I step off the train and, as I drag my bag towards my hotel, the sunlight glints off something lying on a manicured mound of grass in the piazza in front of the station. I go closer to inspect and find a small bronze statue of a dwarf blissfully reclining in the grass, soaking up the sunshine. I’m in Wroclaw, Poland’s fourth largest city, and the European Capital of Culture for 2016. And I’m chuffed to spot my very first dwarf within my first five minutes in the city.
In the 1980s, when Poland was under communist rule, the Orange Alternative Movement started in Wroclaw as a way to peacefully protest against the authoritarian regime. Led by the student agitator Waldemar Fydrych (nicknamed The Major), the movement took to overt silliness (dressing up as dwarfs, complete with orange peaked hats) and anti-establishment graffiti as a mark of dissent. Wherever the communist militia whitewashed the graffiti, the Orange Alternative would quickly paint it over with their symbol — the cheeky orange dwarf. The movement eventually became a part of the larger Solidarity Movement that led to the fall of Communism in Poland. In 2001, the city of Wroclaw decided to honour the movement by placing a dwarf statue, named Papa Krasnal, on the corner of Ulica Świdnicka where the Orange Alternative demonstrations often took place. In 2005, the city council commissioned a local artist to create five more dwarfs, and since then new dwarfs have popped up all over Wroclaw. At last count there are upwards of 400 of them.
“It’s like playing Pokémon Go,” laughs Kuba, my guide for the day. But instead of catching virtual creatures, you can go around the city looking for these little people, usually not more than a foot tall, and almost always engaged in some sort of activity. We begin at the majestic statue of Aleksander Fredro (a 19th-century Polish poet and author) and walk a few paces towards the entrance of the Old Town Hall, where we spy a cluster of three dwarfs — a blind dwarf is flanked by a wheelchair-bound dwarf and another who appears to be hard of hearing. “These dwarfs were put here by the city council to portray Wroclaw’s image as a disabled-friendly city,” explains Kuba.
Many of the dwarfs have been put up by local businesses and are a form of advertisement. We spot a dwarf sprawled on a pizza outside the local Pizza Hut, another handing out newspapers outside a café (which was formerly a newspaper kiosk), and yet another sitting with two ice cream cones outside one of the ubiquitous lody (ice cream) parlours. Outside the main building of the University of Wroclaw, we find a rather scholarly, bespectacled dwarf wearing graduation robes, and reading a book. His hat appears to be particularly well polished; Kuba tells me that rubbing a dwarf’s hat is supposed to bring you good luck, hence all the shiny hats.
Near the red-bricked, Gothic St Elizabeth’s Church, just off the market square, we spot two firemen dwarfs ‘running’ towards the church, hose in hand. “The soaring tower of the church was a prime target during lightning storms and often caught fire, hence these little guys were placed here as a symbolic gesture,” explains Kuba.
The dwarfs are placed on a low concrete block instead of directly on the road or pavement surface. A few years ago, the city council came up with a rule that dwarfs cannot be erected directly on the street, hoping to stop new statues from cropping up. “In Poland there’s always a work-around for any rule, so people started putting new dwarfs on a block,” laughs Kuba.
Most of the dwarfs that we see are male, and I ask Kuba about this apparent gender discrimination. “It’s probably got to do with folklore where the dwarfs are usually male,” he says, but he does point out a couple of female dwarfs on our tour — a Bavarian belle holding beer mugs above the entrance of a beer hall, and another handing out pills outside a pharmacist.
From political ideology to playful city ambassadors, the krasnale (dwarfs) have come a long way. Much like Wroclaw, they have emerged from the shadow of communism to now welcome visitors with a happy smile and a warm heart.
There are no direct flights from India to Poland. Fly Lufthansa (and codeshare partner LOT Polish Airlines) via Munich to Wroclaw
The three-star Hotel Sofia is located across the street from Wroclaw’s main station, and is a good base from which to explore the city. The rooms are comfortable and elegantly appointed and have all basic amenities. Wi-Fi is free in the hotel. www.hotelsofia.pl
Go dwarf hunting with Free Walking Tour — available twice or thrice a week, depending on the season. The two-hour tour is free but a donation is recommended. www.freewalkingtour.com/ wroclaw
Get a taste of authentic and traditional local food (with a side of Polish culture) on a three-hour food walk around the city with Wroclaw Food Tour (200 Zloty/₹3,500). www.wroclawfoodtour.com
The wooden, half-timbered Churches of Peace in Swidnica and Jawor are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and make for a convenient day-trip from Wroclaw
(one to two hours by road or train).
The13th-century Ksiaz Castle is another must-see attraction
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