Ms ZiYou Going East
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Going East – Countries 17 to 22

When you want to do something a bit different and experience out of your comfort zone what do you? For me, it’s time to take a trip somewhere. And when touristy spots don’t appeal and Western Europe has lost its edge – it’s time for going East – into Eastern Europe.

A year into working in the real world after uni, a friend and I wanted a new experience. We decided to push our boundaries and go for an epic 3 week trip to Eastern Europe. And this is how I visited countries 17 to 22 by going east.

Starting in Berlin

Ms ZiYou Brandenburg

Like all good journeys, this one started somewhere symbolic (that budget airlines also flew to). Where better to investigate the division of Europe than Berlin itself, which was divided by an actual wall.  Keeping to the theme of the trip, we lodged in the East.

And when we visited in 2003, East Berlin and West Berlin were very different. Just by looking around you could instantly tell which side of the wall you were on by the Soviet or European architecture and the general condition of the area. I hear nowadays it has very much equalised and really should go back to revisit.

We loved Berlin and seeing all the sights – Checkpoint Charlie and the remaining part of the wall really brought it home when we realised how pathetic the wall was. It was all symbolism and coercive control – even I could have got over that wall! And I do remember the lack of variety in music – all bars, pubs and clubs seemed to play dance music. I am not a fan of dance music – hence we had a few early nights here – there was no partying in Berlin. And the going east trip truly began.

Poland

Ms ZiYou AushweitxPoland was the first real Eastern country we visited. And to be honest, it was not that different from Western Europe. However, the prices were a fair bit lower and the music was much improved – so we could party! And then it took a turn for the depressing.

As when you are in Krakow, you have to visit Auschwitz and walk through the iconic sign Arbeit Macht Frei. We were really impacted by our visit and walked around the concentration camp in silence. What really got me was the piles of shoes and hair…..still lying there, looking like they were only removed yesterday. It really brought home how recent the War was – less than 60 years previously. Sobering thoughts indeed; and I think everyone there paused for some serious reflection.

Czech RepublicMs ZiYou Prague

And onto Prague; a fairytale city with extremely bargainous prices on everything. At this point in time, it was not impacted by stag parties and still had all the charm. We made the most of some good weather and did a lot of wandering and admiring.

And evenings sitting around people watching, drinking copious carafes of wine. On the food side, I managed to get veggie food quite easily. However, I would describe it as heavy and seriously on the stodgy side – potato dumplings featured every single day.

Slovakia

Ms ZiYou Bratislava

As our journey progressed, we did not think anywhere could impress us any more. But then we hit Bratislava. It had the feeling of a lively student town and a more gritty feel than its Czech neighbour. And it did not have as much charm and amazing architecture as anywhere we had visited. But it had something.

For inexplicable reasons, we loved this place. You know the place you just feel instantly connected to even though rationally you should not. We spent most of our time in studenty areas where the locals were very keen to practise their English.

HungaryMs ZiYou Budapest

The number one attraction that we couldn’t wait for was the baths in Budapest. And they did not disappoint – majestic hot springs in slightly decaying surroundings. With real old men playing chess on inflatable boards. There we were swimming around this slice of heaven – all the cliches were really true. Sure if you wanted polite staff that spoke English and Western cleanliness standards you may be disappointed, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s the glamour of the old-fashioned and enjoying the natural springs.

We also went to Memento Park – a park where they keep all the removed Soviet statues. It’s on the bus route but a request stop. After a lot of bus driver discussions – we didn’t speak Hungarian and he didn’t speak English he seemed to understand our request. And it was worth the journey – it’s so weird and cool that they collected all the old statues when they were removed, and kept them together as a collection. I love communist sculpture and find it endlessly fascinating to admire and photograph – not to mention ponder over the idolatry of Lenin and Stalin.

Romania

Ms ZiYou Romania

Another key attraction we wanted to see was Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. Another magical castle was promised however this one was a bit more complicated to get to. The castle itself was stunning and I even started to read the book to get in the mood. But I really don’t like horror, so I’m ashamed to say I have never finished the book.

The journey into Romania itself was very eye opening- it was clearly the least prosperous country we had yet visited. We were shocked at the number of horses and traps on the road in the absence of cars. It really hit home how rich and privileged we were.

UkraineMs ZiYou Kiev

The most adventurous part of the itinerary was going east into Ukraine – the least Westernised country so far. English and the Latin alphabet were non-existent, you had to get by with some Cyrillic and guesswork.

Travelling by train in third class was a delight. Honestly, I’ve never met such nice people and the babushka that served tea was awesome. She kept coming back to me as I insisted on tipping her – tea delivered to your seat every few hours for pennies can’t be beaten. Despite never knowing what it actually was – some sweet lemony tea – I enjoyed it and it made the experience.

The churches and architecture were stunning in opposite ways. Orthodox churches were bright and pretty, whereas the grey soviet buildings were as dull and dreary as you’d imagine them to be. Not that I’ve ever spent a night in a prison, but my hotel seemed to have a lot of similarities with one. Itchy blankets were on the bed and I had to ask permission to leave at night.

