Lakshmi Sharath | A Travel Blog Of An Indian Backpacker
Lakshmi Sharath is a travel writer, blogger, travel photographer and her articles have been published in several leading publications. She was a media professional and she quit 15 years of corporate life to travel and write.
The rain clouds gather all of a sudden, wrapping the sun in their fold. The sky turns grey but the oceans below me are a distinct blue. Two adventurous men in their rafts are heading towards the shore as the rains tumble down. I am standing atop the city walls of the Old Town in Dubrovnik, a coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea in Croatia. Lost in the medieval world, I am looking down at the oceans from a height of 82 feet as the walls encircle the Old Town The ancient city walls, which encircle the Old Town are one of the Dubrovnik tourist attractions.
There are about 6300 feet or about 2 km long and the views keep changing as I walk along the narrow edges. The turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea merge with the orange and red facade of the houses and buildings of the Old Town. Giant forts loom large in front of me. The fortifications of the Dubrovnik Old Town, one of the places to see in Dubrovnik date back to the 9th century and the current city walls, the pride of Dubrovnik has apparently never ever been breached. With over 5 bastions and 17 towers and a moat filled with 120 canons, the formidable town had always intimidated its enemies.
Game of Thrones Tour of Dubrovnik
But as I stand here and lose myself in the forts and castles of the Old Town, I feel myself drawn into another fantasy land. My eyes slowly start playing tricks on me. I am transported into another medieval land of fantasy and drama filled with knights, dragons and zombies. And then I realize why it is so similar. As my guide, Ivana says, with a laugh,” Welcome to Dubrovnik. You are now looking at the streets and panorama of King’s Landing.” For a moment, we are no longer in the charming seaside town Dubrovnik or in Croatia as we enter the capital of Westeros- King’s Landing. The Game of Thrones walking tour of Dubrovnik takes us into a wonderland of lore and gore. But the Old Town of Dubrovnik does not fade away from the mind’s eye.
City Walls of Dubrovnik
As I walk around, I realize that I am wandering through the realms of two medieval lands, one which is rich in history and the other, which is mired with fantasy. Dubrovnik is also one of the few cities in the Adriatic coastline which boasts of a formidable and uninterrupted city wall that is iconic. Glittering in white, even on a cloudy day, the walls probably gave the city its title – the Pearl of the Adriatic. While the Old Town is known for its magnificent citadels and towers, cathedrals and monasteries, palaces and granaries, the city walls are one of the unique plaes to see in Dubrovnik. Tourists make a beeline to climb it and there are at least three entrances to the medieval walls. To me, it is one of the most special experiences in an Old Town. It almost feels like I have stepped back into a time machine.
The walls date back to the 9th century when Dubrovnik, then a small settlement on the island of Laus was known to be a strong bastion. A Roman Greek city, it slowly became a Croatian town and the entire Old Town was encircled with these thick walls, which was built of stone and lime. There was a time where 15 forts were built to strengthen it. Some of the forts that remain even today are Bokar Fortress, Minceta Tower, Fortress of Saint John, Lovrijenac Fortress and the Fortress Revelin, which are some of Dubrovnik tourist attractions and they stand at the cardinal directions defending the city.
Gates and Forts of Old Town
There are four gates to the Old Town, two of them lead to the old harbour, while the other two with drawbridges are the main entrances on land. The Pile Gate, which is one of the main entrances is a fortified complex by itself. Standing there the dark clouds create a dramatic aura. Boats bob around in the jetty as tourists wade through the gate. The stone bridge with two Gothic arches leads to a wooden drawbridge leads to the Old Town. It is crowded as tourists wade in and out. Towering above us are the looming fortresses – Lovrijenac and Bokor Fortresses , tourist attractions of Dubrovnik.
The first fort that I see when I enter the city is the 600-year-old Bokar Fortress, which stands right next to Pile Gate and was built only to defend it. It was built as a two-storeyed semi-circular tower with stone corollas and a part of it stands on a detached piece of rock on the sea. If Bokar was the very symbol of a formidable fort, then the Gibralter of Dubrovnik – the Lovrijenac Fortress standing tall on a 37-metre sheer rock is absolutely intimidating. The Venetians, who were the arch rivals of the coastal city threatened to invade Dubrovnik and had laid claim to the cliff, planning to build a fortress. However, the council got wind of their plans. Overnight they created a castle. But they built initially just a 12-metre thick wall of the fortress, which gave the impression of a huge citadel.
When the Venetians landed they were alarmed and apparently they retreated at the mere sight of it. Facing the sea and the Bokar Fortress, the fort was further strengthened with 20 canons and the largest of them was nicknamed “The Lizard.” Today it is believed to be lost somewhere below the sea when the rope holding the canon gave way and it vanished into the depths. An inscription stands here which says “Freedom is not sold for all the gold in the world,” a reference to a story from Aesop’s Fable, but a reminder that Dubrovnik was never breached and it valued above everything, its freedom.
I look out into the moat that surrounds the Old Town and the charming fishing harbour lies beyond it. This is the most picturesque view of the main portal to the city. This is where the cruises land from far away lands and you can explore Dubrovnik Old Town and lose yourself in the many stories. Celebrity Cruises is one of the premium and modern cruises that takes you on a luxury vacation around the world. And they have several itineraries that bring you to the Adriatic shore. You can choose from over 30 options for a Mediterranean cruises besides voyages across Northern Europe and Translatlantic and most of them include Dubrovnik. With fine dining options, bars and restaurants, live shows and musicals, on board entertainment, duty free shopping, spas to personalised pool buttlers, the cruise is an experience by itelf.
