Visiting Zabłocie isn’t about being a tourist, it’s about feeling like a local
As amply demonstrated by the events of the last few weeks, there are clearly more important issues at hand, however, even so it is difficult not to feel anything but sympathy for Poland’s beleaguered travel industry.
Left floored by the pandemic, just as a chink of light emerged along came a war to dropkick it in the nuts – and that is no exaggeration. According to data released this week by the Ministry of Sport & Tourism, hoteliers and travel agencies are reporting a surge in cancellations to the tune of 30 to 40%.
And, of course, that’s particularly bad news for Kraków. Regarded as the Queen of Polish Tourism, it is this ancient city that will feel the impact hardest.
Myself, I was there fleetingly a couple of weeks back, and in fairness, it made for a pleasant if not surreal contrast to Warsaw: whereas the capital has felt noticeably tense with its suffocatingly sombre atmosphere, in Kraków the mood was upbeat and sunny. At first, I must admit, that agitated me a little: “Don’t you know there’s a war going on,” I wanted to shout.
I’m glad I didn’t, for as it turns out I’d have been preaching to the converted; those seemingly carefree crowds that had gathered around Wawel weren’t the town’s regular batch of tourists, but rather part of the westward migration of Ukrainian refugees.
With its population reputedly leaping 16% in the last month, Kraków, like the rest of Poland, has stood up to the plate to do its ‘bit’ for Ukraine and that much is in evidence even beyond hotspots like Wawel.
Take Zabłocie, for instance. Perched underneath the southern crook of the Wisła, the district found itself deemed newsworthy at the start of the month when a striking ‘Stop War’ mural appeared courtesy of Pieska, one of the country’s best-loved street artists.
Depicting a defiant-looking woman crowned with a wreath painted in blue and yellow colours, it was one of the first murals to spring up in the wake of Putin’s aggression; since then, it has almost come to embody Poland’s solidarity with its neighbour. Stunning as a work of art, it’s even more stirring as a statement of support.
But it is not just the debut of this mural that marks Zabłocie as being relevant. As an area, it has been reborn as arguably the city’s most rapidly developing district. A little redolent of Warsaw’s Wola suburb, where once stood empty, overgrown plots and abandoned factories, today these have been in-filled with swanky apartment blocks, media agencies and the kind of people that travel to work with headphones and scooters.
Often built so as to incorporate the existing historic industrial infrastructure, neither are these gated compounds entirely anonymous. Lending personality, outdoor wall art has become a vital component of the area and lent it’s blank walls a boho individuality. Often executed by some of the biggest starlets of Poland’s mural scene, they’ve served to underline Zabłocie’s credentials as an on-trend suburb.
Yet these are not the sole outbreaks of art to be found. In the form of MOCAK, Zabłocie has what I reckon to be the finest modern art space in the whole of Poland. Mind-blowing in its content, that previous exhibitions have included one titled ‘Pop Art of the Holocaust’ should tell you much.
Visit today though and you’ll be met with a temporary exposition titled ‘Dialogue With Space’ that’s no less challenging – among its exhibits, discover Tomasz Bajer’s recreation of a Guantanamo jail cell and a disturbing room by Robert Kuśmirowski that brings to mind a serial killer’s surgery.
Then, of the more permanent exhibits, visitors are encouraged to prowl around Krystian Lupa’s ‘Live Factory 2’, an interactive space designed to mimic Andy Warhol’s celebrated New York studio, or outside where the grounds have been decorated with strange sculptures such as Leopold Kessler’s concrete rendering of a bicycle station.
Berlin-Birkenau, meanwhile, is described as a ‘living monument’ and is composed of three birch trees originally hailing from the area surrounding the notorious Nazi concentration camp.
Indeed, the Holocaust’s shadow hangs heavily over this part of Kraków, though nowhere is it more distinct than at Oskar Schindler’s former factory mere steps from MOCAK. Perhaps demonstrating my age, I remember first visiting in 1999 when it was still a place of work and having to haggle with the guard for a quick peek inside.
Now, no more haggling, the space has flourished ever since being transformed into a museum over a decade ago. Arguably somewhat, a little more emphasis could be awarded to Oskar Schindler, but a visit to his former factory is an illuminating and powerful experience, and offers an in-depth exploration of the city’s life under Nazi occupation.
Designed so as to immerse visitors into the atmosphere of the times, highlights include recreations of a hairdressing salon, a ghetto apartment, the train station and, of course, Schindler’s office itself. For all that, the museum had risked becoming a victim of its own success and there were times where visiting it would mean wading through swarms of babbling tourists posing for selfies.
The reduction in tourist figures means this is no longer the problem that it once was, and you should take advantage while you can. The equivalent of sightseeing gold, this street is indeed something special. Though less pronounced in its profile than the Schindler Factory and MOCAK, the Lipowa 3 Centre of Glass and Ceramics is an remarkable discovery that should please anyone who wants to give their Insta a big bang of colour.
Founded as a glassworks in 1931, today it dubs itself as an ‘educational museum’, a description that I fear is a little too modest and unsexy. Showcasing beautifully intricate and often boldly coloured examples of local glassware, it’s a feast for the eyes – and that sensation is only exacerbated by their live glassblowing displays (due to be revived next week).
Beyond culture, the area’s intrigues are reflected by its many contrasts: potholed roads and decrepit buildings give way to reveal socially-minded pocket parks or lovingly tended allotment gardens that act to redefine the term ‘urban oasis’; and next to shattered brick tenements, ambitious building projects have taken root to sweep this once forgotten section towards a fresh, new direction.
Unsurprisingly, real estate agents have had a field day here, but it’s not just the new apartment blocks that have attracted the buyers, but the overall vibe of a place on-the-up. Never is that feeling more acute than on a Friday evening when Zabłocie’s bars and restaurants fill with locals.
Missing the kind of ‘blame the Brits’ drunken prattery associated with Kraków’s more central areas, it’s an insider feeling to unearth treasures such as Hala Lipowa, a post-industrial hall riddled with street food units featuring no shortage of chefs with big, bushy beers and elaborate tattoos.
Exploring further, other gems await your custom and include the Nalej Se craft beer haven and Krako Slow Wines, a place specializing in niche wines, domestic ciders and boards of organic bites.
Sure, Zabłocie will never outshine districts such as Kazimierz and Old Town, but for me I like to think that’s precisely the point – you visit to feel not like a tourist but one of the locals.