Wrocław: UNESCO City of Literature

more than a year ago
2016 was a big year for Wrocław. First and foremost, it was a year that the city would spend boasting the title of UNESCO Capital of Culture, an honour it shared with San Sebastián, Spain, and one that would draw throngs of visitors from abroad and generate a packed calendar of cultural events. Less visibly, it was also the year when Wrocław could call itself UNESCO Book Capital, a distinction granted due to the city’s vigorous efforts to popularise readership and literature with regular festivals, fairs, and meetings with authors. During Wro’s Book Capital stint, a jaw-dropping 1640 literary events took place, with some 4000 distinguished literary guests invited from Poland and abroad.

Something else happened that year, though - in January, the Wrocław House of Literature (Wrocławski Dom Literatury) came into existence. With recent Nobel prize winner Olga Tokarczuk among its members, the organisation took it upon itself to expand the city’s already impressive literary programme, increase support for authors and translators, and, crucially, apply for UNESCO City of Literature status. The good news was announced on October: Wrocław would join the distinguished Cities of Literature bunch along with ten others - Angoulême, France; Beirut, Lebanon; Exeter, UK; Kuhmo, Finland; Lahore, Pakistan;  Leeuwarden, Netherlands; Nanjing, China; Odessa, Ukraine; Slemani, Iraq; and Wonju, South Korea. This makes it the fourth Polish city to enter the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, after Kraków (City of Literature since 2013), Katowice (City of Music since 2015), and Łódź (City of Film since 2017).

So, is Wrocław a city of famous Polish literary figures, birthplace of Adam Mickiewicz, perhaps, or of Henryk Sienkiewicz? Not really. In fact, the city doesn’t have much of a Polish past (if we’re talking about the last 700 years, at least), literary or otherwise. We’ve explained that whole deal here, but a quick summary goes as follows: Wrocław changed hands a lot throughout the ages, but was German - functioning under the name Breslau - from 1741 until WWII, after which it was given to Poland. Even as a German city, though, it wasn’t much of a literary hub; surprising, perhaps, given its size. Its best contribution to world literature came from the niche genre of German Baroque poetry, with the First and Second Silesian School of Poets flourishing here in the 17th century. The most influential of these Baroque poets was Angelus Silesius - yes, ‘Silesian Angel’ - whose true name was Johannes Scheffler. The great religious poet was also a physician and a Catholic priest, who converted from Lutheranism after immersing himself in the works of medieval Catholic mystics. Today, his name is attached to not one, but two literary prizes: the Angelus Central European Literature Award and the Silesius Poetry Award, both given out by the city of Wrocław. You can even find a monument dedicated to him in the courtyard of the Ossolineum.

After WWII, Wrocław played second fiddle to more robust literary and cultural centres like Kraków and Warsaw. There are some famous names connected to the city, however; they include poet and playwright Tadeusz Różewicz, mystery writer Marek Krajewski, and some lesser-known characters like Tymoteusz Karpowicz and Jacek Inglot. Fortunately, what it lacked in writers, Wrocław eventually made up in literary events, which currently include the Silesius International Poetry Festival (taking place annually in May), Apostrof (Apostrophe) International Festival of Literature (May), European Literature Night (May), International Crime Fiction and Mystery Festival (May-June), Speculative Fiction Days (June-July), Authors’ Reading Month (July), International Short Story Festival (September-October), and Good Books Fair (December), plus regular events at the Wrocław House of Literature clubhouse PROZA, bookish cafes, and indie book shops.

These all will almost certainly take place again during Wro’s first year as City of Literature, but Wro is sure to cook up some new surprises as well - check our ‘what’s on’ section for up-to-date information.

That’s not all, of course. At any time of year, literature enthusiasts can also explore Wro’s cool independent bookstores, like Tajne Komplety and the Spanish Bookstore; find out all about Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz at the appropriately named Pan Tadeusz Museum; and inhale the sweet musty smell of old tomes at the Ossolineum Library

Happy bookworming!


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