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I didn’t get to see as many Wroclaw attractions as I had hoped I would, mostly because for some reason, lately I’ve been having some pretty severe back pain. It’s especially bad in the mornings. Nevertheless, Wroclaw (pronounced ‘vrohtz-wahv’) is a pretty town, especially down by the old part of the city in the enchanting market square. Pastel colored buildings surround the vast square with cool architecture and plenty of gothic touches.

There are museums, art galleries, and churches to be visited, as well as many restaurants with a surprising array of culinary specialties offered. There’s also plenty of shopping. I couldn’t help but think back to the 90s, when Poland was a Peace Corps destination and wonder what the people who served as Volunteers back then would think of Poland today. I know Yerevan, Armenia, where I served, is vastly different now than it was in 1995… and yet it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that places like Wroclaw and Yerevan were off limits to the average American.

Wroclaw is known as the “Polish Venice”, because it sits on the banks of the Odra River and claims over 130 bridges which connect twelve islands. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to explore the bridges or the islands, thanks to my aching back. However, I still managed to enjoy myself and see some stuff that was close enough for this aging lady to walk to without too much trouble.

Speaking of the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union, I did notice quite a strong statement against communism in Poland. For instance, there are over six hundred bronze gnomes in Wroclaw, which first started appearing in the city in 2005. The gnomes are tiny, standing at about a foot tall each, and can be found on the ground, atop roofs, on window sills, or climbing up walls. I didn’t even come close to getting pictures of all of them, but I managed to find quite a few.

The gnomes are a reference to the Orange Alternative, an anti-Soviet resistance movement born in Wroclaw during the 1980s. The group used dwarves as its symbol and helped stamp out the communist regime through peaceful protests. From 1981-83, the Orange Alternative, led by an artist at the University of Wrocław named Waldemar ‘Major’ Fydrych, defaced communist propaganda with surrealist art as a means to protest the government’s oppressive restrictions against free speech and public gatherings. The early 1980s were a dangerous time in Poland. There was martial law, and people couldn’t even go out at night without taking significant risks. The gnomes were cute, and gave people something to smile and laugh at. They also helped show ordinary citizens how ridiculous it was that they were having to live with such oppression and to encourage them not to be afraid. Judging by what I saw in Wroclaw last week, the Polish people are now very happy to enjoy the nightlife and express themselves. Here are some pictures I took of the many gnome statues I found in Wroclaw.

You can actually purchase guides to finding these little guys all over the city. Just visit any souvenir shop! Personally, I liked stumbling across them without any help. They really give people a reason to smile… unless they’re like my friend, Mary Beth, who says gnomes give her the creeps!

I also made a video of raw footage from buskers I saw in Frankfurt, Germany and Wroclaw, Poland. Sunday night in Wroclaw, there were quite a few people on the market square in Wroclaw performing for tips. Here’s a look at that! It would have been nice if I’d used my digital camera, but it wasn’t as handy as my “handy” was.

Some talented people entertaining for euros or zloty…

I also visited beautiful St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, which was just across the street from the hotel. This church, which was once the primary Protestant church between 1525 and 1945, is one of the most striking and visible buildings in Wroclaw. It is currently part of the Catholic Third Order and the structure dates from the 14th century. It suffered severe hail damage in 1529 and was gutted by a fire in 1976. It’s important to remember that this church has a strong German heritage, since Wroclaw was once called Breslau and was a part of Germany. Since 1999, there has been a memorial at the church to Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a native of what was then Breslau, Germany, and martyr to the anti-Nazi cause.

There is a huge tower with an observation deck that can be climbed for a small fee, but I never saw it obviously open, we had several gloomy weather days, and my back wasn’t going to allow me to hike up the tower, anyway. Still, if you’re up for a stout climb and the tower is open, it might be worth doing just for the excellent panoramic shots you can get of the city. Here are some photos from inside this beautiful church.

Not being Catholic nor particularly religious, I can’t speak much for what this church is all about. I just like to visit churches in Europe because they are so incredibly beautiful and inspiring. I also appreciate the quiet and peacefulness of them… warmth and shelter on a winter’s day, coolness and shade in the summer.

Next post, back to food…

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