A communist paradise, and an underground city

Well, that’s pretty much it for Krakow. I’ve arrived in my next destination to a complete change of scenery. More on that later. Krakow surpassed my expectations in every possible way. There was so much to cram into my time here; I even had to make a choice one night between two social events (of course, I ended up doing both). For a shy person travelling alone, I think that’s quite an achievement!

If you’re ever in Krakow, check out the Free Walking Tour people, I can’t recommend them enough. I’ve never been one for organised tours, but I ended up doing three of them around different parts of the city. They are run by enthusiastic Poles, and come rain, shine or hail you can find them cheerfully guiding visitors about the city and expounding its colourful history. They tell me the 1st of January ‘hangover’ tour is a particular favourite. If you’re lucky they may even arrange an ‘unofficial’ part of the tour afterwards, which, inevitably, involves copious amounts of alcohol. Hanging out with cool locals in a quality pub sampling different varieties of wódka – that’s pretty awesome.

I mentioned Krakow has a colourful history. Of course, one colour that featured quite prominently in the 20th century is red. See what I did there? Yes, for many years after the war, Poland was in the grip of Stalinist communism, and for 50 zł the tour guides will show you its impact. A short tram ride from the Old Town is Nowa Huta, the result of an almost unique social experiment conducted by the Soviets. They intended this town to be a shining example of communism; a workers’ paradise. The town accommodated the workers of a giant steel factory, with cheaply built tenement blocks. Shops were sparsely stocked, and buying any goods not pre-approved by the regime was nigh on impossible. Trading became a primary way to acquire goods.

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The dominant theme here is grey, but if you look past the drabness, there’s some quite striking design, with many ideas borrowed from Renaissance architecture. The main street is particularly impressive – and would have been even more so back in the day, when it was home to a giant statue of Lenin. Apparently the statue now lives at a Swedish amusement park, where he sports a Mohawk and an earring.

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Of course, the socialist dream was not to be – anti-communist feelings were strong in Poland and the government had to constantly struggle to maintain order in this supposed ‘ideal communist town’, using propaganda and militarisation. In fact it was here, in 1989, that the collapse of the Soviet Union really began, five months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I visited Nowa Huta yesterday, and today I did yet another guided tour, around the salt mine at Wieliczka. I found the mine a little too commercialised for my liking, with no less than three gift shops, but people have been visiting since the 16th century, so I guess souvenir touting is part of the authenticity! That aside, it’s a wonderfully bizarre place. It has its own chapels and underground lakes and concert halls, and statues carved directly from the salt. There are also exhibits on the mining techniques used in the early days. All of this is found 100 metres below ground. Annoyingly, you had to purchase a permit to take photos inside. I didn’t bother, you can find plenty of photos on the Internet.

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So, the one who doesn’t do guided tours ended up doing five of them in one week (including Auschwitz). That’s the thing about travelling, you never know what to expect!

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7 Responses to A communist paradise, and an underground city

  1. Karen Ridgewell says:

    Glad you enjoyed Krakow Mark, it’s a wonderful city. Yes the salt mines are amazing, the carvings are awesome, I’m glad you managed to visit. Is Poland still cheap? It was very good value when I went.

  2. David Parkes says:

    Great writing Mark. Looking forward to your next update./

  3. restlessjo says:

    Enjoyed your post Mark. I wasn’t aware of the free walking tours. I did one of Kazimierz which I really enjoyed but it was organised by my cousin and I’m not sure if he paid for it. Can I put the link up in my comments and include a link to your blog?

    Snow in Zakopane? (we’ve got it here in north east England too!) Don’t travel from there over the Bank Holiday- it’s torture.

    • nontraveller says:

      Hi Jo, thanks. I know there are other tours in Krakow, but when I did it the FWT guys had their logo displayed quite prominently on a stick during the tour – you wouldn’t miss it! Please feel free to link me!

      Patchy snow in Zakopane – you can see it melting, there’s water running down the streets. Haven’t checked out the mountains yet though.

  4. Pingback: K is for Kraków « restlessjo

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