Saturday, July 17, 2021

Nowa Huta: An Ideal Communist City

Nowa Huta (literally translates to "new ironworks") is a district of Krakow, but was designed to be a separate city. Before construction started in the 1950s, the area was mostly just agricultural land withs some sparse villages sprinkled throughout. Since the end of communism, it has stayed as a semi-desirable neighborhood, especially for those who want affordable housing with lots of parks and parking. It was, after all, designed to be the ideal community.

Our walking tour started in Central Square, from which the pentagonal blocks unravel. The shape was thought to be the best protection against nuclear warfare, and for additional protection many of the buildings have sniper walls built onto the roofs. Each segment forms its own self-contained fortress, with everything you would need to survive in case you were blocked in: a grocer, some greenery, a bomb shelter...

The first layer of Nowa Huta was hastily constructed, in an attempt to prove that it could be done. Plus, the Soviet Union needed steel, and the residents of Nowa Huta were expected to produce it in the nearby Kombinat—the steelworks company that was also newly constructed in 1954. Due to the haste, culture and beauty were left off of the checklist of new city necessities. There were a few "decorations" on the archways and columns, but for the most part the buildings all were stereotypical Soviet Bloc concrete slabs.

With each new decade, there seemed to be a new leader of the "city" (which was quickly downgraded to be just a sub-district of Krakow) and a new set of ideas of how Nowa Huta should be designed. As you move further from the center, the architecture changes and you start to see the inclusion of some of the initially overlooked items: parks, art (i.e. statues of communist leaders), a restaurant, a theater, and (towards the end) some churches began to be allowed. 

In 1989, the bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin was dismantled in a protest, and in the same year Communism officially ended in Poland. The continued construction of Nowa Huta left the area in debt and with a need of a cultural shift. Many of those working at Kombinat were left looking for work. It took until the time Poland joined the EU in 2004 before things were relatively stable. 

These days, many of the street names have been renamed to honor modern idols (like Pope John Paul II) and the steel plant was purchased by a foreign company and now employs ~40,000 people. The place that was intended to be a cookie-cutter model for many future cities ended up being quite unique; it is only one of two planned socialist settlements ever built. In some ways it succeeded, as a large portion of the population who lives have been there for decades and are now, in their retired years, enjoying the benefits of the community that never quite came into fruition during the 40 years of communism in Poland. 

This mural shows the outline of current Nowa Huta. The dark outline of the pentagon shape was from the first wave of architecture (starting in the mid-1950s). 

Central Square is literally the square at the center of the mural, above. It is also where we started our tour.

Just on the other side of the street from Central Square is this large field; a visual representation of what Nowa Huta was built from. 

Some of the more decorative early buildings. The regularly-spaced square blocks of concrete at the top of the roofs on the right are protection for snipers. 

Inside one of the many identical city blocks. These were self-contained and fortifiable. Spying on your neighbors was encouraged, as evidenced by the building's shape, and the communal laundry lines.

A bomb shelter was located within each block. The pink building at the back is part of a new batch of construction from the 1960s. 

Restauracja Stylowa (literally meaning "stylish restaurant") was the first restaurant in Nowa Huta. 

The final stop on our tour was a beautiful church, Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland, which was built in the the '60s/'70s. It took a while before the communist government approved the construction of a church, and those asking for it were told that they had to fund it and source their own materials. The result is perhaps the most stunning church in Krakow.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Scooter Madness

When I first moved to Krakow in October, 2019, the new electric scooters were the talk of the town. They had newly started to litter the sidewalks, and city regulators implemented no-ride zones in December, 2019. "Thank goodness," all of the locals said; it's a little unsightly having bright green Lime scooters sprinkled in front of the majestic St. Mary's Cathedral. 

Despite the restrictions, more and more brands are biding for part of the market share. A few are pretty beefy looking—with solar charging phone stands and suspended wheel bases—but most are just for fun. Outside of Old Town, it's pretty clear to see where the tourist areas based on how many scooters are piled around. The river is the worst. The scooters fall over onto the walking path, and it's not uncommon to see some handlebars sticking out of the water. The older models have been around long enough that they're starting to break down, and every so often I'll see a disconnected kickstand or one that has been split in two. 

It's a fairly eco-friendly form of transportation, and less work than riding a bike. Just about anyone can ride them, but they aren't available to everyone. Kids under 10 aren't supposed to ride outside of residential areas, and 10-18 year olds are supposed to have a bicycle card or modified drivers license (both methods of proving kids have learned the rules of the road). I'm guessing that rule is broken just as often as the rule that it's only supposed to be one person per scooter, but you'll spot two, three, or even four people crammed on sometimes. 

