Hitching out of Berlin was a bit of a bitch – don’t bother with the HitchWiki suggested spot near the airport, it’s rubbish! Getting demoralised but also intent on hitching most of the way, we decided to catch a cab to the nearest service station (that took some explaining to the driver!). From there it was fine, and we encountered the incredible generosity of strangers when the German man who gave us our first lift about five hours after we first pitched up with a sign – when he dropped us off at the service station, he tucked 20 Euros into Josh’s scarf and refused to take it back!

One of my friends got very excited when I said we were headed to Wrocław (pronounced ‘vrots-wahf’ by the Polish, ‘vrat-slav’ by the Germans and ‘row-claw’ by clueless English tourists who aren’t understood by anyone). He said, ‘It’s the most beautiful city in Poland’. Whilst I have only been to two other cities in Poland, from this small experience I must agree (though it doesn’t have much competition). ‘In Bruges’ was being played at our hostel in Kraków, and something Harry says about Bruges made me think of Wrocław – ‘If it was somewhere good, rather than in Belgium, then maybe more people would come here and it would spoil it.’ The film, if you haven’t seen it, is an incredible tongue-in-cheek parody, so I will not offer the same insult to Poland as Harry does to Belgium, but there is an element I agree with: part of Wrocław’s charm is definitely that it is not filled with tourists.

Wrocław is a brilliantly incongruous mixture of Gothic churches, beautiful old buildings and brutal functional Soviet blocks. When you start to uncover the history of the city, this becomes even more interesting – most of the ‘old’ buildings are less than 100 years of age. The 82 day Siege of Breslau (the Germanised name for the city), which claimed the lives of 170,000 civilians, 6,000 German troops and 7,000 Russian, destroyed about 70% of the city. About 75% of this destruction was caused by the Nazis, who knocked down many many buildings to build barricades and reinforcements against the approaching Red Army. Just to kick it while it was down, after the war the city was not allowed to rebuild itself but instead its bricks were sent to rebuild Warsaw – 200,000 bricks a day were being sent to the capital in 1949. Even some previously undamaged buildings were demolished to provide more building materials! Despite all of this, the Old Town has been lovingly reconstructed. You can see the entire city from the top of St. Elizabeth’s Church, inside which there is a bizarre exhibition of African masks.

Josh and I had our first visit to a bar mleczny, or ‘milk bar’ – there are two almost next door to one another right near the university. These continue the Soviet-style canteen approach to food, and the name apparently originates in the fact that in the 80s the meals were mostly dairy-based and vegetarian. In one, you have to order your food from a board on the wall. Being totally at sea on waves of Polish words, we had to ask some Polish students to help us out. At the second (more expensive) place you simply load up your plate and pay by the 100g – a much more stupid-tourist-friendly method!

Throughout the city we found little metal gnomes – hanging out on benches, trying to push over bollards and generally being a bit naughty. Apparently they represent the Orange Alternative, a Soviet-era dissident group which made peaceful protests based on subversive absurdity. Their nonsensical activities made it more difficult for the authorities to arrest them. A quote attributed to Waldemar Fydrych: ‘Can you treat a police officer seriously when he is asking you the question: “Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarves?” ‘

Another idiosyncracy of Wrocław is to be found on one of the bridges. Once upon a while a couple padlocked a lock with their names on to the railings and threw the key in the river – a symbolic romantic gesture. As a result, the rails now bristle with padlocks of all shapes and sizes. Personally I find this imagery slightly more alarming than charming, I think I’d always want at least one key available to unlock myself from someone if I needed to!

All in all, definitely my favourite city in Poland.

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