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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Four: Krakow

Michael Palin - New EuropeKrakow, a mere 40 miles from the obscene ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau, is one of the most civilised cities of Eastern Europe. The capital of Poland until 1791, it has glorious old buildings and an ancient university, founded by the great innovator King Kazimierz III, of whom it was said 'he found a Poland made of wood, and left it made of brick'. The old town was laid out in 1257 and, unlike Gdansk, Warsaw and Poznan, remained unharmed by the Second World War. The mighty 500-year-old castle on Wawel Hill is the resting place of many of the great names of Polish life and culture, and even when the court moved to Warsaw in 1596, royal coronations and funerals still took place in Wawel Cathedral. It had always been a cosmopolitan city, adorned by Italian architects and builders and home to one of Europe's most thriving Jewish communities. In 1978 the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, became Poland's first pope, John Paul II. His conservative Catholicism typified the city.

After the Second World War this conservatism put the city fathers in an opposite ideological camp from the communists, who were consolidating their grip on Poland after the victories of the Red Army. The communist solution was to build an entirely new city outside Krakow that would exemplify their new ideals. It would be a socialist workers' paradise, a gleaming retort to the bourgeois traditionalism of the old capital.

It was begun in 1949 and by 1960 a city of 100,000 people had risen from the fields to the east of Krakow. It was called, after its primary means of employment, Nowa Huta, literally New Steelworks.

I'm taken to see it today by Kuba (short for Jakub) Bialach, a twenty-three-year-old student with wild hair and a red goatee beard, who's writing a thesis on Nowa Huta after abandoning his previous one on the sociology of advertising.

'For me communism is history. Maybe for my parents or grandparents it's their life. But for my generation it's history. I can talk with people who are part of this. Nowa Huta is like a living monument.'

Kuba's boundless enthusiasm extends to giving highly individual tours of Nowa Huta in one of the great icons of post-war Eastern Europe, the Trabant, a people's car made in East Germany. (The Polish equivalent was the Fiat Polski.) Kuba's Trabant is a two-stroke, two-cylinder fibreglass box, churned out in virtually identical models for forty years. Although they seem cramped with two big people in the front, they were designed for four or five people and luggage. Like the housing, they were built cheaply and quickly to keep the workers happy.

As we weave out into the traffic along the embankment of the Wisla Kuba runs through some of the eccentricities of the Trabant, to my distinct discomfort. Road-holding is not its strong point. It's better, he says, to have someone else in the car, as the extra weight could be crucial in a strong wind. Over a certain speed, he says, 'it's like being on a dance floor'.

It has no petrol gauge, but if you do run out there's a reserve supply switch, he assures me, as he gropes beneath the dashboard to find it. It has a steering column stick and four gears, but the fourth can be difficult on certain days. And it leaks.

'You always know what the weather's like in a Trabant.'

He tells me all this without rancour, as if describing the vagaries of an old friend.

'Maybe once in a month the wheels may fall off,' he admits, then, catching sight of my expression, hastens to reassure me. 'Not all the wheels. Just the one wheel, you know. But, well, you are without a wheel, in the middle of the road, in the middle of traffic... '
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Four: Krakow
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Kraków
  • Book page no: 246

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