St Blaise – Patron Saint of Dubrovnik
However, my attention is drawn back to the Pile Gate where stone statues tell a story. Before stepping on to the wooden drawbridge, I look up to see a massive statue of St Blaise, who is the patron saint of Dubrovnik. According to a legend, he warned the people of Dubrovnik about a surprise attack planned by Venetians on their city. The story goes that the Venetians had anchored their ships close to the Old Port and were pretending to take a break before proceeding on the harbour. St Blaise apparently alerted one of the local priests of their plans and the council immediately shut the gates and thwarted the attempts of the Venetians who immediately set sail and retreated. Ever since then St Blaise became the patron saint of Dubrovnik and is always there on the walls, watching out into the ocean and keeping an eye for formidable foes. There is a beautiful church dedicated to him in the Old Town, which is also sought after as a wedding destination and is one of the tourist attractions of Dubrovnik.
But not every story is about a saint. Looking up I see three heads – one of a bearded man with two sculptures of women, possibly sisters. Apparently, the story is about forbidden love, a possible scandal and or an immoral alliance between a Franciscan friar and the nuns of St Klarisa. Apparently, the legend refers to a Republic friar who was having an affair with the nuns in the monastery and he was executed. Yet, some say that the allegation against him was false as he was not in the good books of the government. Everyone adds his interpretation to the story, yet the stones are silent and the heads do not speak. One would probably never know the true story.
As I enter, I see a very curious spectacle A large and a strange gargoyle head, which was supposed to be an owl, protrudes from the wall near the Franciscan monastery. It is glittering even on a cloudy day. But it is the people who amuse me. Tourists virtually stand in a queue to hop on to the head. The men remove their shirts as they try to balance themselves and turn around to wear their shirts again. The women of course attempt the same with their clothes on. As every one trips and falls, amidst squeals of laughter, I am told that this is a legend that relates to lost love. Ivana says that there was a man who was so unfortunate in love that he prayed hard in the monastery. A voice apparently told him to try the balancing act, without falling. He was promised that lady luck will follow him in love if he succeeded. Well, apparently the man got married to his true love! Ivana laughs as she narrates the legend and laughs saying, “And you thought fantasy was only related to the Game of Thrones. Well, Dubrovnik has a lot of legends too.”
Third Oldest Pharmacy in the world
The Franciscan Monastery is one of the most important attractions of the Old Town but it is the pharmacy inside that beckons me. Both the monastery and the pharmacy were built in 1317. As I enter I realize that I am inside the third oldest functioning pharmacies in the world. The medicines here were for the monks but they were sold to the public as well and ensured that the religious order had a regular income. The church was constructed in the Baroque style of architecture and pottering around, I stumble upon one of the most beautiful cloisters built in the medieval eras. It literally transports you into a different world. The monastery also houses one of the oldest libraries with over 70000 books and several other paintings and artefacts and precious relics.
We walk along the Placa or Stradun Street where history lies in every corner and stories in every pillar. The promenade is the venue of all feasts and processions and the street that stretches for over 300 metres divides the city into north and south. Churches, cathedrals, palaces, granaries, monasteries jostle for space with cafes, restaurants and boutique stores. At the end of the street, near the column is the beautiful Sponza Palace, one of the tourist attractions of Dubrovnik built in the 16th century in Gothic-Renaissance architecture. There is also a Rector Palace in the Old Town, which is a blend of different architectural styles and is one of Dubrovnik tourist attractions
The walled city has indeed its share of stories and most of them are quirky and are overshadowed by the fantasy show that is shot here. In front of the St Blaise Church, there is a column that is dedicated to a handsome knight called Orlando, who was apparently the nephew of Charlemagne, the Emperor. Near the column is a small platform where the citizens gathered to hear announcements or to witness punishments. However, I am more curious about Orlando, who according to some legends was one of the soldiers who had fought valiantly in a battle and had saved thousands of lives. And yet, Ivana said that it might not be true. The only interesting thing about Orlando according to her is his forearm. It was used as the standard of for the traditional measure for trading fabric referred to as a Ragusan cubit or lakat which means elbow. But Orlando stands here, more as a symbol of a valiant knight of Dubrovnik.
Besides Placa Street, there is the Big or Siroka Street which is almost thrice the size of a normal street. The most interesting monument here is the Rupe Granary, which was built in the 16th century. A three-storeyed structure, this now houses the Ethnographic Museum. In Game of Thrones, however, it was a brothel.
Dubrovnik Cathedral and Richard the Lionheart
There are several churches and monasteries in the Old Town, but it is the cathedral that fascinates me. And it comes with a story too. In the 12th century, one of the powerful emperors, Richard the Lionheart was returning from a war by ship when he was shipwrecked near Lokrum, an island located in the Adriatic Ocean, right in front of Dubrovnik Old Town. He was saved by the local fishermen and was given hospitality by the Dubrovnik Council, who even gave him a ship to return. In those days, the ships of Dubrovnik were legends by themselves and the town was known for its shipbuilding. He wanted to thank god and the people and offered to build a cathedral in Lokrum. The council of Dubrovnik, however, requested him to build the cathedral in their city. Built in Romanesque style, the medieval cathedral was however destroyed by an earthquake and was rebuilt later on. Apparently, when the restoration was done a few years ago, archaeologists discovered remains of an older cathedral which was probably even older than that built by King Richard.
