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In general I am not a fan of guided tours though I have enjoyed some excellent ones during my travels. On the whole I find the behaviour of my fellow tourists quite irritating (see a list of their misdemeanours at the end of this review) and I don't like going at a pace dictated by the guide or the other members of the group. However, when a guided tour is conducted (for the most part) in a Trabant - that iconic fibreglass car of 1960s and 1970s eastern Europe - that's a different matter entirely!
I found Crazy Tours when surfing the internet looking for some background reading on the Nowa Huta district of Krakow. (I have reviewed this suburb separately on this site but, briefly, Nowa Huta is a post-war "city" - now really a suburb - that is centred around a massive steelworks, the brainchild of Stalin who wanted to make people in the region feel loyal to the Communist regime) We had visited Krakow before but wanted to see something other than the historic Old Town and we were planning to take the tram to Nowa Huta for at least half a day. I saw the name Crazy Guides on a couple of sites but it wasn't until I saw a photograph of a Trabant that I started to take notice. My other half is an ardent Trabantophile, I am interested in all things Communist; the Crazy Guides Communist Tour where you are driven around Nowa Huta in a Trabant seemed the perfect way for us to spend a morning. I vaguely remembered seeing Michael Palin being driven around in a Trabant in his New Europe BBC series and sent off a booking enquiry immediately.
ABOUT CRAZY TOURS
The background to the company can be found on their website but a potted history goes like this. "Crazy Mike" the founder of the company was, several years ago, working as a receptionist in a Krakow Hotel having just completed his law studies. He was asked to take an American couple on a two hour guided tour of the city but when he met them he learned that they weren't first time visitors so he changed the itinerary and took them to some of Krakow's hidden treasures in his decrepit Fiat and even cooked them dinner in his own apartment. The Americans enjoyed it so much they much they suggested he start his own alternative tour company and, even better, they offered to finance the project to start it up. He bought the company's first Trabant and the rest, as they say, is history.
Crazy Tours now has a fleet of ten vehicles including Russian Ladas and Polish Fiats and a fabulous bus, the JELCZ 272 known as "The Cucumber" which was made under license to the Czechoslovakian company Skoda. And they don't just do tours of Nowa Huta, they have a selection of tours tailored to suit different sized groups and will even meet you at the airport for a good old Communist Welcome to Krakow!
Pictures of Crazy Guides Tours, Krakow, Poland
Erik and his trusty Trabant
also an off shoot company, "Crazy Stags" which, as the name suggests, provides services to visiting stag groups, mainly from the UK. Stag groups aren't that popular in Krakow and the number of bars and clubs posting "no stags" notices in their windows is fast increasing, but Crazy Stags have an interesting take on the problem. They organise daytime activities such as paintballing and karting that leave their guests so tired by the evening that they can only manage a few pints before bed instead of causing havoc in the city.
We took the "Communism Tour" which lasts around two and a half hours. You get to travel in a Trabant, get a guided tour of the district of Nowa Huta and refreshments - a drink - at a Nowa Huta restaurant included in the price. (Per person 119 PLN, 36 Euro, £29)
COMMUNISM DELUXE TOUR - this is an extened version of the Communism tour with the addition of lunch in that Polish institution a milk bar, a visit to what Crazy Tours describe as their "private museum" - a Nowa Huta apartment unchanged since Communist days (look at the photographs on the website - this place is a gem!) and, if requested, a meeting with "the legendary Communist worker, Mr Vieslav (again his picture is on the website) - apparently you get to drink vodka and eat pickles with him. They will even allow you to have a go at driving the Trabant! (Per person 169 PLN, 51 Euro, £41, four hours)
THE REAL KRAKOW TOUR - another four hour tour that takes in not only Nowa Huta but also the pagan burial mounds and a tour of the Jewish quarter which, as well as being a great place to see today, has great historic importance - it was here that Oskar Schindler had the factory that stopped so many Jewish people being sent to the death camps of southern Poland. (159PLN per guest (48EUR, 38GBP)
CRAZY FARM TOUR - this four hour tour takes in a farm on the outskirts of Krakow where you get to learn about rural life in Poland. You can meet the animals, learn how to make bread or be a blacksmith and then you get to sit down for a traditional Polish dinner with beer and home-made (alarm bells!) vodka. (199PLN per guest, 60EUR, 49GBP)
COMMUNIST WELCOME - AIRPORT PICK-UP - a "Communist worker from the 1970s" will pick you up from the airport in a Trabant, greet you with vodka and pickles and take you to your hotel in Krakow. The blurb says that or an extra charge you can even have the folk band "Leopold 'The Sausage" greet you with a full fanfare! (200PLN/car up to 3 passengers, 61Euro , £48)
COMMNIE TOUR AND DISCO - This tour lasts between four and five hours. You start with the standard Nowa Huta tour and then head to the Communist-era Stylowa restaurant where you get a Polish dinner, Polish beer and three different shots of vodka. Then it's onto a 1980s style Polish disco and afterwards - the now infamous - Mr Vieslav will drive you home "in his best evening dress". (199PLN per guest (59 EUR, 49GBP)
COMMUNIST ADVENTURES FOR ORGANIZED GROUPS - these are tailored according to what groups want so the activities, times and prices vary. Travel is by bus or tram and you can enjoy a traditional Polish meal with live entertainment - obviously a more practical option because of the larger number of tourists and so not available to smaller groups.
