Fun from behind the iron curtain
Few risk trying to create a tourism hot spot out of a place that at first glance no one would find interesting.
Crazy Guides has made a tourist attraction out of the former Communist workers? district of Nowa Huta. But only with foreign visitors. Most Poles would rather forget that painful chapter of their past.
Crazy Guides also offers tours for single men looking for Polish women. Its full tour repertoire has become so popular that most tours are fully booked.
Crazy Mike, whose real name is Michal Ostrowski, is the energetic 30-year-old founder of the effort to put Nowa Huta on the tourism map. He knows the district, having been born there.
He started his guide business after realizing how unique the district?s steelworker-enclave background made it.
?I show people around, telling them historical facts and giving them background for better understanding,? he said. ?But what?s most important is the spirit, the atmosphere? they get from the place.
His ?Communism Tours? focus partly on what might be called the architecture of social realism, with its pseudo-classical ornamenting and rows of boxy stone houses straight out of writer George Orwell?s vision of the perfect city.
In Nowa Huta you can find structures that were both houses and fortresses from which to shoot at an enemy in case of an ?imperialist attack.?
You can also find a poor imitation of Renaissance style in the administrative building of the former Lenin steelworks.
And you can find a Russian tank standing on a concrete pedestal — a grating reminder of the Soviet occupation of Poland.
The guides use some colorful approaches to give visitors a feel for what communism was like.
When they pick up guests at any prearranged spot in Krakow, they arrive dressed as steelworkers, with dirty T-shirts and gloomy-looking overalls.
The transport the visitors in a rattling Trabant car with junky red seats.
And the meal they arrange during the tour is sour soup, herring and vodka at the Stylowa (Stylish) restaurant, whose mirrors, bright red decorations and artificial flowers were characteristic of Communist times.
?It is quite an experience — one that I wouldn?t have missed for the world,? visitor Matthew McWilliams wrote on Crazy Guides? Website, www.crazyguides.com.
But locals as well as visitors are warming up to Crazy Guides. ?They are very nice young people,? said Stanisława Olchawa, a member of the Stylowa restaurant staff.
?They sometimes dress up and bring in various guests — even older ones, or couples with children. They order typical Polish food and sometimes come for dancing evenings with the guests,? Mrs. Stanisława said. ?But they don?t stay very long here, about one hour. They take pictures of the restaurant, even the staff.?
?Fun is what counts the most,? said Crazy Mike. ?We want to show people something completely new. The more junky and weird-looking it is, the more it turns them on.?
Crazy Guides has helped make Nowa Huta the third most popular place that tourists want to know about, ?right after Auschwitz and Wieliczka,? said Magda, an assistant at a private tourist information shop at ul. Grodzka 42.
?People are intrigued by a place that has an almost mythical quality to it, and ask Poles what we think about it. But Polish groups are completely indifferent to it. Memories of Communist times are too painful for them. They want to forget it.?
?Crazy Guides? I couldn?t think of a better name,? said Anna Bielecka, a former reporter for KrakOUT magazine, which rated Crazy Guides? Nowa Huta tour the best of 2004.
However, the idea of ?Crazy Nowa Huta? does not appeal to every foreign tourist.
Robert McKinney, a 60-year-old American, said: ?It would be better for my kids. Pepole my age are no longer interested in crazyness, but rather something more serious.?
In fact, most of the tour-takers are well-heeled young people, especially Britons and Americans. ?We?ve also had some Japanese people taking pictures all the time and Spaniards smoking joints during the tour route. It was real fun,? Crazy Mike smiled.
Crazy Guides offers a range of tour options: The Real Krakow Tour, including Nowa Huta, Kazimierz and panoramic views of Krakow at 159 zl for about four hours; the Communism Tour, which includes walking and driving looks at Nowa Huta at 159 zl for about 2 ½ hours; and the most popular of all — the Comunism Deluxe Tour at 159 zl for four hours.
The deluxe tour is a half-day adventure with Communism, including a sightseeing drive, a meal at the Stylowa restaurant and a visit to an apartment furnished in the authentic Behind-the-Iron-Curtain style of the 1970s.
The apartment gives visitors a true picture of what everyday life was like in Communist times — the junky furniture, rough-hewn houseware, pictures of John Paul II and collection of tin cans available at the time.
Recently, in response to Krakow?s growing popularity among foreign men looking for Polish women, Crazy Guides have prepared a special tour. It includes paintball, rafting, a balloon trip and of course hanging around nightclubs and strip places
A variation on this theme is Stag Kidnapping, Russian Mafia Style. The best man at an impending wedding arranges the ?kidnapping? of the groom. The price of the service depends on what kind of mischief the best man arranges.
Crazy Guides has few open dates for its tours, especially during the main tourist season in late spring, summer and early fall. ?The only time when we?re free is somewhere around January,? said Crazy Mike.
However, he said, Crazy Guides will make time for anyone who?d like to have fun in an unusual way in an unusual place in Krakow.
For more details, references and booking, see www.crazyguides.com. The page is available in English.