Because life’s celebrations shouldn’t cost the Earth

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Wrocław Christmas Market 2019

It can't have slipped anyone's notice on reading this blog that my family and I love Eastern Europe, especially Poland!  We visited Wrocław in the summer and all agreed that rather than buying presents in Christmas 2019 we would instead return for its beautiful winter market.  

My parents would have loved to have joined us but my father's health (Alzheimer's) has taken such a downturn in the last month that it just wasn't logistically possible.  This blog post will therefore seem a little self indulgent, as it mainly consists of family photos that granny can show granddad on her tablet!     


A is for Alice!

The weather was unbelievably warm with sunshine the entire weekend. Even the evenings were mild and it felt quite strange to be enjoying better weather in Poland than we had left behind in England.  In fact, without the festive market, we would have struggled to remember it was just four days until Christmas! 

Wrocław is a stunning city and, with the Christmas market nestled in the centre of the old town, it presents an experience which is quite simply unforgettable. I'm not usually the sentimental type but as a street musician began playing carols on his violin it felt incredibly beautiful and sharing it with my husband and children created a very precious memory for all of us.

These pictures do not do justice to the market, as my photography skills are bad enough in the daylight, let alone in the dark ... you'll just have to add a sprinkle of imagination!  The market's main tree was a very tasteful mix of pastel icy tones which looked gorgeous at all times of the day and night.

In common with all European Christmas markets, there were multiple cute little wooden stalls selling handmade crafts and regional produce, but my lot were far more interested in those peddling Polish street food and the local beers!

There were five wooden chalets to chose from when needing liquid refreshment, ranging in height from one to three storeys.  They each served a choice of hot and cold beer and wine as well as drinking chocolate and flavoured coffees.  We tried everything except hot beer(!) and whilst I didn't get any pictures of the chalet interiors, they were very cosy with lots of fur rugs on chairs and countless twinkling fairy lights

The chalets were very popular with people of all ages, from tiny children to senior citizens, along with the occasional group of young men or women on a festive night out.  As is common in Europe it was all very laid back with absolutely no drunkenness to be seen anywhere.

The picture above is the rear porch of one of the smaller chalets and the one below shows the boys enjoying a beer on one of the larger upper balconies.  Each of the chalets offered a choice of inside or outside drinking spaces.

Na Zdrowie!


As Wrocław is less well known that other Polish cities such as Gdańsk and Kraków, the market is also much less crowded.  We only heard a couple of non Polish voices and it was lovely to not have to battle our way through crowds.  I would definitely recommend Wrocław above Prague or Vienna at this time of year! 

The chocolate box coloured buildings of the old town looked like a scene from a fairy tale as we viewed them bathed in the glow of millions and millions of tiny Christmas lights.

On the Friday of our visit we climbed up to the 'Penitents' Bridge' or Witches' Bridge' which links the two towers of the church of St Mary Magdalene.  The bridge is said to be haunted by the tortured souls of women who chose a single life of fun in preference to being a subservient wife and mother! 

The church you can see in these pictures taken from the bridge is St. Elizabeth's, which we previously climbed during our visit to Wrocław in August.

The Christmas market is just peeking into view in the snap below!

The bridge is also home to an adorable trio of Wroclaw's famous dwarves, who in this instance recall the original legend of  the Penitents' Bridge and thus serve as a reminder of the fate awaiting any young woman who chooses the path of debauchery over wedded life.....being turned into a witch forever doing housework. I'll leave that one to you to ponder upon! 

Dragon Fountain in  Plac Solny (Salt Square)

Looking towards Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island) on a warm and bright December day!

Whilst we were wandering along the Oder river we spotted yet another of the 300+ dwarves that Wrocław is famous for, this time a cute little digger driver with roses in his trailer!

Wesołych Świąt!
Merry Christmas!

Friday, 30 August 2019

Wonderful Wrocław

Poland 2019  - Part 2

For the second part of our 2019 Polish experience we headed to Wrocław and we were not disappointed!  It's Poland's fourth largest city, with a student population of 150,000, and we found it wonderfully vibrant, youthful and multicultural.   

The Old Town (Stare Miasto) is equally as beautiful as the more commonly visited cities of Gdańsk and Kraków, with architecture in the Bohemian, Austrian and Prussian styles.  The city is situated on the Oder River and it is actually made up of 12 islands with over 120 bridges linking them!  As we wandered along the peaceful wooded river banks it was hard to believe we were in the middle of a large and bustling city. 

Wrocław was full of surprises and every street we turned into offered yet another architectural gem waiting to be discovered and this 'castle' is actually the railway station!  It was repainted for the UEFA 2012 Football Championship and the bright orange colour was so beautiful bathed in the glow of the early evening sun.

