The last one – I promise
Have Bag, Will Travel
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Following the coffee break we returned to the streets, walked through the Market Square and out the other side and at this point alarm bells started to ring because it soon became obvious to me that Kim was leading us directly towards the shopping arcades. I knew the signs, I have seen them many times before, the sniff of the perfume, the glitter of the sparkly things catching the corner of the eye and the smell of shoe leather.
For a while I fell behind after stopping to buy a doughnut from a shop with a long and patient queue but after the purchase I caught her up and queried this but was received an assurance that this was a complete coincidence – but I wasn’t entirely convinced. And as it turned out I had good reason not to be entirely convinced because suddenly we were outside the entrance to a modern shopping mall and the tractor beam that attracts women into shops was working on maximum draw power.
I had fallen for it again but I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to shop so while Kim, Margaret and Sue went inside Mike, Christine and I declined and returned to the streets and relieved to have got away with it to a delightful linear park which was built on the site of the old city walls, demolished in 1814 by Napoleon Bonaparte until we came to the Wroclaw Municipal Museum.
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…
This one was at a place called Partisan Hill a once elegant recreational area with a grandiose crescent-shaped structure like something that might be found in Baden-Baden or Bath but is now sadly neglected, forlorn and forgotten with crumbling masonry and cracked pavements, a once gleaming construction littered with smashed bottles and spray can squiggles and the only hope is that it stays standing long enough until someone restores it.
By the time the monarchy was abolished in 1918 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 used as a Museum and was looted and badly damaged by Russian troops in the Red Army invasion and nearby Cecilienhof Palace which was used as the venue for the Potsdam Conference where Breslau eventually became Wroclaw.
Germany and Russia were always pinching each other’s 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 widened their brief and started removing the large art collections and treasures from anywhere in Europe that had been stored in bunkers and railway depots during the war and transported them home in retaliation for the looting places like the Grand Palace at Peterhof in St. Petersburg and other museums 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 now bogged down in the process of returning stolen treasures to their rightful owners but inevitably a lot of these items have found their 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’.
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 but the pace slowed 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.
An hour in the Museum was just about right and then we left and returned to the Market Square to meet up with the shoppers at the appointed time and place.
You might like to check out this website all about Wroclaw…
‘… In a few short years, the heart of Paris has been made ugly, robbing Parisians of quality of life and the ability to safely enjoy their own public spaces along the Seine…. The time has come to enact a ban on ‘love locks’ in order to return our bridges to their original beauty and purpose.’ – Petition Against Love Locks, Paris.
At customer feedback I rated the Best Western as excellent and awarded high marks for everything but it is has to be said that it is not a hotel for sleeping in late into the morning. The room faced east and was adjacent to a very busy road so the combination of bright sunshine leaking in around the curtains and trams regularly clattering past meant for an early breakfast.
Leaving the hotel we walked towards the River Oder and the handful of islands that sit in a wide stretch of the river and which are connected by several bridges which immediately entitles it to the tag of the ‘Venice of the North’. This isn’t a title that it holds uniquely of course because this has also been applied to Amsterdam, Bruges, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Manchester, Edinburgh and even Birmingham amongst others.
Actually, I have to say that here in Wroclaw this description is stretching it to its absolute limit but it was pleasant enough criss-crossing the river on the bridges and strolling across the islands one by one towards our objective of Ostrow Tumski, the Cathedral Island, which actually isn’t an island any more since part of the river was filled in two hundred years ago.
To get there we had to cross the Tumski Bridge which has now become known as Lovers Bridge on account of that awful modern obsession with attaching padlock graffiti to any available railing which seems to have become an irritating epidemic all across Europe. This is a lover’s plague whereby signing and locking the padlock and throwing the key into the river they become eternally bonded.
This tradition might sound all rather romantic and lovely but apparently all of these love tokens do lots of damage to the bridges because as they age and rust this spreads to the ironwork and thousands of padlocks need to be removed every year from bridges across Europe. In Venice there is a €3,000 penalty and up to a year in prison for those caught doing it and that is a much, much higher price than I would be prepared to pay for eternal bondage!
This is what Tumski Bridge used to look like before mindless love lock vandals began to consider it acceptable to add metal graffiti…
This is what it looks like today…
I know which way I prefer it, I’ll let you decide for yourselves.
To anyone who thinks this is mean-spirited please bear in mind that in June 2014 the ‘Pond des Arts’ in Paris across the River Seine collapsed under the weight of these padlock monstrosities and had to be temporarily closed. They are not just unsightly – they are dangerous!
Cathedral Island is the original site of the first permanent settlement in Wroclaw, sometime in the ninth century and shortly after it became established and became a bishopric work began to build a Cathedral. Named after John the Baptist, Patron Saint of Wroclaw, the current incarnation of the cathedral started life in 1241 although it has had a great deal of restoration work since then because just like every European church it has suffered a mandatory burning down or two and the odd bomb over the years including the destruction of the twin towers in 1945.
There is a lift to a viewing platform up to the top of one of the towers and so we took the ride and enjoyed the views over the city and the surrounding countryside and after a couple of circuits or so of the spire we took the first available lift back to the ground where the temperature was more agreeable.
And so we left the islands and returned to the old town where we walked for a while along the south bank of the river. Here we passed by two museums, the especially impressive National Museum built in the style of a German sixteenth century palace and over the road the Panorama of the Battle of Raclawice.
