It’s only September. Kids have just returned to school after the summer holidays and the first reddish-brown autumn leaves are yet to fall. But that still doesn’t stop supermarkets opening up for Christmas, oh no.
It’s ludicrous, yet exciting and to be fair, there are only 100 days left until Christmas. It’s an exciting time with an exciting build up, and there is definitely a crowd that will be looking forward to it even more than retail stores – that’s travellers and tourists.
Christmas, in my opinion, is one of the best times of year to go to continental Europe. Chances are you’ll get to experience some snow, and cities come alive under the lights and the night’s sky.
Many places on the continent will usher in their celebrations with Christmas light switch-ons, while many more offer mulled wine, hot chocolate and tasty treats at Christmas markets.
Although traditionally German, Christmas markets are common in most European nations. One of the best places for them is Germany’s neighbour, Poland.
The Poles know all about festive spirit and cheer. They even get so excited about gift giving, that they do it on Christmas Eve – although that’s only after supper has finished! It’s also tradition to bring in the Christmas tree and decorate it on Christmas Eve.
While it may seem early for Christmas stock, it isn’t too late to grab a deal for a winter break this December, and I highly recommend Wroclaw.
Enter Travelling Tom
I’ve been to a few different Christmas markets across Europe, but last year I decided to add another one to the list.
It was actually courtesy of a sale Ryanair were having, with flights from £2. There were a few options, some I’d already been to and others I hadn’t.
When I was booking the flights I was sat in one of my lectures communicating with the friend that was going to be coming with me by text, as I clearly couldn’t be on a phone call with him.
But it was a sale, and we had to act fast. When I was scrolling through the list of potential destinations I saw Wrocław, and being the geography geek I am, I knew that this year they were one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2016. Having that title meant that there would be a lot going on there. I grew up just outside of Liverpool, which was Capital of Culture in 2008, and it completely transformed the city and increased its popularity, so I knew the value of Wrocław’s current status.
Without much thought we decided on dates and booked a three-night stay in the city, adding to our flights which came to less than £30 return.
And so it was finalised. Well, until I realised that the date of departure clashed with one of my university exams. I tried asking if I could sit it on another day, but my lecturer said I couldn’t. Fortunately, you can fly to Wrocław from both Manchester and Liverpool, so we booked a flight for the day after.
What had already become a shambles thanks to my disorganisation got even worse when we reached Poland.
To get to our hotel we had to first get a bus into the city centre. We arrived at evening rush hour and what should have been a simple 20-minute journey turned into a two-hour ordeal. Fortunately we were sat down, but what was already a trip cut short was starting to look threadbare.
Once we got off the bus in the centre of town, we needed to find our hotel. It was another quarter hour of calamity as we walked under a bridge on the side of the road not meant for pedestrians where my mate caught his brand-new coat on an exposed piece of metal and ripped the arm.
It was one thing after another, and it didn’t change when we got to the hotel. The staff were busy checking in two groups, which took an inordinate amount of time. After an extra half hour of waiting, we finally checked into our room.
But we were here to explore the city, so we dumped our bags and stepped back out into the night.
Finally! Hello, Wrocław
It was cold and dark, and there was melting snow on the ground, but Wrocław gave a glowing impression.
As the commercial and cultural hub of western Poland it has a youthful vibe, and that’s no thanks in small part to having a large student population. As we walked back into the very centre and towards the main square, we saw lots of construction projects and got the feeling that this place is going to be a major European destination in years to come, if it wasn’t already.
As we got onto the main streets we could see the start of the markets up ahead, and walking towards us was a man donning an Everton coat. Usually, that’s the norm, but we were no longer at home and almost 1,000 miles away in Poland. It was an unexpected sight, for sure.
It was great to be back amongst Christmas markets and this had a great feel to it. The little wooden stalls lined the street on each side, and visually beautiful sights were supplemented by amazing smells coming from the various food vendors.