Walk of Shame – GOT’s most controversial scene
Besides the Franciscan monastery, there is the Dominican monastery at the other end of the Old Town and it seems to be almost enclosed within the City Walls. The construction of the monastery and the church took almost two centuries to complete. The entire street leading to the monastery was called the Dominican Street and in Game of Thrones, it was the market where even Ivana gets her 15 seconds of fame as a peasant. She then takes me next to the Jesuit College and the St Ignatius Church where a monumental staircase built in Baroque style grabs my attention. This is the most important location for Game of Throne lovers, where an iconic, controversial, dramatic and poignant scene was shot – The Walk of Shame!
An island and a throne
I finally head to the old harbour which was protected by these old forts. Today it is buzzing with tourists who cruise down the ocean to the neighbouring Lokrum Island, which is one of the places to see in Dubrovnik. I board one of them and within 20 minutes, I am in another fantasy land. Ruins of an old monastery stand while a small cathedral and beautiful gardens greet me. And yet a little treasure lies hidden in this island. Pottering around, I stumble upon it, in a little room. The Iron Throne stands there, hidden away from the view of the tourists. The Game of Thrones may eventually end with who sits on this throne, but for me, the fantasy has just turned real.
So, here is a confession. I do not drive. But my husband and I are both fond of road trips, be it in India or Europe or Australia. He is of course in the driver’s seat and I don the role of the navigator. Besides attempting to decipher the GPS, I also plan the itinerary and do the research on the destinations, routes and rules of the road, especially if we are heading on a road trip through Europe. While most of the planning happens before the trip, there are always a lot of surprises that we encounter on the way. The laws keep changing with the routes we take and the country we explore.While self drive holidays in Europe are exciting, rules for a Europe road trip keep changing with every destination. For instance, in some countries you need to pay tolls, whereas in a few countries you need to get a vignette before you cross the border.
While we both love road trips, every journey has taught us some invaluable lessons. Our maiden Europe road trip was in Croatia where we went on a self-drive road trip across the country for over ten days. While driving in a new country is an experience in itself, we realized that a road trip across three different countries can be challenging too. Our next trip took us through Italy, Slovenia and Istria over a period of three weeks and every moment was a learning.
Road trips are addictive, spontaneous, fun and they give you more flexibility while travelling. But there are some simple things that you need to plan – from the choice of the car to the GPS that you are carrying. If you are planning for a self drive holiday in Europe, then here are some tips for a road trip through Europe that will help you along the way.
Choice of car and rental agency
This is probably the first decision that you need to make. While I am not an authority on the technical details, I would suggest that you consider getting yourself an automatic car. Space is another important factor. Find a car with decent space for you and your luggage. When I was on a road trip with my parents in the US, we rented a seven seater and yet that was not enough for the seven of us and our luggage. Please ensure that your car is clean before you rent it. If there are any scratches, let the rental company know before you begin your journey. The damages will otherwise be charged to your card. Do go through all documentation, insurance papers and the fine print carefully. You may not need your international driving license in all the countries but your regular driving license is mandatory.
Go for a rental agency which has a presence in all countries so that they are easily available in case of a technical glitch. You will also have to check if the rental allows you to drive into all the countries on your list. Sometimes you might not have the permissions to enter a few countries during your road trip through Europe and that may be due to the rental company’s policy or due to insurance. When we hired our car in Italy, we were told that we could not enter Bosnia although Croatia and Slovenia were allowed.
Some companies allow you to drop the car in another country but this may cost you a lot of money. Usually they suggest a round trip which means you can drop the car in any state or region but from the same country where you had rented it. For instance, we rented our car from Trieste in Italy and dropped it off at Venice after driving through Slovenia and Croatia.
You are driving through countries and not states
This is the most important thing that you need to remember. When you are on a road trip in Australia or in the US, you are mostly driving across states, but a road trip through Europe is a different cup of tea. We were driving through countries and everything was changing as and when we were crossing the borders. Even the GPS had different settings. Be prepared as sometimes even the euro is not accepted everywhere. Just like languages, everything including notices are unique to the country. It is probably a better idea to learn a few words and sentences that will help you on the highways. When you cross borders, be prepared for traffic as the queues here are generally longer than those at immigration centers in airports. Keep your passports handy besides other relevant documentation.
Tolls and vignettes
We learnt a new word after our Europe trip – vignette. We were leaving Italy and entering Slovenia when we were told about it by a friendly lady at a supermarket in one of the gas stations. This is basically a sticker that you put on your car before you enter a particular country and it indicates that you have paid the highway tax. While in several countries you may find automated toll booths, vignettes are sometimes sold in small shops or at gas stations before you cross the border. You have to buy them individually within each specific country and it is priced around 15 Euros. You may end up paying huge fines if you do not have a vignette.
Tolls are a different cup of tea altogether. Most of them are automated and you need to just swipe your credit card and behold, the gates are open. Be very careful with exits on the highway after paying the toll. If you miss your exit, you will end up going in circles and paying the tolls again and again. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to us.
No drinking and driving
No drinking especially if you are driving and even a simple wine tasting tour can turn out to be a bad idea while you are still on the highway. Every country has its own rules especially when it is related to BAC and most European countries have zero tolerance levels when it comes to drinking and driving. So think twice before you sip on that glass of wine. You do not want to be pulled over or charged a hefty fine or even worse, be imprisoned.
Observe the rules of the road
From different speed limits to overtaking, every country has a different rule on the highway. Honking is virtually banned (if someone is actually honking at you, they are rebuking you for breaking a rule) and you may need to check on the rules related to headlights and beams as well. Cameras are virtually everywhere and over speeding may just land you in a lot of trouble. A little research will help you before you hit the highway. Keep the emergency number handy in case you need assistance.
Stay connected always.