This is a concrete rotunda with just one exhibit, a 114 metre long by 15 metre high painting of the battle of 1794 when a Polish army defeated a superior Russian force in a struggle for independence. This makes it the second largest panorama painting in the World just slightly shorter by six metres than the Arrival of the Hungarians in Ópusztaszer in Hungary and just ahead by 5 metres longer than the Gettysburg Cyclorama in Gettysburg, USA.
After the museums we went to the indoor market but it wasn’t as vibrant as some that we have been to and compared badly for example against Riga and Budapest and it seemed tired, run down and unexciting. The guide book pointed out the importance of the roof as one of the best examples of early halls made of concrete in Europe and if you like concrete then I am prepared to concede that it was rather impressive. Personally, I am not a huge fan of the grey stuff!
We had been walking for over two hours and I was beginning to detect that the needle on Kim’s whinge meter was beginning to twitch so the priority now was to find somewhere for a coffee break so we walked back in the direction of Market Square and found a modern café where we stopped for a while for some of the group to top up sugar levels with cake in preparation for more walking in the afternoon.
History Teaches us Lessons but we do not Learn…
“I should have been in everyone’s interests (in 1803) to keep Poland as a cheerful. thriving buffer but instead, for careless, short-termed reasons the Prussians and the Russians carved Poland into non-existence.” – Simon Winder, ‘Germania’
Wroclaw it seems to me is a friendly, honest city, proud but not boastful, ambitious but unpretentious and as we walked I thought about the statistics that I generally use to get the measure of a country or a place.
Poland is placed thirty-ninth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top fifty of most highly developed countries. The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. It is rated nineteenth out of thirty in the European Happiness Index which may not sound very impressive but is two places above the United.
Poland has fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites which puts in nineteenth place in the World and tenth overall in Europe which is no mean achievement. One of the nineteen is the Centennial Hall in Wroclaw which was built to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig and is included as an early example of the use of reinforced concrete.
Perhaps not surprisingly the country was rather late joining the Blue Flag Beach initiative but is now catching up and has by 2013 achieved the status at twenty-eight beaches and Marinas on the Baltic Sea.
But some things are not going so well, in football, Poland has finished third twice at the Football World Cup but has been spectacularly unsuccessful in the European Nations cup where it has qualified twice but on neither occasion progressed beyond the group stages.
If you think that the football statistics are disappointing however, consider this, Poland has made the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest only nine times in sixteen attempts although it did manage to come second in 1994 despite almost being disqualified for rehearsing in English!
But it is the history of the country that fascinates me most because Poland has had a most dramatic and unfortunate last one thousand years and the reason for this is largely down to its geographical position on one of the dangerously volatile European political fault lines with powerful neighbours to both east and west using it a convenient buffer state and taking it in turns to use it as a punch bag.
For a thousand years the borders of central Europe have expanded and contracted like a piano accordion as other more powerful states have invaded it, subjugated it and periodically annexed those parts that they found that they had a particular liking for. The last great redrawing of the boundaries came in 1946 which gave us the geographical shape of Poland that we recognise today and I mention this here because this review of the borders had a significant impact on Wroclaw.
Prior to 1946 Wroclaw was called Breslau and was part of greater Germany and one of the important Imperial cities of old Prussia, by all accounts an elegant city of spires and canals. The Germans were fond of Breslau and it survived most of the war pretty much intact but in 1945 as the Red Army advanced Hitler declared it a fortress city and ordered it to be defended to the last man. There was a high price to pay for this military obstinacy and in a few weeks the city was almost completely destroyed to the extent that what we see now is all due to post war reconstruction.
After the city finally fell Soviet revenge for holding up the Red Army advance was swift and brutal, with reprisals against the German population going largely unchecked as bands of ill-disciplined Soviet soldiers rampaged across the city, dispensing instant and brutal justice to those who resisted. Abandoned to anarchy Breslau had reached its lowest point, a city lost in human catastrophe.
With Germany defeated the Allies set about agreeing borders for new Poland and had to accommodate the desire of the USSR to push their western border as far into central Europe as possible to re-establish a series of buffer states that would protect Russia from further western aggression and another invasion – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine all served this purpose. So while Poland retreated in the east it was compensated for this loss with lands in the west – principally the old Prussian/German states of Pomerania and Silesia and a new border was agreed on the Oder-Neisse line with what was to become temporarily East Germany.
Now the trouble really began because the Soviets didn’t want the disaffected and troublesome Poles living in their annexed territories so they were forcibly expelled and sent west and replaced with Russian citizens in a process called Russification. The Poles not unsurprisingly didn’t want the Germans living in new Poland so in turn forcibly expelled the Germans of old Breslau and sent them west as well to make room for the Poles who had been displaced in the east.
The Poles arriving from the east didn’t much care for the Germanic appearance and infrastructure of the place (even though it had been largely demolished) and the end of the war signalled a belligerent campaign to de-Germanise the city. Newspapers launched competitions to eliminate all traces of Wroclaw’s German heritage with monuments and street signs all falling victim to an iconoclastic whirlwind of destruction including an equine statue of Kaiser Wilhelm that once stood in the Market Square whilst other German structures that had survived the Russian siege were introduced to the Polish wrecking-ball.
By the end of 1946 as many as three hundred thousand Germans were still in the city and this was a problem for the Polish authorities. Forced transports began in July, and by January 1948 Wroclaw was officially declared to be free of German inhabitants.
Today occupies a significant position in central Europe, has borders with seven other States and is the tenth most visited country in Europe.