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In December we visited the Polish city of Wrocław. Now, first, lets sound this city out. “Wrocław” a typically awkward Polish city name, for an English speaker, but not as bad as some (Szczecin, I’m lookin’ at you). “Roe-claw” sounded right in my head, but deep down I knew it was so wrong. When a friend casually mentioned the city of “Vrots-waff” in conversation, the lightbulb went off. It made perfect sense. The Polish “W” sounds like an English alphabet “V”, as in victory and the “ł” makes our “W”, as in woof. Perrrrfect sense. Long “o” roll the “r” and say it with me “Vrots-waff” (Vrohtz-wahv). Wrocław. Now you’re on a first-name basis.
To further complicate things, this city- like many cities along the western border of Poland, including Szczecin where we now live- belonged to Germany prior to WWII. They were German, in what was then Germany. Poland’s history as a country is immensely complicated. Long story short, after WWII the shape of Poland changed (for like, the hundredth time in its history) as borders between its neighboring countries shifted. The western region of today’s Poland was handed to it by the Soviet Union. So, cities in this region still bear two names. Wrocław in Poland is Breslau in Germany. Szczecin is Stettin. You’ll see it referred to as both, depending on where you are and who you’re talking to. Driving on the highway in Germany, you’ll see both names printed on road signs.
We went to Wrocław/Breslau for its holiday Christmas market. Met friends there, and stayed at an Airbnb just off the main square. I adore European Christmas markets. Heavy emphasis on adore. They are magical, cozy, festive and delicious for all your senses. Like most of them, Wroclaw has theirs in their main town square, surrounded by colorful buildings, overlooked by a clock tower. Two things that will never, ever get old. European holiday markets, and European town squares. What I loved most about Wroclaw, though, were its gnomes!
There is a population of over 212 (or unofficially estimated at 400+) small bronze gnome statues, hidden in plain sight throughout the city. They were first commissioned in 2001, as a nod to an anti-communist resistance movement over censorship of free speech and public gatherings in the 1980s. During this time, printing presses and newspapers were shut down and communist propaganda was painted over resistance messages on city walls throughout Poland. The Wroclaw protestors began covering these propaganda attempts at silencing citizen’s free speech with street art, usually featuring mischievous gnomes. The movement gained popularity and people in dwarf costumes and hats began having peaceful protests to “free the dwarves”. Police tried to crack down on these and make arrests, but police officers arresting peacefully protesting dwarfs only succeeded in making the authorities look silly in the national media. The movement became known as The Orange Alternative. The group helped bring an end to violence with humor and topple the communist regime in Poland. To learn a lot more about The Orange Alternative, which remains an active group to this day, I highly recommend you check out the link to their museum website here.
Despite their roots in dark beginnings, we had so much fun finding as many of the little fellas and lady gnomes as we could! And really, I suppose, that is the whole point. We even purchased a gnome map from the visitor’s center located in the main Market Square (where the Christmas market is situated). The gnomes’ locations were mapped out with numbers, corresponding to the gnome’s name on a list on the back of the map. It was fun to get to know our new gnome friends on a first-name basis as we passed them in the street, by consulting our map. The details brought each character to life. Like a tiny bronze ice cream cone, momentarily set down on the windowsill of a sweets shop, to free up the hands of a dwarf thief, while he lowered a tiny box full of candy out of the window to his team mate, reaching up to grab their loot on tip toes. I loved it, Miles loved it, activity level rating 10 out of 10.
Now you’re on a first name basis with the city of Wrocław. It is difficult to say, and has a complex past. But you’ve cracked the code. The gnomes who live there serve as a reminder of the power in humor. That even in the darkest of times, light will overcome. Add Wroclaw to your itinerary tour of Poland, and say hi to the gnomes!
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