I've ridden the scooters a few times: once just for fun, once because I missed my bus, and a few times because I simply wanted to get somewhere more quickly or I didn't want to carry my groceries home. They're quite accessible to people; just yesterday I saw a woman in her late 60s riding one and mean-mugging the kids she zoomed by. I'm thinking of taking my parents on a scooter tour when they visit next week. Delivery folks pretty commonly own their own and use that as their primary get-around. 

The signs that Krakow is a young, hip city: electric scooters and graffiti. 

It's odd to see the (typically) green and white scooters offsetting the old brick architecture.

They can look a little intimidating, like a little scooter gang. I find myself sometimes creating personalities and narratives for them.

Like these ones, trying to keep you from trespassing on their turf. 

Or this bully, who got in a fight with his friend, and pushed him to the ground to prove his dominance.

Recently, the city has started marking off special scooter parking. They look very tidy lined up in the mornings.

But by the evening they look a little haphazard. 

On one of my morning runs, I caught this van dropping off a massive delivery of newly charged scooters for the day's riders.

Cameron didn't want to go all the way home after a long run, so he took a scooter for the last few kilometers.

Plus, it's pretty nice to zoom along the river (even if it is somewhat congested with scooters).

Most of the scooter apps show you a map where all of their scooters are smattered about. The reservation system is a new feature.

And now, an ode to the fallen scooter:

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Last Week of School

School ended July 26 for all of the Polish children, and there were some pretty clear clues last week that the kids were transitioning into summer: longer lines for ice cream, bigger groups of students prowling along the Vistula, and playground noises wafting into our flat later into the evenings. I get the sense that the last week of school is mostly a time to cram in a final field trip, which is something my friend and I did not account for when we decided to go to Energylandia last week.

Ooh we thought we were so clever! She took the day off of work and I shifted my hours so that we could go to the amusement park during the week. Monday was going to be hot, but not as miserable as the preceding days, and we figured we'd have the place to ourselves since the kids were still in school. Both Ola and I are planners, so we independently looked up what to wear to an amusement park and felt very prepared.

The traffic for the last 10 minutes of travel was a little unnerving, but I though it might just be tour buses on the way to Auschwitz, or maybe the small town we were passing through had an unusually intense rush hour. When we arrived at our destination we realized the traffic was all heading the same place we were, and the lot was already half-full even though the park had only been open for 15 minutes! The ticket courtyard was the most crowded space I have been in in two years, and the school kids had no sense of social distancing or proper mask etiquette. 

Although a little overwhelmed by the crowd and noise, the entryway brought back happy memories of Europa-Park, Six Flags, and Holiday Park. I was giddy and bemused by the overly-enthusiastic statues near the entranceway. As with anything like this, it took us a while to catch our bearing (No, we don't want to be at the waterpark, nor the kids section. Can we find a bathroom? And how are we supposed to pay for the lockers?) but we finally found our way into the Speed Water Coaster line.

The ride was aptly named, because after a whooshing drop and some thrilling turns, we were blasted with a wave of water. It was great fun, and the only ride we went on twice over the course of the day. My other favorite was the Zadra wooden coaster, which had some unexpected upside-down moments, but the other two biggest coasters—Hyperion and Mayan—were a little too zippy for me.

While it was more crowded that we expected, it was very clear that the park is designed to handle at least twice as many people. Even so, we were waiting in line for at least 20 minutes for each ride, so we only went on eight over the course of the day. When at the top of some of the rides, we could clearly see a few sections of the park that are still under construction; I'm not sure if the new attractions will help spread out the crowds or just draw in more visitors. 

Despite the queues, people, and heat, I really enjoyed myself. There were lots of areas of the park we didn't see (including all of the shows and the water park), so I'm sure I would find Energylandia equally fun and novel if I got the opportunity to visit a second time. If you are looking for something to do the next time you play hooky, riding the roller coasters is a pretty good option.

Look at this little cutie, who greets you as you enter the parking lot. I know he's there to get the kids excited, but he charmed me as well. 

Hyperion, the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in Poland is also visible as you start to drive up. The cars were already rolling by the time we arrived. 

First entering the park required some crowd navigation, but once inside it was reasonably easy to stay spread out. 

The Speed Water Coaster was our favorite. Your boat is lifted out of the water to zoom along the coaster tracks before ending with a big splash.

