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Wrocław, Poland

How can the fourth largest city in Poland be undiscovered?

Good question. A really good question. Indeed, I should turn that question around and pose that to you. How is this place undiscovered? Why does it register little more than a flicker or a blank stare? It is somewhat mind-boggling to think of all the hidden gems on Earth, but even more so when they are ‘hidden’ in the form of a sizeable city in the centre of an extremely well connected area of central Europe. Somewhere between the urban playground of Warsaw, historical sights of Krakow and port solidarity of Gdansk this place slips through the net. Perhaps most of Poland hasn’t settled sufficiently on westerners radars just yet. This was something I touched on in a previous article on the lovely (and barely known about) city of Lublin. You have a situation where the British can reel off a dozen small towns each in France and Italy, even Germany but not register a major Polish city as notable, or of potential interest.

When’s the last time you heard a British person remark “Oh I was in Wrocław last week…”? Precisely. It’s just not really there, somehow. Yet there’s no reason at all cities such as Lyon, Frankfurt, Malmo, Rotterdam, Oslo should receive the tourists they do in comparison to Wroclaw. It remains extremely easy to get to, less than two hours by plane, is packed full of fluent friendly English speakers, has an already saturated craft ale scene, and boasts a varied but equally enjoyable series of sights and activities that will fill a long weekend comfortably. Is it pleasing to the eye, is it nourishing, culturally and historically? Absolutely yes.

Firstly, you’ll need to say it like “Vrots-wav” – very important, this. W is v, c is ‘ts’, and that dodgy ł character is more like a ‘wuh’ sound, sometimes with the hint of a l still lingering in there somewhere. Vrotswav. Go fetch a Polish person for the finer tuning.

Why is it so important I go here above Krakow?

This isn’t about me telling you to avoid places that are of obvious historical interest. If you want to head to Krakow then believe me, that’s a great decision you’ve made. Go! But once a person has been to Krakow, or Warsaw, or Gdansk, I must impress on you Poland doesn’t stop there and neither should you.

I was persuaded here by a succession of Polish people urging me to visit, which piqued my interest, as aside of the anticipated beauty of the Rynek I didn’t know much about the place, or why I ought to visit. Going only on word of mouth at the time, I was naturally quite skeptical. Then, after some idle digging I discovered via google streetview a network of victorian wrought iron bridges, islands, waterways and parkland, each with its own views and angles of the town. I discovered Ostrów Tumski and its quiet cobbled old town that had eluded my attention. I discovered the Witches Bridge a vertigo-inducing pathway linking the top of two church towers. I discovered a 360-degree painting on a mind-bogglingly epic scale. I discovered a monumental UNESCO World Heritage site I had never heard of, with a huge park, fountain display and Japanese Garden.

Sounds alright actually.

Mmhmm. Well then throw in not one but 3 breweries located not just in the city centre but on the Rynek itself, the best of the three being the Germanic (Wroclaw has been in German control for long periods, and it shows) and excellent Spiż (link plays audio) , where you can sit outside admiring the view of the Ratusz, not to mention the beautiful locals, or go down to the basement and enjoy the good cheer and classic central European cellar atmosphere. It’s the number one destination in the city, so for some locals quite passé, but there is a residual fondness for it. The beers come in a selection of Germanic and central European styles. All the ones I tried were either good or very good.

What else?

You see that little gnome above? Jesus wept. Yes, these bastards are everywhere, keeping the children entertained and some of the more inane adults too. Every city needs a thing I suppose, unfortunately Wroclaw’s is gnomes. This means postcards and souvenirs are unreasonably gnome-centric.

Moving on to far cooler matters now, you see that exciting night photo above – this is a shot from Neon Side, a must see bar/art gallery nestling in an alleyway off Ruska ulice. In the 70s and 80s the government installed neons across Poland to brighten up what were some pretty grey and depressing districts. Spin on to the 90s and these neons became attached to the old regime, hated, neglected and torn down, as if to prove socialists didn’t have the final say on cultural vandalism. Thankfully some people with common sense preserved these and after some careful curation, these have landed in the one venue. The street is like stepping into a sandbox version of Blade Runner, and anyone with an interest in vintage/retro design and logos will find it a must see. The bar itself isn’t bad either, with kind of a disused New York apartment feel.

In addition to Neon Side there are a number of very good bars on offer. These tend to fall into two camps – either multi-tap craft keg pubs selling the cheapest ‘craft ale’ anywhere in the world, (two of which are brewed in Wroclaw itself) – ZUP being a great example, or retro atmospheric bars with the focus on either Soviet or vintage/antiquey feel such as Mleczarnia. Some even combine the two such as the excellent well-rounded Graciarnia. There are another dozen like this. Expect to pay 7zl for a standard Polish lager and up to 13-15 for a strong hoppy IPA brewed by a Polish or Czech craft brewery.

