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18/09/2006

Crazy Tours of Nowa Huta

I spent a Sunday not so long ago by going to Nowa Huta for a tour in a Trabant. Stalinist architecture and east-German cars go really well together... Originally sent to Radio Polonia on 15.09.2006. Read further for original uploaded material and transcript. Also Flickr photoset here.

UPDATE: Since Radio Polonia is now the Polish Radio External Service, I can't find the link to the podcast. You can download my original version (with extra music) here (10.6 MB).

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, my dears, it’s one of Crazy Mike’s souped-up Trabants, and he’s going to be taking us around Nowa Huta. ‘Nowa who?’ I hear you say. Well, far from the crowds of tourists that pack into Kraków’s Old Town, Poland’s southern city also has a little-known secret, on an absolutely massive scale. Nowa Huta, or ‘New Steelworks’ in English, is a district that is located to the east of Kraków, mainly known for its socialist architecture and huge steelworks that polluted southern Poland for decades. Once our party managed to squeeze into the car, away we went, through the smog-filled haze that the Trabbie left in its wake.

On the way to Nowa Huta, our guide Michał Ostrowski, or ‘Crazy Mike’, gives the lowdown on Nowa Huta and where he will be taking us:

The first stop is the communist restaurant, it hasn't changed so much for the past twenty-five years. Now they have redecorated it a little bit, but they kept the '80s vibration, and it's not so smelly as it used to be, but still it's a really funny place. The time has stopped there, the waitresses, the owner, the decor, it's totally the same you know, but there's no competition here in Nowa Huta, not so many restaurants, and clients don't really care... I'll show you a map of the district, and show you some pictures, tell you where we are...

Once at the café of our destination, anecdotes and some history blend to create a local narrative that describes Nowa Huta. First, an introduction and an example of one of the many paradoxes that the Polish strain of communism had to offer:

The name of the restaurant is Stylish, and it's really in some way... stylish. As I told you, the '70s-'80s decor, not so many changes, maybe there is Coca-Cola and advertising. This was the only city without a church in Poland, but people from the south of Poland, they came, they are very religious, they wanted a church, generally twenty years of fights, riots, they put up the famous cross, the government wanted to remove it, you know. Big story with the church, finally in the late '70s a church is opened in Nowa Huta, a symbolic date that God is coming to Nowa Huta. Very interesting, because you build a modern socialist city, and the payments are extremely dirty capitalist, and the paradox, there's a struggle for the church in Nowa Huta, how the Church appears in '70s, everybody comes after work, helps for free, I can paint so I paint, he's a brick-layer, so he is laying bricks for free, and he is an engineer, so he is making some plans for free, because we are building a church, for us, for the community, so this is clean communism yeah, so this is the paradox that the anti-communist symbol of the church is built in a very communist way.

After taking a shot of vodka and tucking in to some szarlotka, or apple pie, the history lesson begins:

This is called New Steelworks, and it's a district of Kraków now, but it was planned after the War to be a separate city, a model socialist city, the example for the future, the most logical plan, the most perfect city, and of course the town was built for the residents and the workers and their families because they built a big steelworks here. After the War we needed a big steelworks, and we needed to produce. There were of twelve possible locations, and finally Kraków is chosen and there are two theories: a very popular theory is the politics (politicians) decided that the steelworks and the workers' city will be located close to Kraków, because Kraków was conservative, anti-communist, religious city, former capital with a lot of churches, in a way dangerous, they worried about anti-communist rebellion, and there are some facts to show that it can be dangerous for the Communists. Kraków was not destroyed in the War, people were really strong here, and now they write here that politics decided to build it here as a revenge of Communists for Kraków, you know, just to counterbalance Kraków, put it in the shadow, to make people forget about Kraków and think only about Nowa Huta. But it's not totally true, there were a lot of economical reasons, poor over-crowded villages in the neighbourhood, so plenty of labour-force that can come. Good place to locate a steelworks, a big river to supply water, quite close coal mines, so you need coal, and iron, we don't have iron, so we take it from the Ukraine. A really good economical decision to locate it here, actually. It was not only the revenge. In ten years, the government builds a city for 100,000 people, I mean these people built it, so there is propaganda, there are songs about Nowa Huta even, people are coming from different parts of Poland, not so much forced to come here, propaganda makes them come, it's like the Wild West, the place where you go, you get an apartment, you get a job, you get everything that you need.

