Wrocław: In Search of Gnomes
#travel in poland
default, Wrocław: In Search of Gnomes, The gnomes Głuchak, Ślepak and W-Skers, photo: Mieczysław Michalak / Agencja Gazeta, center, krasnale_wroclaw_fot_mieczyslaw_michalak_ag_img_9183.jpg
Majestic churches, fairytale market squares, amazing food and welcoming locals – after visiting the capital of Lower Silesia once, you’ll already be planning your return. People come to Wrocław to attend symphonic concerts, admire monuments of architecture or wander across the city’s numerous bridges. We’d like to suggest another activity – going on a gnome hunt.
Here, the heroes of stories and legends hide under benches, illegally smoke cigarettes, illicitly trade currency, sleep on the windowsills of cafes and practice magic on the roofs of churches. Let’s search for them together!
How did the gnomes show up in Wrocław?
Over recent decades, gnomes have become the hallmark of Wrocław. The city hosts a Gnome Festival; enthusiasts can walk along the tourist route ‘The Gnome’s Footsteps’ and purchase magnets depicting the fairytale dwarves in souvenir shops. According to legend, they appeared in the area that is now Wrocław many centuries ago. The gnomes helped people – they worked in the fields, nursed children, cooked food, tidied up homes, and patched holes in clothes.
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Krasnale, as the Poles call them, have from time immemorial been considered good spirits of this place. ‘Wherever gnomes live, peace, orderliness, and prosperity reign’, the residents of Wrocław say.
Gnomes – a symbol of protest
Whenever Poles fall on hard times, the gnomes are quick to help. In the 1980s, the Orange Alternative movement arose in Wrocław in protest of censorship and human-rights violations by the communist regime in Poland. Waldemar Fydrych, a student at the local university, came up with an unusual demonstration: he began to hand out orange caps to passersby on the street.
Polish Cabaret under the Communist Regime
I assumed that the police would just run after the people and rip the dwarf hats off their heads. The police surprised me – they began arresting everyone.
Everything went according to his plan: the policemen became full participants in the protest, and the ‘orange alternative’, whose demonstrations sometimes drew up to 15,000 participants dressed as the fairytale characters, went down in history as one of the most brilliant examples of bloodless struggle against a communist regime. Poles painted gnomes on city streets, sported caps and passed out candy and flowers, which angered the authorities.
Years passed, and sculptures of dwarves began to appear on the streets of Wrocław. The first figures (a musketeer gnome, butcher gnome, laundress gnome, and gnome-Sisypheans, who are pushing a large ball from different sides) were placed in 2005 by Tomasz Moczek, a graduate of the Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław. Since then, the number of these fairytale characters has only grown.
Dwarven music lovers
While walking around Wrocław, you must always be watching your step so as not to tread on any of the little ‘people’. By the latest count, around 400 fantastical dwarves can be met in the streets of the Lower Silesian capital.
A few of these are genuine musicians. They chose the most modern concert hall in the city as their dwelling place – the National Forum of Music (Narodowe Forum Muzyki, plac Wolności 1). Listen to classical music in one of the best venues in Europe and watch for the bassoonist, violinist, cellist and trumpeter gnomes, who stage their own solo concert at the entrance of the forum.
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Yet another music-loving gnome has taken up residence near the Market Square. The guitarist Leszko reminds passersby of the annual mass performance at this spot of the Jimi Hendrix song Hey Joe. Fans of the American rock musician’s work ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2019. In this Wrocław square, 7,423 guitarists played simultaneously. This annual tradition has been going on for over 20 years. Musicians from world-famous rock bands such as Kiss, Deep Purple, and Genesis have performed at the event.
Wrocław is home to over 100 bridges. While walking across one of these, the Piaskowy Bridge, keep an eye out for the chief workaholic of this locale. For more than 15 years, the laundry gnome has been doing the wash in the city’s main river, the Oder.
If there weren’t any gnomes, then we wouldn’t be able to admire Wrocław’s beautiful botanical gardens. It is they who are tirelessly transplanting plants, watering flowers, and tilling the earth. Don’t miss the trio of botanist dwarves who inhabit 23 Sienkiewicz Street.
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Those who don’t like to work too much will also find a kindred spirit in Wrocław. At 1 Świętego Mikołaja Street dwells a lazybones gnome. For more than 10 years, he has given the appearance of working as a guard, but everyone around knows that this little person spends most of his time asleep. He has achieved real mastery in his favorite occupation – the dwarf has learned to sleep while sitting without dropping his pike. Sleep enthusiasts, you have something to strive for!
A place for everyone
The world of the Wrocław gnomes is an ideal one; it holds a place for everyone. Here, no one feels lesser than anyone else. For example, disabled gnomes boldly move about the city, as the capital of Lower Silesia is accessible for handicapped people (and gnomes). You could be convinced of this by meeting the wheelchair gnome at the very center of the city, as well as blind and hard-of-hearing dwarves. These figures appeared in 2008, hoping to show that Wrocław is open to everyone, without exception.
The chief gnome of Wrocław, Papa Dwarf (who lives at ul. Świdnicka 8C) invites one and all to see the Old Town. Don’t miss out on meeting the gnomes depicting a partygoer (ul. Świętego Mikołaja 81), a bookworm (plac Teatralny 5), a tourist (Rynek 13), a weightlifter (Hotel Śląsk, ul. Oporowska 60), an ice cream man (ul. Sukiennice 3/4), a gourmand (ul. Kuźnicza 10), a labour striker (Rynek 10, near the PRL Restaurant), a veterinarian (ul. Sienkiewicza 33a), a sorcerer (the tower of the Cathedral of Mary Magdalen), and even a prisoner (ul. Więzienna 6).
Finally, don’t forget to come to the Gnome Festival, which takes place every August in Wrocław!
wrocław european capital of culture
Originally written in Russian by Eugeniusz Klimakin, May 2019, translated by Katherine Alberti, Sep 2020