We were the only car on the highway when we were driving around in the interior of Croatia. While the landscape was breathtaking and the roads were fabulous, I was constantly wondering if we were on the right track. Some of the destinations were so remote that I felt a little lost. There could be an unwanted emergency and I realized the need to always stay connected. I would strongly recommend that you buy local SIM cards which gives you coverage across Europe with data access. Download google maps offline although the GPS is a lifesaver on a Europe road trip
Parking on the highway is not allowed, especially to photograph a beautiful scenery or to take a selfie while you are on a road trip through Europe. You may think that there is no one around but big brother is always watching. Some places however have specific viewpoints with parking slots where one is allowed to stop. Designated parking slots are everywhere on the highway – be it a supermarket, café or a gas station.
As travelers, we were huge fans of slow travel and would rather drive slowly, imbibing every moment on the road than just rush from one destination to another. To us, the journey had always been more than just the destination. The little signs on the roads, small cafes, supermarkets, interaction with the locals, obscure towns that greet us – all of these are a part of the rich experience. We take our time on the road and we are never in a hurry to reach our destination. We stop at cafes and stores to refresh and stay alert.
You need to have enough time ingrained in your plan to account for any emergency – be it bad weather, road works, accidents or unprecedented traffic at borders. I remember heavy rains dampening our plans as we drove from Zagreb to Plitvice National Park, but we drove slowly and reached safely, although we were an hour late.
Never travel without the credit card
This little piece of plastic is probably your best companion on your Europe road trip. You need it to pay for your tolls and sometimes even for that cup of coffee. In many countries, euros are not accepted in small cafes and supermarkets and you will not be able to change money to buy yourself even a sandwich. Most toll booths are also automated and the machines accept only credit cards. Cards are also needed to pay for parking fees and fuel charges. So do not travel without your credit card and ensure that you have enough credit.
Get yourself a Life Insurance
Road trips are probably the most thrilling of all the travel experiences but there is a lot of planning that goes behind it. However, we all know that road trips are unpredictable and it’s important to plan for the unexpected. Similarly in life, we always need a plan B to keep ourselves prepared for the unexpected. That is why, I always fall back on term plans like ICICI Prudential Life’s iProtect Smart which protects me through every walk of life. It gives me longer life cover and also covers me against 34 critical illnesses. Just a diagnosis report is enough to claim the critical illness payout and no hospital bills are required. While I do not have to stress about my health, the plan also gives me life cover for 99 years and comes from ICICI Prudential Life who has just been awarded the ‘Best Term Insurance Provider for the year 2017-18 at Money Today Financial Awards. So, let me fasten my seat belt and travel without any worries for the next few decades of my life, exploring the small detours and new destinations.
This post is written in association with ICICI Prudential.
They look straight out of a fairy tale, with their impish grins and cheekiness and are the very symbols of Wroclaw, the fourth largest city in Poland “Lets go dwarf hunting,”says my guide Berta as we walk around the Old Town Square . You see them everywhere – hanging from a lamppost or sleeping on the pavement. Berta says that there are over 350 dwarfs all over Wroclaw and the Old Town alone has over 50 of them. And tourists have maps and apps to assist them in their search for these little fellas with stories and backstories. Wroclaw Dwarfs or Wroclaw gnomes as they are called are now the biggest and most popular attraction of Wroclaw.
I am intrigued as I forget about the places to see in Wroclaw as I start looking for them. The Wroclaw Dwarfs are virtually everywhere. You find them posing as bankers, butchers, merchants, doctors, dentists, gardeners, professsors, chimney sweepers, musicians, buskers .
They are in front of these restaurants, banks, candy stores and you see them around the Wroclaw attractions – be it a church, a university or even on the banks of the river. There is even an entire orchestra playing for you at the concert hall and a museum of dwarfs, with of course a dwarf guarding it.
These Wroclaw dwarfs or Wroclaw gnomes are attractions by themselves as they represent a slice of Polish life, the history and culture. Wroclaw celebrates an annual Dwarf Festival in September. And in winter, the local residents dress up these Wroclaw dwarves with shawls and mittens to even keep them warm.
Berta narrates the story behind the dwarfs. In early 2001, the City Council of Wroclaw decided to commemorate an anti Communist Movement referred to as The Orange Alternative by carving a dwarf, that is fondly referred to as Papa.Papa stands tall on the streets reminding people of the Orange Movement.
It was a non violent underground movement that defied the Communist powers that ruled Poland and the members used to meet on the streets and protest silently. They used graffiti of dwarfs as these pint sized men eventually evolved as the symbols of the movement. The members of the movement used to fight for the “Rights of Dwarves.”
After the Papa Dwarf , the city was completely taken in by these charming men, oozing with personality that the Mayor decided to commission a local artist ,Tomasz Moczek to carve five of them in bronze. The first of them, is a couple called Sisyphus, who push against each other and they stand in the Old Town Square today.They were joined by the fencer and the butcher among others and slowly there were dwarfs which were both men and women that started mushrooming around the city.
It almost feels like a treasure hunt as you go looking for the Wroclaw dwarfs.. Sometimes these endearing dwarfs greet you in your path while many times they are hidden out of view. We feel like kids every time we stumble upon one of them. I was so fascinated to see how they are carved and hence visited the factory with my guide .
It was a warehouse made of bricks, on the outskirts of the city centre and it seemed like a world by itself . I met an artist who could not speak English but my guide helped me with a translation as I learnt that she has carved over 100 dwarfs herself .
As she showed me around, I was told that the dwarfs are in demand overseas as well. A pair , carved in the likeness of erstwhile German royalty were flying to Germany. I was told that the team was working on a dwarf for the Indian consulate as well.
