Forget fairy tales and Disney movies. If you want to see hundreds of gnomes or dwarfs, head to Wroclaw (pronounced Vrots-vof). The southern Polish city of over 600,000 has an additional 350 bronze gnomes added to its population. Each dwarf is unique, usually depicting an activity, like working, banking or playing an instrument.
The hunt for these foot-high creatures became an obsession for me. They are not so easy to spot and I had to spend much of my time in the city looking down to find them. Most are on the street, hidden in corners. Some are on benches. A few were on window sills. I was determined to find as many of them as I possibly could.
My favorites were the dwarfs that had an edge – a dwarf riding a motorcycle; another playing the bongo drums with dreadlocked hair; or two downing a bottle of wine.
These adorable statues aren’t just a novelty attraction for the city. Its origins are political. During the communist rule of Poland in the mid-1980s, a group of anti-regime protestors known as the Orange Alternative utilized graffiti of gnomes to rebel against the government. The group regularly participated in demonstrations that were intended to ridicule the government as a break from the violent protests of the early 1980’s. The movement picked up a following, leading to over 1,000 graffiti depictions of gnomes across the city.
Sadly, the authorities painted over the gnomes. Since the fall of communism in Poland, the Orange Alternative movement died out.
However, in 2001, city authorities paid homage to the movement when they erected a bronze statue of a dwarf (today known as “papa dwarf”) on Świdnicka Street, where the group used to meet. Since then, artists, nonprofits and corporates have been placing their own versions of bronze gnomes throughout the city.
Unfortunately, I failed to find every dwarf. I don’t think it is entirely possible to find each one, unless you “cheat.” (There is a dwarf map available for purchase but I did not use it.) Out of 350 statues, I found over 60 of them.
Nevertheless, the hunt for these little statues was a fun activity to not only explore Wroclaw’s beautiful city but to also immerse into Poland’s political history.