Updated: Feb 24
Out of the box tourism
Krakow: a city of dreaming spires, ancient castles, dragons, myths, cobbled streets, cosy bars and coffee shops; an intellectual hub, a university town for seven hundred years; a must-do on the stag night circuit and the biggest tourist pull in Poland. Surely saturated as far as tourist ideas go? Well, since 2004, ‘Crazy Tours’ has thought otherwise. Intended as an off-beat but viable alternative to the usual historical circuit trudge, this Michael Palin-endorsed spin around Krakow’s least-visited and hitherto unexplored quarter – Nowa Huta – has been expanding exponentially since its inception, and shows no signs of slowing down. I decided to find out what is making this one of the great entrepreneurial tourist success stories in Poland….
I waited outside my apartment for my chauffeur to arrive: shivering, despite being heavily wrapped up. Sure enough, and bang on time, a bright blue Trabant pulled up. “Welcome to Krakow” cried my cheerful driver for the day, a bright young chap called Cyril, possibly unaware that I myself live here. One of the knowledgeable team of ‘Crazy Guides’ set up fifteen years ago by Michal Ostrowski (aka Crazy Mike), he chatted aimiably as we sped up the road out east of Krakow and to the Communist legacy that is Nowa Huta. Hunched into a rather uncomfortable space, camera and notepad wedged between my knees, the car lurched into fourth gear and nudged 50km/h, pretty much its top speed, as Cyril explained some of Nowa Huta’s history to me. As a long-term ex-pat, I was already well aware of this odd curiosity that sits on the city’s eastern fringes, an unwanted adopted child that is a bit of an embarrassment to Krakow’s often sniffy family.
Exploding Nowa Huta Myths
Built as a kind of antidote to the perceived ‘intellectualism’ of Krakow, and as a proletarian utopia in the brave new world of post-war, Stalin-controlled Poland, Nowa Huta (Literally and rather typically unimaginatively ‘New Steelworks’) was never popular amongst Poles, despite the wealth of propaganda. Today, it’s considered by most Krakowians as, at best, dull and uninspiring, and at worst downright dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. “The things that people say about Nowa Huta today are all myths,” explained Cyril. “They base their opinions on what existed twenty, thirty years ago. They have memories like elephants” True enough; having been to Huta on many occasions, I have never witnessed any violence or trouble, and despite Krakow's well-known pollution problems, the factory is a minor contributor to them. And yet, nary will you hear a positive word spoken about this area by a true Krakowian; they simply refuse to give it any credit whatsoever; as if blind to any possible benefits a trip there might have. As we pulled to a stop at Plac Centralny, we passed a sign which served as a stark reminder of the politicization of this area and its deep connection to the past; underneath the Polish name, Central Square, in big capital letters, was the name of Ronald Reagan. Only in this part of the world, it seems, is he still revered - a staunch opponent of Communism and enemy of the 'evil empire' as he dubbed the Soviet Union.
Drinking in Style
As we walked into the oldest restaurant in central Nowa Huta, ‘Restauracja Stylowa’ (Stylish Restaurant, somewhat implausibly), stomping the snow from our boots on the doorstep, I realized what a refreshing contrast this made to being on Krakow’s Rynek; a different world from the international tourist spots there, here one is confronted by few symbols of ‘modern’ Poland; instead, you are transported back to about 1973, when this was the cultural centre of a community which made up for in spirit what it may have lacked in true style. Busts of Lenin adorn the tables; an old man slurps his soup in the corner, a couple of women in their 60’s with big wigs and lots of makeup chat animatedly whilst supping Żywiec beer. At 2pm. A suspicious-looking man leans on a fruit machine by the toilet whilst a lady guards the toilets zealously, and only lets you pass if you grace her palm with 50 groszy (10p). There is a general air of faded grandeur. “This place used to be where it all happened”, explains Cyril, “it was the place where locals would meet on a Saturday night, dance, sing, drink and be merry. Many a marriage in this town had this place to thank”.
As I gazed around the room, at the gaudy but charming furniture and curtains, the thin tablecloths with cigarette burns in them, it seemed we had walked into a working museum, a glorious survivor of Communist times – perhaps one of the few left in modern Poland. Cyril spread out old maps and plans of Nowa Huta in front of me, examples of the ambitious idealism of the Communist architects. He explained the style and scale of the buildings here were designed as a reposte to Krakow, to give the people of Nowa Huta a sense of grandeur. Indeed, wandering through the arches and arcades around Plac Centralny, one is reminded of Italianate renaissance design, a certain classical whiff in the air which may one day be appreciated by locals who currently deride its so-called ‘Communist Realist’ style as hopelessly passé and charmless. “During the summer months, this place comes alive”, says Cyril, dreamily “the streets are clean, wide..there isn’t much traffic. And there are so many parks and trees! And the girls here…” he tails off at this point and I’m left to fill the gap, as it were, mentally. We finish off our coffees and head out into the cold again, bidding farewell to the barmaid who is bemused to see me taking a snap of the toilet attendant.
