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Krakow with 3 Stars

Everybody loves Krakow in southern Poland, except for the world-weary hooker in the bar of my 3-star hotel. “On business or holiday?” goes her opening remark. In order to restore my own picture of the world, it helps considering her an archeological find.

She moves closer, plants her handbag on the bar stool next to me, lifts her skirt up and starts tightening her black stockings while making funny sounds with her tongue, also chatting with the young bartender, whose grandmother she could easily be. Her presence prevents me from asking the bartender questions about local things.

Age is otherwise a quality measure in Poland, which in many respects had to start from point zero after World War II. Krakow seems to have avoided its own destruction by giving in to The Red Army under cover of darkness. That is why the former capital of Poland according to its nickname still maintains a leading position: The Capital of Culture.

A half-circle in red and glass, the new Opera, makes me stop and think. Continuing past it toward the city, could be like turning the pages in a guide book where the sky is constantly blue, emphasized by weightless white dots, never intended to release one drop of rain. Reality is different, the rain is falling steadily and quietly. So I go for tram line 4 out of the town, anticipating it will take me back to Stalinism; exemplified by the suburb of Nowa Huta.

Twenty minutes is all it takes, eastward on a map, nothing for a shining blue tram, the only problem is to get a ticket. In the stations there are one kind of ticket machines, on board there is another or none, in the first case located in the front wagon. The approximate duration of your journey decides the price, with 15 minutes as a minimum. Last but not least, you must locate and feed a yellow validation machine. Then you are ready for the dream city of Nowa Huta.

Symmetry and Right Angles

The main square makes a green impression as does everything else in Nowa Huta. It used to be named after Lenin, whose statue adorned it. The monument is long gone and the square renamed Ronald Reagan Square, probably during an attack of euphoria. Be a bit strategic here by staying on board until the station of Kombinat, your feet will thank you as there is a lot of walking to be done in this paradise.

If your eyes appreciate symmetry and right angles, you have come to a true oasis, even here where the Lenin Steel-Works were located; they are out of business though, but there are still smaller metal-works surviving here, the name of one is spelt on the clearing sky. Two huge administration buildings lie outside the gate, the rest is closed land. The imposing architecture still radiates power and control, the model for which could come from Classicism and New Renaissance.

Through an open door you can see a glass locker with pictures of workers participating in some ceremony, possibly being rewarded for their own industry and hard work. An elderly Austrian gentleman tells me he worked in this place for 60 years, now retired. In that case he has been part of it all; the establishment of Nowa Huta in the early fifties, later a stronghold for the trade union of Solidarnosc, the name of which appears on many a monument in Nowa Huta.

The Austrian man is unfortunately a man of few words, which cannot be said about another frequent visitor, former Solidarnosc leader and later president, Lech Waleza, the words of whom paved the way out of communism. His wife Danuta has stepped forward and recently published her own words about her legendary husband and the burdens he placed on her shoulders. Too private, many say – as if they were questioning her Catholic faith. But it’s rather a question of equal rights to have opinions and publish them.

Unpacking Nowa Huta

Krakow has a population of some 750.000, about 200.000 of them claimed to live in Nowa Huta. I see few of them when heading back to Centralny on Solidarnosc Avenue, one of the boulevards radiating from the center, and along which the city growth has taken place. A huge park envelops me, and a refreshing lake where roller skaters keep circling, some getting work done through their mobiles or fixing a date. School buildings and apartment blocks are nearly elegant even after half a century, the patina of dirty cement walls go very well with the eruption of green.

An indefinable feeling makes me watchful, as if hidden eyes were following me. The reason is the indoctrination I have received in Krakow after mentioning Nowa Huta: “Be careful, don’t go there in the evening!” What the danger is, that’s a bit unclear – there seems to be cliques of young people harassing each other, no immigrants and no bikes though. Part of the problem could be the city layout – it appears deserted. You need to search for and ask the way to shops and eateries.

My fears are soon gone – a female voice sings a simple religious theme and I am confronted with a church in a very modern architecture, the parishioners now gathering outside to form a huge procession, the children in white look like angels, proud mothers do their best to promote their own little angel. Loudspeakers ensure the monotoneuous song is heard everywhere by every one. The ceremony and the church building do really stand out, in surroundings where religion was ruled out. However, broad boulevards and right angles cannot replace the spiritual side of life.

An elderly lady in Sunday clothes is just coming from church, crosses Centralny on fast legs, to eat a two-dish dinner in a surviving milk bar on the square, a sort of Folk Kitchen, where the light comes from fluorescent tubes, the table is laid with oilcloth and the flowers are plastic, the prices are moderate however. And through the window she can admire buildings with the same beautiful details as the historical buildings in Krakow, of which they are imitations.

It’s not easy to get an unbiased picture of Nowa Huta. The name of Stalin clings to it, and the problems with young people might create fear. The apartments seem to be good quality at reasonable prices, natural surroundings are perfect. And there is apparently a growing “Ostalgia” among tourists, a nostalgia to experience the communist way of life. So I think I will suggest the management of my hotel to introduce a new excursion: “3-star hooker takes you to Nowa Huta in her own Trabant, price negotiable”.

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