People were supposed to wear masks in lines and on rides, but virtually no one was doing that. I attempted to wear a mask, but as soon as I opened my mouth the scream it caught the wind and stayed hugging my chin on every ride.

The wooden Zadra coaster is in the Dragon's Lair part of the park. 

Construction going on in the distance. it looks like the new Aqua Lantis is going to be really fun, and will have another big water coaster. 

A somewhat disappointing Jungle Adventure—you got splashed more waiting in line than you did in the boat. You can also see the fairly large Mayan roller coaster in the background. 

These poor people were in full heavy costume in the heat of the day. It was nearing 30 degrees Celsius/90 degrees Fahrenheit. Needless to say, they were not moving very enthusiastically.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Visit Me (and the Museums) in Krakow!

"As of June 19th, 2021 United States nationals and legal residents are permitted to lawfully enter Poland." –Polish Tourism Organisation

I found out yesterday morning from the tour guide on a free walking tour of the Kazimierz (the Jewish quarter). Even though I didn't learn much new from the tour itself (I mean, I live in Kazimierz), but that little nugget of information was worth it! Plus, I learned that a main road near historically was river bed, and that the plaza I live near, Plac Wolnica, used to be 4x as big as it currently is. The free walking tours are great, and if you get a chance to visit I will highly recommend you take one or two of them.

Speaking of visiting, did I mention that you can? And you should! I was looking up flights for my parents (from El Paso, TX to Krakow), and round trip was less than $1300, and I'm guessing if you fly out from a more major US airport it will probably be even less. I know it's not cheap, but it's also not that bad for international travel. Plus, if you visit accommodations are free! My flat can comfortably accommodate at least five guests. Mom and Dad will be here a few weeks in July, but the more the merrier if you ask me. You just need to come before we fly out on 15 August. When you come, we can get some tasty treats and tasty views, like this:

Fancy ice cream on the square is my favorite part of living in Europe. 

If that doesn't convince you, maybe my river of the museums in town will. I've already written about some of my favorites, so I won't spend a lot of time on those, except to give an overall rating:

My first Krakow museum, HistoryLand, was a real treat! 8/10—it's great if you like Legos and overview history, but you definitely need to pay for the audio guide. 

The only reason to visit the Princess Czartoryski Museum is to see DaVinci's Lady with the Ermine—5/10.

Galicia Jewish Museum takes an interesting approach to history telling, but it's not really my style of museum—7/10.

I just wrote a raving review for Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum last week, and so my 10/10 rating shouldn't be a surprise.

Now for the new reviews. Shall we go from worst to best?

Time marked by the layers of earth in the Underground Museum. 

With only 4/10—the Rynek Underground Museum. The concept is good, because clearly there's going to be some good stuff buried beneath an 800-year-old city, but it felt so...fabricated. I didn't go with a guide, and I'm sure that would have made it better, but I'm not willing to go back a second time to test that theory.

There were some interesting pieces in the National Museum, but there was a too much religious art to sift through to find the more unique pieces. 

The National Museum in Krakow is huge and I only saw two of the exhibits, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. I give it a 6/10, mostly because I can't remember much of it. It had a big chain of religious art and artifacts, and there was a little bit of a history tour through the art extending from medieval times to the mid-1900s. It was both overwhelming in scope and underwhelming in presentation. I'm sure there is a lot worth seeing, but I'm not sure if it's worth it for me. 

"Kunst Macht Frei" translates to art makes you free; it's a play on the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate leading into Auschwitz. 

I always think I like contemporary art museums, but maybe I don't? MOCAK (Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow) had a pretty interesting setup when I went—the temporary exhibit was WWII related, so it felt like a history and art museum in one. Some of the art was fun, and some was really good, but a lot of it felt like the artists were trying to create massive meaningful imagery but without enough noticeable skills to back it up. 6/10 from me. 

Views from the top of the City Hall Tower on a clear day. You can't walk out on the terrace but they have it set up so you can still see pretty well. 

I give 7/10 for the City Hall Tower. It's fun climbing the steep uneven stairs that open up to the top clock tower. From the top there are lovely views of Old Town and the surrounding city. If it's too much of a climb, there are side rooms off of the staircase that have some historical displays educating on the history of the tower and the clockwork. The real reason to go is the view and the information is an added bonus.

Looking at old photos through a magnifying lens in the Schindler's Factory Museum. 

