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A Wrocław culture quest

Poland’s fourth-largest city has been crowned the 2016 European Capital of Culture, and Berlin’s offering to take you there on a “Kulturzug” for just €38 round-trip through January 8. Is it worth it? We went to find out.

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Photo by Maria Runarsdottir

(UPDATE! Due to popular demand the Kulturzug has been extended from Sep 25 to Jan 8, 2017. Full sched at bahn.de.)

Poland’s fourth-largest city has been crowned the 2016 European Capital of Culture, and Berlin’s offering to take you there on a “Kulturzug” for just €38 round-trip through January 8. Is it worth it? We went to Breslau (as the Germans still call it) to find out.

When Wrocław was chosen alongside San Sebastián as the 2016 European Capital of Culture, it was a little like the quiet, unknown freshman winning the homecoming tiara: No one’s really heard of her, but her ricochet into popularity reveals she’s actually kind of charming.

For a year, the modest Polish city of 640,000 inhabitants is in the spotlight, hosting more than 1000 events in a bid to lure visitors in. And Berlin and Brandenburg have partnered up with it, spending €100,000 each to connect their residents to the budding cultural capital. Every weekend through September 25, they’re subsidising a “Kulturzug”, or “culture train”, that connects Berlin directly to Wrocław in about four and a half hours for only €19 one-way (€38 roundtrip). It’s a reconnection between Wrocław and Germany, really: for a chunk of its 1000-year history, this was the German city of Breslau. It was only in 1945, after the defeat of Germany in World War II, that the region of Silesia was deemed Polish by the Allies. Almost the entire German population fled overnight, to be replaced with Poles, and Breslau became “Wrocław”. The city’s name, by the way, is pronounced nothing like it looks (“vrotz-wav”) – no wonder Germans decided to stick to calling it “Breslau”!

So, does Wrocław have the culture to back up the attention? Residents will perk up and tell you without hesitation: Yes. After all, this is where theatre director Jerzy Grotowski set up shop at the height of his career; where the Orange Alternative absurdist movement was born; where Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture meld into one place. Austrian, Bohemian and German influences are visible throughout the city. And if the EU award wasn’t enough of a boost, UNESCO also named Wrocław the 2016 World Book Capital.

Unfortunately, none of this really comes through on the Kulturzug. The train promises readings, live music and a rolling library, but all you’ll find are napping commuters and a skimpy snack bar. A guide prattles on in Polish and in German over an intercom, only inspiring travellers to turn their iTunes on louder.

Once you touch down, Culture Capital programmers invite you to kick things off at the glistening white café Barbara, an official “information hub” offering pamphlets and brochures with ideas for the weekend. The first thing to tick off the to-do list is to visit the city’s pristine Market Square. It’s inarguably beautiful – think Prague, if 40 percent of tourists went extinct. Restorations have erased damage from WWII (when much of the city was destroyed), revealing an assortment of buildings that are as bright and colorful as a crayon box.

Next, the programme urges you to visit some of the countless art exhibitions going on in Wrocław’s multiple museums and galleries. There’s the opulent new Museum of Contemporary Art in the Four Dome Pavilion, opened just in time for 2016 after two years of renovation. The result is a pristine, sophisticated setting to take in nearly 300 Polish works from the 20th century, on view until the end of the year. The city has also made a show out of the renovated Centennial Hall, built by German architect Max Berg in 1913 to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the 1813 German victory over Napoleon’s occupying army.

But much of the city’s allure is in the parts that aren’t lacquered in renovations. A literal highlight is the Neon Side Gallery, a collection of old communist-era signs tucked in a dark alley. Residents also rave about the Wrocław Contemporary Museum, located inside an old air raid shelter and distinguished by an installation of a train carriage somersaulting head-first into the ground. The punky Centrum Reanimacji Kultury commune is also worth a visit for a look at Wrocław’s alternative underbelly. So is the grungier mural-covered neighbourhood of Nadodrze, an emerging hangout for artists and students thanks to boutiques and restaurants like accessory shop Punkt Design and modern eatery Cafe Resto Bar.

Unless you’re into experimental organ and flute arrangements, skip the official Culture Capital concerts, which often take place in churches and have become popular among older locals looking for entertainment. Instead, hit the bars. The scene has a tendency to get a little fratty thanks to the city’s arsenal of students, but you’ll find respite at the laid-back Art Café Kalambur or Nietota, where an assortment of creatives sip ultracheap beers (eight zloty, or barely €2).

In the end, though there might be more fascinating European cultural hotspots you can reach with nine hours round-trip travel and €38 (thanks, Easyjet!), Wrocław’s charisma and those drink prices make it worthwhile to try the city out for a weekend. If you go in September, you’ll be able to see English-subtitled screenings of the year’s top European indie flicks and documentaries as Wrocław prepares to host the European Film Awards on December 10. The Kulturzug will still be up and running – and maybe you’ll catch a livelier ride.

The Kulturzug leaves Berlin on Saturdays and Sundays at 8:31am from the Lichtenberg station (8:36 from Ostkreuz). It leaves Wrocław at 7:21pm on Saturdays and 4:29pm on Sundays through September 25. Book it at www.bahn.de. And don’t miss this September’s film events, which include an overview of the winners of the European Film Awards, many with English surtitles.