Wroclaw has always been described as the Polish Venice as the River Odra creates 12 islands with 30 bridges. Yet in this charming landscape filled with vibrant squares and palaces with old world charm , the most fascinating sights are these little legion of men who are there to greet you at every nook and corner.
In this photo essay, we have tried to take a snapshot of the different Wroclaw gnomes that we have seen in the city and in the factory. The photos were taken by my husband Sharath Krishnamurthy.
We were both invited by Polish tourism board and we visited the cities of Warsaw, Wroclaw and Krakow. Have you been to Wroclaw ? What are your favourite Wroclaw dwarfs ?
I fell in love with Wroclaw the moment I stepped into this beautiful town which has such a mishmash of history and fusion of cultures. It is also where I met some very fascinating people – Breta, a passionate high school teacher who was also my guide and… who was in love, not just with India but with an Indian as well . Conversations poured forth as we discussed Polish history and culture and the Indian way of life. But more on this later. Floating on the banks of the Odra, Wroclaw with its quirky dwarfs and its thousand year old history fascinated me. A charming town that was once a part of the Kingdom of Poland in the medieval era, Wroclaw had been ruled by different regimes – from the kingdoms of Bohemia , Hungary, Prussia to the empires of Habsburg and Germany . The city was called Breslau by the Germans. Wroclaw was one of the last cities to fall during the Second World War. After the war, Wroclaw returned to its original fold and it is now the fourth largest city in Poland. Even today, you can see the influences of the different dynasties. If you are wondering what to do in Wroclaw, then start with admiring one of the largest paintings – The Panorama of the Battle of Raclawize, when the Polish defeated the Russians in this medieval battle. This may be one of the most famous among Wroclaw tourist attractions. Towering to a height of 15 metres and a length of 114 metres, the painting, created in the 19th century has a room of its own. However there is more to this charming idyllic land of Wroclaw and here are some of the top things to do in Wroclaw.
The River Odra formed many islands and one of them is the Ostrow Tumski, the oldest part of Wroclaw that came up in the 10th century. It is also called the Cathedral Island with a sea of churches as the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist stands here. A visit to the oldest district is one of the top things to do in Wroclaw. There are also several monuments like the Holy Cross and Saint Bartholomew’s Collegiate besides the Archdiocese Museum.
The museum houses the the Book of Henrykow, which is believed to have recorded the very first sentence in Polish. The entire island was once a garden on the banks of the river and the oldest building is the Church of St Giles. The medieval Gothic Cathedral is the first building to be built with bricks and you can even climb to the rooftops or take the lift to get some amazing views of Wroclaw. If you are wondering what to do in Wroclaw, then look out for the “lamp lighter” in the evening who will light over 100 gas lanterns here everyday.
Rynek or the Market Square is the very heart of the city and it is always throbbing with energy . The Gothic Old Town Hall stands along the New Town Hall and the entire atmosphere is full of life and colour. The oldest restaurant called Piwnica Swidnicka is located here.
There are several beautiful town houses painted in different hues surrounding the Market Square. There are live performances everywhere while restaurants and cafes beckon you. There are several churches in and around the square and St Elizabeth Church even treats you to an observation deck . The Salt Square, which was once a market for salt, leather and honey is now a flower market which never shuts down.
This is one of the best things to do in Wroclaw. The square was rebuilt virtually after the World War. Berta points to the stone pillory where people used to be flogged in the medieval times. I was more fascinated by the bronze bear that stood on a tree stump. The dwarfs welcome you everywhere but more on this later.
Wroclaw Market Hall
One of the traditional markets that has survived the wars, the Wroclaw Market Hall or Hala Targowa as it is called is located near the Old Town Market Square and the Cathedral Island. Built in the beginning of the 20th century, it was the haunt of traders, merchants and vendors. Today there is a traditional market here selling everything from souvenirs to local crafts, food and vegetables. You can even have a quick snack or a light meal here.
Hansel and Gretel
There are several pretty houses in Wroclaw but nothing is more charming than the one called Jas i Malgosia or known as Hansel and Gretel. Although the pretty monuments look straight out of a fantasy land, it does not relate to the fairy tale. The archway to these two houses seem like a couple holding hands and the highly imaginative locals nicknamed it Hansel and Gretel. These are among the townhouses built between the 16th-18th centuries and there used to be a cemetery here around the church. Hence you have a Latin inscription here that says, ” Death is the gate to life.” Jas is less ornate and smaller and is an art gallery and museum dedicated to the local artist, Eugeniusz Get Stankiewicz. Malgosia houses a bar . If you are wondering what to do in Wroclaw then say hello to the dwarfs here.
The Dwarfs of Wroclaw
It started as a symbol of the Orange Movement , an anti communist and authoritarian movement, but these charming dwarfs took over the city and the fancy of the people. There are over 300 dwarfs in the city greeting you from every nook and corner – on a lamp post, near a bank, in front of a restaurant and in several landmarks of the city. Dwarf hunting is one of the best things to do in Wroclaw. You can spot them in The Old Town , which was apparently one of the first to have been carved.
These tiny sculptures of gnomes or goblins are whimsical, quaint, cheeky and they represent the spirit of Wroclaw. At the Hansel and Gretel House you can spot a group of dwarfs as firemen , while at the Opera House, you can even see an orchestra. Look around pavements and you will find these charming men greeting you.
The Monument of an Anonymous Passer-by
There are several sculptures but nothing is more fascinating than The Monument of an Anonymous Passer -by. A collection of 14 bronze sculptures, you can see several “anonymous ” faces like a woman with a child, an elderly gentleman, a man rushing with his suitcase and several others. And yet as you see them, they seem to be either vanishing into the ground or arising from it, whichever way you look at it.
