On a recent visit to Iceland we learnt about the elves and trolls that live there but we didn’t see any because they are invisible but here in Wroclaw we very soon came across the dwarfs because they are not nearly so shy and can be found posing outside buildings and along the footpaths all over the city and this afternoon we bought a dwarf map of Wroclaw and went looking for them.
The map must be rather old and out of date because it lists only seventy-nine of these little people but the dwarfs own web site (http://krasnale.pl/) says that there at least two hundred and five and some sources claim that there are as many as two hundred and fifty so the chances of seeing them all in one afternoon seemed hopelessly ambitious.
Dwarfs have long held a place in Polish folklore and their current iconic status as symbols of Wrocław actually has political and subversive origins. Under communism gnomes became the rather unlikely symbol of the Orange Alternative movement – an underground protest movement that used absurdity and nonsense to stage peaceful protests. Armed with paint cans the group specifically ridiculed the establishment’s attempts to censor public space.
During the communist era any anti-establishment graffiti or public art was quickly painted over by the authorities but upon seeing fresh censorship paint the Orange Alternative quickly painted over them yet again…with dwarfs. The first gnome in its modern statuette form was placed on a busy crossroads near a subway where Orange Alternative demonstrations often took place in 2001.
We started in the Market Square and at first it all seemed incredibly easy and within a few minutes we had spotted at least twenty using our guide pamphlet as a sort of ‘I Spy Book’ that we used to have when we were children but then the going got tougher as we were forced into the adjacent streets to go in search of our quest.
To the south of the Market Square we walked as far as the old city moat and then back to the centre via the Four Temples District and then we went north again back towards the University searching high and low for the little fellows.
As we walked around we were impressed by the discipline of pedestrians when it came to crossing the road and we were surprised to see crowds of people standing obediently at a crossing waiting for the lights to change.
Kim suggested that this might be to do with having grown up under an authoritarian regime but we discovered later that the reason for obeying this rule so diligently is the fact that the local city police will quite freely hand out a 50-100 zloty fine for crossing a road at a place where no crossing is marked or, where there is one, a minimum 100 zloty fine when the ‘walk’ light is red and we considered ourselves very lucky because many times during the day we had ignored the red lights and casually strolled across the road when the road was clear as we tend to do back home.
There is however a good reason for this police road crossing enforcement because Poland has the worst pedestrian road deaths statistics in the European Union and accounts for 25% of all such road fatalities whilst the population of Poland only constitutes a disproportionate 8% of the EU total. In the major cities pedestrian deaths account for 60% of all road deaths and in 2010 three hundred pedestrians were killed on designated controlled crossings.
Looking back I can see the sense of the rules now because the crossings all have a confusing arrangement of converging pavements, streets and tramlines and the traffic use does not always conveniently coincide so it would be quite easy to watch for cars and then get run down by a forty-tonne tram and there is only going to be one realistic outcome from that sort of encounter.
I suppose we had almost doubled our dwarf spotting total to about forty when the light began to fade and we were sure that we were missing some now and it had begun to turn colder so we abandoned the dwarf hunt and made our way to the ‘Drink Bar’ which had already, even after only one day, become our favourite bar in Wroclaw.
We didn’t stay long because Kim had an appointment at the hotel spa for a massage so while she went back I found a mini-market and bought three different cans of Polish lager, Zywiec, Tyskie and (I had to be careful with this one) Warka and then took them back to the room to conduct a beer tasting experiment and later that night when I had finished them all I decided that I liked them all equally.
Later we walked out again as far as the Market Square where the workmen were putting the finishing touches to the stage scaffolding and then choose a traditional Polish restaurant for evening meal. It was a pleasant place and we ordered wine and a two course meal but as the first plate arrived we immediately realised that we shouldn’t have because the portions were positively massive – the people of Poland it seems have very large appetites.
It had been a good day and as we walked back under the stars we looked forward to completing our sightseeing tour of the city the next day.