Wrocław is Poland at its most charming and, for many, its least pronounceable (it’s ‘vrohtz-wahv’). Situated sublimely on the banks of the Odra river, the ‘Polish Venice’ boasts 130 bridges connecting 12 islands, one of Europe’s most breath-taking market squares, and a parade of pastel-coloured Renaissance mansions flanked by gas streetlamps that are still lit by hand each night.
But hidden beneath the city’s Gothic spires and Baroque palaces, there’s a tiny world waiting to be discovered: a legion of little people, each no more than a foot tall, lurking in the alleyways, peeking out from the doorways and swinging from the lampposts. Cheeky, bronze and oozing with personality, these pint-sized statues are the dwarves of Wrocław, and they’ve started running rampant.
View image of A parade of pastel-coloured Renaissance mansions ring Wrocław’s massive Market Square (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)
You may also be interested in:
• The last surviving sea silk seamstress
• The shipyard that changed humanity
• Greece’s disappearing whistled language
No-one knows just how many of these merry munchkins exist anymore, but officials estimate that there are now more than 400 of the little fellas going about their business. On my way from the bus station to the Old Town, I spotted a reclining dwarf cheerily sunning himself in the park, stubbed my toe on a bearded blighter working on a laptop near a cafe, and instinctively moved out of the way when I saw two boot-sized firemen rushing to put out a blaze.
Most visitors have no idea why these gnomes are so important
Stay long enough and you may find an entire society of dwarf merchants, bankers, buskers, professors and postmen. There’s a doctor holding a mini stethoscope, a gardener pushing a teeny wheelbarrow and a dwarf dentist extracting itty-bitty dwarf teeth. One is snoring by a hotel, two are kissing in front of the marriage registration office and 19 are performing a dwarf symphony outside the city’s concert hall.
“We lost count of their population several years ago,” admitted Robert Rasała, who manages the official dwarf information centre in the city’s market square. “Now, people are coming from all over the world to hunt for them, but most visitors have no idea why they’re so important.”
View image of A tiny bronze dwarf withdraws money at the ATM steps away from a bank in Wrocław’s Market Square (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)
Twee as they may be, each statue is actually a nod to the Orange Alternative, an anti-Soviet resistance movement born in Wrocław that used dwarves as its symbol and helped topple Poland’s oppressive communist regime in the 1980s.
The dwarves gave us something to laugh at
Armed with spray cans and led by an artist at the University of Wrocław named Waldemar ‘Major’ Fydrych, the group peacefully protested the government’s censorship of free speech and public gatherings during the period of martial law from 1981 to 1983 by defacing communist propaganda with surrealist-inspired street art – specifically, paintings of mischievous little gnomes.
“It was a terrible, dangerous time. You couldn’t go out on the streets at night and there were tanks and soldiers in the main square,” said Arkadiusz Förster, a journalist for Poland’s national Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. “The dwarves gave us something to laugh at, and that was the whole idea: to show how absurd the situation was and encourage people not to be afraid.”
View image of Wrocław’s two most famous dwarves, nicknamed Sisyphus, push against each other (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)
As the movement gained popularity, Fydrych began leading whimsical public marches through the streets of Wrocław, advocating for ‘dwarves’ rights’. Police tried to crack down on these subversive pro-gnome gatherings, but the resulting arrests made national news and only succeeded in making the authorities look ridiculous. Soon, tiny dwarf drawings began popping up on streets throughout Poland. The movement culminated on 1 June 1988, when 10,000 protestors descended on downtown Wrocław wearing orange cone-shaped hats and chanting ‘Freedom for the dwarves!’.
“That event became known as the Revolution of Dwarves,” Förster said. “It showed the world that communism was unravelling, and that people of all ages could join together to fight against the system peacefully.”
It showed the world that communism was unravelling
In 2001, the city decided to commemorate its history of artistic anti-communist rebellion by placing a bronze statue of a large dwarf – named Papa Dwarf – on Świdnicka street, where members of the Orange Alternative used to gather. Four years later, a local sculptor named Tomasz Moczek had an idea: what if he created tiny bronze dwarves, each representing a different part of Wroclaw’s history or daily life and placed them around the city?
