Krakow’s balloon goes up

For what seems like forever now Krakow’s river front has been enlivened by the extraordinary sight of a giant white balloon that never goes anywhere. Suddenly appearing early last summer this vast blimp caused an awful lot of people to stop in their tracks and exclaim “Good heavens, there’s a giant white inflatable thing. I wonder what that’s all about?” or whatever the equivalent phrase in Polish might be. Answers were not forthcoming. For month after month it sat there behind blank hoardings like an inscrutably spherical white elephant. A faction of cracovians were convinced it was something to do with anti-missile defence radar or some such NATO voodoo, others thought it sure to be some tyrannical new Gazprom installation.


A giant white balloon appears on Krakow’s river front – Cracovians are mildly interested

The truth is, as ever, far stranger even than Polish fiction. The Krakow balloon is just that – a giant tethered balloon intended to carry fee-paying passengers 500 meters above the city and then return them safely to Earth. Exactly why anybody would want to place themselves 500 meters above the north bank of the Vistula in Krakow is a question I hope the balloon-people marketing lads have thrashed out to their satisfaction. The higher up you get, the further you can see. As far as I’m concerned the less off the outskirts of Krakow that are visible the better. There’s nothing out there but second-hand car lots and weird concrete churches, neither of which become charming from a great altitude.


The following winter: it’s still there

A while ago a had a chat with the security guard on the site. After a period of moaning and whingeing he eventually realized I didn’t understand a word he was saying and switched to carefully-rehearsed English instead. I learned the following things:

1. Nearby residents believed they were building a supermarket – betraying a surprising ignorance concerning the size and shape of supermarkets.

2. Two eighty-something-year-old ladies have expressed an interest in becoming the first passengers – I fear Babcie with the advantage of the high ground, who knows what damage they could do.

3. The principal reason they are still waiting to start flights is because Krakow airport’s air-traffic controllers think it might be dangerous to have dirigibles dangling baskets full of tourists floating around in their airspace – you can see their point.


It flies! It flies!

Maybe you can find people willing to suspend themselves under an inflated bladder for the chance to see Now Huta from 500 meters. What worries me is that the first thing I think of when I see the balloon is “where can I buy a bow and arrow?” The temptation to burst the thing with a pointed stick propelled at high speed from a longbow is just overwhelming. So far I’ve had no opportunity, but what happens when the the Tatars come back? Look at what they did with one arrow before. Hejnał…

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30 thoughts on “Krakow’s balloon goes up

  1. Kuba says:

    I guess the Tartars are coming since the balloon went up. Here in the US when the balloon goes up we are at war as well. Common term………

  2. MaterialGirl says:

    Balon jest do robienia ludzi w balona!

  3. Pioro-Boncza says:

    Another brilliant biznes idea. The medieval centres of Polish cities are often quite lovely but I cannot name a single Polish city that has proper urban coherence as a whole. The usual layers go:

    1. Small yet wonderful medieval / renaissance core
    2. 19th Century tenements usually 3-5 stories, densely packed and usually also quite lovely but generally limited to former German (now Polish) cities / regions with the exception of Krakow of course.
    3. Stalinist grandoise sandstone mega structures / neighbourhoods for the modern robotnik
    4. Once the money ran out for #3 switch to ugly ugly blocks of concrete with an overabundance of antennae and other metal piping on the outside
    5. Followed by the new capitalist suburban sprawl littered with the aforementioned used-car lots, 9 billion billboards, and semi-paved roads

    That to me is the basic construct of the average Polish city.

    Many of my fellow Poles tend to blame it on the system that was/is in vogue at the time (commies, capitalists, russians, etc.) and the helplessness of the average citizen. Well I think thats just a very poor excuse at not taking responisibility for proper urban planning. Poles have somehow lost or ignored any type of proper urban planning. They are starting to look like b-versions of US cities with their neverending amoebic sprawl. We could take a good example here from the Dutch or Germans which use community-based organization to monitor and potentially block any sale of land for dubious development so that future generations of Poles will be able to reach a nicely sculpted country side by bicycle and not by 1.5 hour car ride through traffic and unending stop lights.