Located on the street, the sculpture represents the period of martial law in Communist Poland . Symbolically they were a reference to the era when a lot of people were arrested in the middle of the night and they disappeared or went underground. The sculpture also refers to the reappearance of the Polish after the martial law was lifted .
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace , was a residential palace which once housed the Prussian Monarchy and it stands in the heart of the city. Built in the Baroque style with a beautiful garden the palace now houses the Historical Museum of Wrocław. The palace was damaged during the world war as well and was reconstructed. Besides the history of Wroclaw and its many identities and influences, you can also see the royal apartments as well . If you like palaces and museums, then this is one of the top things to do in Wroclaw.
Wroclaw is often referred to as an University town and the Wroclaw University is an elegant Baroque style building that includes a Jesuit college and church. There is also a Wroclaw University Museum housed inside it.There is an astronomical observatory and you can find a 16th century globe and a compass . Music and architecture lovers should not miss the Leopoldinum Hall and Oratorium Marianum music hall which have been venues for concerts.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Centennial Hall or the Hala Stulecia was built in the 20th century and is one of the landmarks of 20th century architecture. Built by the well known architect Max Berg, it is famous for its massive dome, built with reinforced concrete , its diameter is over 1.5 times larger in size than that of Rome’s Pantheon. One of the most popular halls , it is the venue for concerts and conferences, events and exhibitions
. The Centennial Hall complex also includes the Pergola, which is one of the biggest and largest musical fountains in Europe . I would strongly recommend including it in your Wroclaw sightseeing itinerary if you are wondering what to do in Wroclaw.
The Jew Quarter
The Jewish Quarter is one of the most important districts in Wroclaw and the Jews were always a part of Poland’s cultural identity. Jews have been living in Wroclaw since the 12th century. The White Stork Synagogue was the only synagogue to have survived the Holocaust and the Nazi Germans used it as a warehouse to store stolen property from the Jews.
The synagogue designed in the 19th century in the Neo Classical design was returned to the Jews after the war and it became their cultural and religious monument. It is now a Jewish cultural centre and has a exhibition that chronicles the life of Jews in Wroclaw. There is an old Jewish cemetery as well and a visit is one of the top things to do in Wroclaw.
These are some of my recommendations for the top things to do in Wroclaw. Do you have any more suggestions on what to do in Wroclaw and other Wroclaw tourist attractions ?
Photos courtesy Sharath Krishnamuthy. We were invited by Polish Tourism Board to spend a week in Poland and explore Krakow, Warsaw and Wroclaw.
It is the dragon that fascinates me. Standing on the banks of the River Vistula he stands there, with a smug look on his face, pleased with all the attention he is getting. It is a bright sunny morning and I am floating aimlessly in a little boat, in the turquoise waters of the Vistula in Krakow in Poland. Even the boat is designed like a dragon. The dragon is one of Krakow attractions and the boat ride is one of the best things to do in Krakow. There are several children who are jumping around the dragon, waiting to take pictures with him as its one of the top things to do in Krakow. In the background stands a formidable fortress, looking straight out of a Game of Thrones set and it looms large in front of me. It seems to be a lovely day for stories and who is interested in listening to a bit of medieval folklore ?
It is the medieval times when dragons fly around emitting fire and torture humans and even have an eye on virgins. The folk lore is dated to the 13th century and the Wawel Dragon as he is called is at the centre of the story. Living on the foot of the Wawel Hill in a lair, the dragon has been terrorizing locals, carrying away young maidens. Even the king Krakus, the legendary founder of Krakow was apparently worried as the life of his pretty princess was in danger. So he announced hat he would give his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who dared to kill the monster. Several warriors rose to the challenge but failed. A cobbler’s apprentice called Skuba becomes the hero of this story.
The young man stuffed a lamb with sulphur and used it as a bait to lure the dragon. He left it near the cave and it is believed that the dragon exploded as he tried to eat it. The legends keep changing along with the heroes but the dragon remains the villain in all of them. In one version. Skuba becomes the prince Krakus but there is however a small twist to the tale. King Krakus had two sons, Krakus 11 and Lech. The brothers tried the same trick and the dragon met its fiery end. The brothers however fought and Lech killed his brother and said that he was slain by the dragon. Slowly the truth was discovered and Krakus was honored as the city was named after him.
However the dragon on the banks of the Vistula, standing tall at the foot of the Wawel Hill has been sculpted as a souvenir of the folklore and is thronged by tourists. He represents evil,” says my guide Yola. At the front of the Wawel Cathedral, you can see bones from a pre historic animal that was believed to have been the remains of the dragon. It is believed that the world will come to an end when the bones will fall to the ground.
Wawel Castle and Cathedral
It is stories like this that endears me to Krakow. And the story of Krakow begins with this limestone outcrop called Wawel Hill. This fortress has been the seat of power for the Polish and it virtually dominates the entire landscape of the city. Yola says that archaeological remains show that it has been occupied with various settlements since the 4th century. Traders and merchants thronged the region followed by local farmers and artisans.
We trudge up the hillock , which is one of the best things to do in Krakow and I am in awe of the massive architectural fortification that greets me. The skies are blue and the gardens are blooming and standing in front of me is a towering castle and an ancient cathedral and a chapel with a golden dome .
But there are several monuments here like the Rotunda of Virgin Mary which is apparently one of the first churches to be built in Krakow. Wawel became both the nerve centre for the monarchy and the church. While the Polish kings chose Wawel Castle as their residence, they were crowned at the Gothic cathedral. Krakow was the official capital of Poland from the 10th-16th centuries until Warsaw took over.
