Tag Archives: Poland

Poland, Communist Central Planning – The Trabant

On our second visit to Krakow in 2010 we chose to go on Mike’s Crazy Communist Tour,  we had seen this on a Michael Palin travel programme and it looked like fun so we were keen to give it a try.  The feature of the tour is that the transport is in an original ‘communist’ Trabant car with the promise of a ‘crazy’ driver and sure enough outside our hotel was the vehicle and the driver who presented himself as Eric and who immediately introduced us to the features of the car.

The Trabant (which in medieval German was a foot soldier or personal guard) was an automobile that was produced in former East Germany and was the most common vehicle in that country but was also exported to neighbours inside the communist bloc and sometimes even to the west.  It was called the People’s Car and was so popular, and production was so inefficient, that it could take up to fifteen years to deliver after placing the order.  The main selling point was that it had room for four adults and luggage in a compact, light and durable shell made of fibreglass and plastic, which western critics mocked and rather unkindly suggested was in fact made of cardboard.

There were four principal variants of the Trabant, ours was the 601 Station Wagon model, hand painted in black with socialist red trim and finishes.  Eric explained that the engine was a small 600cc two-stroke power unit with only two cylinders which gave the vehicle a modest performance with a top speed of seventy miles per hour and zero to sixty taking twenty-one seconds at full throttle.  There were two main problems with the engine, the smoky exhaust and the pollution because the car was responsible for producing nine times the amount of hydrocarbons and five times the carbon monoxide emissions of the average modern European car.

Eric explained that the car had no fuel gauge so even though there was a small reserve tank getting to a destination could be a bit of a guessing game and require an element of luck.  Because there was no fuel pump in the car the petrol tank was placed high up in the engine compartment so that fuel could be fed directly to the carburetor by gravity.  As the engine does not have an oil injection system two-stroke oil has to be added to the fuel tank every time it is filled up, which I imagine is a bit of a chore.  This all sounded rather dangerous to me because you have to open the bonnet to refuel and after a run to the petrol station it would be almost certain that the engine will be hot so I imagine it takes a great deal of concentration and Indiana Jones type nerves of steel to visit the filling station!

Keeping a car like this roadworthy probably requires divine intervention but once on board Eric effortlessly negotiated his way out of Kazimierz and towards the main road that would take us to our destination, the communist model new town of Nowa Huta, to the east of Krakow.  Inside, the car was basic with rudimentary controls and dashboard.  The four speed gear box was operated by a column mounted gear change which looked quite tricky to me but Eric seemed to know his way around the gears well enough and he guided us effortlessly through the early morning traffic.  One of the problems he pointed out was that other drivers didn’t often show a lot of respect to the little Trabant and this sometimes made progress slow and difficult.

Nowa Huta Krakow

I was moderately relaxed even though I knew that if the inefficient drum brakes ever failed and there was an accident that my legs were effectively the crumple zone and just a few centimetres in front of my face was the fragile little petrol tank ready to burst into flames and there was a couple of occasions when I found myself operating an imaginary footbrake and Kim admitted later that she was doing the same.

It took about twenty minutes to drive to our destination and in between dodging the gaping potholes and keeping an eye out for discourteous fellow road users, in preparation for the tour and over the clatter of the engine and the creaking of the chassis, Eric kept up an informative narrative about the history of communism in Poland.  It was great fun especially as we rattled over tramlines and Eric fought with the steering controls to negotiate some tight bends but eventually we arrived at our destination, left the car and began our visit to Nowa Huta.

Eric was doing his best to be ‘crazy’ but I noticed that he locked the car and checked the doors in the same careful way that my dad used to lock his Ford Anglia before leaving it unattended and I was beginning to suspect that being crazy wasn’t something that actually came all that naturally to him.  He had wild hair arranged in extravagant dreadlocks and an outward bohemian appearance but behind the external image he was really an educated scholar with an impressive knowledge of Krakow, word perfect English and an incisive philosophical interpretation of his subject.

You can read Michael palin’s version of the tour here, http://palinstravels.co.uk/book-4439, it’s not as good as mine!



Every Picture Tells a Story – First Cars

Terror drive in Naxos

Krakow, the Jewish Quarter and Oskar Schindler


On the final morning we enjoyed our continental breakfast at the Ester, packed our bags and checked out and planned a morning around the Jewish quarter and the Second-World-War ghetto area in the Podgórze district across the river.  On the previous day we had made arrangements for a city guide in an electric street vehicle to meet us at ten o’clock and just ahead of schedule he arrived at the front of the hotel.  His name was Andrew and he explained that he would show us the principal sights of the area but this being Saturday the synagogues would be closed.

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Krakow, Auschwitz and the Nazi’s Final Solution

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.

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Krakow, Nowa Huta

Eric was doing his best to be ‘crazy’ but I noticed that he locked the car and checked the doors in the same careful way that my dad used to lock his Ford Anglia before leaving it unattended and I was beginning to suspect that being crazy wasn’t something that actually came all that naturally to him.  He had wild hair arranged in extravagant dreadlocks and an outward bohemian appearance but behind the external image he was really an educated scholar with an impressive knowledge of Krakow, word perfect English and an incisive philosophical interpretation of his subject.

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Krakow, Eric’s Crazy Guide Communist Tour

On the second day of our visit to Krakow there were two groups with very different plans.  Micky, Sue and Christine were going to visit Auschwitz but as we had been before Kim and I chose Mike’s Crazy Communist Tour instead.  We had seen this on a Michael Palin travel programme and it looked like fun so we were keen to give it a try.

