Friday 28 June 2019

The Gnomes of Wrocław, Poland

I wrote this piece for a newspaper some years ago, but it never appeared online. The gnomes are still there, so it's still current! Enjoy...

I’m on my way into a pub when I’m stopped by a dangerous revolutionary. With one fist raised in protest and the other support a flying banner, he looks up at me with clear disdain.

But perhaps I’m overstating my peril. For a start, he’s looking up at me because he’s only 50 centimetres high. And he’s made of stone. And he’s a gnome.

Yes, I’m not hunting wabbits, like Elmer Fudd - I’m hunting gnomes.

Walking through the cobblestone square of the beautiful city of Wrocław, in southwest Poland, I’m peering above doorways, at the ground, down alleys.

And I do find them - little statues of gnomes, doing a variety of tasks: telephoning, carrying suitcases, propelling a wheelchair, sleeping, even mouthing revolutionary slogans like my friend Leninek (Little Lenin in Polish), named after the father of the Russian Revolution.

But what are they doing here?

The gnomes, dozens of which have been placed permanently around the city, are a tip of the hat to the Orange Alternative, a communist-era dissident group that used humour as its weapon in the 1980s.

The leader of the group, Waldemar Fydrych, realised that physical struggle against the communist government would be suppressed, but ridicule was harder to resist. So he and his followers daubed gnomes on any wall where the authorities had painted over anti-communist slogans.

The difficulty of cracking down on such silliness without looking silly themselves had the communists in a bind, and kept the citizens of Wrocław sniggering.

Today’s gnomes are the work of local artist Tomasz Moczek. The first few were commissioned by the city council, but in recent years private companies have bought into the craze, commissioning gnomes that reflect the nature of their businesses.

Hence the Lenin gnome outside PRL, a pub decorated in communist kitsch. Elsewhere off the main square is a gnome making a telephone call high up above the doorway of a phone company, and a fat gnome lying on his back in a food bowl, just outside a pizza joint. Another gnome carrying a suitcase stands outside a nearby hotel.

What’s especially fun about the gnomes is that they’re not that easy to find. There are no signposts pointing them out, and they’re so small that you can easily walk past them, even when you’re specifically hunting them down.

Later in my quest, I spend ages popping in and out of the medieval complex of buildings in the centre of the square in search of a single gnome, only to finally discover him perched above the door to a police station.

There’s something very Polish about all this, reflecting the Poles’ dark sense of humour and the way public art blends into the older fabric of their cities.

They particularly underline the quirkiness and beauty of Wrocław. Around its streets, between gorgeous examples of baroque and Renaissance architecture, are scattered more intriguing items of street art.

The most striking is Crossing, a complex sculptural work which shows a full-size group of people approaching an intersection, disappearing beneath it as if being sucked down into the earth, then reappearing on the other side of the street. It’s breathtaking.

Not that Wrocław’s attractions are all modern. The most interesting sight in Wrocław dates from the 19th century.

The Panorama of Racławice, a huge circular painting housed in its own dedicated building, is both a cultural treasure and a historical curio. Before the cinema was invented, these vast panoramas were common in Europe, allowing visitors to imagine themselves in the middle of famous historical events.

The Wrocław panorama is one of the few to survive. Measuring 15 metres high and 120 metres around, it’s full of fire and action, depicting a famous battle of 1794 in which a Polish peasant army defeated a much larger Russian force.

Transported here from the east at the end of World War II, the painting sat in storage for decades while the communist authorities resisted its reinstalment. Finally, in 1985, it went up again.

It was worth the wait. Visitors look at the painting via a central platform, and various real-life objects have been placed between the walls and the viewers to enhance the effect.

I find myself peering intently, trying to spot the point where the real world and art join. It’s not easy to do… in one place the painted section of a scythe is joined by a real wooden counterpart, and the combined effect is very convincing.

Nearing the end of the day, I head back to the central square as Wrocław’s nightlife begins to gear up. Courtesy of its large university student population, the city has a lively entertainment scene, characterised by vibrant bars tucked into historic brick cellars beneath its streets.

The dining is diverse too, as Mexican and Italian joints vie with Polish cuisine from classic restaurants like Karczma Lwowska, which serves beer in old-fashioned ceramic mugs.

To start the evening, I opt for a quiet beer with my old friend Leninek at PRL. The bar’s remarkable interior is decked out with communist-era items salvaged from local attics.

Busts of socialist worthies decorate the walls, propaganda banners hide intimate alcoves, waiters prance around in red tracksuits, and 1970s music plays over the sound system.

It’s all a big joke, of course - nothing undermines an authoritarian ideology more than laughing at it. Which the gnomes have known all along.

Friday 21 June 2019

Away in Lorne

Every so often I feel the need to get away from work, to literally toss the phone in a hotel room drawer and ignore email, social media and everything else. When that happens, I usually choose Lorne.

The Mantra Hotel in Lorne, on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, was once Erskine House, popular accommodation for Melburnians seeking fresh sea air. It’s still a good place to head for that item, and as a non-driver I like it particularly because it a) can be easily reached by public transport; and b) it has the town on one side and the ocean on the other, so it’s easy to walk to everything.

The standard rooms are fine, but this time I was staying in a small apartment on the tree (rather than ocean) side of the property. It was a nice space with a proper kitchen, and I always appreciate being able to self-cater.

The gutter above the open-air terrace of the apartment seemed to retain water after rain, and this drew a set of regular visitors to the rooftop: sulphur-crested cockatoos!