Wrocław’s mayor commissioned Moczek to create the first five, and his early designs – including a hatchet-wielding butcher staring solemnly at the city’s medieval slaughterhouse and a trio of gnomes working together to push a human-sized shopping cart outside a city market – proved so popular that they’ve now spawned a sizable sub-population.
Seeing the Dwarves
Today, there is only one original dwarf drawing on the walls of Wrocław created by the Orange Alternative. To find it, head to St. Smoluchowskiego 22.
Don’t want to download an app or purchase an official Wrocław dwarf map to go gnome-spotting? No problem. Check out this Google Map of some of the Old Town’s most famous little residents.
Pair history with dwarf-hunting during the free Dwarves and Communism tour.
View image of Tomasz Moczek’s favourite dwarf, The Butcher, peers solemnly towards Wrocław’s medieval slaughterhouse (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)
Today, Moczek has created more than 100 of Wrocław’s gnomes, and inspired a collection of young sculptors to design delightfully quirky dwarf statues for local charities, shops and organisations. As the gnomes’ population has grown, people from all over the planet have started coming to find as many of these remarkably imaginative 1ft-tall wonders as possible.
“I wanted to create something that’s completely integrated into the city – something that seems like it’s always been there that you’re just now discovering.” Moczek said in his studio, holding up a model of the first dwarf he ever created: a crouching gnome washing his clothes in the Odra river.
“How come that dwarf isn’t wearing shoes?” I asked.
“He took them off so they wouldn’t get wet,” Moczek said. “Each dwarf has his own distinct character. I just create them as they are.”
View image of Sculptor Tomasz Moczek insists this dwarf removed his shows because he didn’t want to get them wet while washing in the river (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)
In fact, the city recently created an official website to help people better acquaint themselves with its littlest residents. Each has a name, a detailed backstory and unique habits. You can vote for your favourites, register new arrivals or catch up on the latest dwarf gossip. There are also dwarf-hunting maps, apps and walking tours; an annual September festival with a ‘Great Dwarf Parade’; and a winter tradition where locals dress the dwarves in little scarves, hats and mittens to help them stay warm.
After inviting me into his workroom, Moczek led me on a walking tour through Wrocław’s Old Town to point out his favourite petite progeny and reveal his process.
It takes three months to create each 4kg to 5kg creation, he explained, and it all starts with a sketch. He then creates a clay mould of the design that acts as a negative for the silicone and gypsum model that follows. Moczek makes four small holes in the model and carefully pours hot wax into it, making sure that the form has the same thickness throughout its body. After he completes any final retouching, he places the model into a 700C oven for 12 hours. The wax melts, leaving a cavity, and Moczek pours molten bronze into this area to make a cast. He then reheats it up to 1200C as the little dwarf gains mass and grows into a street-ready statue.
View image of It takes sculptor Tomasz Moczek three months to make each gnome (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)
“The hardest part is the moment I have to give them away,” Moczek said, bending down to examine Sleepyhead, who holds a teeny spear and was supposed to guard a knee-high gate leading to the mythical ‘Dwarf City’, but fell asleep on the job. “Sometimes, I like to go to their new resting places to see how they’re doing.”
As we approach Moczek’s most famous figurines – a pair of pals pushing a granite ball in opposite directions (named Sisyphus) – I asked him if he’s old enough to remember life in Wrocław during martial law, and he grew quiet.
“I was nine years old and wanted to get ice cream with my mother,” he said, staring at the ground. “We went outside and saw tanks coming and people running away. My mother fell down and got trampled. I didn’t know what to do so I just threw rocks at the tanks and hoped they’d stop.”
View image of Tomasz Moczek: "Maybe it’s just art, but for me, it’s something more." (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)
As Moczek raised his head, a stone-faced older gentleman slowly approached the two bronze figurines. The man bent down, snapped a picture and couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of mischievous little dwarves tramping through the streets.
“Maybe it’s just art,” Moczek said, flashing a smile. “But for me, it’s something more.”
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.