Nowa Huta (pronounced Nova Hooter) is a small city on the outskirts of Krakow. To get a true flavor of Polish life during the communist occupation, we throw caution to the wind and embark on a day trip like no other – driving around with a gorgeous student and a crazy Dane in a fiberglass car that runs on two-stroke lawnmower fuel.
Krakow has many different stories to discover. The medieval walled town, the baroque city, the Nazi years and the communist occupation. We want to do something completely out there and the crazy commie tour sounds like the thing to do. Part crazy part tour, part history lesson and just a little bit of drink driving.
Let’s get crazy
True to its name, a crazy, bright green Trabant rounds the corner in front of our hostel, horn beeping furiously. A beautiful Polish lady in her mid-20s greets us with a beaming smile as we squeeze into the back seat. The old East-German Trabant 601 Universal was originally made in Saxony. It is as small, smelly and noisy as we’ve experienced on a previous Trabi ride. With a two-stroke, two cylinder engine, it churns through its pungent mixed of oil and fuel.
After stopping to pick up a third passenger, a robust, middle aged Dane, who finds it equally cozy squeezing into the old, cracked seats, we’re off! Our driver, Johanna, is an events marketing and music industry masters student, acting as a tour guide in her spare time to earn some extra cash. She gives us a distinct local’s view of the areas we pass as we take the long road our of town to Nowa Huta.
Johanna explains that Nowa Huta was built as a model city and as Stalin’s gift to the Poles. It was built around a major steel works with concentric roads and identical, bland soviet apartment blocks to accommodate the workers. It was supposed to show that communism was the way forward and for many years, it worked, possibly due to the fact that the Russians ruled with an iron fist and dissenters were sent to gulags in Siberia to be re-educated.
Central Nowa Huta
Pulling up near the center of the town, we are first taken into a restaurant on the main square. Very little has change and it continues to operate with the same kitsch décor that was considered luxurious in the 1950s. Photos along the wall show past dignitaries and well-known officials who frequented the restaurant. A brass statue of Lenin still graces the buffet table. The menu from the time was quite extravagant and genuinely not what was expected in the “communal” political system – showing that the officials certainly did not practice what they preached.
Leaving the restaurant we walk down the central mall. The buildings seem neat, minimal and weirdly identical. The town was actually built to be symmetrical. A telling example of the precision and order of the communist rule in Poland. We venture into a couple of stores that still remain and have been passed down in the family from generation to generation. Each store contains photographs from bygone eras. Again, nothing much has changed. We’re not sure if it’s the fact that the area has been impoverished since the main employer, the steel works closed when the iron curtain fell; or that the older folk like to cling on to the communist ideals.
There’s definitely a dark side to this place
Graffiti is prevalent and the mood is darkly ominous. We’re told that the area is unsafe at night, ruled by rival gangs and their tags can be seen on different buildings and in alleyways. We pass a thick concrete bunker. It’s a nuclear fallout shelter, from the days when thermonuclear war was a daily fear. It is also coated in graffiti and the stench of dry urine. Empty liquor bottles litter the streets. This place has seen better days.
Like true communist era workers, we drive the Trabi to a traditional milk bar for lunch. Milk bars were low cost eatieries for workers where for $2 a day they could keep full and productive for the mother country. The menu options consist of very basic peasant food that, like much of the past, has become fashionable today, like perogi.
The Tadeusz Sendzimira Steelworks
Suitably sated, it’s off to centerpiece that kept Nowa Huta running for years, the Tadeusz Sendzimira Steelworks. Based on a Venetian palace, but rendered in garish concrete, its domineering sign is set in the quintessential soviet typeface. During the communist days, it was called the Vladamir Lenin Steelworks. At its peak, it employed 40,000 workers, but it died off considerably after the iron curtain collapsed. It is now used to host epic industrial and techno festivals, headlined by the likes of Kraftwerk.
While parked outside, the other Trabi driver takes time to explain the history of the Trabant. Families used to have their names on waiting lists for years. The car is hardy and to prove its strength, he proceeds to trampoline up and down on its roof.
A Communist timewarp
Having experienced the outer aspects of Nowa Huta, it’s time to take a look inside. Stopping outside a non-descript apartment block, we ascend the stairs up to what looks like any other apartment doorway. Our drivers open it to reveal a perfectly preserved example of a soviet-era apartment. A family has donated their mother’s apartment, left exactly as it was the day she died.
Stepping inside it was like being in our great grandmothers’ house, but much older. Propaganda posters are still on the wall. There’s an old valve black and white TV, with the power operated on a crank style system. Glass cabinets are filled with trinkets, papers and photographs from decades ago. There’s only a cold-water pump in the restroom and it’s unfathomable to us how you could live like this. But Johanna explains that if it’s all you’ve ever known, change can be overwhelming to the elderly.
The old TV is fired up and we’re shown original propaganda films selling the reluctant Poles on the benefits of socialism. It’s easy to see see how the unwitting would be easily fooled and frightened with the information provided about the “West”. To round out the experience, we’re offered shots of vodka with pickles. When in Poland and all that.
Now for a drive
A few strong voddies under the belt, it’s our turn to get behind the wheel. We are taken to a vacant lot and each given the opportunity to drive the Trabant. We both freak out at first, and, for me (Jess), even though I only have an auto license, they don’t care here. I gave it a go and luckily got the car into motion, after stalling a few times and more than a few bunny hops. Driving the Trabi on a long loop up and back down the lot, its been a crazy communist experience – especially crazy being asked to drive after a couple of vodka shots.
For a unique taste of living history and to see what was and what has become of Nowa Huta, we couldn’t recommend a better experience. Actually, yes we can. They also offer a tour package where you’re greeted on the tarmac at Krakow airport with a red carpet, soviet marching band and a Trabant. Now that’s fricking crazy!
Nowa Huta (New Mill) is a satellite city on the outskirts of Krakow, originally built by Stalin to balance the intelligentsia with working class and showcase how good communism can be.
Floriańska 38, 33-332 Kraków, Poland
We took the Crazy Communist Tour. It provided a unique insight into the city’s history in a lighthearted and informative way.