Booking the tour was easy, I simply sent an e-mail enquiry one evening and received confirmation the following morning that we could take the tour at the time I had suggested. Crazy Tours will pick you up anywhere in the city and drop you afterwards where you want too. I arranged a pick up from our hotel at 10am and at the appointed hour a little black Trabant pulled up in front of the hotel. Himself, who had no idea what was happening, started gibbering about the "really cool car outside" and went racing over to look at it - and met Erik, our guide; it took a moment for him to register that it was there for us! Erik was a charming young man in his twenties, the Crazy Tours website claims he is "the only Communist worker in history with dreadlocks".
Erik explained where we were going and the itinerary we would follow and we climbed in and set off. Himself is six feet two and so sitting in the front seat of that tiny Trabant he did look to be wearing his knees near his ears. I was in the back, climbing in and out was not impossible, but certainly not easy. On the way to Nowa Huta Erik told us a bit about the car - it runs on a two stroke engine, you have to mix the fuel yourself and it's basically a fibreglass shell that runs like a lawnmower. Of course, that didn't stop it being highly sought after in Communist times when the average time to buy one could be ten years or more. He then started to tell us about Nowa Huta and its history.
When we arrived in Nova Huta we parked up and went to Stylowa which is a restaurant-bar that was recently refurbished in its original Communist-era style. There we drank coffee while Erik told us some more about Nowa Huta and showed us some maps and photographs charting the progress as the building work was underway. We then explored a little on foot before going back to the car and driving to the steelworks where we were able to get out for another photograph opportunity. Next we went to see the Arka Pana, the first church to be built in Nowa Huta (naturally the original plans had excluded places of worship, as was the Communist way) and here we parked up and went inside to find the interior as impressive as the striking exterior. After some more driving to see a couple more landmarks the tour was over and Erik dropped us in town at the end of Florianska.
The time flew by but that is not to say we didn't see enough. With Erik's expert commentary we learned so much; this isn't just a scripted tour, we asked questions and Erik knew the answers, his historical knowledge was excellent - and his English was too. He was very professional but he was also good fun and we had a great time with him. He would punctuate the commentary with things like "Now comrades, let's return to our limousine" and at the end talked of returning to the "bourgeois city".
I would recommend Crazy Tours to anyone wanting to see an alternative Krakow; it would be easy enough to jump on a tram and head for Nowa Huta but the guided tour really educated us about what we were seeing and put the various sights into context. The price is reasonable enough, especially if you consider that the upkeep of Trabants is becoming increasingly difficult as the parts become more and more rare. Erik told us that sometimes people leave notes under the windscreen wipers saying they have spare parts available. If you still think the price per person is expensive remember that this is a private tour with a guide who speaks perfect English and is an expert on the historical background and think about how much you'd have to pay in the UK for such a tour.
Tourist crimes on guided tours
1. Seeing the whole tour through a video camera - personally I deplore the things. You should look at things first and appreciate them and only once you have done so should you take photographs (or if you must take some video footage). I cannot abide the tourist who has their camera switched on the whole time and looks at everything through the screen. In Bucharest I saw a man fall over a knee-high rope because he was so busy video-ing he wasn't watching where he was going.
2. Not listening to the guide or talking while the guide is speaking - this is just good manners. On a tour of some wine cellars in Slovenia a group of rowdy Austrian pensioners talked incessantly while the guide was speaking. To make matters worse I was having to listen extra hard because the tour was in German and I was translating for himself who speaks no German.
3. Eating during the tour - on the same tour in Slovenia the Austrian pensioners arrived eating ice cream or hot chestnuts and chomped merrily throughout the tour - I just think it's wrong - and rude.
4. Asking stupid questions - good questions are OK but so many people ask daft questions. Once, at Shakespeare's former house in Stratford-upon-Avon, I heard an American tourist ask" Does ShaKespeare still live here?" How I managed to keep quiet I do not know!
Please ignore the Ciao specific criteria which don't make any sense to this review