Losing My Religion

I didn’t plan this. All I wanted to do was have a quick look inside, perhaps make a small donation and take some pictures. The other people going in looked like tourists as well. And then it dawned on me. I was being a good Catholic boy and attending mass.

On a Wednesday morning.

In a scene reminiscent of Father Ted, a large number of priests of various seniority – both in rank and age – stood at the doorway. By the time I’d got that far I could hardly say “Look lads, I just wanted a quick photo of your lovely alters, fancy artwork and gold trinkets that could easily be sold to help the needy. OK, I could have done that, but I’d still be in confession now.

But in a strange departure from tradition, some of the congregation today are taking photos on their phones. Even as a lapsed Catholic, I recognise this as the height of rudeness. But then, as the service starts, with a procession of the assembled clergy, two other guys arrive with proper cameras. It’s only when proceedings start – entirely in Polish, of course – that I realise today is some kind of special occasion.

After a couple of introductions and readings, one of the senior priests produces a purple cassock and pulls it over the head of one of the other blokes. From what I can work out – and from the one word “Kanon” that seemed to stand out, I can only assume your man was being promoted to a higher office. Only then does the regular mass start. I may not speak a word of the language but the format was familiar. A sung Gloria, a Psalm, a reading, a Gospel…. like any good mass, this was going to go on for some time yet. By now at least five other people had got the same idea and left. I didn’t feel too guilty, but if I can’t even say one Hail Mary in Polish, how on earth would I manage ten in a row?

In any case, the Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross and St Bartolomew wasn’t even the main attraction; the big one, the Cathedral, was closed for repairs. Though just along the street is a hotel named after Pope John Paul II. He didn’t stay here, because the Bishops of Wroclaw invited him to their place instead. I can only imagine the lads had a great night in with a few shots and a game of poker.

The walk to what can only be described as “the Holy District” involves a pleasant walk through a local park and then across a couple of bridges over the River Oder. The most famous is the Tumski Bridge. But on railings all around, hundreds of “love locks” have been secured. It’s a scene that’s familiar all over the word; partners cementing their relationship with a padlock, sometimes engraved with a message or their initials.

But it’s also a constant headache for the authorities. A couple of signs try and dissuade the practice, arguing that rusting and rotting padlocks cause pollution in the river. And just like everywhere else in the world, people ignore the advice.

The centre of Wroclaw has an inner ring road, which confusingly intersects with tram lines broadly running north-south and east-west. Which means that at any given time you can literally find yourself getting a tram, walking a few streets and ending up exactly where you started.

The Market Hall is just across the river from the churches but I manage to make the journey last around an hour, having failed to navigate the public transport system. The truth is that Wroclaw – or at least the parts you’re most likely to want to see – is very walkable and mostly flat.

The hall itself is familiar to anyone who has visited indoor markets across Europe and in other parts of the world. The building was specifically designed for its purpose in the early 1900s. On the ground floor, a vast array of fruit and veg, fresh breads, nuts, spices and flowers. The upper floor has a series of stalls selling clothes, souvenirs and hardware items.

It’s slightly less touristy than some other markets I’ve been, where visitors are treated to free tastings and fancy displays of items to tempt those looking for edible souvenirs. This is a working market, clearly used daily by local people. Generally speaking, Poland has cheap prices compared with Western Europe, and here just a few Zlotys can go a long way.

It’s also a symbol of survival. Just down the road a modern mall – Galeria Dominikańska – was built in 2001. But it could be just about any mall in the world; full of customers but somehow lacking in life. Further into town is the Renoma shopping centre; from the outside it boasts high end names and glitz, and won numerous awards for its stunning architecture. But inside – at least today – many of the retail units lie empty, and construction work makes it hard to see exactly what’s open and what’s not.

All of that said, Wroclaw strikes me as a busy and place, with people who have money to spend. Clearly the areas beyond the Old Town will tell their own stories, but for the visitor this is a safe and vibrant city.


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