Work makes free
Cyril whisks me to the eastern flank of Nowa Huta – to the foreboding gates of the steelworks after which the town is named - the entrance to what was one of the largest steel producers in eastern Europe., and also one of Europe’s biggest polluters.“Today, production is only a fraction of what it used to be, but they still employ around 10,000 people here, though the chimneys don’t show it”, Cyril tells me as I gaze up at the sign outside: ‘Huta im. T. Sendzimira’ – slightly reminiscent of the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign outside Auschwitz – “and this place dwarfs central Krakow. There are shops, buses, roads in there, it’s a whole world in itself”. Unfortunately for us, this world remains a mystery to the casual tourist, as it’s strictly open only to employees except on rare occasions, for example when it hosts concerts such as Kraftwerk or Aphex Twin.
No doubt the industrial grandeur suited them. “When you stand on a hill outside Nowa Huta you get an idea of the size of this place – it’s huge,” says Cyril. It would be great to see this for myself, but instead we head off to have a more domestic taste of Communism – to one of the blocks outlying Plac Centralny (confusingly streets here do not have names, and you just get district names and block numbers, which admittedly does add to the Communist mystique but which must be a nightmare for postmen). “This flat will give you a unique flavour of Poland in the 70’s,” promises Cyril. I am led into the front room, where I am shown a short video on a 12 inch black and white about the construction of Nowa Huta : ‘Kierunek: Nowa Huta’ (Direction: Nowa Huta) shows a fascinating glimpse of Communist-era propaganda; lots of smiling, healthy workers in the sunshine and robust-looking women mucking in – a utopian vision which was far from reality, but which nevertheless adds to the kitschy, fun and possibly rose-tinted look at Poland’s recent history.
It was acceptable in the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's
The room is adorned with cheap and esoteric Communist memorabilia: shiny kitsch ornaments, plastic flowers, tacky wallpaper, even a packet of 80’s papierosy – Communist cigarettes, which you had to pinch the end of to create a ‘filter’ and prevent sucking the tobacco into your lungs. “Very unhealthy!” remarks Cyril, accurately. I am led into the kitchen and shown a vast collection of empty vodka bottles, including the ‘workers’ choice, Czerwony Kartka (Red Card), a brand which no doubt stripped paint if required. Not recommended, although a glass of Wyborowa may be proffered to Crazy Tourists. “Cheap, but effective”, grinned Cyril, “People had to have fun.
The state encouraged it – and they encouraged pre-marital sex too, by making condoms widely available” (this was confirmed by a very uncomfortable looking sheath in the bedroom) – “anything to undermine the church, who frowned on this”. Indeed. I very much liked this flat, a great insight into communist era living, and accurate – down to the minutest details, such as shampoo bottles and soap in the bathroom and even a basic top-loading primitive washing machine. “People weren’t so poor – they just didn’t have anything good to buy!” Cyril said as we made our way to our final port of call for the day – the ‘Arka Church’.
Symbols of resistance
“This church,” explains Cyril, “is a huge symbol for the people of Nowa Huta. They fought to get it and after years they finally got their way – the Communist regime finally allowed the people to build a church after years of wrangling, although they refused them permission to use steel from the local works – meaning that the structure took ten years to complete”. The Noah’s Ark-shaped building is not exactly easy on the eye; it is a grey, concrete affair. But the symbolism of this place to the locals, devout Catholics as much as any other sector of Polish society, should not be underestimated.
A tank that we passed on the way here was a reminder of the oppression these people felt; as Churchill once accurately pointed out, fitting Communism onto Polish society was “like saddling a cow” – and religion was the one reference point, beyond vodka – on which they could pin their hopes. A sobering thought, and one that makes you realize why Pope John Paul II – a statue of whom stands outside Arka Pana – is still such an adored figure in Poland, his part in the fight against Communism still remembered gratefully by Poles.
Nowa Huta today stands as a stark reminder of that fight, which may explain its unpopularity here. ‘Crazy Tours’ has tapped into a vein of foreign curiosity and appreciation of the recent past which the Poles, at the moment, simply don’t share. Maybe with a few more Cyrils around to spread the gospel, in a few years they will , I thought as we sped back to ‘normality’ and Krakow’s dreaming spires came into sight once more. Direction: Nowa Huta. What a great catchphrase, just Crazy enough to make sense.
For more info on Crazy Tours call +48 500 091 200; @ https://www.crazyguides.com/
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