A Communist Tour of Nowa Huta, Kraków, with Crazy Guides
We’d strolled Krakow’s historic centre so many times that it was time to get out of the old town and experience a different side of the city in the ‘new’ town, a district called Nowa Huta or ‘New Steel Mill’.
We sign up for a Communism Deluxe Tour on the Viator site, offered by Crazy Guides, and one chilly morning find ourselves squeezing into a genuine antique Trabant that should be in an automobile museum, with local girl Kaska at the wheel. A journalism student, Kaska, isn’t totally crazy – a touch kooky perhaps – but her driving is.
As we slide across lanes and skid across corners, it occurs to me that this might be what it feels like to be a puck in a game of ice hockey. We politely decline her invitation to test-drive the old vehicle on the former airstrip after she likens the experience to ice-skating on wheels. Terence says later that he felt he couldn’t have driven it any crazier than she did. And this is a guy who used to love getting sports cars sideways on dirt roads…
A Model Community City…
Originally established as a separate satellite city in 1949, Nowa Huta is now Kraków’s sprawling easternmost suburb. While it’s just a short drive or tram trip from the historic centre, many of Nowa Huta’s residents never go into the centre of Kraków, and vice versa. “Some haven’t been in years,” Kaska tells us, as we bounce along the broad empty boulevards, lined with monumental Soviet-style buildings and big blocks of boxy flats. “For the people here, there’s no reason. They have everything they need.”
For the people of Kraków? “It used to be dangerous to come here,” Kaska says, as she parks the car, although she doesn’t lock the doors. “There was knife crime, hooligans, drug crime… but in the last few years it’s improved as it’s become more popular. I like coming here. It’s real. And everything’s a lot cheaper than in Kraków… the food’s cheaper, the apartments…”
Our first stop is a retro Communist-era restaurant called Stilowa on Plac Centralny (Central Square), where the elderly pink-cheeked staff spend some time discussing what flavoured vodka they’re going to drink today (it’s around 9.30am) and Kaska gives us some background to the history of Nowa Huta, as we flick through a book of old black and white photos.
Built by the Communist government from 1949 to 1959, for 100,000 future inhabitants – the idyllic farming villages of Pleszów, Mogiła and Krzesławice were razed to the ground to make way for the development – Nowa Huta was a meticulously planned industrial centre promoted through propaganda films as an ideal communist city to inspire immigrant workers to move there. We’ll later watch one of these films in an apartment-museum established by Crazy Guides.
…Modelled on Paris!
We venture back out into the cold – it’s well below zero degrees Celsius today – to take in the grandeur of the massive Central Square flanked by colossal neo-Renaissance edifices with elegant arcades. “It was Stalin’s decision to build Nowa Huta,” Kaska explains as we trudge through the snow to the centre of the square. “But it didn’t make any sense – they had to bring the iron ore all the way from the Ukraine!”
“These avenues were modelled on Paris’ boulevards. Yet, this road was called Solidarity Avenue, this was Cuban Revolution Ave… they were built so wide to enable tanks to move through easily. Castro came here, but of course he slept in the best hotel on Kraków’s main square, not in Nowa Huta.”
We return to our little Trabant where temperatures aren’t much warmer in than out, but it’s all part of the experience. “Nowa Huta was designed by the ten best architects in Poland at the time,” Kaska explains as she drives us to the steel mill headquarters. “The whole city was self-sufficient with its own sports facilities, a lake, they had everything they needed so they never had to leave. Each building complex was like a little neighbourhood with shops and their own bomb shelters. The only thing missing was a church.”
We park in front of the castle-like steelworks headquarters (complete with crenellations) so we can take photos of the dramatic Sendzimira steelworks sign. Kaska climbs on top of the little Trabant and bounces on the roof to demonstrate its flexibility. “It’s plastic!” she announces. Okay, so maybe she’s just a little crazy.
The Pretty Postcards versus The Grim Reality
Some 20 years after the opening of the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks in 1954, the Sendzimira steelworks as it would later be renamed, originally would become the largest steelworks in Poland, producing some seven million tonnes annually. Cement, tobacco and other factories soon followed.
“While the reality was grey buildings and smog-filled skies from the smoke from the factories,” Kaska says as we get back in the car, “There was so much pollution, they had to clean the windows every day! They sold postcards of Nowa Huta with bright buildings and blue skies and happy, well-dressed citizens.”
“By the 1980s, the shelves in Nowa Huta’s shops were empty, ration cards were distributed, and there were long queues…” Kaska tells us as we drive through the city, looking at boarded-up old cinemas and theatres, one now a second-hand store. “There was just one shop where you could buy luxury goods and people would queue just so they could buy something, not even knowing what they were queuing for!”
“Soon there were demonstrations, strikes, and violent protests in Nowa Huta. The Solidarity movement was born in Gdańsk – Lech Wałęsa, who would become Poland’s President (in 1990), was an electrician at the shipyards – and on 13 December, 1981, martial law was imposed for two years.”
Solidarity of course went underground, and the protests and strikes continued. Almost 30,000 of the 38,000 workers at Nowa Huta’s Steelworks belonged to the Solidarity trade union. In 1989, the statue of Lenin that stood in the centre of Nowa Huta was pulled down and the rest is history.
Shrines to Communism in Modern Day Nowa Huta
We arrive at a dreary block of grey flats and escape the cold of our Trabant to a cosy, modest apartment that Crazy Guides has preserved as a museum to Nowa Huta’s Communist period. The apartment belonged to a woman (now deceased) who lived here for 40 years, whose family (spookily) left the flat exactly as it was when she died. There is paraphernalia and memorabilia scattered around from the entire history of Nowa Huta, from the 40s through to the 80s.
After poking around for a bit (a rather weird and slightly sad experience), we settle into the woman’s well-loved sofas to watch a propaganda film about Nowa Huta. Smiling, happy people eagerly head to work, exercise, and wash together, and in the evenings they stroll the elegant avenues. “Each working day and every thrust of the shovel brings them closer…,” the voiceover announces. “The builders are growing together with their city… This road leads to a strong, happy Poland…”
Kaska serves us pickled gherkins and warming shots of vodka at the end of our movie and we head back to our Trabbie to move on to our final stop, a typical communist-era Milk Bar. Lunch for three, including soups, main courses, and compote (juice) costs 27 Zloty or approximately UK£6/US$9. It’s easy to see why Kaska loves it here. If it was a little warmer, so might we!
We booked our Crazy Guides tour online at Viator. In addition to the fun Communism Deluxe Tour we did they also offer a shorter version of that experience, along with a handful of other whacky tours including The Real Krakow, Polish Food and Vodka, nightlife tours, and even a chance to shoot a Kalashnikov!