Relics of the communist era abound in this Krakow 'suburb' and, as David Whitley finds, some are coming back into fashion.
Java is in a state of near panic. "No! No! Not the red light!" our driver shouts at the road ahead of him. If he has to stop now, he might never start again.
The journey so far has been noisy, juddering and punctuated by exhortations to the shambolic red box we're trapped inside to not give up the ghost just yet. We're in a model S ("some say it means sport, some say it means super, most say it means shit") Trabant. It's the iconic Communist-era car across much of eastern Europe, and this one was built in 1989, the year the Iron Curtain collapsed. The engine, however, appears to be somewhat older - perhaps belonging to a neglected lawnmower from the 1950s.
That might not be too wide of the mark, actually. It has a 200cc, two-stroke engine and spits fumes out of the back like a flatulent dragon. There's no fuel gauge - you have to open the bonnet and dip a plastic ruler in to check the level. Java admits that he usually cheats and just shakes the car to see how heavy it is.
Driving it is the motoring equivalent of dragging a seriously wounded colleague to safety across a bullet-ridden battlefield. It's no wonder that Java lets out an ecstatic, gallows humour-drenched "Yee-es!" every time he manages to successfully change gear.
Once ubiquitous throughout Poland, the Trabant's role is now one of novelty. Java says you can't even buy them dirt cheap any more - the prices are being inflated by vintage-car collectors. But for the purposes of today's trip, our hobbling red box on wheels is perfect.
We're heading about 10 kilometres out of central Krakow to Nowa Huta. It's technically a suburb, but has the mindset of a separate city. "People from Krakow say that people from Nowa Huta have a different accent," Java says. When it was built, Nowa Huta was billed as Stalin's gift to the people. It was the ultimate Communist planned city - a workers' paradise sustained by enormous steelworks in an area that had none of the right natural ingredients for making steel.
This wasn't an entirely magnanimous act, of course. Nowa Huta was originally going to be built in the north of the country, but it was switched to Krakow so that a handy counterbalance could be applied to the troublesome intellectuals at the universities.
The idea of a Soviet-planned city brings certain images to mind. Identikit-grim tower blocks crumbling into each other, for example, or stooped babushkas lining up for basic rations.
Nowa Huta, however, seems alive with shops, theatres, cinemas and parks. You notice the green of the leafy boulevards before the grey of the buildings. It needs to be remembered that such places were built as a reward for the people, not a punishment. Java reckons that in four or five years it will become the place to be for young families - the schools, playgrounds and provisions have always been in place: "The people had everything except freedom."
We pull up outside a restaurant. It's surprisingly swish, if dated, inside. This was built in the 1950s, and would have been seen as up-market. That was a time of relative optimism, long before the six-hour bread queues that became synonymous with the era. Despite it being only 10.30am, Java buys us beers. "You're on communist time now. Time doesn't matter," he says, plonking them down on the table.
He has a booklet of old photographs to show us. It becomes immediately obvious that there's a lot more to it than the communist system being purely bad - it was more a slow decay. In the '50s, most Poles didn't know about the appalling war crimes Stalin's forces had committed against their countrymen. Nowa Huta was seen as a marvellous opportunity - it would provide jobs, inexpensive housing and stability on what used to be farmland.
One photo offers a glorious snapshot of what went wrong. During construction three bricklayers are shown taking care of just one brick. As the pics continue, the mood switches through decline, distrust and rebellion, until we arrive at the picture of the Lenin statue in the square opposite being torn down. "The two militia men who guarded it had very well-paid jobs," Java says. "They had to - people would throw bricks, eggs and Molotov cocktails at the statue all the time."
We walk to the central square, which is throttled by tramlines and has five major arterial routes branching off. One used to be known as the Champs Elysees, and heads towards the steelworks. It's still operating, albeit with a vastly reduced staff. Excess space is used for storage, and they host dance music festivals to keep the coffers relatively healthy. The gigantic building beside the gate is known as "The Vatican". It has the odd architectural flourish, but it's 90 per cent acid-rain-racked concrete.
We're also taken to see a typical apartment, in which the furniture straddles that uneasy line between distressingly awful and amusingly retro. It has been rented from an old man, who has changed virtually nothing. The neighbours, naturally, have ditched the kitsch and gone down the Ikea route.
We sit down on the pull-out beds, and Java puts on an old propaganda film. It's of the smiling, muscular, blond chaps who built Nowa Huta. Slogans spew out - "Every man learns his profession", "This road leads to a strong and happy Poland", "Nowa Huta is a town full of youth; wonderful youth".
It's only as we leave, Java using kid gloves to nurse the Trabant back to Krakow, that the irony of the last statement becomes evident. Most of the hair in Nowa Huta is as grey as the buildings. The wonderful youth has left, to the parts of western Europe that have better employment prospects.
They've left behind a relic of the previous era, one that is far more complex than you'd originally imagine. And, like the Trabant, Nowa Huta could easily come back into fashion.
David Whitley was a guest of Viator.
Getting there Emirates has a fare to Warsaw for about $2115 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Warsaw (6hr 15min); see emirates.com. Eurolot flies from Warsaw to Krakow for about $170 return including taxes for the 55-minute flight.
Staying there The Wentzl (Rynek Glowny 19, +48 12 430 2664, wentzl.pl, from 450 zloty, $135) is a hotel with a gorgeous mediaeval feel but with all the mod cons, on Krakow's main square.
Touring there The deluxe, four-hour communism tour of Nowa Huta by Trabant costs $66 when booked with Viator. See viator.com.