Threadbare, kitschy sites make for tongue-in-cheek experience
There’s much more to visiting Poland than Krakow’s Wawel castle and Wadowice, hometown of John Paul II. But these days, it seems, tourist hot spots are increasingly sites and experiences linked to the country’s communist past.
“Medieval old towns are boring; they look the same everywhere. Now, when we want to have some fun, we look for places that preserved their communist ‘charm,’” says Slawek Nitowski, CEO of a furnishing company from Warsaw.
And you don’t have to spend much time searching for traces of that era. Unlike in the former east Germany, for instance, where there are special communist heritage parks, in Poland you can find hilarious relics of the past 50 years virtually everywhere.
“Poland has not been changed that much in the last 16 years ... We are surrounded by communist buildings pretty much everywhere,” says Krzysztof Madej of the National Historical Institute.
Not many people could have guessed that such horrible architecture would become a hit with Western tourists. Take, for example, Warsaw’s “gift of Stalin,” the Science and Culture Palace. “(It’s) a skyscraper with ambulatories and sculptures,” observes Jerome, a teacher visiting from Marseilles. “That is surreal.”
Tourists also flock to Constitution Square. “It is very Moscow-style communist,” notes Jacek Szczepaniak, head of the Communist Gallery in Kozlowka.
But it’s not just more prominent architectural sites that are getting attention. Krakow’s Nowa Huta area, a typical communist suburb with hundreds of grey apartment blocks massed together, was designed and built for the city’s blue collar workers. It’s now got its own following, too: there are special tours that include a visit to a tiny apartment furnished in 70s communist style, and a dinner with vodka, gherkins and herring for both appetizer and dessert.
The tours are offered by Crazy Guides, www.crazyguides.com, who will drive you around in their fleet of Trabants, cars made in the former east Germany which were common during the Soviet occupation of Poland.
Though of course, it should be noted that it wasn’t home-grown architects who came up with the idea of building concrete, high–rise suburbs. “It was a Frenchman’s idea. The concept of thousands of flats in one spot. Le Corbusier did it,” says Madej.
The most extreme examples include tenement blocks against the backdrop of the Kielce hills; a 2–km long block in Gdansk; and monstrous concrete buildings standing side-by-side with beautiful secessional mansions in Lodz.
“Concrete blocks in the countryside surrounded by flocks of hens may be a heaven for photographers.
Abandoned factories in southeastern Poland resemble ghost–towns of Ohio. And huge granaries look surreal in the mountains,” says prof. Marek Krol of Warsaw University. And don’t forget Podlasie, in eastern Poland, which has many “bunker–style” villas covered in plaster adorned by ... broken plates.
Experiencing communist luxuries is even easier once you get out of the bigger towns.
The fun starts at the railway station. For instance, the trip from Warsaw to Bialystok takes three hours by fast train, and during that time, you’ll be treated to cramped and uncomfortable compartments, and a scarcity of soap and toilet paper in the washrooms. Now that is a true socialist adventure.
A few communist-era holiday resorts are still left intact, and there are others mimicking communist style now springing up in the country. They boast crude carpets, plywood furnishings and shared toilets — try Dom Turysty in Zakopane, for instance. And more daring types can check into PTTK hotel in Szczyrk for its peeling wall paint and washroom doors locked by wooden slabs.
Tourists who want to experience cuisine reminiscent of the era don’t need to look far either – just head for the cheap dives frequented by students (all Warsaw students know the taste of “karaluch,” or cockroaches).
Check out the Milk Bar by Warsaw University’s main campus, a canteen featuring aluminium plates and its ever–popular (and cheap) tomato soup.
“The best place ever is Kuznia Krolewska bar in Wilanow, by the Royal Palace. They serve warm Coke in dirty glasses, and waiters actually wear slippers while serving you,” says Agata Miazek of Metro Warsaw.
And the best pigs’ knuckles in jelly are served in the PRL (Polish People’s Republic) bar in Wroclaw. While chomping on knuckles, you can listen to popular communist songs that used to be played at factories.
At Cien PRL in Bieszczady, in southeastern Poland, you can choose the option of renting a room with plywood furniture — for a premium, of course.