    Sorry for the rant but wonder how others feel about this.

  4. scatts says:

    Pioro, I agree with you.

  5. Bob says:

    I do as well – good post. At the risk of being severely attacked I would posit that if you replaced all (not some) Polish politicians and civil service employees with Germans, in short order this country would be more like western europe that like the Ukraine (With that, I am officially on vacation until March 27)

  6. island1 says:

    Kuba: We have the same term in British English, the pun was intentional.

    Bob: Didn’t somebody try that once, about 60 years ago.

  7. Pioro-Boncza says:

    One counter-argument I always get is that there is no money for that, but it takes no money it only takes political will and public pressure. A perfect comparison is Warsaw and Berlin – two cities that suffered a similar horrible fate of being flattened as victims of WWII. Take a look at how Germans are building up the still visible holes in their destroyed neighbourhoods. They build buildings the same height as the adjoining ones. Naturally they will not be as ornate as its Secession era neighbor but at least it fits the flow of the area. Here everything is separated, fenced off, privatized, etc. which then causes our infamous traffic jams since the developers dont care about proper traffic flow, they only want to maximize their apartment density. I really do wonder if our current system is helping us ‘catch up with the West’…

  8. Pawel says:

    I don’t agree with Pioro – or at least I see it a bit different.

    Most of chaos was brought to us after 1989. Communist way of planning was of its own kind – but it was consistent. The districts of blocks of flats, shops, parks had their own harmony and beauty.
    There were no commercials. Shop signs were made by people who graduated from approrpate schools. Same as store windows. There was some kind of order. Look at old communist postcards.

    Now people want to have freedom, and they don’t agree that someone tells them what they can or cannot build. Each tiny little dodgy company paces their yellow plastic signs…. Now everyone can do what they want to. And you can’t count that every person has taste or is educated in arts/architecture.
    This is in times of unprecedented development. In times when the whole order was turned upside down. Where in the past there were people responsible for everything, after 1989 there was/is a lot of chaos.

  9. wu says:

    Pioro-Boncza: during the times of communism we had very good town-planners.

    Nowa Huta in Krakow is a good example of underappreciated socialist architecture and planning: it may be grey and dull, but from town-planning point of view, it is actually a very nicely constructed city district. A centre of Nowa Huta is actually a monument of architecture.

    Island1 – here’s what people may see while looking at Nowa Huta from this baloon:

    Isn’t it neat?

    Its streets are wide and green (probably the greenest in the city, except for Planty area) and the architecture is harmonius.

    In fact, the buildings of Nowa Huta were supposed to be more ornate and rich, because they were supposed to be based on Renaissant architecture, but lack of money and communist directions changed the initial plans and the look of town went more to classicism/modernism.

    The architecture in Nowa Huta is very clean and proportionate and can still be very pretty if – at least – slapped with a new paint.

    If only it was refreshed and safer I really wouldn’t mind living somewhere near Plac Centralny.

    A curiosity (Polish only):,Nowa,id,144044.htm

    Anyway – Pioro – I’m also unsure how unaware you are that West Germany (RFN) still pumps billions and billions of euro to East Germany (NRD). The inequalities between these two is still big – also in mentality.

    Besides – don’t foget that after WWII, Poland (the most destroyed country after the war) was pretty much left with nothing. The most significant war reparations we got after WWII were lands and properties belonging to people of German descent who either leaved the country or were resettled – with which we’re now having quite a bit of problem.
    Our intellectual elite was either killed or living abroad and unable to return to the country. The economy was ruined and ruined further by communist ideas.

    “2. 19th Century tenements usually 3-5 stories, densely packed and usually also quite lovely but generally limited to former German (now Polish) cities / regions with the exception of Krakow of course.”

    Seems you’ve never been to Budapest (absolutely fabulous place). Or Lviv :) Lviv was once a cultural centre of Poland – Krakow was its poorer brother.
    And even Rzeszow, Lublin or Przemysl have something to offer. Rzeszow now is one of the fastest growing towns in Poland and they’ve made it feel by almost completely revamping the old city district and main roads.

