On a hot August morning, I stroll the streets of old Krakow. In the main square, I wander from the Polish city’s ancient cathedral to the 14th-century market hall and then down a side street to the brick courtyard of one of the oldest universities in the world. As I go, I dodge street performers and crowds of tourists, and around one corner I nearly run into a man in a bear suit shouting “pierogi!” The sight of the dumpling hustler makes me want a change of pace.
Earlier, I had arranged for a tour of an entirely different part of the city run by a local outfit with the intriguing name of Crazy Guides. Their tours offer offbeat excursions that provide a local perspective on unique sites in Krakow.
In the late afternoon, my guide Izabela meets me outside a McDonald’s next to a historic rampart that once was part of the city walls. Izabela and I head over to a tram while street musicians in Polish folk costumes play Beatles songs on accordions.
Twenty minutes later, the tram arrives in Plac Centralny. We are in the heart of Nowa Huta, a Krakow suburb built in the 1950s to be a socialist showpiece.
Now a neighborhood of roughly 200,000 people, Nowa Huta, Polish for “New Steel Mill,” was Joseph Stalin’s so-called gift to Krakow after World War II, and an unwanted one at that.
The neighborhood provides a ready way to experience Poland’s recent Communist past — a past the Polish government, nervous about Russia’s regional saber-rattling, has been dismantling in the past year by removing Soviet-era street names and landmarks.
But as Nowa Huta makes clear, sometimes history is more indelible, and can be a helpful way to assess progress.
After we exit the tram, Izabela stops in front of a large street map next to a flower-lined park at a square once named for Stalin. Now it is named for Ronald Reagan, or “Ronalda Reagana” if you prefer the Polish version, one of many renamed places in the neighborhood.
The map gives an overview of what Stalin’s gift included — a planned community centered on massive steelworks, with housing for workers, schools, parks and hospitals. The new community was created following a postwar referendum by Krakow residents rejecting the new authoritarian regime. In response, Stalin brought in thousands of laborers to reshape chic, intellectual Krakow — considered the cultural heart of Poland — into an industrialized city of the proletariat.
And all of this came with a price. One of them is evident. Many buildings across the city are stained darkly from heavy industry that brought with it heavy pollution.
From the park, we take a city bus to the headquarters of the Nowa Huta steelworks. Along the way, Izabela, who I learn also studies psychology at that ancient Jagiellonian University in the Old Town, says, “There is one thing Nowa Huta didn’t include, which people kept asking for, what do you think that was?”
While I think about this, we walk from the bus stop to a group of buildings on a forlorn, grassy square. On the grass sits a huge concrete sign with the formal name of the complex — “Huta im. T. Sendzimira.” To our right is a concrete-block building with odd swirls and crenelations along the roof, perhaps a misguided nod to the crown on the spire of Krakow’s cathedral.
“It looks like a bunker from the Renaissance,” Izabela says as we stare at it, trying to figure out what the architects had in mind.
“Soviet wedding-cake,” I suggest.
The building was the administrative headquarters for the steel factories (then named for Vladimir Lenin). Ahead of us, miles of factories and industrial sprawl cover former farming villages. In a change likely to make Stalin wince, the steelworks are now owned by a multinational corporation.
With the late evening sun setting and the shadows of communism all around us, we get back on a city bus that heads down Solidarity Way to our next stop.
The bus rolls along wide, leafy streets, giving Nowa Huta a surprisingly parklike feeling despite block after block of drab, gray buildings designed in a form of architectural propaganda known as socialist realism. As part of that, the streets were designed to be wide enough to allow for tanks, and the buildings were intended to double as fortifications.
“So, did you decide what people asked for the most during communism?” Izabela asks as we exit the bus.
“Here, I’ll show you,” she says. Soon we are in front of a sleek, modern structure, appointed with timber and appropriately arklike — the Lord’s Ark church.
“Poland built more churches during the communist time than any other time in its history,” Izabela tells me. “With Poland so heavily Catholic, faith was a way for them to hold onto their identity.”
Equally important, I learn, was Pope John Paul II, who grew up not far from Krakow. He also has a nearby boulevard named for him.
As the archbishop of Krakow in the 1950s, he pushed for the one thing Nowa Huta residents wanted — a church — and later, as pope, advocated strongly for Polish freedom.