These sizeable native birds are all over Lorne, often looking to cadge food from visitors, though signs everywhere tell you not to feed them. I saw plenty of cockatoos during my stay, as well as galahs and various waterbirds.

I have a pattern when I visit Lorne for a four-night stay. The first couple of days are spent largely collapsed on a sofa, reading; in between eating the buffet breakfast and swimming in the hotel pool (there’s a steam room there too, which I appreciate in colder weather).

On the second day I’ll stretch myself slightly by walking down to the excellent Swing Bridge Cafe just beyond the hotel, where the river flows into the sea.

It’s a beautiful spot in good weather, a great place to do more reading. Then I’ll cross the bridge and pass by the local supermarket for catering supplies. Lorne is a reasonably upmarket destination, and you can tell that fro the posh bread and cheeses on sale at the supermarket.

On the second or third full day, depending on weather, I’ll push myself a bit more by taking the coastal walk around past the beach to the pier. Next to it is a seafood restaurant which is a nice place to sit and have a drink or a meal, while looking over the ocean. I find it soothing.

Then I walk back to the hotel via the main road, which runs higher up and passes the local pub. Sometimes I’ll look in the shops, sometimes check out the film schedule at the old-school cinema.

It’s not a complex holiday, but sometimes that’s what I need.

Makes a hugely refreshing change from being somewhere where I have to stay alert, taking notes and framing photos for later use in published travel stories.

Love Lorne! Even the thuggish cockatoos that run the town.

Monday 17 June 2019

Remote Access: Catching a Train from Corrour, UK

I was hosted in Scotland by Visit Scotland.

The last thing I did on my visit to Scotland last week was perhaps the most interesting. Certainly the most surreal.

I caught a train from Corrour.

This may sound like no big deal, but Corrour is not that easy to reach. Located on the edge of the sprawling Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands, it's a private estate with a history of hosting visitors for hunting and fishing. In addition to enabling these activities, and providing onsite cottage accommodation, the estate also has its own mainline train station.

Corrour Station, the UK's highest mainline station at 408 metres, is not somewhere you can simply drive to. It has no public road access, so the only way to reach the station is by train (of course) from Glasgow or Fort William, or on foot. As Rannoch Moor is a starkly beautiful wilderness popular with hikers, it's a useful place to start or finish a walk.

Intriguingly, though there aren't many trains that pass each day, all of them stop at Corrour. You can even catch the Caledonian Sleeper train all the way to or from London from here, which I was intending to do the day I arrived at the station.

There's also accommodation at the station, with B&B rooms available inside the old signal box building.

The minor miracle which ties together all these uses is the Station House Restaurant. Though the station is in the middle of nowhere, its restaurant is open all day from breakfast to dinner. It's not uncommon for diners to come out on an early evening train from Fort William, have dinner then head back on the last train of the night.

I had a few hours to kill before the sleeper arrived on the way to London, so I had a late lunch at the restaurant, which has a marvellously warm and cosy interior. I could imagine it seeming an oasis to hikers on a cold day. Indeed while I was relaxing on a sofa a pair of walkers arrived who'd just trekked for some distance to meet a friend at the station, the latter arriving by train.

After lunch I donned some warm clothing (there was a chill in the air, despite it being June), and walked part of the way toward Loch Ossian, about two kilometres east of the station. At the loch there's a hostel with dormitory beds, inside a building which was once a boathouse.

It was good being out in the open. With the station's buildings hidden behind a rise, it felt properly remote, with impressive rugged hills on the horizon.

Returning to the station I whiled away a few hours reading, and chatting to the friendly staff between customers. Every table was booked for dinner that night, and as dinnertime approached there was a sudden rush of new arrivals, coming by train either from Fort William, from the adjacent accommodation, or from the hostel.

This lively group of revellers gave this unlikely remote eatery a festive mood, and I felt a bit regretful leaving them behind to walk upon the cold platform as I waited for the London train.

But then the Caledonian Sleeper arrived, I jumped aboard, and Corrour was lost to sight as we began the long haul south. Though I had a strange feeling that I would be back.

Sunday 9 June 2019

Review: The Beaumont, London, UK

I stayed in London as a guest of The Beaumont.

Good ol’ Jimmy Beaumont. When Prohibition hit the USA, he moved to London and gave Mayfair the swellest, swankiest hotel that it had ever seen.

Or... did he?

When I arrived at The Beaumont last week for a two-night stay, I was impressed from the start. Everything in my room harmonised in a stylish, Art Deco way, which spoke of decades of devotion to a consistent interwar style:

The 20th century elegance extended throughout the hotel, including the marvellous Magritte Bar and Colony Grill Room, the latter lined by large paintings depicting 1920s New York City and other parts of the USA:

It was delightful. Except, of course, that Jimmy Beaumont was a myth. The Beaumont was not pushing a hundred years old either - it opened just five years ago, in 2014, within (get this) a former parking garage serving customers of the nearby Selfridges department store. 

The garage which opened in 1926 had, fortuitously, a beautiful facade which could be put to other uses - including the addition of Room, a sculpture which looks like a sleeping robot but is in fact the exterior of an unusual hotel room:

This bit of cheeky fun - inventing a colourful founder and then designing the hotel around his imagined tastes and personality - is an approach I thoroughly approve of. As a writer, the storytelling has great appeal; it makes The Beaumont a stimulating place to stay in, as you glance over its interiors with an eye to its fictitious founder.

And if Jimmy never existed, I doubt any of the people depicted in portraits on its corridor walls existed either. Sorry, random naval officer:

Just the Facts:
The Beaumont
Brown Hart Gardens, Mayfair, London, UK
Rates: Rooms from A$780 per night.