It’s the end of October, the dry weather is slowly turning into nasty rain, and a bus from the 1970s pulls up at Warsaw’s Legia Stadium. Without the help of any sensors, the driver turns around with only two mirrors on a small patch bordered by parked cars.
He didn’t bring the fans. He is going to take those interested in a drive through the left and right parts of Warsaw. He gets out and opens the side door for them. At the same time, it does not turn off the engine, it would not have to start again.
Steering wheel instead of gym
We get inside. “This is ‘Ogórek’ – a typical bus that transported people in Warsaw in the 1970s. First we will drive around the city and then we will go to the Neon Museum,” welcomes the passengers Paweł Leszczyński, the director of the Warsaw Beer Festival, who organized the trip by historic bus.
We sit in our seats, it doesn’t matter where – you can’t escape from the sound, or rather the noise of the engine, even to the back seats. The last passenger slams the door and we leave.
“This is our driver Jan. Give him a round of applause!” encourages the smiling tour guide Kasia, who is sitting in the passenger seat, once the most sought-after seat on the road. It has a great view and sitting next to the engine has always been a great experience.
We applaud and Kasia explains why: “Driving this bus is very difficult. No power steering, no assistants, big, heavy steering wheel. And you also need a lot of power to shift.”
The driver has only a few analog alarm clocks in front of him and a huge steering wheel that he has to turn more than three times when he wants to turn.
Comfort ala 70s
This particular blue-and-white Ogórek or Okurka, i.e. Jelcz 043 bus, started driving around Warsaw in 1974. It comes from a series of about a hundred machines in which the designers tried to modernize the type of car from 1959.
“We have the engine inside here, between the driver and me. It’s pleasantly warm now, but imagine it in the summer. The only air conditioning here was the tiny windows. That was really terrible,” guide Kasia empathizes with the passengers at the time.
“Also, there are no lights, everything is analog. And who knows what this lever above the engine is for?” he asks about the sturdy metal part that can be rotated horizontally. And fellow travelers are guessing.
“To close and open the door?” guesses the first, but is wrong. “Is it to stop the engine?” tries the second, this time already successfully. “Yoooo, it’s about to stop the engine,” the guide enthusiastically agrees.
Jelcz 043 has its roots in Czechoslovakia, as it was a licensed version of the Škoda 706 RTO bus. And there is even a Škoda engine under the large box between the driver and passenger. It was produced from 1959 until 1986.
The intercity version of the bus even had one specialty – folding additional seats in the aisle, which were supported by leather straps. And another specific feature was the shape of the bus, to which “Okurka” owes its nickname.
We are approaching the Neon Museum in Warsaw’s Prada, on the so-called “Right Bank”. Neon lights were a feature of Warsaw during the communist era. After the war, the city was left in ruins. Renewal followed, but the old character of the city was gone, and the wide, newly planned boulevards were surrounded by gray buildings of socialist realism and brutalism. Just gray and misery.
“Warsaw residents who experienced the city before the Second World War remember that the first neon sign was the one on the brewery. I find it funny because it somehow shows the love of Poles or Warsawites for alcohol,” Tosia cheerfully begins her tour of the Neon Museum with a reference to the 1930s.
The museum is housed in part of an old factory, and the interior is brightly colored thanks to the glowing old banners. There are only two neon museums in the world – in the temple of entertainment and consumerism in Las Vegas and in Warsaw, the intended exhibition hall of the post-war socialist revival. They couldn’t be two more different worlds.
The next story is rather bitter. “After the Second World War during the period of the Polish People’s Republic, everyone knew that life was not good here. Life was not good in Poland. The country was destroyed, those who survived the war lived in poverty. And the government knew it had to do something to make Poland look better – on the outside. And so she came up with the idea of covering gray Polish cities with neon signs,” says Tosia.
Poland was supposed to look richer, more technologically advanced, happier. But it was just propaganda and one huge lie. “For example, you had a huge beautiful light-up Meat sign on the building, but the shelves inside were empty. They lied not only to their own residents, but also to the rest of the world,” adds the guide.
Neon signs in communist Poland could not advertise any brands, that would not match the idea of fighting against consumerism. And so they most often reported only that there was a cinema, a soap shop, a tailor’s shop or a restaurant behind the front door.
During the decades of the People’s Republic, neon signs spread throughout Poland and became a characteristic element of public space. The end of their era came in 1981, when the communist government declared martial law, which included an order to extinguish all neon signs – for more than two and a half years, during which it persecuted and arrested thousands of opposition members and supporters of independent unions.
After martial law ended, much of the neon was never lit again.