Travel guides are often useful when abroad, but sometimes it’s best just to ask a local – in my case, the man at my hostel’s reception desk.
“Where’s the most beautiful place in Wrocław?”
The reply comes without a pause – Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island. When I arrive, I instantly agree with the receptionist. At midnight, it could be the most serene place on earth. The sound of my wooden soles (a poor, yet atmospheric choice) hitting the cobblestones of Katedralna reverberates loudly and sharply, the only break in the otherwise perfect silence. Just a few hundred metres away over the Odra, the vibrant, modern city of Wrocław blares – but here, there is only the silence of the past.
The staff at the fantastically named Boogie Hostel turn out to be some of the friendliest bed-providers I’ve ever stayed with. Not only do they, like the majority of Poles, smile and encourage my attempts to use Polish – never the easiest of languages – but they’re genuinely friendly and welcoming in a way that suggests they care about more than just putting money in the till. So friendly, in fact, that I plead with them to find me a room for a second night, rather than (as I originally planned) having to move to another hostel across the city.
More than anything, they remind me why I use hostels, instead of hotels. It’s not just a question of price, but of atmosphere, and of friendliness. Hotels (or at least, hotels within my budget) are sterile, lifeless, and detached. Great for families with children, of course – but for the solo traveller, a hostel gets you closer to the real life of a place, and is cheaper. You get what you don’t pay for.
Modern Poland is perhaps best defined by its contrasts. It is a country that looks forward, yet often turns its eyes back to history. Nowhere are the contrasts in modern Poland more immediately obvious than in Polish buildings. The short walk from the vibrant and busy city centre, crossing the Odra via Most Tumski, illuminates this contrast, just as both the more modern city centre and Ostrów Tumski illuminate their buildings – the electric lights highlighting the sharp angles of the Ostrów Tumski’s gothic cathedrals being one of the few reminders of the present day.
Most of the city centre can only be called modern in relative terms – in around 10 minutes, one can walk from the beauty and stillness of Ostrów Tumski right the way through the modern city centre, where the concrete gravestones of communism remind one of another era in Polish history. Here, a tiny shop bears the sign ‘Chemia z Niemec’. It is a surreal anachronism, stocking only a few items – all German (and supposedly superior) cleaning products. Shower gel, washing powder, and so on – as if Poland lacks its own detergents.
A few minutes further is the main building of the University of Wrocław. This beautiful, cream coloured, 300 year old building, ornate yet orderly, stands across the street from a modern building that is nothing but straight lines and smoked glass. A sign on the glass advertises the budget restaurant inside in Polish, English, and German – “All for one price, you only pay for 100 grams.” Doubtless it is as popular with students as it is with tourists.
Deeper into the heart of the city centre, there is the Rynek, the market square. The Wrocław Town Hall (Ratusz) sits in Wrocław’s Rynek, a fairytale building that barely seems real – the sort of building that looks written, not built. Around it, buildings from the past have been filled and surrounded with products from the present. McDonalds does its best to disturb the atmosphere, but to no avail.
Walking through Wrocław is like walking through a microcosm of Polish history; albeit one not arranged in a linear fashion. From street to street, building to building, differing architectural styles give the pedestrian a simplified, fragmented, and disordered version of the development of Poland – a mandala, evoking ideas of both longevity and impermanence. The old mixes with the new – they never blend completely, but rather crash and rebound.
Ostrów Tumski, however, is an entirely distinct lesson in contrasts. Here is the part of Poland which both wishes to be kept separate from the modern world – and which threatens to keep modernity out of Poland too. Poland’s Catholicism is one of its defining features. Reverence for Pope Jan Paweł, as Ratzinger’s predecessor is known at home, is as Polish as pierogi. Even the extremists have a loud voice in Polish politics, with the hardline traditionalist and nationalist radio station Radio Maryja having close links with the right-wing Law and Justice party – the second largest party in Poland.
Just as Catholicism dominates Poland, the red brick spires of Wrocław Cathedral dominate Ostrów Tumski. Illuminated and overbearing, they are as terrifying as they are impressive. They give the impression of being vast radio antenna, broadcasting silence and stillness. These towers, just like the other buildings that surround them, are undeniably beautiful even to a confirmed atheist.
What they may represent to modern Poland, and what part the church should play in Poland’s modern development are both points open for debate. Certainly, the teachings of the Church are becoming less relevant to the younger generation, and the symbols of the old religion look less and less tasteful to them every day. The influence of the Church may wane, but its symbols will retain their potency – even if they, like many other Polish buildings, eventually become only symbols reminiscent of times past. The silence of Ostrów Tumski is ironic, given the current debate, and the vocality of the Catholic Church – but, alone here, at night, the silence and the beauty seem to be the only things that matter.