Tourist`s look at Wrocław Apr 14, 2011 20:13:39 GMT 1
Post by Bonobo on Apr 14, 2011 20:13:39 GMT 1
Wroclaw, Poland's ghost town
From shadowy courtyards to bars and restaurants frequented by ghosts, a spine-chilling atmosphere permeates every corner of Wroclaw, Poland's spookiest city
For centuries, Poland was a military crossroads between east and west Europe, a battleground coveted by her neighbours. It's a legacy that has left the country steeped in legend and lore, ghosts and spooks – and nowhere more so than Wroclaw, a city that at one time or another in the last millennium was part of Poland, Bohemia, Austria, Prussia, and Germany. It's nine years since I came to live in Poland, and in that time I've stayed in scary Reszel Castle, haunted by the last woman in Europe to be torched for witchcraft, as well as the medieval-themed Torture Room of Lagów Castle. But these don't even come close to Wroclaw, a city whose labyrinthine streets and shadowy courtyards, shrouded in Frankenstein-esque fog, could have been built with a Hammer horror set in mind.
On my latest trip I visited its most haunting spot, the city's Jewish cemetery, an overgrown remnant of a culture all but extinguished here some 60 to 70 years ago. Walking on soggy autumnal ground, I zigzagged through sunken graves, the stones twisted to angles long since set by wind and earth. A cat, not used to visitors, eyed me with suspicion. In the distance a couple of figures huddled over a crooked tombstone. Grave diggers? Body snatchers? Neither. Tourists, and – as it turned out – the only ones I'd see pretty much all weekend.
Much of Wroclaw – pronounced "rock-law" by Brits, "vrotz-waf" by the locals – disappeared under Soviet shellfire in 1945, and the medieval city I see is a perfect imitation, meticulously rebuilt from the ruins. Not that I could tell. Cobbled alleys curved and then disappeared into a shivery October mist; the historic centre is strangled by a tangle of rivers and canals. I checked into the Monopol, a 19th-century creation reinvented as a design hotel, just moments from the Rynek, the city's main square.
No matter how many times I see it, the Rynek always takes my breath away. In the middle lies the town hall, a 13th-century building whose roof bristles with spires and gargoyles, while a collection of gabled burgher houses, richly decorated with intricate patterns, frame the square. Housed in one such building, the Dwór Polski Hotel (Kielbasnicza 2, dworpolski.wroclaw.pl), is an antique venue whose gloomy corridors come lined with stuffed falcons and suits of armour. The chills of the past seemed to follow me as I creaked around under the watchful gaze of the portraits. One of them, King Zygmunt III, used an apartment here as his base while secretly courting Anna Habsburg.
Back outside, muffled against the first frosts, I approached the Hansel and Gretel building, two skinny tenement houses linked together by an overhanging archway symbolic of a couple holding hands. Some say this is Wroclaw's most romantic building, but the Latin motto on the archway tells a different story: "Death is the gate to life." Indeed, this was once the setting of a murder most horrid. Possessed by a demonic dwarf who resided in the nearby St Elizabeth's church, an errant grandson butchered his grandmother in a devilish frenzy. According to some, her shrieks can still be heard.
Unconvinced, I made steps to ghostly target number two, the House Under the Golden Dog (Rynek 4) now a touristy restaurant filled with steps and shadows. Frederick the Great once stayed here – and, for him, once was enough. While he was penning a letter a phantom force seized the quill from his hand, throwing the monarch to the ground. Today it's said that visitors can hear mysterious sounds coming from the cellars. All I could hear, however, was the distant din of a crowded pub.
Wroclaw is, to all intents and purposes, a student city, and a lively nightlife comes as part of the package. I headed to Pracoffnia, a cellar bar with a portcullis over the courtyard entrance. Formerly a medieval prison, the candlelit confines are now populated by a polo neck-wearing crowd perched on thrift-store furniture, downing vodka shots. But, the toilet aside, there were no alarming surprises, so I went back into the night, past the church of St Mary Magdalene, a Gothic glory with a 45m-high bridge connecting its twin towers. The shadows that swirl below are said to be those of local maids doomed to eternity.
When the Red Army laid siege to Wroclaw in 1945, the Nazi high command turned the city into a fortress, using the Gothic torture chambers under Partisan Hill as their headquarters. Screams are said to haunt the corridors, although the only ones I heard emanated from the blondes who now use the spot for clubbing. Prowokacja, it's called, and you need plenty of bling to get in. Instead, I got my ghoulish kicks in Abrams' Tower, a bar in a medieval fortification on the fringe of the old town with dim lighting and arty prints on the bare brick walls. Over wine, I chatted with the Californian owner, Frederick, an artist turned restaurateur. "I'm convinced this place is haunted," he said. "The ghost is known to the old regulars, back when this place was decorated with lots of antique sewing machines. One night all the pedals and wheels on the machines started whirring and spinning on their own." Just as he finished his sentence, a picture clinging to the wall thumped to the ground. Spooked? You bet.