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As I walk down the path, past the grey statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on my left-hand side, Soviet marching music is playing from loudspeakers attached to imitation Gulag watchtowers in the forest by a small stream on my right. The sun is out and mosquitoes form small clouds over the path ahead of me, just where I will want to stand to take my next picture. As I try to focus my camera on Stalin’s moustache and disperse the insects at the same time, stout Russian voices break into song and I just can’t help myself any longer. I start to laugh. This has to be the strangest place I have ever been.
The Grutas Park is southern Lithuania’s biggest tourist attraction and has been open since 2001. The Park was the brainchild of mushroom magnate Viliumas Malinauskas, who bought all the park’s sculptures in the decade after the country became independent in 1991. He realized that after the downfall of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union, all the statues from this era of Lithuanian history would need a home and so the Grutas Park came into existence. A guide I spoke to wouldn’t verify that Malinauskas had initially wanted to take people around the park in a train pulling cattle trucks, similar to those used to export many post-WWII Lithuanians to the gulags in Siberia.
Cathedral Island is the oldest inhabited part of Wroclaw with evidence of the first settlers going back to the 7th and 8th Century AD. There have been churches here since 1000 AD and the views across the River Oder to the island are lovely – one of the best spots is close to the gnome in the digger. The cathedral was started in 1244 and took 346 years to build but was reconstructed much more quickly after WWII destroyed most of the building. Other churches on the island are the Church of St Giles and the Church of our Lady on Sand.
500 metres west of the main station Wrocław Główny along Piłsudskiego, at the junction with Swidnicka, the visitor will find the sculpture called Passage. On one side of the road seven life-size bronze statues disappear into the pavement and on the other side seven more figures re-emerge apparently from under the road. This is a highly unusual piece sculpted by Jerzy Kalina. The unveiling in 2005 coincided with the 24th anniversary of the imposition of Martial Law.
The painting was created over 100 years after the battle at the behest of some patriots in the then Polish city of Lwow. The group of painters completed the work in around 9 months. After WWII the painting was sent to Wroclaw but the authorities didn’t wish to display it because they thought the subject matter would upset their new Soviet friends. It was only in 1985 that the canvas was shown for the first time in Wroclaw and it has been a popular attraction ever since. Visitors get 30 minutes to see the painting and should use the audio-guides as these provide a detailed overview of all the scenes. The numbers of people are limited so things don’t become too crowded.
To the north of the Old Town is the University Quarter which stretches to the River Oder. This quarter contains the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, built by The Jesuits as part of the university in the late 17th-century on the site of the former Piast castle. Part of the castle structure can still be seen in the northern sacristy. The interior is painted to imitate marble and gilt and is very well preserved. Most of the furnishings are original.
The most famous attraction in the whole of Wroclaw is a beautiful Polish panoramic painting inside an ugly Soviet-style concrete pavilion – perhaps a metaphor for the subjugation of Poland by the Soviet Union. The painting is called the Panorama of Raclawice, 15 metres high and 114 metres long. It depicts a Polish victory over The Russians on 4th April 1794. The forces of Tadeusz Kosciuszko won the day in their independence fight against the Tsarist forces of General Alexander Tormasov, though it wasn’t to last as the Russians soon defeated the Polish Armies.