It wasn’t all that long ago, certainly within my lifetime, that people were sent to carry out hard labour in salt mines as a punishment. They probably still are. The Soviets especially liked compelling people to go deep underground (usually in Siberia) to mine the precious commodity but today things have changed and we were actually paying for the privilege of dropping down towards the centre of the earth.
Tag Archives: Poland
Even though travel restrictions are easing I am not yet minded to risk it so I still have no new stories to post so I continue to go through my picture archives and see where I was on this day at any time in the last few travelling years.
On 1st December 2006 I was in the Polish city of Krakow visiting the Christmas Market…
I recorded no story because this was so long ago it was even before I started to write my blog.
I did buy this rather nice chess set in the indoor Christmas market…
We now had some time to spare before the others returned from their visit to Auschwitz so we walked into the market square which was now bathed in gentle central European mid March sunshine and found a café with pavement tables and a good vantage point to be able to see what was going on. As the horse drawn carriages jangled by and the place filled up with tourists I wondered how they were getting on at the concentration camp tour and I began to recollect our own visit there in 2006.
I have visited Poland before, twice to Krakow some time ago and last year to Wroclaw. I liked it and this year there was an opportunity to travel to the capital city of Warsaw.
I had never really thought seriously about going to Warsaw before and I put this down to the fact that when I was younger I always associated it with two things. Firstly, word association and the town of Walsall, which is a dreary unattractive, industrial town in the Black Country in the United Kingdom which is a place that few people would visit by choice. Secondly the term Warsaw Pact, which was the name of the Soviet military alliance in Eastern Europe which during my early years seemed to be the sinister organisation responsible for plotting to wipe us of the face of the map in a messy nuclear strike.
Anyway, I have overcome these objections now and when cheap air fares and a good hotel deal coincided on the same dates I needed no convincing to go there and I set about carrying out my usual research.
Poland is placed thirty-ninth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top fifty or most highly developed countries. The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. It is rated nineteenth out of thirty in the European Happiness Index, which may not sound very impressive but is two places above the United Kingdom so when people complain about Polish immigration I say perhaps it is a good thing and more Polish people might cheer us all up! Iceland, by-the-way remains way out in front.
Poland has fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites which puts in nineteenth place in the World and tenth overall in Europe which is no mean achievement. One of these sites is the historic centre of Warsaw which was rebuilt after the German army destroyed it as they retreated in 1945 and this one of the sites that I was really looking forward to seeing.
Perhaps not surprisingly the country was rather late joining the Blue Flag Beach initiative but is now catching up and has by 2014 achieved the status at seventeen beaches and Marinas on the Baltic Sea, although that represents a loss of eleven from the previous year.
But some things are not going so well, in football Poland has finished third twice at the Football world Cup but has been spectacularly unsuccessful in the European Nations cup where it has qualified twice but on neither occasion progressed beyond the group stages and if you think that is disappointing it has made the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest only nine times in sixteen attempts although it did manage to come second in 1994 despite almost being disqualified for the curious reason of rehearsing in English!
But it is the history of the country that fascinates me most because Poland has had a most dramatic last one thousand years and the reason for this is largely down to its unfortunate geographical position on one of the volatile European political fault lines with powerful neighbours to both east and west using it a convenient buffer state and taking it in turns to use it as a punch bag.
For the entire period that there has been a place called Poland its borders have expanded and contracted and moved this way and that as other more powerful states have invaded it, subjugated it and periodically annexed those parts that they took a liking to. The last great redrawing of the boundaries came in 1945 which gave us the geographical shape of Poland that we recognise today.
It was an early morning flight to Warsaw Modlin airport and as the Ryanair flight was called we lined up ready to board the plane. Ryanair has a reputation as being a pretty shabby airline but has improved recently but this morning it was back to the bad old days. For this flight someone at the personnel department had assembled the rudest possible team of people to administer the departure gate and I can only assume that there must be a special selection process to achieve this sort of ill-mannered combination of staff.
