The first time I heard of Wrocław was in about January this year, when I found an article on ‘things to do’ there in the travel section of the Sunday Age. Although I tore it out and blue-tacked it to my wall, I can only remember one thing on the list: Gnomes. The article said that there were dozens of little bronze gnomes dotted around the city, and that they could be found at almost all the major sights in Wrocław. That was it – despite not having any idea what else I wanted to do in Poland, Wrocław had made my list of must-see cities. Why? Purely because of the gnomes. I envisaged spending a day with my camera out, hunting down as many gnomes as I could find.
While gnome-napping in the dead of night may be a bit more exciting than simply gnome-hunting, when the little buggers are equipped with GPS trackers… it’s best to leave them where they are. Plus, the gnomes of Wrocław are a little better attached to their locations than the average garden gnome so you’d need some serious equipment to take them with you.
I was interested to learn that while the cute and lovable bronze gnomes have only graced the city since 2005, when the town council commissioned a local artist to make thirty [there’s now about 150], the importance of gnomes in Wrocław dates back to the Communist period, specifically the 1980s. What do gnomes have to do with communism I hear you ask? Well, in the late 1980s gnomes were the ‘calling card’ of an anti-communism movement called the Orange Alternative, an underground organisation that used absurdity to ridicule the government. Where anti-government graffiti was painted over by the authorities, the Orange Alternative would paint over the fresh paint…with pictures of gnomes. Apparently the idea caught on, and in demonstrations and for festivals locals would dress up as gnomes. So the gnomes are partly a tribute to the Orange Alternative, but mostly a lot of fun for locals and tourists alike – the locals love the gnomes and it’s got to the point where everyone has to have one – restaurants and clubs are commissioning their own gnomes, as are hotels. Apparently you’re nobody in Wrocław unless you have a little bronze gnome outside your shop!
I must admit I’d expected the gnomes to be bigger – about knee height. Most are only about eight inches tall. To find them, you have to look everywhere, not just on the ground. There are gnomes on benches, wrapped around street lights, down on the banks of the river. They push boulders, wave sunflowers, pass out from too much food, sit chained behind bars, lug heavy suitcases, ride motorbikes or push wheelchairs and more. Each is unique, and often relates to the building it is in front of.
I discovered that the tourist office actually sells a map showing the location of about half of the gnomes, making it in theory easier to find them. In practice it’s still a challenge as they’re so small, and the marks on the map are pretty general. The easiest way to find them is to head over to where you see a couple of tourists with cameras crouching down.
It’s safe to say that I had a great time hunting down the Gnomes of Wrocław. I didn’t find them all, but then no one knows exactly how many there are.