A Day Out In Lenin Land

If you feel that you're not getting the full picture amidst the horses and carriages and folk bands of Cracow's Old Town, a day out in Nowa Huta could be just what' the doctor ordered.

Nowa Huta was the communist 'ideal city' that was built on the outskirts of Cracow during the Stalinist epoch (1948-1956). A new working class was imported to balance out 'conservative, reactionary Cracow', whilst the main focus of the complex was a gargantuan steelworks. The plant was a present from the Soviet Union, and curiously enough there was no coal or iron ore for hundreds of miles, a fact that underlined the political nature of the foundation. The authorities wanted to give the Cracovian bourgeousie a good kick up the backside.

You can jump on a tram or bus (No. 502) to Nowa Huta from the heart of Cracow's Old Town. The journey takes about 20 minutes and most services terminate at Nowa Huta's main square, Plac Centralny.

This square was originally graced by a huge statue of Lenin - workers tried to blow it up during the 70's (the new working class was not to prove the loyal bastion that the authorities had hoped for). In the event, only Lenin's foot was destroyed, and Comrade L was not finally toppled until 1989.

On the top of the blocks around the square were specially fitted placements for artillery (these were added later by the increasingly nervous authorities). Blood was shed here before the regime ran its time, most infamously in the locals' battle for a church - no such place of worship was included in the original communist scheme.

Walking along the avenues leading off Plac Centralny you can still feel the power of the grand Soviet gesture. These vast, geometrical boulevards are not beautiful, but impressive - the whole city was planned like a Renaissance city, but in the Social Realist style. As a nod to local traditions, some rather stiff flourishes were added from Polish Renaissance and baroque traditions - arcades, ornamental parapets and the like.

Although the overall effect is rather bombastic, many gifted Polish architects sing the praises of the quality of the living accommodation itself. These spacious apartments were inspired by leading modernist examples, and even some Poles who were victimized by the regime as 'class enemies' add that the apartments themselves were quite congenial. Not that this was much compensation in the overall scheme of the things.

Once you're in Nowa Huta, its worth heading down Aleja Solidarnosci to the gates of the steelworks itself. Unless you can wangle something with the authorities, you won't be allowed in, but the entrance alone makes a powerful impression, as does the grand avenue leading up to it.

Beyond, the steelworks spreads over an area almost as large as the city itself. There are several hundred kilometres of roads linking the various parts of the factory complex alone. Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gone wrong.

The factory achieved notoriety for the appalling pollution that it caused. Special filters are now in place, whilst the factory itself has been considerably downsized - there is 40 % unemployment in city at the moment, in spite of the fact that thousands of people still work at the mills. Today Nowa Huta has a something of a shady image and Cracovians advise that you don't go there after dark.

Before leaving it's worth having a look at the famous 'Arka' church, so-called due its sweeping form. No church was originally marked out in the city's plans, and what you see is the result of a battle (physical at times) that has since passed into legend.

It's also worth checking out the impressive thirteenth century Cistercian Abbey of Mogila, once the focal point of the locality, yet now dwarfed by the Stalinist city. Over the road is an exquisite eighteenth century wooden church and some old farmers cottages. Seeing these elements in conjunction with the city is a good idea if you want to savour the full topsy-turviness of post-war Poland. The city was built on the best farmland in the region - land that was confiscated from the aforementioned monastery - the Church owned about one third of the real estate in Cracow in 1939.

Today Nowa Huta has a somewhat surreal atmosphere. However, provided you don't stray into the suburbs it certainly is safe to visit it during the day.

The main avenues, which once had names like Cuban Revolution Avenue and Six Year Plan Avenue, are now named after emigre heros such as General Anders (who was denounced by the Communists for years). Likewise Bor- Komorowski, leader of the tragic Warsaw Uprising of 1944. One major avenue is now named after Polish Pope John Paul II. Most bizarre of all, in September 2004, the councillors of Cracow narrowly voted to rename Plac Centralny - the square which boasted the vast Lenin statue - Ronald Reagan Square. Times they are a changin' as Bob would say.

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