They began with the baggage check and pulled out a couple of young girls for the ritual humiliation of testing the bag size in the dimensions checker. While they struggled to rearrange the contents the sour faced rottweillers looked on smugly waiting for them to fail and to present them with a £50 bill each – a nice little earner!
Generally speaking I think it is people’s own responsibility to ensure that the baggage complies with the rules but this morning I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the two victims. Why? Well, because I cannot understand the selection process in the bag witch hunt and there were plenty of others that would so obviously have failed the dimensions test as well. As I struggled to comprehend this the answer became blindingly obvious – most of the other oversize bags were being carried by six foot brawny Polish builders and I imagine that it is a whole lot easier to pick on a young girl than a towering man mountain!
And then on the plane one of these giants came and sat next to me. Most people know that Ryanair seat space is not very generous and this man was huge in both height and girth and he had a massive padded coat that smelled of salami and stale cigarettes and he seemed strangely reluctant to remove it. It was a very uncomfortable journey and I was so glad when we landed in Warsaw and I could get some space and some fresh air.
“Wherever he saw a hole he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important.” Jules Verne – ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’
Down in the mine we walked for three and a half kilometres through a succession of chambers, carved chapels and exhibits that explained the history and the operation. The route took us to a depth of three hundred and twenty-seven metres and down a precise total of eight hundred steps. Almost at the bottom was the star of the show where an entire cathedral complete with a statue of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, had been craved into one of the largest caverns.
Nowa Huta (literally new smelter or steel mill) was built for two hundred thousand Polish steel workers in just ten years between 1949 and 1959 and was designed to rebalance Krakow society in favour of the proletariat to overwhelm the largely conservative and bourgeois city that was a focus of opposition and an irritation to the communist government. The authorities built, what was at the time, the biggest steel works in the World and created a model communist town and society to support it.
The dwarfs of Wroclaw can be found posing outside buildings and along the footpaths all over the city and this afternoon we bought a dwarf map and went looking for them.
The map must be rather old and out of date because it lists only seventy-nine of these little people but the dwarfs own web site (http://krasnale.pl/) says that there at least two hundred and five and some sources claim that there are as many as two hundred and fifty so the chances of seeing them all in one afternoon seemed hopelessly ambitious.
It wasn’t all that long ago, certainly within my lifetime, that people were sent to carry out hard labour in salt mines as a punishment. They probably still are. The Soviets especially liked compelling people to go deep underground (usually in Siberia) to mine the precious commodity but today things have changed and we were actually paying for the privilege.
The Trams of Krakow
Overhead an intricate spider’s web of electric cables was providing power to the blue and cream trams that regularly rattled past on the steel tracks in the roads. Some of these were modern Bombardier flexi-trams that hummed rather than clanked but my favourites were the certain future museum pieces from the 1950s and 60s that conjured up images of the old days of the Soviet Empire that were heavily engineered and streaked with grime and rust.
I noticed that as passengers got on board they immediately began to look grey and tired and seemed to become a feature of the tram as though locked permanently into a 1960s Krakow time warp.
The trams whirred and screeched and sounded bells to warn of their approach as they drew up and pulled off, setting down and picking up and clattering away again between the rows of neglected buildings and out towards the proletarian apartments of the city suburbs.
The Nowa Huta city tour is designed as an alternative to the castles, cathedrals and palaces of Krakow and first of all the driver, whose name was Eric, took us to a restaurant called the Stylowa (meaning Stylish) in a prestigious location on central Rose Avenue that has been there since 1956 and is a local legend locked now in a communist time warp.
Once it was the most exclusive restaurant in the town and was a meeting place for the elite of Nowa Huta, the lawyers, professors, artists and the engineers from the nearby steelworks. Stylowa was as a top class restaurant, tastefully decorated in white with golden highlights, numerous mirrors, wonderful crystal chandeliers, solid tables and chairs and splendid marble floor and pillars. It has had a couple of renovations over the years of course but it still retains the original features (including the waitresses) and it was a fascinating insight into the past.