Wroclaw has a free city bike scheme which is great because it’s such a perfect city size wize to traverse by bike. Although the traffic light system in Poland is irritatingly, glacially slow, twinned with police actually enforcing jaywalking laws (impatient British people will find the endless waiting intolerable to an almost reflexive level), there is plenty of park land around the stare miasto meaning smooth cycling around. The city is also more or less flat making it appropriate for any standard of cyclist. Download the nextbike app, pay 2 quid and supply card details, and they text you a password. Input the password at the bike dock and type in the number of the bike you want, and hey presto! It’s free for up to 20 minutes, and only 4 zloty per hour after that, less than a pound a time. You will likely not need it for hours as there are stations dotted about the city everywhere, and your app will tell you where they are.

Aren’t you forgetting the rows and rows of grim relentless towerblocks?

I am yes, but I didn’t think you wanted to visit those specifically. As with every Polish city, the residential areas are largely comprised of towerblock living, some of which are quite spruced and well-maintained, others are simply grim and down at heel. Some of the cheaper accommodation in Wroclaw is based in this district on the edge of the old town. Also, even in the centre itself there is the odd eyesore inexplicably sticking out amidst the delightful burgher houses and painted facades. But this is just how it is – ever been to Barcelona? It’s the same there. Taken the Docklands Light Railway in London? Yep, getting the picture? Big cities need to build upwards to house everyone, and unfortunately the last 100 years has been characterised invariably by countries doing that really badly. So, have I tidied up the last flickering remnants of doubt? Packed your toothbrush?

Go on then.

I knew I’d persuaded you. Plenty of attractions and scenic areas, idiosyncratic features, friendly locals, a strong sense of history and cultural positioning, and great nightlife. Go to Wroclaw, you won’t regret it!

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Varaždin, Croatia

Far away from the grey stone walls and rugged islands of the Dalmatian coast, and far enough away from Zagreb and anywhere else as to be genuinely off the beaten track lies the pretty town of Varazdin. Nearest city North? Graz. Nearest city East? Pecs. Nearest City West? Ljubljana. Getting the message? Yes, it’s quite far out of the way. Not that difficult to get to, but among Europe’s more unfortunately overlooked destinations.

Varazdin was accessible to us via a trip from Budapest on the train. Obtaining a ticket for anywhere other than Zagreb appears to be impossible so we were left buying a ticket to a border outpost by the name of Gyekenyes, and hoping the ticket inspector would kindly look past the fact we could not pay in Croatian Kuna. It appeared we had to then buy a ticket to Koprivnica, a very dull Croatian border town and switch there for the bus to Varazdin. Despite printing out online bus timetables when we reached the autobus station it quickly transpired none of the printed times corresponded at all, though the station master was kind to usher us onto the next bus going without much delay.

The countryside around Varazdin is a uniform of flat corn fields and intermittent advertising billboards. Once every ten minutes we would quickly skirt through a village, the neighbours absently spectating, shirtless on park benches. Laid back wouldn’t quite cut it as a description. Barely sentient might.

Closer to Varazdin and it appeared that the town itself was quite sizeable, again one of these places with a normal folks’ residential area skirting around the more preserved old town. It was also strangely busy, or at least seemed that way after hours of rural travel. Something was going on.

What’s the appeal?

Varazdin has a pedestrianized old town, impressive moated castle and appeals as an alternative to the capital and the Dalmatian/Istrian coast. In truth there aren’t a lot of competitors to that crown but it gives a different flavour of Croatian life than most will be familiar with.

Being the one-time capital of Croatia has given the place a sense of importance it perhaps no longer deserves- on objective analysis Varazdin’s whole sense of importance is based on ephemera and redundance. It happens to be in a geographical backwater, and has no huge significance in terms of trade and industry. Yet all the same, the market town bustles. From the outer ring road to the centre there was evidence that the usually so laid-back it’s horizontal Croatia does contain a second gear.

In addition to an inheritance of baroque architecture, Varazdin is known for a large central castle with a moat. There are several castles in Northern Croatia that are residual evidence of the general lawlessness and ill-defined borders of the past. It is land well used to being conquered and reconquered, and Varazdin castle seems to have been a kind of hostel for whichever military units happened to be passing through. The castle itself is a sizeable, whitewashed blocky structure with turrets and terra-cotta roof. The structure is fairly defensive but also seems just about homely enough to imagine it accommodating nobles and a retinue of staff. Just as impressive is a steep grass banked moat. A stroll around the perimeter and the castle courtyard was really pleasant and absolutely free.

