Much as we love exploring the lesser-known parts of Spain, getting away to a different country is always a thrill. Why not make that three countries in one short trip? By flying into Wroclaw, it’s easy and cheap to have a quick trip around the borderlands of Poland, Germany and Czechia, and all within a few hours’ flight of Spanish airports. I’ll deal with the practicalities of the journey at the end of the post, so sit back and enjoy the ride!
As an English speaker it’s impossible to pronounce Ross-wav correctly! Don’t let that put you off at all though. This is an amazing city to visit in its own right, and we spent three nights here before heading off. Exploring its beautiful streets and squares easily saw us exceed our 10,000 steps per day in an attempt to walk off the calories gained in the delicious pierogi dumplings, goulash soup served in bread rolls, and of course, lashings of pilsner beer to wash it all down. Much of the beauty of the city comes from its post-war reconstruction, but a more recent disaster has meant even more dramatic changes. In 1997 the river running through the city flooded badly and the damage was substantial. What followed was a diversion of the river and many flood defences, resulting in a lovely riverside walkway which simply cannot be missed. There are also many pleasure cruises along the river to view the many, many bridges all over the city. Whilst you are wandering around, don’t forget to look out for the tiny dwarves that are located all over the city. There are over 600 of them representing all manner of professions!
The tram system is easy to get to grips with too, and the Depot museum is a side trip that you really should factor into your visit. We all know about Solidarity and the Gdansk shipyard strikes that were a big part of Polish people getting their freedom from a controlling state. What we often don’t realise is that these uprisings were happening across the country, and the bus depot at the time was where this happened in Wroclaw. Nowadays it serves as an excellent and informative museum. We spent a good couple of hours here as most of it is in English as well as Polish.
The town of Zgorzelec is almost unheard of. It’s neighbour over the river is perhaps a little more famous but we’ll come to Gorlitz next. Zgorzelec has enough shabby-chic architecture to make it a day trip in its own right. A lack of investment makes it feel like a bit of a rough diamond though. We walked out to the Polish war cemetery which was a particularly evocative place to visit. It’s worth finding your way there and allowing yourself some time to contemplate the horrors of war and the scale of the losses that are involved in conflict.
You may never have heard of Gorlitz, but its nickname Gorliwood will give you a hint of its fame. Many Hollywood blockbusters were filmed here including The Book Thief and Inglorious Basterds. It’s also been the backdrop for movie makers from all over Europe. Why? Well, the city emerged from World War II almost unscathed so its buildings are authentic. Some have been beautifully restored. Others have an air of despair about them. They are the perfect film set for replicating wartime Germany. It’s easy to walk around on foot. You can purchase a map to help you get around the different locations, but wandering aimlessly around is just as pleasurable. One thing to look out for is the department store which served as the interior of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Sadly you can’t go in, but if you peer in through the windows you can just about see the art-deco interior.
When I told a friend who lives in Germany we were going to spend a couple of days in Zittau, his response left me a little apprehensive and fearing we would be stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. That simply could not be further from the truth!
On arrival we noticed lots of stalls being set up in the main square. It was like a Christmas market in May! It turns out that we had the good fortune to arrive just as their Spectaculum was taking place, as it does on the eve of Ascension Day every year. This is clearly the main event in the annual calendar and an otherwise sleepy town was transformed into a mass of people in the whole central area. That night we feasted on bratwurst and drank beer from plastic cups as we were entertained by various groups around the town centre. The Raven Project was a real favourite with a Folk/Irish mix of tunes in impeccable English. The best was yet to come. At 11pm it seemed the whole of humanity was in the central square to watch a spectacular firework display in front of the magnificent town hall.
Like almost everywhere in the region, the town is full of incredible architecture with huge mansions and palaces all around. Zittau has all of that, but it also has something rather different. In one district of the town, old communist-era blocks have been transformed into works of art. They are multi-coloured wonders with bizarre statues half way up the walls. It is a sight to behold!
None of that was why we were there though. We were there to ride on a train. There is a beautiful narrow gauge train journey out into the hills on the Czech border. Some of the timetable involves steam trains, but we were pulled by a diesel locomotive each way. We did get to see the steam trains as we went past them, and it doesn’t really matter as you can’t see the engine on your own train anyway. Our destination was Jonsdorf where we did a wonderful walk in the forest. At one point we had to climb up to a rocky formation offering terrific views over the whole valley below us.
If walking in the countryside is your thing, look up the tri-border between Poland, Germany and Czechia on Google Maps. It’s an easy 40 minute walk there through some lovely scenery and then you get the chance to be, more-or-less, in three countries at the same time!
Liberec was once home to a thriving textile industry earning it the nickname of the ‘Manchester of Bohemia’. Despite this, don’t fool yourself that it’s grim up North in Czechia. Liberec is a stunning city with a central square to take your breath away and a town hall that is worthy of a visit just to see the incredible décor inside. If it all looks like a film set, well it has been, standing in for Munich in National Geographic’s docu-series about Einstein, Genius.
To the north of the centre are beautiful mansions, some of which now house museums and galleries. There is also the zoo and the botanical gardens, and from there you can follow some easy trails through the forest.