An important landmark to his efforts sits just down the street from the Lords Ark church. Here, a bronze cross commemorates the site of violent riots in 1957 over the placement of a cross. Locals erected the cross after authorities changed their minds about permitting a church on the site. After many arrests, fatalities and ongoing protests, the dissidents won out in the 1960s and authorities approved construction of the Lord’s Ark church — an important early success in the pushback against the Communist government.
Now on this summer evening, all is peaceful and two elderly women talk on a bench while children run back and forth on scruffy grass.
Across the street from the cross, Izabela and I head into the basement of another charcoal-colored building, and down the steps to a dive bar. (Also nearby is the Museum of Poland under the Communist Regime, which is under renovation but includes a chilling exhibit on Nowa Huta’s vast system of nuclear bomb shelters.) Izabela insists that I try a soda once popular in Communist times. Called an oranzada, it isn’t bad, similar to a flat Fanta.
The bar once was a movie theater, and one of its highlights, I learn, is a propaganda film from the early days of Nowa Huta, which the friendly bartender screens.
In black and white, to the sounds of military music, women prepare meals in shiny, new apartments and smiling young people busily work with bricks and mortar in between group calisthenics.
After 10 minutes, the credits roll.
“You properly brainwashed now?” Izabela asks, smiling.
“Yes, I am all ready to build a factory,” I say. Actually, after all the propaganda, I am ready for a beer.
Outside, we walk through the neighborhood and Izabela explains that Nowa Huta has had its own growing pains while transitioning to capitalism. “After the fall of communism, the neighborhood had a lot of unemployment and crime,” she says. “My boss was considered crazy to go here, which is why he called it Crazy Guides.”
Close to Plac Centralny, just down the street from where we started at Reagana Square, we sit outside a still-popular restaurant from the Communist years. Inside, the Stylowa restaurant has Old World charm and traditional dishes.
On this warm evening, we sit outside on the patio. Beer in hand, I watch young people in stylish clothes, full shopping bags and mobile phones walk by in a place where less than 30 years ago people waited in line for hours for bread or shoes. With the economy sinking by the 1980s, Izabela tells me, if people saw a line they would join it, figuring whatever was available could be used for barter.
In the space of a few hours we have gone from Krakow’s beautiful market square to Communist factories and slab housing blocks, from socialist soda to trendy shoppers and skateboarders in skinny jeans.
“There was a statue of Lenin right over there,” Izabela adds, pointing to a dry fountain with skateboarders riding in the bowl and along the edges. “People always thought it was made from the strongest material, but once it came down [during the collapse of communism in 1989] the insides were mostly empty . . . so that tells you something.”
I reflect on this, then raise my glass and say to Izabela and to Poland generally in these uncertain times, “na zdrowie” — to your health.
Biggar is a writer based in Northern California and the District.
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35b Bulwarowa St.
Hotel options in Nowa Huta are more limited than in and around Old Town Krakow (which is just 20-to-25 minutes away on the tram). One exception is Hotel Santorini, where modern rooms can be found starting at about $60.
Hotel Grand Fenix
12 Osiedle Zlotej Jesieni St.
Basic, modern facilities and free WiFi, with rooms starting at $30.
C3 Osiedle Centrum
Offers affordable, traditional Polish food in an Old World setting. Entrees start at about $5. Optional outdoor seating.
25 Osiedle Szkolne
Kombinator is popular with students and offers a casual atmosphere and a good range of Polish beer and of course, vodka. For an authentic Polish vodka, try Zubrowka (look for a bison on the label). Drinks are available for less than $10.
The Nowa Huta walking tour
The company offers tours of off-the-beaten-path sites in Krakow. The Nowa Huta walking tours cost about $25 and the friendly guides provide a good way to converse with young local residents. Tours can be arranged for individuals or groups, and on foot or in a vintage Communist-era automobile.
Museum of Poland Under the Communist Regime
Os. Centrum E1
Located in a former socialist movie theater, the museum focuses on daily life during communism and has an exhibit on local nuclear shelters in its basement.
In addition to Nowa Huta, interesting spots nearby Krakow include Kazimierz — the gentrifying old Jewish quarter where Oskar Schindler had his famous factory — medieval Old Town (also a World Heritage site) and the deep salt mines in Wieliczka.