Eric was doing his best to be ‘crazy’ but I noticed that he locked the car and checked the doors in the same careful way that my dad used to lock his Ford Anglia before leaving it unattended and I was beginning to suspect that being crazy wasn’t something that actually came all that naturally to him. He had wild hair arranged in extravagant dreadlocks and an outward bohemian appearance but behind the external image he was really an educated scholar with an impressive knowledge of Krakow, word perfect English and an incisive philosophical interpretation of his subject.
The tour is designed as an alternative to the castles, cathedrals and palaces of Krakow and first of all he took us to a restaurant called the Stylowa (meaning Stylish) in a prestigious location on central Rose Avenue that has been there since 1956 and is a local legend locked now in a permanent communist time warp. Once it was the most exclusive restaurant in the town and a meeting place for the elite of Nowa Huta, the lawyers, professors, artists and the engineers from the nearby steelworks. Stylowa was as a top class restaurant, tastefully decorated, painted white with golden highlights, numerous mirrors, wonderful crystal chandeliers, solid tables and chairs and splendid marble floor and pillars. It has had a couple of renovations over the years of course but it still retains the original features (including the waitresses) and it was a fascinating insight into the past.
Over Coffee Eric introduced us to the history of Nowa Huta and talked us through a scrap book of photographs and memories accompanied by a personal interpretation and a fascinating first hand account based on his family recollections of life under a communist regime. This was sensible Eric and with his expressive and thoughtful blue eyes contrasting against his pale academic complexion he provided an interesting and coherent narrative based on a combination of facts, moving reminiscences and personal political theories. We didn’t expect or require Eric to be crazy and I sensed that he was more comfortable with that. I especially liked his analysis of communist economics that he assessed as being based on making things inefficient as possible – on purpose!
Nowa Huta was built for two hundred thousand Polish steel workers in just ten years between 1949 and 1959 and was designed to rebalance Krakow society in favour of the proletariat to overwhelm the largely conservative and bourgeois city that was a focus of opposition and a thorn in the side for the communist government. The authorities built, what was at the time, the biggest steel works in the World and created a model communist town and society to support it.
The best Polish architects planned the city and Nowa Huta was built to the preferred communist Renaissance model with a rigid geometry and a sunburst pattern where streets radiated in perfect straight lines and through symmetrical angles from a central square at the hub of the town. Communism is an ideology that seeks to establish a classless, stateless social organisation based on common ownership and centralised planning and that principal had helped to give the cities to the citizens and wide open spaces in which to enjoy them. The designers of Nowa Huta had aimed to sweep away the class inequalities so there were no churches and the whole place had a uniform design that was constructed out of their most favourite building material – concrete.
Nowa Huta however turned out to be the bizarre product of thoughtless communist central planning. The land had been confiscated from the Church who had owned vast parts of pre communist Krakow and had farmed this rich land for centuries. The focus of the town was a huge steelworks, yet there was no iron ore or coal for hundreds of miles around so had to be transported in. It was built on the richest and most valuable farmland in the region and the concrete and tarmac was laid without thought over an important Neolithic settlement whose value now can only be imagined.
Krakow resented Nowa Huta and to a certain extent still does and there is an uneasy co-existence between the working class suburb and the bourgeois city. It has a reputation for being lawless and dangerous and now, after the history lesson, it was time to go onto the streets to see for ourselves if this was true and this was to be another surprise. In contrast to more recent developments the town is comparatively low-rise with wide streets, spacious boulevards, green open parks, flower beds and trees and although badly scarred by industrial pollution the buildings are substantial and the infrastructure of the town is in surprisingly good shape compared with some other suburbs of Krakow that we had seen. I could certainly understand why people are currently lobbying to have Nowa Huta added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.
The sun was shining and it all felt safe and rather pleasant walking through the wide open spaces of the communist showpiece and listening to Eric’s reflective commentary about the way of life of the people that lived here. I could almost imagine the fifteen metre high statue of Lenin outside the Stylowa restaurant and the chimneys of the steelworks belching smoke and pollution into the atmosphere and, I’m guessing here of course, but I imagine that in the old days there would have been a hammer and sickle on the site of modern day Ronald Regan Avenue!
After the stroll though the town we returned now to the Trabant and Eric took us on a ride through the streets. The car clattered down the wide boulevard known as the Champs-Élysées and to the gates of the now privatised steel works that employs only 10% of the original forty-thousand workforce. From here we carried on through the outskirts, past a bizarre piece of public street art, an olive green T34 Soviet combat tank and then to the very first church that was built in Nowa Huta after a long campaign to obtain construction permission. On the return to Krakow we passed through a modern addition to the town, which was much closer to our original expectations with rows and rows of grim high rise apartments, which with Housing Association landlords now rather than the State, were at least trying to cheer themselves up with a bright coat of exterior paint.
After an excellent morning Eric took us back to the old town and explained that although this was a communist tour we would have to pay a capitalist fee for the excursion in his luxury limousine and we happy with that because this had been a real highlight of the week.
You can read Michael Palin’s version of the tour here: http://palinstravels.co.uk/book-4439