To the south, the hotel and TV tower of Jested dominates the skyline at the top of the mountains. The number 3 tram takes you to the cable car station at the foot, but sadly this is closed until further notice following a fatal accident in 2021. Luckily for us, and by sheer chance, a ski lift was in operation because we just happened to be there at the weekend. That really was more by luck than judgement. It was a curious sight to see mountain bikes loaded onto the back of the chairs and to see their riders descending on the steep and sinuous tracks below. At the top we walked the two kilometres up to Jested where we enjoyed garlic soup and a great view with a beer.
Jelenia Gora (Poland)
Our final stop was the beautiful town of Jelenia Gora. Its central square is simply magnificent, and all around the town you can spot statues and pictures of deer in many guises. That’s because the town translates as Deer Mountain and naturally, the deer became its symbol.
To the west of the town we took the bus out to the spa town of Cieplice. Nowadays it is a suburb of Jelenia Gora, but in its heyday it boasted many spas and parks, most of which are still in operation today. It’s a lovely place to have a stroll around and there is even a chapel where you can still drink the local mineral-rich water straight from the taps without paying to go into one of the wellness centres.
North of the town is the countryside. A riverside path takes you all the way to Siedlecin. Don’t do as we did and leave things to chance. Have a look at the bus timetable before you go. We arrived just a few minutes before the last bus for three hours. That meant we were unable to visit the so-called Prince’s Tower which boasts medieval murals telling the tale of Sir Lancelot. It’s a shame, but at least we got to climb the 141 steps to the top of the watchtower along the way, giving us incredible views over Jelenia Gora. It was quite an easy walk on mostly excellent pathways.
We flew from Alicante to Wroclaw with Ryanair. It seems there are direct flights to Barcelona, Girona, Malaga and Palma too. We walked around the city most of the time but tram tickets can be bought at machines with a credit card (with an option in English) close to most stops and the routes are quite easy to work out.
Polish trains are excellent and it’s easy to buy your tickets online. We travelled by train from Wroclow to Zgorzelec. From there it’s a short stroll across the bridge into Germany to explore Gorlitz. Of course, you could stay there but we found it better value on the Polish side.
When it was time to move on, we walked over the main bridge near the town centre and took a bus to the train station which had a ticket machine on board accepting credit cards. We did manage to buy our train tickets to Zittau online, but they can also be bought on board for the same price.
If you want to take the scenic train from Zittau, the small narrow-gauge railway station and ticket office is just outside the main station. It’s a short walk into the centre of Zittau from there, but buses are available. The town is small enough to walk around without having to think about taxis.
From Zittau we took an international train to Liberec and had to buy our tickets on board. Our taxi from the station was expensive but that’s because our SIM cards would not connect to 4G in Czechia and therefore we couldn’t use a taxi app like Bolt! Annoying!! The return journey was much cheaper using the app as we had WiFi in the Air B&B.
We had to use FlixBus to get from Liberec to Jelenia Gora but it was a very efficient and comfortable service with excellent WiFi on board. Taxis there were much cheaper, even though no apps are available.
From Jelenia Gora back to Wroclaw was an uneventful two hours on a comfortable train. We had booked online but there is a ticket office at the station to help you, and machines in the forecourt.
Thanks to Booking.com and AirB&B there is a wealth of accommodation in every town and city. We don’t mind staying a little way out from the centre but each to their own when it comes to location. The prices weren’t too bad either. Here’s a list of where we stayed.
Wroclaw: MOne apartment which was very comfortable indeed.
Zgorzelec: BanApart apartment. Mind the steps!
Zittau: Hotel Sonne. A bit more upmarket for Mr P’s birthday.
Liberec: Air B&B at the Tennis Club. An unusual experience but a good one!
Jelenia Gora: Mercure Hotel. A good choice and very reasonably priced.
Yeah, I can’t write a blog and not mention the food. We enjoyed a lot of international cuisine on this trip along with local specialities. Where possible we bought fruit and yoghurt (plus bread, cheese and meat – who could resist?) to make our own breakfast. We also tried to have salad and self-cater for dinner every other day to make sure we got our veggies and vitamins! In Wroclaw we had Polish and Georgian food. In Zgorzelec we found an Alsatian restaurant for lunch. In Gorlitz it was all about schnitzel and potatoes. In Zittau it was kebabs for lunch, bratwurst at night and a steak feast for Mr Paella’s birthday. Liberec surprised us with high quality dishes in what were essentially gastropubs. If you ever get there, look for the Black Horse which isn’t really an Irish pub. The duck and lamb were sublime. Eating on the square in Jelenia Gora was amazing, but we were worn out on the final night and ate at the hotel restaurant. The halloumi salad to start, and the trout to follow, were incredible and surprisingly cheap. If you’ve never had a full pierogi experience before, you really should head to Pierogarnia z Gitarą i Piórem in Jelenia Gora. They speak great English too and can explain everything to you. Too much beer and bread may have had a (hopefully) temporary effect on our waistline, but it’s been worth every calorie that we haven’t managed to walk off!