As intended, the colourless concrete conurbation of Kraków's Nowa Huta district is the direct antithesis of the city's Old Town. Ornate architecture, cobbled lanes and tourist crowds? Not here.
One of only two entirely pre-planned socialist realism cities ever built (the other being Magnitogorsk in Russia’s Ural Mountains), this Orwellian encampment is one of the finest examples of deliberate social engineering in the world. For tourists, but also for Poles, a visit is akin to travelling back in time to the communist era in Poland.
Raising the Behemoth: The Building of Nowa Huta
Funded by the Soviet Union, Nowa Huta swallowed up a huge swathe of ideal agricultural land, and the ancient village of Kościelniki (as well as parts of Mogiła and Krzesławice) in an attempt to create an in-your-face proletarian opponent to intellectual, artsy-fartsy, fairytale Kraków. Though today a separate district and suburb of Kraków, Nowa Huta was conceived as a separate city entirely, completely self-sufficient and intended to be superior to its neighbour.
The decision to build NH was rubber stamped on May 17, 1947 and over the next few years construction on the 'model city' for 100,000 people proceeded at breakneck speed. Built to impress, Nowa Huta featured wide, tree-lined avenues, parks, lakes and the officially sanctioned architectural style of the time - Socialist Realism. Nowa Huta’s architects strove to construct the ideal city, with ironic inspiration coming from the neighbourhood blocks built in 1920s New York (that decadent and despicable western metropolis). Careful planning was key, and the city was designed with ‘efficient mutual control' in mind: wide streets would prevent the spread of fire, the profusion of trees would help absorb a nuclear blast, an immense system of underground bunkers and tunnels could shelter the entire area's population, and the urban layout allowed for the city to be easily turned into a fortress if it came under attack.
Work on the first block of flats began on June 23, 1949 (today a plaque found at ul. Mierzwy 14 commemorates the event), and volunteer workers flocked from across Poland to take part in the bold vision of such a massive project. Feats of personal sacrifice were rife and officially encouraged with one man, Piotr Ożański, becoming a folk hero when his team of 12 men was lavished with praise by the Party for laying a stupendous 66,232 bricks in one 8-hour shift (Ożanski would later serve as inspiration for the central character of Andrzej Wajda's famous film, 'Man of Marble' (Człoweik z Marmuru)). For the builders of Nowa Huta, however, life was tough; many were still sleeping in tents when the first winter arrived, and crime was rampant. Legends abounded of bodies being buried in foundations, and night was positively dangerous in a country still reeling from the chaos of World War II.
Once inhabitable, the citizens of Nowa Huta's proletariat paradise would take meaning from their daily work contributions in the ‘Lenin Steelworks,’ of course. As with the entire city of Nowa Huta, the reasons for building a steel mill here were mostly ideological, since local demand for steel was small, coal had to be brought in all the way from Silesia, and iron ore had to be impractically transported from the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, work began in April 1950, and by 1954 the first blast furnace was in operation. Employing some 40,000 people in its heyday the ‘Lenin Steelworks’ were capable of producing seven million tonnes of steel annually, and boasted the largest blast furnace in Europe. Such was its reputation that Fidel Castro chose to visit the Steelworks rather than Kraków’s market square on one state visit to Poland. As monumental as residential Nowa Huta may seem, it simply pales in comparison to the 1000 hectare Steelworks complex, which includes multi-storey melting ladles and halls large enough to fit Krakow’s market square several times over. Officially called ‘ArcelorMittal Poland’ today, the Steelworks still employs about 3500, but doesn’t play the central role in the life of the district it once did.
Though erected in record time, somewhat sadly perhaps the utopian dream that was Nowa Huta was never fully realised. A fearsome Town Hall in the style of the renaissance 'ratuszes' found across Poland was never built, nor was the theatre building across from it, and the ornamental architectural details planned for the monumental buildings of Plac Centralny were never added. However what was completed is very much worth the trip for intrepid tourists willing to teleport themselves into a completely different reality far from the cobbled kitsch of Kraków; it’s as easy as a tram ride.
Jump off a tram at the ‘Plac Centralny’ stop, and find yourself at the very nucleus of Nowa Huta. Dating from 1949, the Central Square is a masterpiece of Soviet social planning, and the brainchild of architect Tadeusz Ptaszycki, whose socialist realism design gives the district its unique character. From 1973 to 1989 an enormous monument of Vladimir Lenin in full stride actually towered over the citizens of Nowa Huta at the north end of Plac Centralny. Dismantling it after the fall of communism in Poland was an important symbolic act (cheered by thousands of spectators), which later turned into almost comic irony when the square he once stood on - and which was named for a time after Joseph Stalin - was officially re-designated ‘Ronald Reagan Central Square’ in 2004. Speak to any local, however, and you’ll still hear it only referred to as Plac Centralny - a walk around the fearsome arcades of which will bring you to several points of interest, including the iconic Markiza neon sign, and Cepelix folk art shop.
Officially Kraków's greenest neighbourhood, Nowa Huta is full of parks and recreation areas, the nicest of which is certainly the Nowa Huta Reservoir - located midway between the Steelworks and Plac Centralny, just off of Al. Solidarnośći and only steps away from a branch of Nowa Huta Underground. The source of extensive investment and development in recent years, this artificial lake now features a boardwalk, artificial beach, benches and beach chairs, food trucks, new playgrounds, basketball courts, kayak rentals and even a graduation tower. A popular place for families and fishermen, some locals even go so far as to take a dip in the water in summer, which is home to numerous, swans, ducks and other waterfowl.
Just north of the lake (and within easy walking distance) is the remnants of the former village of Krzesławice, which hides a pristine example of ancient Polish sacral architecture in the wooden church of St. John the Baptist. Artist Jan Matejko enjoyed Krzesławice so much he used the picturesque village as an artist retreat as his preserved period manor house directly next door evidences.
While much of Nowa Huta is the product of the last half century, a true tour of the area reveals numerous sites of much older historical value. The most epitomising example of a pre-steel age in the area has to be Wanda’s Mound in Mogiła - a mysterious prehistoric earthwork that proves the area’s settlement predates that of Kraków’s Old Town. Alleged to be the burial mound of Kraków's first queen, though the mound itself may not be much to visit today, Wanda's story is certainly compelling.
Similar to Krzesławice, Mogiła is a quiet rural community on the outskirts of Nowa Huta's urban plan and stands in stark contrast to the austere impressions of Plac Centralny. Two tram stops east from Plac Centralny, get off at 'Klasztorna' and walk south down the street of the same name to discover one of the most cherished religious sites in Małopolska - the 13th century Cistercian Monastery and its morbidly miraculous cross. Across from it you'll find yet another lovely wooden church worth visiting, the Church of St. Bartholomew. If you’ve more time to explore, a walking or cycling tour of Mogiła’s small back roads is akin to an open-air ethnographic museum, just watch out for the German shepherds behind every garden fence.
Getting to Nowa Huta
Getting to Nowa Huta from the centre of Kraków is a cinch thanks to a well-designed tram network. Trams 4, 10 and 74 from 'Teatr Słowackiego' (near the train station) go straight to Plac Centralny in about 20mins.