    I have to agree though with critique of modern “debauchery”. But I guess it’s one of those steps of further development – we have to go crazy for some time :)

  10. island1 says:

    wu: I was, as usual, being a bit flippant. There’s nothing wrong with Nowa Huta, I know it quite well, and I particularly love the sweeping view across the fields and down to the river from the southern end of Plac Centralny.

    I believe this year is the 60th anniversary of Nowa Huta’s foundation. Hopefully some long-overdue renovation will take place.

  11. guest says:

    German or Dutch cities are nice for one week. But if every street and every building starts to look the same and at the beginning of a street one knows already what to expect in 500 meters, then such a city starts to get boring.

    And thats why in the long term “chaotic” cities like New York, Tokyo, Rio or London will be always more fascinating than a city like Berlin or Hamburg where every roof and every window seems to look the same…

  12. Phlojd Katzenjammer says:

    It’s a giant pinada. And whaddya think those sticks are for? Sheesh.

  13. Bob says:

    Bob: Didn’t somebody try that once, about 60 years ago – sure but I think from a practical 21st century perspective with nothing of course relating to that era

  14. MaterialGirl says:


    Excellent idea!
    Tell me please, what’s inside that giant pinada?
    If diamonds, I’m throwing everything, I’m taking first stick and running. :D

  15. MaterialGirl says:

    you are repeating yourself!
    Shouldn’t you sit now in the airplane?
    Or you are staying with us, because Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger isn’t the man at the helm? ;-)

    But you are right, just as


    I remember śp. ks. prof. J.Tischner, philosopher, talking about his study in Holland.
    He was so bored with it’s regularity and boredom, that said to his friend: “Janek do sth to make here a little bit of Poland”. And they had broken the stick and throwed to the street. :D

  16. artifischl says:

    They do have the same thing in Berlin, the thing goes up 150 meter max. and they charge you 19 Euro (!!!) , thats about 90 zl. for it. I think the only reason they can run it is the advertising on the Ballon for the Springer-Newspaper “Die Welt”. What is the price for a flight in Krakow ?

  17. Pioro-Boncza says:

    WU: i agree with you that the actual early communist/stalinist projects were quite neat and made to or even above ‘western’ standards of the same time. The early to mid 50s were a time of showing off which system is more ‘superior’. Unfortunately for the East this was economically unsustainable so by the sixties we get typical Osiedle blocks which are the absolute scourge of any city. You can find the same blocks in Northern Paris (Banileuse) or any number of American cities (ghettos). …and then came the chaos of the 90s.

    However, I see a fundamental problem with these 50’s mega projects like Nowa Huta or the area around Plac Konstytuci in Warsaw or Karl-Marx Allee in East Berlin. They are often impressive and can even be aesthetically pleasing as they use much neo-classical design (Stalin believed that he was rebuilding society from the pristine beginning hence the obvious influence of greco-roman architecture), but the problem is they are not functional on a human individual scale (that was also the point in the design). Blocks are unusually long so around the corner means a 20 minute hike. To cross the street you have to brave 4-6 lanes of traffic plus tram lines. Stores are large and few so no possibility for small shops or cafes along with a general lack of intimacy. This was all part of the plan also which at best was building a brave new world a la Le Corbusier and at worst a way to isolate people from their neighbours and avoid consensus and democracy building structures (unfortunately the new system has also avoided building these structures).

    Btw, Poland was not the most destroyed country in WW2, Germany was far far more destroyed than any other country. Just take a look at Berlin, Hannover, Bremen, Cologne, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Essen, Koenigsberg, Dresden, Aachen, Dortmund, and on and on.

    I havent been to Lviv but have been to Budapest which is indeed lovely (but not Polish) but both of those cities along with Krakow were the ‘typical’ prosperous examples of Austrian-Hungarian Empire cities along with Bratislava, Vienna, Ljubliana, etc.

