nottingham and a little under two hours later approached Wroclaw-Copernicus airport which was bathed in dappled sunshine.  As we dropped through the light cloud I could see Poland rapidly coming into view.  This part of the country is flat and prairie like with a chequer board pattern of agricultural farms and fields occupying the valley of the River Oder and a long way from the mountains of the south or the forests of the east and still in its state of winter hibernation it looked rather unremarkable and it made me wonder why so many lives had been lost over the years fighting over it. 

After a short thirty-minute taxi ride to the city we checked into the Best Western Hotel on the edge of the Old Town and after approving our accommodation stepped out into the street and made our way to the nearby market square which like so many others in Europe has been expertly and sensitively restored and betrays an eclectic mix of the principles of original medieval town planning and a combination of Germanic and Polish architectural styles that perfectly complement one another.

We set off on a sightseeing walk and possibly to find a bar!

The Official Travel Guide in Wrocław – visitWroclaw.eu

Warsaw, The Royal Castle and the Demolition of a City

Warsaw Old Town and Royal castle

The Royal Castle, Warsaw…

Today, the Royal Castle is a proud and magnificent red brick building at the heart of the reconstructed Old Town but as with everything else in Warsaw it had to be rebuilt after the Second-World-War.

At the ticket office the clerk explained that the whole of the castle was not open today but by way of compensation entrance was free.  This seemed like a good deal, no money changed hands and only half a museum for Kim!

Inside the castle we passed through a succession of royal chambers and reconstructed rooms.  The castle was more or less destroyed in September 1939 when the Luftwaffe bombed it and the Wehrmacht artillery finished the job soon after.  Staff at the Palace had very little time to respond to the German invasion but they did manage to save a few valuable pieces and hide them away for the duration of the war.  The Germans turned up quickly of course and the castle was stripped and looted by Hitler’s team of archaeologists and historians, the Ahnenerbe Organisation who dropped by to catalogue and steal the precious exhibits and take them back to Berlin.

On account of this most of the displays are obliged to point out that what we see is a reconstruction or a copy.  Most of what went to Germany was never returned and was either destroyed or is hidden away in private collections still.

What is most noticeable is that in the museum rooms almost all of the pieces on display have an explanatory note that they are the gift of this or that government and country, Russia, Italy, The Vatican, The Netherlands and so on.  It is impossible to view these exhibits and the explanations and not feel sad.

At the end of the tour there was a powerful cinema exhibition which described the history of the Palace.  The early days were straight-forward as it advanced through two hundred years of Polish independent history and then through the partitions and the subjugation and finally towards the destruction of the castle and the entire city of Warsaw.

Adolf Hitler always had a sinister blueprint for Warsaw.  This plan was to destroy it and rebuild it as a German city as part of his policy to provide additional living space for the German people.  In 1939 Warsaw was only a short distance from the German border and German (now Polish) cities like Breslau (Wroclaw), Stettin (Szczecin) and Possen (Poznań).   We know now that he never got to finalise those plans – he never built his new German city but he did manage to destroy Polish Warsaw.

The Nazi demolition of Warsaw…

In 1945 as the German army prepared to retreat ahead of the advancing Soviet Red Army Hitler gave orders that Warsaw should be razed to the ground.  The sad thing for me about that is that not that a deranged madman gave the order but that others actually carried it out.  Surely it must have occurred to someone that what they were doing was wrong, was criminal or was just simply insane?

Obviously not and as the German troops left they destroyed all of the bridges over the River Vistula and completely destroyed 85% of the city.  This was planned systematic destruction.  Special demolition units called Sprengkommando meticulously planned the destruction.  Buildings were numbered according to importance to Warsaw and Polish Culture and one by one they were dynamited and demolished. The higher up the list the more attention to demolition detail.  Buildings without historical or cultural interest were destroyed by Verbrennungskommando whose job it was to go from house to house and simply burn them to the ground.

In October 1944 Heinrich Himmler said – “The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth. No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation.”

In 1939 Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million, by 1944 this had been reduced to 900,000 but by 1945 less than a thousand people remained living in the ruins of the city.

This year (2015) there has been a lot of bleating from the German city of Dresden about the damage caused by Allied bombing raids in 1945.  Anyone who complains in Dresden should be obliged to go to Warsaw to get a sense of perspective.

It is impossible to visit a place like this and not be moved by the sheer scale of the murders, deportations and destruction.  Information like this weighs heavy.  Why on earth do we such dreadful things to each other?  Personally I am not interested in donkey sanctuaries, save the panda, the league against cruel sports, bull fighting, fox hunting or Blue Cross dog rescue because man’s inhumanity to man eclipses completely anything else that we do that can be described as cruel.  This is what we have to deal with first of all.

Historically the Germans have been good at this sort of thing of course.  In the Dark Ages Saxons used to regularly visit England and burn places down, in 410 Germanic barbarians sacked and looted Rome and more recently in 1870 they besieged and bombarded the city of Paris.  Currently they are trying to destroy the Greek economy.  I like Germany, I like German people, when you visit they are always welcoming and kind but sadly they are serial destroyers!

After this sobering exhibition we left the Royal Palace and disappointed that there was no improvement in the weather we wandered out of the Old Town until we came across a café where we stopped for tea and cake and to plan the rest of the day.