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Krakow, The Old Town and Castle

After lunch and with the sunshine getting the upper hand over the clouds we walked around the square and past the grand St Mary’s Church which has a tower where on the hour a bugle call sounds out.  We weren’t sure if there was a real bugler at the top providing the music or whether it was just a recording but there is a legend connected with this tune, which ends unexpectedly in the middle.

The story says that it was played by a guard during the Tatars’ invasion in the thirteenth century, who used it to warn citizens of an attack. He was shot in mid tune and since that day the melody breaks off just at the moment he died and then starts again a few seconds later when someone else picked up his bugle and carried on in his place.

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Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Going Underground at Wieliczka

“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’

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.

The hotel clerk tried to persuade me to book a personal taxi tour but at forty zlotys more each (£10) this seemed an unnecessary expense so I booked the regular tour instead.  This meant that to begin with there was a couple of shuttle bus journeys to reach the final rendezvous point across the river Vistula on the western side of the town where we separated into two groups, one for the Nazi concentration camp tour to Auschwitz and the other to the salt mines just a fifteen minute ride away on the outskirts of the city.

It was still rather overcast as we drove the short distance but it was much warmer today and by the time  we arrived at the Wieliczka Salt Mine the sun was beginning to compete with the milky clouds  and we left the bus and walked to the entrance to meet our guide for the tour.

We were soon to be swallowed up into an underground labyrinth of tunnels so the weather was actually rather irrelevant.

The mine is in the suburb town of Wieliczka that is now part of the greater Krakow metropolitan area and since the thirteenth century has continuously produced high quality table salt.

It has been one of the world’s oldest operating  mines producing salt for seven hundred years until commercial mining was discontinued in 1996 due to low prices and flooding problems, followed by formal closure in 2007.  It now produces just sixty tonnes of salt a day which sounds rather a lot but this is only a by-product of routine maintenance operations.

The largest underground salt mine in the World is in Goderich in Ontario Canada which produces twenty-five thousand tonnes of salt every day, which might sound like an awful lot but is only about 5% of Worldwide production!  That is a lot of salt!

Journey to the Centre of the Earth…


Today the mine is a tourist attraction and about one million, two hundred thousand people visit every year.  This might seem like a strange sort of place to visit but the attraction is a collection of statues and an entire cathedral that have been carved out of the rock salt by the miners over the years – presumably during their tea breaks.

So impressive are the sculptures that in 1978 the Wieliczka salt mine was placed on the original UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

After we were assigned an English speaking guide who welcomed us on the tour and then the visit began with a long descent down a vertical shaft which meant negotiating over three hundred vertiginous wooden steps that zigzagged past fifty-four platforms down to the first level.  From here we were about to enter a maze of tunnels and interconnecting chambers that are over two hundred miles long and probably puzzling enough to confuse even the Minotaur of Greek legend.

The Underground Pope and a Cathedral…

 wieliczka salt mine

We walked through disused and exhausted chambers, passing by whole forests of timber props and retaining walls and through heavy wooden doors to reach the first of the sights, the Copernicus Chamber, where for those of us who were expecting statues similar to white marble we were disappointed by the rather lack-luster grey of the rock salt figure and the guide explained that this was due to clay impurities and other contamination in the rock.

Down in the mine we walked for over two miles 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 where there was a light show accompanied by a rendition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, which to all of us seemed to be a rather strange choice of music.

After that there were a few remaining tunnels and chambers and the inevitable gift shops and then thankfully a lift to take us back to the surface, which was preferable of course to having to climb back up the eight hundred steps.

Wieliczka – Discover The Treasure…

Wieliczka Salt Mine advert

Back on the surface of the earth the sky was clearing nicely now and blue patches were rapidly replacing the unwelcome clouds and by the time the coach dropped us off on the edge of the old city centre the sun was shining and the temperature was rising nicely.

In the square we selected a restaurant for lunch based on the contents of the menu board outside but then managed to find ourselves in the wrong place.  We really wanted the Krakow specialty of soup in a hollowed out bread bun so we had to do the embarrassing thing and leave as soon as we had realised the error and relocate ourselves in the correct place next door.

Here we were served our preferred lunch where it was fun trying to anticipate how long it would be before the hot liquid would leak through the crust and end up spilling the scalding liquid spectacularly into our laps.  We wondered if we could attempt this at home but I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying it with a loaf of thin crust supermarket ‘economy’ loaf..

Krakow, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Krakow, The Crocodile Bar in Kazimierz

It was nice inside and I for one could have stayed longer but we didn’t want the girls getting drunk so after a second beer we left and walked out into the street where it was cold but not unpleasant.  The area around the hotel was quite run down and the buildings looked tired with peeling facades revealing crumbling brickwork and rotting timbers beneath.   After the war, under the Polish Communist regime, Kazimierz deteriorated into a seedy and disagreeable area and it is only since the mid 1990s that the district has begun to rediscover its Jewish heritage and undergo reconstruction and regeneration to become one of the main tourist centres in Krakow.

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Krakow, Kazimierz

Located in the south of Poland, Krakow is historically and culturally one of the most important cities in central Europe and although we had visited before in 2006 it seemed appropriate to go again and see what we might have missed the first time.  Cheap £40 return Ryanair flights made the decision an easier one and in March 2010 we left Stansted airport for the two hour flight to Poland’s second city.

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