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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Four: Krakow

A Trabant 
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Hotel doorman clearly not used to opening the doors of a Trabant.
Michael Palin - New EuropeIt's a faded Utopia. Whereas in central Krakow a square like this would be ringed with outdoor cafés, there is only one place here for refreshment. It's called the Stylowa (Stylish) Restaurant. As soon as I step inside I sense that I am in a very different world from the international tourist spots. Faces look towards me with more suspicion than interest. The service is polite but a little distant. The tablecloth has a couple of cigarette burns in it and to use the shabby lavatory requires a coin to the attendant sitting outside. A family objects to the presence of our camera.

I can understand how they feel. Life is pretty lousy here and we could easily be representatives from a gloating outside world come to stare. I have very little Polish other than the basics like 'tak', 'nie' and 'Dziekuje', and 'yes', 'no' and 'thank you' aren't really enough to convey why I like the Stylowa and its uniqueness in a world where so many places are remorselessly the same. Over big, domestic cups of coffee, Kuba brings out some old maps and photos of 1950s Nowa Huta. In layout and architecture it resembles 'The Ideal City', a classic painting of the Italian Renaissance, a model used by Mussolini for a new city outside Rome. It's ironic that totalitarian architecture, whether communist or fascist, drew such inspiration from the humanist values of the Renaissance.

Kuba points out that the symmetry of the grid plan was good for authoritarian regimes. Observation was easier without nooks and crannies.

'Nowhere to hide,' as he puts it.

The building of Nowa Huta in just one decade was a great source of pride for the new communist leaders. In the early 1970s, when Fidel Castro came to Krakow, he drove straight to Nowa Huta, then flew home again. Black and white photos show happy peasants in fields transformed into happy workers in the great city they helped to build. The hammer and the sickle in perfect harmony. Ploughshares into swords.

It didn't work out. The dream city of the Stalinist planners was built well, with brick and plaster. The second wave of building in the 1960s and 1970s was based on cheap and quick concrete. The brave new world had to be protected from lower steel prices and the collapse of subsidies. Wages were cut and so was the supply of basic goods and foodstuffs.

As the 1980s wore on this socialist paradise saw some of the most violent protests against the pro-Soviet regime outside of Gdansk. In a bitter irony, the workers of Nowa Huta became the foot soldiers of Solidarity.

Kuba and I walk through the streets. It's not a city for the young, he says, but it's well built and could be turned around, especially as a comfortable flat for two here would cost around 45,000 euros, half that of Krakow.

Turning out of an arcade we come out into the semicircular communal area I'd seen in the plans for the new city.

'This was Lenin Central Square,' Kuba tells me. Then he points to a street sign on the wall above us. It now reads: 'Plac Centralny Ronalda Reagana'.
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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: 248

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