It wasn’t long before I spotted something else that was familiar, and that I’d tried in Warsaw a month earlier. Cooking on a grill across the road was oscypek. Oscypek is grilled sheep’s cheese, usually served with cranberry sauce. That’s exactly how they did it in Wrocław, and after turning to Jack and telling him about the delights of this particular snack we purchased one each.
With one bite he was hooked and I was back in dreamland. Suffice to say that our return custom was cashed in with immediate effect.
If you ever go to Poland make sure you find somewhere that does them, and also try pumpkin seed cookies. I don’t think I’ve ever found a better one-two punch on my travels.
Things are starting to look up…
After sampling some fine Polish cuisine, we carried on down the road and made our way through to the main square. I thought that we would find it hard to top the last five minutes, but Wrocław doesn’t disappoint.
As we turned the corner, Market Sqaure opened up in front of us and we were greeted by a mass of light and festivity. We were at the heart of the markets.
Christmas trees, wooden huts, candy canes and a windmill greeted us. All were illuminated and cut out an impressive figure against the backdrop of the town hall and the night’s sky.
The phrase ‘winter wonderland’ came to mind. This was probably one of, if not the best Christmas market I’d ever been to.
Poland do Christmas in a big and impressive way. But when you factor in that 75 years ago, Wrocław was actually within the borders of Germany, the scenario demystifies. A combination of culture and heritage of both countries has come together to present a festival of decoration and Christmas cheer.
It was perfect, aside from the mulled wine, which isn’t really to my taste. On other days at the market we tried some of the food, we got a beer and we’d timed our trip so well that we were there on the Friday night to see the official ‘switching on’ of the Christmas lights.
But Wrocław is more than just a market
We may have only been there a short amount of time, but there was so much to do in Wrocław that I was really impressed by it.
One of the best activities that Wrocław has to offer is their dwarf trail. First appearing on the city’s streets in 2005, the 20-30 centimetre figurines are dotted all around the city. The 150-plus sculptures are all doing something different and it’s a great thing to keep your eye out for as you’re exploring.
One of the standout features of Wrocław is Cathedral Island. You’ll find the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, whose observation deck is a great place to look out over the city, as well as the lovelock bridge. We found some locks that were over 50 years old and others that are hilarious. It’s definitely worth browsing through the trove.
There’s a lot to be learned in Poland’s fourth most populous city, and what better way to do that than heading down to the University of Wrocław. Although an institute of higher learning, the university is also a tourist destination. The main campus is impressive, and it’s great just walking around the cobbled streets and enjoying the buildings. But inside lays Wrocław’s hidden gem – Aula Leopoldia. The Baroque ceremonial hall is one of the most jaw-dropping rooms in the whole of Europe, with its ceiling and walls adorned with beautiful paintings and décor. If there is one thing to see in Wrocław other than Market Square, then it’s this.
Centennial Hall is a monument to the brilliance that reinforced concrete can achieve, and is one of Poland’s official national Historical Monuments. When we went there was some sort of book fair crossed with a promotional event to round off the Capital of Culture year. It was an unusual event, but it was great because we got to have nosy inside. It’s a unique building that’s well worth seeing.
At the back of the Centennial Hall there’s also Wrocław Fountain. In the warmer months the multimedia water feature fires to the sound of music and is accompanied by a fantastic light show. In the winter you can find it dormant alongside an ice rink.
And if you want to take your relaxation to the next level head to Pasaż Grunwaldzki for some retail therapy. Inside this shopping mall they have over 200 shops, places to eat and prices a lot cheaper than ones we’re used to here in the United Kingdom.
Head to Wrocław this Christmas – it won’t disappoint
The great thing about Wrocław is that, despite its recent Capital of Culture nod, it is still under-the-radar as a tourist destination behind Krakow and Warsaw.
It is also a year-round destination. Whether you’re soaking up sunshine in a park or warming up with a hot chocolate in a quaint café on Market Square, there’s value in the Polish city no matter when you go. But at Christmas, there’s that extra bit of sparkle.
If you’re looking for a cheap and cosy Christmas break then look no further than Wrocław. It’s not a big name, but it certainly hits the spot over the holiday season.