Poland

The Wroclaw Dwarves

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I’ve mentioned them in my previous articles about Wroclaw but felt they were such a charming idea that they deserved an article all of their own. They are, of course, the Wroclaw Dwarves.

Back before the Soviet Union fell, when Poland was under Soviet domination, various anti-communist groups began in Poland. Among them was the Orange Alternative, in Wroclaw. Because their meetings had to be kept secret, the members had to find a way of communicating directions to meetings by code. The image of a dwarf was selected as part of the communication system – information about meeting locations could be hidden in the way the dwarf was depicted.

Soviet rule over Poland lasted until 1989. In 2005 Polish city officials in Wroclaw decided to build a memorial acknowledging the role played by Organisations like Orange Alternative, and a cast-iron statue of the iconic dwarf was placed in the main city square. Since then the Wroclaw dwarves have become part of the culture of Wroclaw. By 2015 there were more than 350 dwarves to be found across the city – all involved in different tasks. Most of the figurines are cast-iron and range between 20 and 30 centimeters in height.

The Wroclaw dwarves have become something of a tourist attraction, and visitors may choose to combine sightseeing with a hunt to locate all the dwarves while they’re in the city. The tourist shops can provide you with a map showing the location of the dwarves, and there is even an app that you can use to help locate them. But many people simply decide to walk around and see which dwarves they meet while they’re out and about. You never know when you’ll encounter one – they’re not shy exactly, but love to sneak up on you and suddenly appear. As we discovered to our joy as we walked around the city.

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To tell you about a few of the Wroclaw dwarves we bumped into on our travels, we met a dwarf washing clothing in the river Oder, one studying a political treatise, a dwarf pushing a huge rock whilst, unbeknown to him, another dwarf was pushing the same rock from the other side, a lady dwarf examining herself in a mirror and (my personal favourites) a group of three Wroclaw dwarves with disabilities – one blind, one hearing impaired and one who is in a wheelchair. This group of dwarves are believed to scour Wroclaw after the humans have gone to sleep, ensuring the city is totally accessible to those of us with special needs. And, as far as I could tell, they’re doing a pretty good job!

As you can imagine, the creation of new cast-iron dwarf figurines is managed by an official process – they are so much part of the culture that I’m sure many people and organisations would love to create their own. In fact, they’re so integrally linked to the culture of the city that Wroclaw has an annual festival for the dwarves in September each year.

I’ve included photos of the accessibility team of dwarves, and the dwarf washing his clothes in the Oder river, just to give people an idea of how charming they are.

If I ever have the opportunity of returning to Wroclaw I’d definitely want to spend more time meeting these charming characters and discovering what they’re up to. I was totally captivated by the creativity and charm of the concept.

Wroclaw: Discovering Context on the River Oder

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I usually try to find out about a city before going there. Learning a city’s story helps me build an impression of what I might find when I arrive. And then I use my experiences in that city, and all that I learn from my other senses, to build a more complete picture.

That wasn’t possible when we went to Wroclaw. We only planned to go to the city later in our trip. Our plans changed when the weather in our next proposed destination, Zakopane – a small but beautiful ski resort in the mountains outside Krakow – was dismally unpleasant. So we went to Wroclaw instead. Which is a very long and complicated way of saying that I had done no research on the city.

I was delighted when we took a tour on the river Oder and discovered our skipper/guide was a goldmine of information of the history of his city. More than that, since we were the only passengers on the boat, we were able to ask questions and dig deeper into any aspects that intrigued us.

Here’s my potted recent history of Wroclaw, based on what I learned from our guide:

Wroclaw has a fascinating recent history. It only became a Polish city when Europe was carved up following WWII. Previously it was a German city named Breslau, with a strongly German population. When the new borders were confirmed, there was an almost total population change – the Germans left (or in some cases were forcibly removed) and the city became populated by Polish nationals.

After WWII, Poland fell under the domination of the Soviet Union. The underground anti-communist organizations Fighting Solidarity and Orange Alternative were founded in Wroclaw. Orange Alternative used an image of a dwarf to help members find their way to secret meetings, and the dwarf symbol has now been adopted in a wonderfully unique way – but more on that in my next article.

With the fall of Soviet power in 1989, Poland started becoming the friendly, fun and dynamic country Craig and I enjoy visiting. Which doesn’t mean everything in Wroclaw has gone smoothly…

In 1997, the river Oder flooded with devastating effects – it was the worst flooding in post-war Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. About one-third of the area of the city was flooded and took huge amounts of time and money to repair.

Nowadays the city has a population of around 1 million, with almost 130 000 students studying at the university, which gives it a very youthful population.

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After our river tour we started exploring the city on foot. As we visited interesting buildings, sampled the city’s markets and eateries, and engaged with people, I was struck by how young and cosmopolitan the city is.

