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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Four: Krakow

The Lenin steelworks at Nowa Huta 
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With Kuba outside what used to be the Lenin steelworks at Nowa Huta, one of Europe's biggest. Now owned by an Indian businessman.
Michael Palin - New EuropeTo change the subject I ask him about the dashboard controls.

'This is for the lights, I think,' he says, as a knob comes away in his hand.

'Shall I hang on to this?'

'Yes, please!' says Kuba gratefully as he tries once again for the elusive fourth gear. When he finds it, our progress becomes rapid, and the speed, combined with the feather-light weight, gives me the distinct feeling we might at any moment become airborne. Needless to say, Kuba is on hand to sense my mood.

'The 60s is the killing speed,' he shouts cheerfully.

All I can think of as we race the trams and dodge the trucks, squirting a blue cloud of pollution behind us, is having read somewhere that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was on the waiting list for one of these for twelve years. And she never got one.

As we approach Nowa Huta, now a suburb of Krakow, I notice a shiny new Philip Morris cigarette factory set in green parkland. Kuba tells me this employs 3,000 people. The great Lenin steelworks that gave Nowa Huta its name is now owned by Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian head of the global steel business Mittal Steel. The workforce has been reduced from 45,000 in the 1970s to 8,000 today.

Expecting lines of functional sheds I'm surprised by the eclectic headquarter offices of the steelworks, built in brick with a dash of Spanish Renaissance style. Kuba's explanation is that the style and scale of the buildings was designed as a riposte to Krakow, to give the people of Nowa Huta a sense of grandeur, their own Wawel Hill. Together with parks, sports facilities and good housing it would confirm the ideological point that the old buildings of Krakow were stuck in the past and that the planned proletarian city of Nowa Huta was the face of the future. Now, says Kuba, some sixty-five per cent of the inhabitants of the city of the future are pensioners.

We park the Trabant in a leafy green street and walk into a square surrounded by the stone-faced creamy-white facades of the People's Neo-Classical style. It reminds me a little of what Ceausescu was trying to do in Bucharest, but without the bombast and megalomania. It's actually rather elegant and the Italianate arcades are easy on the eye.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Four: Krakow
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Kraków
  • Book page no: 247

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