Over Coffee Eric introduced us to the history of Nowa Huta and talked us through a scrap book of photographs and memories accompanied by a personal interpretation and a fascinating first-hand account based on his family recollections of life under a communist regime. This was sensible Eric and with his expressive and thoughtful blue eyes contrasting against his pale academic complexion he provided an interesting and coherent narrative based on a combination of facts, moving reminiscences and personal political theories. We didn’t expect or require Eric to be crazy and I sensed that he was more comfortable with that. I especially liked his analysis of communist economics that he assessed as being based on making things inefficient as possible – on purpose!
Nowa Huta was built for two hundred thousand Polish steel workers in just ten years between 1949 and 1959 and was designed to rebalance Krakow society in favour of the proletariat to overwhelm the largely conservative and bourgeois city that was a focus of opposition and an irritation to the communist government. The authorities built, what was at the time, the biggest steel works in the World and created a model communist town and society to support it.
The best Polish architects planned the city and Nowa Huta was built to the preferred communist Renaissance model with a rigid geometry and a sunburst pattern where streets radiated in perfect straight lines and through symmetrical angles from a central square at the hub of the town.
Communism is an ideology that seeks to establish a classless, stateless social organisation based on common ownership and centralised planning and that principal had helped to give the cities to the citizens and wide open spaces in which to enjoy them. The designers of Nowa Huta had aimed to sweep away the class inequalities so there were no churches and the whole place had a uniform design that was constructed out of their most favourite building material – concrete.
Nowa Huta however turned out to be the bizarre product of thoughtless communist central planning. The land had been confiscated from the Church who had owned vast parts of pre communist Krakow and had farmed this rich land for centuries. The focus of the town was a huge steelworks, yet there was no iron ore or coal for hundreds of miles around so had to be transported in. It was built on the richest and most valuable farmland in the region and the concrete and tarmac was laid without thought over an important Neolithic settlement whose value now can only be imagined.
Krakow resented Nowa Huta and to a certain extent still does and there is an uneasy co-existence between the working class suburb and the bourgeois city. It has a reputation for being lawless and dangerous and now, after the history lesson, it was time to go onto the streets to see for ourselves if this was true and this was to be another surprise. In contrast to more recent developments the town is comparatively low-rise with wide streets, spacious boulevards, green open parks, flower beds and trees and although badly scarred by industrial pollution the buildings are substantial and the infrastructure of the town is in surprisingly good shape compared with some other suburbs of Krakow that we had seen. I could certainly understand why people are currently lobbying to have Nowa Huta added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
The sun was shining and it all felt safe and rather pleasant walking through the wide open spaces of the communist showpiece and listening to Eric’s reflective commentary about the way of life of the people that lived here. I could almost imagine the fifteen metre high statue of Lenin outside the Stylowa restaurant and the chimneys of the steelworks belching smoke and pollution into the atmosphere and, I’m guessing here of course, but I imagine that in the old days there would have been a hammer and sickle on the site of modern day Ronald Regan Avenue!
After the stroll though the town we returned now to the Trabant and Eric took us on a ride through the streets. The car clattered down the wide boulevard known as the Champs-Élysées and to the gates of the now privatised steel works that employs only 10% of the original forty-thousand workforce.
From here we carried on through the outskirts, past a bizarre piece of public street art, an olive green T34 Soviet combat tank and then to the very first church that was built in Nowa Huta after a long campaign to obtain construction permission. On the return to Krakow we passed through a modern addition to the town, which was much closer to our original expectations with rows and rows of grim high rise apartments, which with Housing Association landlords now rather than the State, were at least trying to cheer themselves up with a bright coat of exterior paint.
After an excellent morning Eric took us back to the old town and explained that although this was a communist tour we would have to pay a capitalist fee for the excursion in his luxury limousine and we happy with that because this had been a real highlight of the week.