One reason for Varazdin being so busy was Spancirfest (or ‘festival of good emotions’), something I had glanced at before the trip, but mentally allocated as ‘most likely a few stalls selling embroidery’. As it happens, it encompassed everything (targeting as many good emotions as possible) including embroidery of course, and wasn’t minor at all- indeed we had just missed a performance by Blondie, who had performed at a sizeable stage erected adjacent to the castle. Finding out we had missed Blondie wasn’t the best start to a festival devoted to good emotions.

Varazdin is well off the hostel trail, and there is only a selection of hotels and guesthouses or Pansions (nearly the same as the Pension system in Italy). Naturally these are more expensive, and most research led me to the aggressively marketed and not overly cheap Hotel Turist, an unappealing towerblock. The Pansions all looked better, with some home comforts and still reasonable rooms. ‘B&B Garestin’ was considered to also have a reasonable restaurant- and with breakfast thrown in too, that sealed it.

In the evening the town centre came alive with street music, heaving crowds and the odd macabre carnival show. As you would expect, every restaurant was fully booked and the best recommended choice closed altogether. In fact it wasn’t very obvious at all how to get in to that particular place. This meant street food would be the obvious choice, and in Croatia that means cevapi.

Croatian cuisine, particularly inland, leans heavily towards barbecued red meat. This is something people have wildly different reactions to. I personally love it, but others quickly tire of being served the same fare. Cevapi is found across all the former Yugoslavian nations who treat it as easy fallback food and comprises grilled minced beef packed into small pellet sizes roughly the same size as a camera film case. The accompaniments are a huge bread bap and kaymak– salty soft cheese that despite the dubious description goes with it perfectly. Although it is ubiquitous and not especially well thought of (most folks suggest trying pljeskavica instead, which is better quality meat- a luxury hamburger really), it easily beats most British takeaway food, and fills you up to the brim.

Another quirk of the Balkans is their equivalent to Coca-cola, ‘Cockta’- a drink with more of a Dandelion & Burdock flavour, but still with this rather analogous fizzy phosphoric aftertaste. The company are busy fighting a war with Coca Cola for market share (that on visual evidence they are losing). In Eastern Europe, there is still a residual sense that western products are automatically advanced or superior, so with them also being indicative of a higher social status, the pull towards these brands is irresistible. Most people we saw were drinking Coca-cola, so we immediately resolved to drink Cockta whenever possible.

Beer!? In Croatia beer largely revolves around Karlovacko and Ojzusko, mass-produced and below average Euro Lager. Unfortunately in Varazdin matters sunk below even that watermark as the entirely unacceptable PAN, a mass-produced awful lager from Koprivnica held sway. Even at £1.50 a bottle this was not good stuff, but there was little else.

Extra-curricular

The castle is lit up in a half-light at night, which lends it a slight ghoulishness even when there’s a festival going on right next to it. A quick wander around the side revealed that most of Varazdin’s youths were having fun making out, chasing each other around and drinking booze in the dark. Fair enough. In the streets various bands, largely of a rural or twee nature were playing either on stages or ad hoc on the pavement.

We picked up a couple of t-shirts local art students had designed, and in the typical fashion of such an evening, took a fancy to a terrace we’d seen through an alleyway and discovered Garden Henry– a close relative to a ruin bar! With no visible bar area, but an atrium, and a porch on the far side with benches, the rest of the place was covered in ivy, and umbrellas, and old bicycles. It appeared to be some refuge for the bicycle-riding contingent of Varazdin, while having no real visual clues. A local informed us that it is illegal to ride in the city centre, something they objected to (I can see why). There seemed to be some discussion over whether we were allowed to be around. It was a rather strange set-up all told, but we were eventually offered a drink, and the man returned with two cans of beer (PAN again), shaking his head when we tried to pay. Another secret place discovered. I don’t think they had a license to serve alcohol.

I think I would like to return to Varazdin again. Overall I did experience Spancir, drummed up by the festival atmosphere, and despite missing Blondie, being bitten by a horse fly, missing out on the best restaurant and only having appalling lager to drink, we had a merry time.

Getting there

From Zagreb – train or bus, not long. From Budapest or Pecs, train to Gyekenyes, train to Koprivnica, change to bus to Varazdin. From Graz, train to Ptuj then bus to Varazdin.