The Adventure Begins in Wrocław
15 days. That’s how long I had given myself to spend doing whatever the heck I wanted around Europe after finishing teaching last year. Not a lot of time, but, doggone it, I was going to make the most of it. As June approached, plans slowly started falling into place. My friend Linnaea and I would be spending 2 weeks traveling Central Europe, hitting up 6 countries I had never seen: Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia.
Ryanair, being the massive headache it always is, alerted us with little notice that our flight had suddenly been bumped forward 12 hours meaning — oh joy — we’d have to flee Sevilla immediately after finishing our last day of teaching, rush over to Málaga, and spend the night sleeping in the airport. I’d venture to say that you haven’t had a true European backpacking experience until you’ve slept in an airport, but that didn’t make the night any more pleasant. After surviving cold floors, incessant security announcements, and cleaning ladies literally poking us with mops, we had survived the Night of Hell, and off to Poland we went!
Let me begin by clarifying something to those of you who grew up during the Cold War. Central (or, as some would classify these places, Eastern) Europe may have a dark reputation as a former part of the Soviet Union. I’d bet that many of your minds immediately go to images of decaying buildings, impoverished farmers, characterless, cement, high-rise apartments, and depressing communism. But really? The region is full of beautiful, quintessentially European architecture, friendly locals, delicious and inexpensive food, and gorgeous nature.
Anyway, the first stop on our trip: Wrocław, Poland. Never heard of it? I’d be surprised if you’d had. It’s pronounced more or less like “vrote-swaf” and is the fourth largest city in Poland. We chose it primarily because we found a cheap Ryanair flight there, having almost no information about the place, but we more than pleased with what we found.
As under-rested as we were, we spent our first day wandering around the city’s main squares. Euro 2012 (a major soccer tournament, and probably my second favorite sporting event after the World Cup) was set to begin in Poland and the Ukraine a week later, with Wrocław as one of the host cities, so the town center was filled with stages, giant screens, inflatable footballs, and other preparations for the upcoming games. It may have detracted from the beauty of the main squares, but I was nonetheless psyched to be there just a week before the Eurocup began.
One of Wrocław’s quirky and subtle landmarks are the small dwarf figurines spread throughout the city. Each has its own theme, such as the gambling dwarfs outside casinos or the guiri-riffic map-wielding dwarfs outside the tourism offices. They’re easy to miss, but one of the best things about exploring Wrocław is spotting the numerous dwarfs throughout the city.
Another essential part of Polish tradition that we experienced were the bar mleczny, milk bars, inexpensive cafeterias offering a variety of authentic Polish food. Here, we filled our plates with interesting Polish delights for only about €3. Any country with inexpensive food is bound to win me over. Later, by night, we took in the beautiful town center at dusk.
We began our second day in Poland by wandering through an international street market. From there, we crossed over the river into Ostrów Tumski, Cathedral Island, where we took in the sights, including a bridge covered in locks bearing couples’ names, more beautiful buildings, and a grandiose cathedral. Wandering back into town, we stopped in a huge marketplace and had lunch at another bar mleczny. We then split up, and I headed to a World War II bunker turned museum, which was hosting an exhibit on European soccer in honor of the imminent Eurocup. I had the museum mostly to myself and enjoyed spotting signed jerseys of Spanish footballers, playing Kinect soccer, and watching video montages.
Linnaea and I met back up for delicious raspberry hot chocolate at a café and later took a bus to the other side of town to catch a fountain light show. Having seen the likes of the Font Mágica in Barcelona or various Disneyland shows, I’m quite the fan of fountain light shows and had high expectations, which, sadly, were not met. After trekking through the forest until we actually found the place, the lackluster show wasn’t even synced to music, due to the big party being hosted across the lake. We did get to watch a beautiful sunset, though.
We spent one last night in Wrocław, and the next morning, we were off on a train toward our next destination: Berlin, Germany. Our Central European adventure had just begun, with tons more amazing experiences ahead.