Schindler's Factory is the best museum in town—9/10. The curators do a really nice job of presenting information in many different formats so as you move from room to room you are looking at the information through a new lens (sometimes, literally looking through lenses). The only reason this isn't a 10/10 is because it's more of a general WWII museum, and I would have liked to learn more about the specifics of Schindler's Factory.

Deep in the bowls of the Lost Wawel exhibit. In my opinion, this is a much more interesting way to see old Krakow than the Underground Museum provides. 

Wawel (the castle) also doubles as a museum, but there are so many exhibits that you buy tickets for separately that it's hard to think of it as a single cohesive space. I've seen the Dragon's Den (fun but not much to see—5/10),  Wawel Recovered (too architect-focused for me—4/10), and Lost Wawel (a super cool sneak-peak into the depths of the castle—8/10). Even if you don't seen any of the formal exhibits, it's very worth walking through the castle grounds, which is why my overall rating is a must see for anyone visiting Krakow. 

Blocks of salt that came from Wieliczka Salt Mine and are on display at MOCAK. 

But that's not all. There are still tons of museums I haven't been: Museum of Municipal Engineering, Pharmacy Museum, Manggha Center, the Old Synagog...and then many more. We saw the grounds of the Aviation Museum, and I half-jokingly really want to go to the Museum of Illusion, but the main spat that I will make an effort to see before we move is the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Visit me and maybe we can go together *wink wink! 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

Gosh, was it only this Monday that our car got picked up for shipping? It feels like months ago, but now that means we only have a few months to go. I'm not sad or disappointed, but I feel like the next two months are going to go by in a whirlwind. 

For our last day with the car, we went to Auschwitz. I wasn't particularly excited to go (I mean, it's not a place known for having a good time), but I felt obligated to. The former Nazi concentration camp surrounds a town that is about 1.5 hours west of Krakow. The town of Oswiecim is like any other Polish agricultural village, except for the massive busloads of tourists that regularly drive through. I suppose the area is historically known for large deposits of people who spent too long in sweaty crowded vehicles.

Ok, that was a bad joke...but some of us use comedy as a way of dealing with horror. It was not so horrible, though. Everything about the organization at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum was thoughtful, tasteful, and respectful. It started with a ten-minute video (voiced by Mark Hamill) with beautiful dual photos overlaying historical images on top of modern ones. Then we met our tour guide for three hours spit between Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II). 

Our guide was great! Of course he was incredibly knowledgeable about WWII history, but he was very good about pointing out the stories and humanity behind each photo and location. For example, in one black-and-white photo on the unloading dock, you see the groups of men and women grouped up separately, a few SS officers, and someone in the center of it all walking around in his socks and looking a little bewildered. Our guide called out the others in the crowed who were gawking and smirking, implying the transports weren't panicked or overly stressed about their destination. He then of course reminded us that most of them were in the last hour of their lives.

The stories were humanizing, but the piles of human hair were tragic. It was the only space we were not allowed to photograph, in respect of the human remains, but it was enough hair to fill my apartment. In other spaces we saw equally overwhelming piles of shoes, suitcases, kitchen appliances, eyeglasses, and prostheses. And of course, it's difficult to hear about the gas chambers without feeling disgusted, but our guide always had a diplomatic way of focusing our concerns. 

He had a habit of reminding us that yes, the Holocaust was 80 years ago but there are still tragedies that are happening in our modern world. People are still equally capable of buying into an ethics system that leads to genocide. Tribalism is real—just watch the newest season of Ru Paul's Drag Race

I am so glad I went to Auschwitz. Not only was it interesting and educational, but it was also inspirational. Some people might think of this place as a one-time visit, but I would happily go back again and again. There is so much more to see (the place is 40 km2) and so many more stories to tell. If you get a chance, I highly recommend visiting. 

The message "Arbeit Macht Frei" helped to subdue the prisoners, making them think that they were arriving at a long-term work camp. For some it was a work camp, but it wasn't long-term for anyone. 

The space was unexpectedly beautiful and peaceful, except for the rows of barbed wire fences everywhere. Our tour guide also noted that it would not have looked so green when it was occupied; the grounds would have been muddy and crowded.

A visual representation of how disabilities were viewed. 

This is only about a sixth of the total pile. Now imagine the same volume, but with human hair.

The ovens inside one of the crematoriums. 

Inside Birkenau (Auschwitz II). 

This is the photo I described, above, cleverly placed in the spot that the photo was taken from.

The destroyed remains of a gas chamber.

We got to be the first tour inside one of the newly renovated structures. Each of these infirmary beds used to sleep 4-7 people.