The best Polish architects are planning the city, the cream of the crop, so it's a really good plan, not many collapsing constructions, quite well organised, and Nowa Huta appears, and as you can see it's based on a semicircle, with a main square, one, two, three, four, five avenues radiating from the square, precisely 45 degrees everywhere, four of the avenues are supplied with tramlines, the tram goes to the steelworks, around half of the steelworks, and goes to Kraków, so it's perfect public transportation. The steelworks is amazingly big, because if this is the city of 100,000 people, the steelworks looks a bit like this, six times bigger than the original city, it was the biggest steelworks in the world when they built it, it's around two and three thousand acres, so it's huge, it's like a big city, with a few hundred kilometres of rails, a few hundred kilometres of roads, so it's amazingly big.

They are fighting to get it on the UNESCO list, I don't know when, but it's the biggest example of socialist architecture, I mean the whole complex yeah, with not so much distribution of different types of architecture, so a local group is fighting for this.

A stroll around the huge Plac Centralny, or Central Square, shows how the city should have developed if it were not for lack of money, something that was all too common in the days of the Polish People’s Republic. Having admired the magnificent buildings and the net of wiring that powers the trams coming out of every corner of the square, it’s back to the Trabant and off to the steelworks for an inspection, before checking out an apartment which has retained its ‘80s style and décor.

The apartment has been left relatively unchanged, and gives you an idea of what living n such a place must have been like. Even the smell was, how to put it, stale… Mike explains, amongst other things, the problems of fruit and the troubles of young love in Communist Poland:

You used to wait like two months to get a fridge, this one's Russian, Minsk, so you had to wait for all the things, you don't go to the shop and buy, but you wait, you arrange, you have to really think, but finally you get everything. There were no fruits, no bananas, oranges, pineapples didn't exist, coconuts and mangoes, and all this stuff. Only Polish fruits. Western fruit was special stuff, families from the west were sending us food, I remember fruit packages. My father was in the States and he was sending us bananas, oranges, with the coconut we didn’t know what to do, and the pineapple, it was like really complicated stuff. When I split with one girl, when I was ten eleven years old, so she split with me because I was not responsible, and I gave her an orange as a splitting gift... You couldn't go the shop and by an orange, maybe during Christmas sometimes, you had to have a family approach (connection).

I like this washing machine it's called Francesca, and what's interesting is that the design is from the 50s, but they were producing Francescas until the end of Communist Poland, so until '89, and it also showed the type of development in Communist countries, that you have the design of something from the '50s, but you make it for as long as possible, because there's no demand from the market.

Crazy Mike has been taking rides to Nowa Huta for the past three years. How do you come up with such an idea though? He told me more after the tour:

I was working in the hotel as a receptionist, finishing my degree in law, so I had a contact with tourists, and once they called me from the hotel, 'there's a couple, they need two hours guiding, so I came with my little Polish Fiat, you know, old communist car, I wanted to take them to the castle, I just used the car as transportation to get to the Old Town , but they've already seen the Old Town, so I had to show them something else, so I took them to some off-the-beaten-path places, and they really enjoyed it, they really had a good time, very chilled out.

And do you have any plans for the future of your business, do you want to buy some more Trabants?

Yeah, I'll buy some more Trabants for sure, I'll extend the offer to some more freaky communist stuff like communist disco, you know, real Polish workers meeting. When we have groups we make a kind of little mayhem, Polish workers pour a little vodka, give pickles, and people get drunk and it's a lot of fun, so kitsch band playing and so we go in that direction, so there's less history, and more socialising, between tourists and Polish workers, that speak no English of course...

So it seems that Crazy Mike won’t be trading in his Trabant for a Ferrari just yet, although a tour around Nowa Huta is made that much more enjoyable when in the back of a genuine East-German motor that runs on two-stroke petrol and sounds like a lawnmower. Mike and his team can be checked out on the internet at www.crazyguides.com.

03:19 PM in Flickr, History, Kraków, Podcast, Poland, Radio, Travel | Permalink

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