While Wroclaw isn’t a hugely popular tourist destination, we encountered tourists from several countries and heard different languages and dialects. I found most people friendly and happy to chat about the city to an inquisitive tourist (me) which leads me to agree the city motto is an apt one: Wroclaw – The Meeting Place.

I’m not sure I’d go back to Wroclaw to stay for an extended period of time, but I would be very tempted to go back to meet more of the Wroclaw dwarves – which I’ll tell you about in my next article!

The images show a view of the river Oder taken on our tour, and a shot of one of the busy outdoor markets in the main square of Wroclaw.

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Note: My use of the term dwarf is not meant as an offensive and non-politically correct reference to persons of small stature; it is the term used by the city itself – and I’ll explain more in my next article.

Wroclaw – Sometimes You Can’t Trust First Impressions

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I’d planned to write an article about some of the wonderful restaurants we visited in Gorlitz, but somehow this was the article that landed up writing itself instead…

My first impressions of our next destination weren’t great. We were exhausted by the time we climbed off the train in Wroclaw, Poland. , Somehow, despite numerous hiccups we eventually found the place we were going to stay– hiccups which included a total absence of taxis, and following what seemed to be a pirate’s highly convoluted treasure map where X marked the location of our apartment.

And it just got worse from there…

Have you ever wished you could take back time and change your actions? I know it wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome – in fact, it would only have made the situation worse. But still, if I could go back in time I wouldn’t have accessed the wi-fi when we got to the apartment. Because that was when we got the news that my beautiful retired guide dog, Eccles, was seriously ill and that we needed to contact the vet to discuss our options. Sadly, there weren’t really any options at all and we tearfully said goodbye to Eccles via a long-distance voice call and let her ease gently into an eternal sleep.

All things considered, perhaps I can be forgiven my less than favourable first impressions of Wroclaw.

Having said that, neither of those were the fault of Wroclaw itself, and there is much to recommend this charming city- the weather was beautiful and we took full advantage of the warm days to walk around and see what the city had to offer.

We spent time browsing through the large permanent daytime market and sampled a few of the restaurants on the main pedestrian square where we enjoyed several local delicacies. We also went on a tour of the city via river boat with a very knowledgeable guide who shared a little of the city’s history with us.

And, of course, there were the Wroclaw dwarves, which I personally felt were the single most endearing aspect of the city.

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I’ll probably still have a chance to tell you about our culinary experiences, but perhaps not just yet…
In my next few articles I’ll share a little more about our experiences in Wroclaw and how the city managed to redeem itself from that admittedly rocky start.

Gorlitz: My Experience of the Europa Marathon

Before you get the wrong idea, no, I didn’t run the Europa Marathon in Gorlitz -not a single step of it. However, I did get to experience more of this marathon than I usually do.

Here’s what usually happens when Craig’s running a marathon. The alarm goes off at some ridiculous time, Craig gets ready and leaves for the race, and I sit at home and get on with my own stuff. Then Craig comes home, showers, eats, and naps… and I get on with my own stuff. Sometimes I’m able to track what’s happening on the race on the Racetec IOS app, like I did when Craig ran the Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra-marathon earlier this year. And once I even got to hand out baby potatoes to hungry runners since the route of the Peninsula Marathon goes right near our house. But usually it’s simply not practical for me to experience more of the races Craig runs.

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Which is why the Europa Marathon was such a great opportunity for me to experience more. Our apartment was 5 minutes from the start. In South Africa marathons start really early in the morning – usually around 6 AM. In Europe they start a lot later, which meant that the alarm went off at a more human hour, and we even had the time to have breakfast before Craig left. We were so close to the start/finish that I could make out the faint sounds of the announcers as they commentated on what was happening, but just couldn’t make out what they were saying.

When Craig finished the race he walked back to the apartment, Whatsapped me, and I met him in the foyer of the building. It was a lot easier me climbing down the 3 floors than it would have been for him to climb up them having just run 42.2 kms! And then we went to enjoy the post-race festivities together.

I can’t really comment about what happened on the race itself. That’s for Craig to share if he decides to blog about it. But he certainly had lots of stories to share– like the people who gave him a much appreciated beer on the route, and his reflections on the difference between the crowd support compared to the Athens Marathon or those he runs in Cape Town. But, like I said, those are his stories to share on his own blog.

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What I can share is how much fun it was for me to be able to experience the atmosphere at the end of the race. As I sat there sipping my glass of wine I was able to listen to what was happening around me. Runners being enthusiastically welcomed by supporters and the commentator as they crossed the finish line. Fellow participants sharing their experiences, even if they lacked a common language to do so – you’d be amazed at how much communication is possible from simply having shared an experience. And the laughter and chatter of all those who came to be part of the event. For once, I was able to experience the ambiance that Craig does at several of his races.

I don’t yet know which overseas marathon Craig plans to do next, or how the experience will be for me, but I’m confident it’ll be a lot of fun!