Underneath a viaduct near the station, we spotted this great example of urban art based on illustrations by Grzegorz Przybysi. It was painted in 2012 to promote the album 'Kosmostumostów' by Łukasz Rostkowski (LUC), a Polish rapper and music producer. The album's theme is the life of LUC set against the background of  life in Wrocław, "The city of a hundred bridges".


One of Wrocław's most poignant artworks is 'Przejscie' by Jerzy Kalina, known in English as 'The Anonymous Pedestrians'.  It was installed in December 2005 to mark the 24th anniversary of the introduction of martial law and the many people who disappeared or 'went underground'. There are fourteen statues in total.  Seven on one side of the road slowly disappearing underground whilst on the other side of the road another seven pedestrians emerge from the pavement.  My photos show the re-emerging figures with those submerging just visible in the background.   

On the second day of our trip we took the tram out to Centennial Hall, an absolutely massive reinforced concrete structure, which despite looking like it has come straight out of a Star War's film, was actually completed in 1913!

It's a striking example of early modernism and has rightly been awarded UNESCO World Heritage site status. A structural engineering marvel with an inner diameter of 65 (216 feet) metres and a height of 42 metres it is huge and hosted speakers as diverse as Pope John Paul II and Adolf Hitler!

The tall thin thing you can see sticking up is the 'Iglica' or needle. A communist structure constructed in 1948 to celebrate the 'Regained Territories' after the Second World War.  

The multimedia fountain in front of the Hall is the largest in Poland and has over 800 lights and 300 water jets.  There are free shows every hour, which we had been told were spectacular, but we were frankly underwhelmed.  I guess it must work better in the evening when the coloured lights can also be seen.    

We stayed at the Novotel Centrum Hotel, and the staff (especially Kamil) were lovely and it thoroughly deserves its status as Wrocław's top ranked hotel on TripAdvisor!  We were on the 8th floor and our rooms had huge picture windows boasting fabulous views towards the Old Town. 

This is what we were greeted by each morning when we drew back the curtains!

The church is St. Elizabeth's and its 90 metre tower offers some of the best views in  Wrocław, so it was definitely on our to do list. The 300(!) spiral steps leading up to the viewing platform are pretty narrow and it was quite a squeeze each time we passed someone going in the opposite direction, so probably not the best choice if you suffer from claustrophobia!

The views of the market place and old town were absolutely beautiful 

The tower's vantage point also provided a great bird's eye view of the countryside beyond the city

Back at ground level we set about exploring the market square (Rynek) and one of the most eye catching buildings is definitely the Old Town Hall (Stary Ratusz), a Gothic building dating from the 13th century.  Don't you think it looks exactly like a real life gingerbread house? We just needed Hansel and Gretel to complete the picture but I made do with the two men from my very own fairytale!    

Whilst in the market place I got to practise a bit more of my linguistic skills when a gentleman came up to us and began to speak in Polish.  I was able to explain that I could only manage a little of the language but after my efforts he insisted on giving me flowers!

Quick aside, has anyone else found as they hit middle-age that their hair has become curlier?  I have always had wavy hair but over the last few years I have begun to look more and more like a 1970s throwback, with my very own homage to Kevin Keegan's infamous perm!  

Soaking up the sun (and views) in wonderful Wrocław 

Finally, no blog post on Wrocław would be complete without dwarves - The city is inundated with them!  There's actually a serious message and history behind these adorable little folk.  So, if you have five minutes to spare, do pop over to the BBC's travel page or this blog but be warned that you'll be risking cuteness overload!

I had expected they would be a bit naff and touristy but I absolutely loved them!  You can purchase a map or download an app to search for them but we were happy just to stumble across them.  However, this laid back approach soon morphed into a very competitive family challenge as we each battled to win the crown of Chief Dwarf Spotter!

Monday, 5 August 2019

Glorious Gdańsk

Poles Apart!

Poland first stole our hearts during our 2014 visit to Krakow and our affection only deepened with a trip to Warsaw last summer, which I unfortunately failed to find time to post the pictures from!

We have now just returned from Gdańsk and will be sampling the pleasures of Wrocław before the end of summer.  Knowing we had at least two Polish breaks planned for 2019, I set myself the target of learning some of the language but, even with daily practise, I am still finding it rather difficult!

Gdańsk is a stunningly beautiful city which, due to its strategic position on the Baltic coast, became a pivotal part of the Hanseatic League. The wealth and architecture of this era is still very much in evidence and this, combined with the knowledge of the terrible suffering Poland endured during WWII and subsequent Soviet era, makes the city a very thought-provoking and unique destination.  

We stayed in the Radisson Blu hotel which is situated in the heart of the old town on Dlugi Targ (Long Market Street) so we could literally fall out of the hotel and be surrounded by elegance at each and every turn!