However for me history is not just about names of kings and the battles fought and won, but it is the legacy that they have left behind – in the form of art and architecture, traditions and cultures and of course, stories. From the era of King Casimir 111 The Great to King Sigismund 1 The Old, the Wawel castle , has seen different styles of architecture from Renaissance to Baroque. It was Sigismund 1 who brought in sculptors from Italy to give it a Renaissance touch. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is now a museum that showcases the paintings, sculptures, textiles , ceramics, porcelain and even antique furniture. But it is the tapestry, 350 of them, commissioned by the royalty and woven in Flanders that takes my breath away .
The Castle was the symbol of the Poland State and a model for royal residences across Europe. We walk around the state rooms and the royal private apartments. I am spellbound as I saw the ornate Deputy Hall and its coffered ceiling, but it is the Ambassador’s Hall with its ceiling covered with thirty heads designed in Gothic style that leaves me gaping in awe, which represent the people of the era.
A pindrop silence greets me as I enter the Royal ArchCathedral Basilica of Saints Stainslaus and Wenceslaus, popularly and simply known as the Wawel Cathedral. Yola whispers that this is where the kings were crowned but it is also their mausoleum as they were buried in the crypts below. Over 1000 years old, the present Gothic cathedral was the third to be built here and the other two were destroyed by fire.
Adjoining the cathedral is Sigismund’s Chapel, which is built in the Renaissance style of architecture This is where the king and his family are buried. On the Sigismund Tower, you can see the 13 tonne heavy bell, cast in bronze and named after the king. Apparently twelve men join together to ring the bell.
Stories of intrigue and even murder echo from every wall here. My guide tells me about a scheming story that led a murder in the cathedral of an Archbishop.
As the golden sun lights up the entire landscape and the flowers nod in the breeze, I cannot help but think how such a fairytale land would have been transformed during the World War 2. With the invasion of Poland by the Germans, it became their seat and then was taken over by the Russians during the Cold war. However Wawel is a symbol of the glory of the Polish and is more than just a hill with a castle and a cathedral. It is one of the top Krakow attractions
Old Town of Krakow
Later, in the day I become a time traveller as a horse drawn carriage whisks me away into the 11th century . A trumpeter atop the St Mary’s Church plays the anthem of Krakow as I am lost in the Stare Miasto or the Old Town, one of the best things to do in Krakow which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a riot of colours.
The sky is a deep blue and the clouds have been banished for a while. Monuments built in Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic styles jostle for space as palaces and fortresses, theatres and churches, mansions and museums lie huddled next to each other.
I love Old Towns and Squares and given a choice I will spend an entire day here as its one of the top things to do in Krakow. The Rynek Glowny is the largest medieval square in the Old Town and the view from the St Mary’s Basilica treats me to a carnival like atmosphere. There are tourists everywhere and the energy is so contagious. I see a group of school girls wearing traditional dresses and they are so happy to pose for me. There are street performers everywhere.
As I walk around, I see several row houses in different colours and perhaps these were homes of merchants and nobles at one time. The Renaissance designed cloth hall is now a shopping complex filled with souvenir shops and restaurants while you can visit the National Gallery of Art in the first floor. The Town Hall Tower stands adjacent to the monument.
Yola tells us that during the medieval times there was a wall built around here which was about 3 kms long and there were over 46 towers and the city itself had seven entrances. But eventually these fortifications were demolished. However there is a green cover around the town called Planty Park and the old moat still stands today and is filled with water.
Biting into a ring shaped bread called Obwarzanki Krakowskie, I follow the footsteps of newly crowned kings who took the Royal Route from the Florian Gate, passing by the Barbican of Krakow to Wawel. There are several museums, art galleries, churches, cafes and souvenir shops here but I am told not to miss St Anne’s Church and the Adam Mickiewicz monument, dedicated to the poet, which are some of Krakow attractions and are top things to do in Krakow .
Back in the square, I am in time to hear the legendary trumpeter performing atop the tower of St Mary’s Basilica. St Mary’s Trumpet Call as it is called means St Mary’s dawn and it is a traditional anthem of the Polish. It is played every hour at the top of the hour and it is played actually four times consecutively. Yola tells us that it represents the four cardinal directions . The trumpet call at noon is apparently broadcast even today to all of Poland by radio.
There is always a legend behind traditions and Yola is eager to tell me the same as soon as the trumpets end. In the medieval times, trumpets were usually played during dawn and dusk to open and close the city gates. In the medieval times there were four gates positioned along the cardinal directions but three out of the four have been demolished today.
According to a legend, Krakow was suddenly attacked by the Mongols . An old watchman saw the army approaching from afar and he immediately played the trumpet, sounding off the alarm. He woke up the guards and warriors who bravely defended the city. The city gates were immediately closed but the poor man sacrificed his life, saving his city as an arrow pierced his throat while he was still performing. According to Yola that is why the anthem always ends rather abruptly. It is haunting and sad is a poignant tribute to the old guard who saved his city.
I am busy photographing the colourful square but..is rather impatient. She wants to show me the “real and original square.” Rynek Underground reads the name of the museum which is a part of Krakow sightseeing itinerary. I am literally walking below the square, four metres below where excavations take you back to the medieval times. There are the old merchant stalls that stood even before the Cloth Hall came up. Ancient cemeteries have been unearthed as well.
Small artefacts from coins to pieces of clothing are showcased here. Walking in silence, I realize that this museum actually chronicles Krakow’s history from its early settlers onwards. The interactive museum displays over 6000 exhibits and each of them tell a tale. Somewhere lost in this underground world is the real story of Krakow and this is one of the best things to do in Krakow.