We walked now through a vast open concrete ceremonial square, just a curious empty place in the middle of the city.  This was once called Saxon Square and at one end once there stood a magnificent Palace.  It was destroyed by the Germans in 1945 of course but now there are plans to rebuild it in the original style and turn it into a new National Museum.  The only part to be restored so far however is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where two army guards stood perfectly still as they took their tedious turn to look over the eternal flame.

The route now took us back in the general direction of the hotel and there were some choices to be made.  My preference was to make for the old Jewish ghetto area and another museum while Kim had a plan to wander back to the hotel through the shopping precincts so we separated at this point and each went our own chosen ways with a plan to meet again in a couple of hours or so.

The Royal Palace in 1945…

Warsaw 1945

Poland (Wroclaw), The Historical Museum and a German Heritage

Historical Museum Wroclaw Poland

And so we turned our backs on the Anonymous Pedestrians and made our way back towards the centre, crossed the old city moat and turned left towards the Historical Museum of Wroclaw.

Our plans so far had worked out just perfectly, yesterday when the sun had shined we had stayed outside for our sightseeing and today which was overcast and chilly we were going to spend inside and undercover.

We only had time for one museum today and I knew that Kim certainly wouldn’t have the patience for two so we choose the Historical Museum rather than the National Museum and the Panorama of the Battle of Raclawice for two good reasons. Firstly neither of us really gets a big thrill from looking at paintings and sculptures and secondly because today on a Sunday the Historical Museum had free admission and the National Museum did not. No need for a debate, No contest!

The Museum is housed in a former Palace of the Hohenzollern Prussian Royal Family and has been restored to something of its former grandeur since being mostly destroyed in the fighting of 1945. The Prussian Kings and the German Emperors rather liked Breslau (Wroclaw), spent some considerable time there and had monuments of themselves erected in prominent places to record the fact like these two of Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II:

Kaiser Wilhelm I

Kaiser Wilhelm II

By the time the monarchy was abolished in 1918, including this one, the German Kaiser had quite a few royal palaces to choose from.  In Berlin he had the City Palace which was badly damaged by Allied bombing and despite the protests of West Germany demolished by the German Democratic Republic in 1950.  In the city of Posen (now Polish Poznań) he had the Imperial Castle, which during World-War-Two became Hitler’s residence in Poland and in Potsdam he had the New Palace which was looted and badly damaged by Russian troops in the Red Army invasion.

Germany and Russia were always pinching each others treasure and all this thieving was a two way thing and among the Red Army troops who entered Berlin in 1945 were experts sent to establish “trophy commissions.”  Their official mission was to look for Russian cultural property stolen by the Nazis when they had invaded the Soviet Union a few years earlier but Red Army officers started removing the large art collections and treasures that had been stored in bunkers and railway depots during the war and transported them home presumably in retaliation for the looting places like the Grand Palace at Peterhof in St. Petersburg by the Nazis a few years earlier.

In 1992, after the Soviet Union disintegrated, the German and Russian governments made an agreement of cultural cooperation and both countries are bogged down in the process of returning stolen treasures to their rightful owners but inevitably a lot of these items have found there way into private collections and are difficult to track down.

In addition to the stately palaces in Berlin, Breslau (Wroclaw), Posen (Poznań) and Potsdam the Kaiser also had a nice summer holiday palace called the Achilleion on the Greek island of Corfu which I visited a few years ago and is now an up-market casino that was used as a location for the James Bond film ‘For Your Eyes Only’  in 1981.  Four Palaces and a summer home might sound extravagant but compare that to the present King of Spain, Juan Carlos, who has seven palaces in mainland Spain and a summer home on the island of Majorca.

There were no temporary exhibitions today to slow us down so we went straight ahead into the permanent museum display ‘1000 years of Wroclaw’ which starts on the ground floor at around the year 1000 and ascends through three floors and two extensive wings right up to the present day.

We quickly passed through the first two hundred years or so because much to Kim’s relief I am not especially interested in that period of history but I slowed the pace down through the medieval armoury section because I do admit fascination with those early weapons of mass destruction and through into the seventeenth century.

Then we crawled through one of my favourite periods of European history, the eighteenth century, and took our time too through the nineteenth and the period of German unification and Prussian expansion and here in the Yellow Living Room I unearthed my favourite fact about the Palace for it was here in 1813 that King Frederic William III made the Proclamation of the Iron Cross as a war medal.

We spent most time however on the top floor in the twentieth century with exhibits and photographs from the two world wars, the siege of Breslau, the expulsion of the German population, the communist era and then modern day Wroclaw.

It took about an hour and a half to walk through all the rooms which is about the upper limit of Kim’s museum patience and then before leaving and taking a short stroll in the Imperial gardens we stopped for a coffee in the massive basement café where we were the only customers this lunch time.

It was still cold and grey outside and the air smelt ominously of winter so we pulled our jackets tight and tightened our scarves and returned to the streets for the remainder of the afternoon.

Wroclaw Poland Street Art

A rather striking sculpture on the wall of the Hansel (Hansel and Gretal) house and the guide book says this about it:

“Hansel (house) features several bas-reliefs by local artist Eugeniusz Get-Stankiewicz, including a self-portrait. Get-Stankiewicz is a bit of a local legend and commonly regarded as one of the key movers in 1960s Polish counter-culture. Since 1995 the Hansel house has also doubled as his studio, which he rents from the city for a token one groszy coin per month.”