Dlugi Targ is also known as the 'Royal Way' as it was the route taken into the city during processions by Polish monarchs.  Unlike Krakow and other Polish towns, Gdańsk does not have a main market square so this pedestrianised street is the social and commercial heart of the city.  The picture below shows us wandering towards the Złota Brama (Golden Gate).

One of the most famous sights in Gdańsk is the Crane, a magnificent symbol of the city’s trading heritage.  It was once the biggest working crane in the world, and was entirely powered by men walking inside its huge internal wooden wheels!

The Crane was 80% destroyed in 1945 during the Battle for Gdańsk but was later rebuilt and now houses the Polish Maritime Museum.  The ship on the opposite side of the river Motława is the Sołdek, the first steamship built in Polish Gdańsk after 1945 in what was to become the Lenin Shipyards.

A wander along the river banks also takes in some of Gdańsk's more modern sights including the new pedestrian swing bridge (pictured in the 'raised' position below), the Polish Philharmonic Hall, and iconic Gdańsk sign.

Our weekend in Gdańsk coincided with St. Dominic's Fair, the largest event in the city's cultural calendar, which attracts between 6 and 8 million visitors annually.  It dates back over 750 years having been established by Pope Alexander IV in 1260, when attending the Fair's pardon mass promised to cut your stay in purgatory by 100 days!

The streets were packed with musicians and entertainers along with over 1,000 stalls offering handicrafts and traditional Polish delicacies such pierogi (dumplings), bigos (hunter's stew) and golonka (stewed pork knuckle).

We loved the carnival atmosphere generated by hundreds of thousands of people filling the streets!  The revelry continued well into the evenings and you can get an idea of the crowds in this picture of my husband taken at dusk looking towards the beautiful 16th century Town Hall. 

The throng made getting pictures of some of Gdańsk's most famous sights difficult, we wanted one showing the full view of Neptune's Fountain but the sheer numbers present ruled this out.  Instead my son captured this shot at sun down, complete with a balloon seller's Minion themed wares!

For many of us Gdańsk is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of Solidarity, the trade union formed by Lech Wałęsa, which would ultimately prove to be the catalyst for the fall of communism in Poland and in the rest of the former Soviet Bloc.

A gentle stroll along the banks of the Motława took us to the shipyards and the European Solidarity Centre, an immense building housing a museum and library dedicated to the history of Solidarity.  

The huge rust coloured walls dominate the skyline and were designed to evoke memories of the hulls of the ships built by the workers at the shipyards.

The inside of the building was equally impressive, with five floors and a viewing platform to explore.

The museum tells the story of Poland's struggle against the Soviet occupation, in which one of the pivotal moments was the signing of The Gdańsk Agreement. 

This event took place on 31 August 1980, with Lech Wałęsa using a giant commemorative ballpoint pen decorated with a picture of the then newly elected Pope John Paul II!

Just outside the centre is the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, a 139 tonne steel tribute to those who lost their lives in the struggle for democracy.  Lech Wałęsa described it as harpoons “driven through the body of a whale. No matter how hard the whale struggles, it can never get rid of it.” 

I attempted to photograph my son, dwarfed by its 42 metre towering height, in order to give you just a small sense of its sheer scale.

After an enjoyable afternoon of culture and learning we made our way back to the old town, where we were more than happy to indulge in a local Polish beer or two!

Even Gdańsk's side streets are set up for café culture, with numerous picturesque little places to sit and enjoy a quiet moment of contemplation as evening fell.

Then, when we passed the same spot the next day, I suddenly noticed a sign on the neighbouring store and attempted to impress the kids by being able to translate it as 'Mother and Daughter'.  Whilst they were not blown away by my linguistic skills we did at least get a quick picture!

On the Sunday of our visit we left the hustle and bustle of Gdańsk behind and headed for the nearby resort of Sopot.  This gorgeous gem is sometimes referred to as 'Poland's Riviera' and it certainly lived up to its reputation with mile upon mile of soft golden beaches.

Sopot's lighthouse is seen below however it is actually really a clever disguise, built in 1904, hiding the chimney for the boiler which heated the waters at the local Spa!

The lighthouse(!) is situated next to Sopot's wooden pier which stretches 511 metres into the Baltic Sea and is the longest wooden pier in Europe (quick trivia, England's Southend-on-Sea is the longest overall!). 

In its heyday Sopot entertained such notable guests as Charles de Gaulle, Fidel Castro, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich, we too fell completely in love with its gentle elegance and charm!

We are now excitedly awaiting our trip to Wrocław later this month, which like Warsaw and Gdańsk was almost totally destroyed during WWII but rebuilt to arise like a phoenix from the ashes.

I am also looking forward to practising more of my Polish.  The locals are so kind and appreciative of my dreadful efforts.  In fact, after I had ordered our meals in two restaurants in Gdańsk we were given free drinks - A totally unnecessary gesture especially as I know I butchered their beautiful language....but we did at least make the difference up in our tips 😄