Gorlitz – A Charming Start to our Adventure

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There’s something special about medieval towns. I don’t know if it’s the charm of cobbled streets, the beautiful old buildings, the sense that time flows a little slower than it does in a modern city, or a combination of all of those.

Whatever the reason, I found myself falling under the spell of the town of Gorlitz, our first stop on our recent trip to Germany and Poland, almost immediately.

Gorlitz is the eastern-most town in the region of Saxony in Germany, on the banks of the Lusatian Neisse River which forms the border between Germany and Poland. On the other bank of the river lies the Polish town of Zgorzelec.

The difference between the two towns is marked – Gorlitz is a beautiful, old medieval town. Zgorzelec, at least the parts that I experienced, appears to be more austere with streets lined with modern apartment blocks, as you can see from the photo taken from the German bank of the river.

One of the things I found most fascinating was the fortuitous location of the towns –neither Germany nor the Allies were willing to bomb the towns for fear of bombing their own people. So the towns made it through WWII with no damage.

Gorlitz is far from being a tourist location, which is part of its charm. Sure, it means that few of the restaurants have English-language menus, but that’s not a significant problem and ordering food in German or Polish soon becomes part of the experience. We found some delightful local restaurants, including one that had a maze, that I may write an entire article about in the coming weeks.

Considering it’s not one of the usual tourist stops, a surprising number of people in Gorlitz speak good English so it’s not hard to make oneself understood, though our smattering of German and Polish did prove useful on occasion.

In the past few years , Gorlitz has gained a degree of popularity as a movie location – the 2013 movie of Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” was filmed there, as was the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

So, if it’s not usually a Tourist destination, you’re probably wondering how Craig and I landed up in Gorlitz. We were there for two reasons. It seemed a great first stop on our road and rail trip from Berlin to Krakow. The timing also just happened to coincide with the Europa Marathon which Craig hoped to run – watch for a possible article on that as well.

That’s just a brief introduction to what turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip – it certainly was a fantastic place to start off our adventure and, if you ever find yourself in Saxony, I’d definitely suggest you give it a visit.

Falling Back into the Habit

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I know, I know, it’s been ages since I published an article. It’s certainly not for lack of anything to write about. After all, I recently got back from an amazing trip to Germany and Poland about which I have lots to share. I also need to gather my courage and write a final post honouring my retired guide dog, Eccles, who passed away after a short illness. Then I want to tell you about some of the exciting blind travel work I’m starting on, and a media interview I did recently.

So yes, I have plenty to share with you.

But somehow I’ve just fallen out of the habit of settling down to write…

Today I took the decision that it was time to fall back into that habit. so here’s just a short note to let you know that I’m back – back home, back writing, and back willing and eager to share more of my experiences living my ordinary life without sight.

I was startled to see that Fiji also neglected to write an article while I was away – clearly she was just having too much fun on her holiday from guide dogging. Maybe I’ll wake her up just now and ask her if she actually plans on writing a post this month. But you know what they say about letting sleeping dogs lie?

All I’m saying is watch this space…

The Best Way to Follow My Next Adventure

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I can hardly believe it! After the fairly relaxed planning phase of the past few months, followed by the utter chaos of getting everything finished over the past few days, we’re finally off on our latest adventure – Berlin, Krakow and a number of exciting places between the two.

I’m going to continue posting articles while I’m away, but will probably only get to post once a week, rather than my usual twice.

If you’d like to follow my latest adventure, I’ll be posting regular updates and photos on my Facebook page. If you haven’t already subscribed (or rather liked) the page, it’s Lois Strachan – A Different Way of Seeing, and you can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/loisstrachanspeaker

Now, I think it’s about time I grab my bags, hug my dogs and go and catch a plane…

The Blind Tourist Travels Again

NewImageI know, I know – it’s been a while since I posted about a place where Fiji is welcome. And I will do so again soon, I promise. But you see, we’re busy planning our next overseas trip and I wanted to let you know where we’re off to this time, namely, Germany and Poland.

The main reason we’re travelling is to celebrate my brother Ian’s birthday in Krakow– and yes, it’s a big one! That, in itself, is a great reason to travel. But well, you know, since we’re going all that way we may as well make the most of it. So we’re taking the opportunity to spend a little time in Berlin, a city that neither I nor my husband have been to, and also to take a roadtrip through part of Poland we haven’t yet seen.

Our long distance flights are booked, and we’ve sort of figured out the route we’re going to take on our mini-roadtrip. Next up is the detailed planning –researching the places we plan to visit, and starting to figure out what we’ll need to take with us. For me that means starting my lists – lists of what clothes to pack, what books and music I want to take with me and, perhaps most importantly, what I need to buy to be sure I have all I need when I actually get round to packing.

At least this time I will remember to take my travel-sized hairdryer.

What? You think I’m crazy to take a hair dryer with me? Not so – last year when we went to Greece I promised myself I would never have to endure another cool evening with wet hair… so the hair dryer is now firmly on my packing list.

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