    Guest/Material Girl: You are both right and wrong. You are right that sometimes the monotony of the cities does make them less fascinating than places like NYC, London, etc. But that monotony is also very important in building proper social structures – in knowing your neighbors because one is your local baker, the other is your priest, and the one across the street is the annoying guy who always talks to you at the local pub. But when there is a local consensus decision that needs to be taken (garbage disposal, parking regulation, etc.) you know exactly where to find them. Try to get these people together in Nowa Huta…

  18. MaterialGirl says:


    see point 3 island1’s text (up the flies balloon, pic. 3).
    There’s still no permission to fly, so it’s priceless. ;-)


    Though my teutonic drop of blood I prefer to evasive/weave. That’s just excellent for developing my imagination.
    It’s strange you, especially with your nick, are yearning for “urawniłowka”/alignment!!!
    Don’t you remember 60’s, 70’s and 80’s when you could entered any blocks opened any doors and saw the same mirrors, furnitures (meblościanka), carpets, curtains and cristals vases in meblościanka or bookstands?

    I rememeber the funny story happened to my friend. He was coming back from the delegacy in the dark night, got to his apartment in the block and found out that in his bad was lying some guy. He started to shout at the woman lying by the guy side as unloyal wife. The lying guy and woman woke up and got up and switched on the light. My friend jaw went down. He was surprised. That wasn’t his wife! He was in sb else apartment, he just missed his tram station and got out the next tram station. Everything in that settlement was built the same way, even his key fit in! Only difference they had got yellow not green lamp in their bedroom. :D

  19. Pioro-Boncza says:

    MaterialGirl: That’s a great story! An ideal scene for a movie!!

    My nickname is just my surname (although in the 50s my grandparents had to change it to a “common surname” to avoid persecution!) I didn’t quite catch what you meant here though:

    “Though my teutonic drop of blood I prefer to evasive/weave. That’s just excellent for developing my imagination.
    It’s strange you, especially with your nick, are yearning for “urawniłowka”/alignment!!!” — Can you explain?

  20. island1 says:

    There is a balloon franchise. There’s one in Berling, as you say, and I believe one in Paris and another somewhere else.

    We don’t know the price yet because they haven’t started commercial flights, but I heard it was supposed to be somewhere in the region of 30 zl.

  21. island1 says:

    MaterialGirl: A classic Polish urban legend. Know any others, I’d love to do a post about them one day.

  22. MaterialGirl says:


    2. can you read between the verse? I’ve just made allusion to your ancestors (though I wasn’t sure, it’s your familyname). Perhaps your family wasn’t victim of communist equalize/urawniłowka/równanie w dół.

    1. I said, that despite some germans roots I’m not for keeping an strict order in everywhere!

  23. stefonic says:

    I agree with Paweł. And further more they all had jobs, and crime was low too. PUT THE WALL BACK UP PLEASE.. :)

  24. Pawel says:

    czepiasz się no:)

  25. wu says:

    I haven’t said Budapest was Polish. But it also wasn’t a German city (although ‘Austrian’ for a period of time).

    Poland was the most destroyed country of WWII or at least one of the most destroyed countries, and I don’t mean just a physical damage or a number of people who died due to war.

    And concerning physical damage – I wasn’t talking only about the cities. After the war there was a large dismantling campaign of German industry. It’s been left in a decent enough shape to make it and it was huge.

    And in Poland… during both Nazi and Soviet occupation entire factories were transported both on west and east. And it wasn’t just industry – infrastructure and natural resources were plundered too. Ever wondered why we’ve got so many (quite young) pine woods?
    The impact on those was nothing nothing short of catastrophic.

    And in terms of not-physical damage – it’s been only after WWII that we became a homogeneous country in terms of ethnicity and culture.
    We’ve lost almost entire ethnic diversity (before WWII 1/3 of Polanis population consisted of ethnic minorities).
    I consider this the greatest loss of all :(

  26. Zarazek says:

    To the author of this post: you sounded like a potential terrorist when talked about the bow and the arrows :P

  27. […] writes about “a giant white balloon” that appeared last summer in Krakow: “A faction of […]

  28. […] writes about “a giant white balloon” that appeared last summer in Krakow: “A faction of […]

  29. […] [Polandian] Krakow’s balloon goes up […]

  30. Lon says:

    Does the ballon need to worry about icing conditions… I see lots of snow on the ground. I actually have read that this ballon is an early test version of the radar housing for the anti-mission system to be installed soon….

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