Stories have been the very essence of travel to me. From dragons to pigeons, kings to cobblers, trumpeters to eccentric riders – there is never a dearth of them in Krakow. I head to the St Mary’s Church, one of Krakow attractions while the pigeons fly all around me . Standing there and watching them flutter away, I am lost in the story of the enchanted pigeons who showered gold on the city. Poland was then divided into five regions and one of the kings wanted to unite the five regions. He however needed money for the same and had to visit Rome to get the Pope’s approval as well. While the merchants refused to fund him, he approached a witch for help. She said that she would however help him under a condition that his knights would not travel with him. As the prince agreed, he realized that his trusted knights were all transformed into pigeons. As they flew over the St Marys Church, their droppings magically turned into gold, leaving the prince a wealthy man. Unfortunately he squandered his wealth and did not visit Rome. The witch meanwhile disappeared and the knights remained as pigeons while Poland remained divided. While the prince was cursed, the pigeons were always revered. Even today, the locals look up to them, perhaps wondering if they will shower gold again.
You do not travel to Krakow and not visit the Jagiellonian University, one of the Krakow attractions and the second oldest in Central Europe, which was established in the medieval times by Casimir 111 the Great. I walk into the old courtyard with respect, where once the astronomer Copernicus treaded and in recent times was the home of revered Pope John Paul 11. Several Nobel laureates studied in this research university as well. There were over fifteen faculties here and over 40,000 students study over 80 disciplines.
Yola also tells us about the massive library here and the museum which has special tours as well, but it is the arcaded courtyard of the Gothic monument that fascinates me . An antique clock treats you to a puppet show as you can see parades and performances from wooden historic figures while the music takes you to the 16th century. This is one of the top things to do in Krakow. Most of the figures represent people who feature in the history of the university – from kings and queens to academicians. The clock is believed to be the fourth as the older clocks were destroyed by fire. Standing there I honestly did not realize the passage of time, as Yola nudged me gently. It is time to leave .
However we are still not yet finished with our walking tours. We head towards Kazimierz, the district which was the heart of Jewish culture in Krakow for over 500 years. A walking tour of Kazimierz is one of the best things to do in Krakow. Chatting with Yola. I learn that Kazimierz itself was another town during the medieval era.
Every festival has a flavour that tells a story. I have always wanted to be in Kolkata during Durga Puja, so that I can get to experience the frenzy and the food as well. Although I am a vegetarian, I have been told that there is something irresistible about Kolkata Street Food that beckons everyone and there is a lot to offer for the vegetarians as well. Kolkata is a melting pot of communities and the streets reflect their cultures. And there is a tale unfolding here. The Chinese, the Tibetans, the Mughals, the Nawabs, the Marwaris, the Tamilians and the Gujaratis have left their signature dishes behind, while the British added their culinary flavour. The Bengalis for whom food is more than just a dish adopted these iconic recipes and made them into their own.
Pic Courtesy – Sanjay Ramachandran
But then, to get an authentic flavour of the streets of Kolkata, I do not have to travel to the City of Joy this festive season. The gastronomical essence of Kolkata is now available right in the heart of my city in Bangalore. Next Stop Kolkata is a unique Kolkata Street Food festival that is celebrated in Monkey Bar – be it Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Curated by Iti Misra, a legendary home chef from Kolkata and Monkey Bar’s Head Chef Dheeraj Varma, the menu is not just about food, but has its share of stories as well that takes you right in the heart of the city, its buzzing lanes and iconic eateries.
Pic Credit – Sanjay Ramachandran
And there is a “Monkey” twist as well to every dish, says Iti Misra as I sip Puchka Caipiroshka, a toast to the street food mixed with a twist of vodka and gondhoraj lebu and fresh mint. Iti Misra adds that every quintessential snack from the streets and stalls of Kolkata has a tradition behind them. The momos for instance are inspired by the Tibetan settlers while the dumplings has the Chinese community. Her favourite is the story behind the Chicken Rezala, from Chitpur Road, a curry that she adds has an Awadhi flavour to it. It was apparently introduced to Kolkata by the cooks of the Nawab of Awadh – Wajid Ali Shah who was here on exile.
Pic Courtesy – Sanjay Ramachandran
The festival takes you into the streets across the length and breadth of Kolkata, which is a treasure trove for epicureans . The street food here is a reflection of the myriad cultures that form the very fabric of Kolkata. And so, according to Iti Misra, you have the College Street Hing-er Kochuri, the Fish Roll at Beadon Street, the Vardaan Market Moong Daal Pakodi Chaat from Camac Street, the Tibetan Momos from Bishop Leroy Road, the ghoogni from Vivekananda Park, the Chicken Rezala from Chitpur Road ,the Esplanade Mughlai Porota, Tiretti Bazaar Prawn Dumpling among others.
Pic Courtesy – Sanjay Ramachandran
Iti Misra’s stories take me right into the streets of Kolkata. The vegetarian in me tried the moong daal pakodi chaat and the Kochuris which was served with a spicy and tangy curry of potato and pumpkin. I also munched the Ghoogni while trying the vegetarian version of the Mughalai parota with paanch-phoron baby potatoes.
Pic Credit – Sanjay Ramachandran
All these delicacies can be gulped down with drinks aptly titled Piara Peara, Puchka Caipiroshka, Thaanda Chaa. I tried the PuchkaCaipiroshka, a heady toast to the festive season mixed with all the right flavours .
Pic Courtesy Sanjay Ramachandran
The festival is on from October 4 to October 21. So here is your good food alert and make your reservations right now at Monkey Bar, across the four cities.
This post is written in collaboration with Monkey bar who had invited me to preview the festival and meet Iti Misra.