Going East vs West

And there we have it; a fabulous 3-week tour of the delights of Eastern Europe was my introduction to slightly off the beaten track holidays. My family were obviously horrified that I was going out in the big scary world that was very different from what I was used to. I didn’t let their concerns deter me from going east.

This was the pre-smartphone era – there were many, many wrong turns taken and a lot of the time was spent feeling (not to mention actually being) lost. But to me, that is part of the joy of travelling – getting lost in new places. And knowing inside you lies the skills to get yourself where you want to be.

Related Posts – Counting Countries Series

Over to you

  • What are your thoughts?
  • Where would you go for a more adventurous holiday?
  • Have you been to Eastern Europe?

Thank you for reading – please leave a comment below and join in the conversation. You can also connect on Twitter or contact me privately.

14 comments on “Going East – Countries 17 to 22

  1. Reading your post just brought back (forgotten) memories of our family package holiday to communist Romania in the early 80s. I need to ask my parents how that came about. It must have been a cheap holiday knowing my dad. All i seem to remember is eating soup like dishwater and local women trying to buy my mums clothes and shoes off her.

  2. Lovely post.
    One thing that I just want to mention is that I was told that when I first went to Prague around the same time in 2006 (I think) was that it was already ruined by tourists and I should have visited it in 93 or whenever.
    You say the same things about Prague in 2003 vs 2018 – so maybe the best time to visit anywhere is truly now. 😀

    And of course the smartphone changes everything…

    1. That is a really good point, places have changed so much and I wonder what places are like since I did this trip in 2003.

      Yeah with a smartphone, roaming and wifi travelling is just so much easier now. Lonely planet profits must be in free fall!

  3. Your trip sounds awesome. But I think I need more time than 3 weeks. That seems rushed to me.
    Eastern Europe is on the top of my list now. Hopefully, we can visit in the next few years.

    1. Indeed it was a whirlwind trip! I’d like to say it’s the things I did when I was younger, but I’m still partial to the odd whirlwind – I enjoy the actual travelling and the journey as well as the experience of being there.

  4. It’s nice you managed to visit these countries, on the cusp of (the majority anyway) them joining the European Union. You got to witness and experience them in raw form (pre ’91 would have been incredible).

    So much gentrification has taken place since then, and there are still opportunities in these countries. I’m a bit of a Sovietophile myself, and photograph/ collect ex Soviet propaganda murals and the likes (I lived in the Russian Federation for 16 months)

    I get the impression you love going off the beaten track. The Transmongolian Express (summer or winter) is highly recommended…

    1. We did have great fun seeing these countries without the full blown EU changes, in a semi raw form I agree. Yeah pre 91 would have been ace, but sadly my parents aren’t adventurous travelers!

      I love Soviet murals and sculpture in particular. They excel at sculpture. And some light propaganda is always interesting.

      And you know what? I’m doing Trans Mongolian when I FIRE in a few years. Don’t want to rush it, and then went to spend time in China practising my Mandarin .

  5. Wow, you are so well traveled. Compared to you, i’ve literally been nowhere! So many places on this list i’d love to visit some day… I’m just buying time. When i hit FI, i’m going on a world tour haha.

    Maybe i’ll refer to this as a travel guide. Did you enjoy count Dracula’s castle? that sounds like it would have been a pretty awesome place to visit

    1. I love how so many FIRE people want to travel… And a FIRE world tour would be awesome.

      And being so in Europe non of these places are that far away……We are very lucky!

      Dracula’s castle was awesome to visit – but a bit if a pain to get to. Not many independent tourists around then, but a few tour groups. I do love adding a bit if mythology to my sightseeing.

  6. What a trip! This year, I’ve been in Latvia and Estonia for the first time and it was a really good experience. Unfortunately however, I’ve never visited the places in this post other than Berlin. There’s so many places I want to see in this world. It will become so much easier to live those dreams once I get to FIRE. That’s what I tell myself at least. Maybe it’s just an excuse? Hmm..

    1. Snap, I did Latvia and Estonia as well this year – really interesting places and I absolutely adored Riga.

      And I’m with you – I’ve seen a fair few places, but there are many more still to see. I’m planning on slow travelling when FIRE, which will be much cheaper than living in London I think!

  7. I went to many of those countries on inter-rail while at university, just before and after the end of communism. The border guards on the Ukraine border wanted a bribe to let us in, which would have been OK, but I was worried about the size of the bribe we’d have to pay to be let back out again, so we didn’t go to Ukraine. While everything was cheap in the Warsaw pact, you had to exchange a fixed amount of hard currency per day (typically 60$ or so), there was nothing to buy and the restaurants/bars/cafes were uniformly dismal. Interesting experience and I met some lovely people, but they’re far nicer places to visit now.

    1. Ah, you got to see the Warsaw pact version – that would have been awesome.

      I expected to have to bribe the guards at Ukraine – I was hauled out of the minibus – but I got away with it, they just wanted to look at my visa in more detail.

      From your descriptions maybe I got to see them at the best- opening up and embracing capitalism, but still mega cheap with the odd Soviet touch. And not bad food.

What do you think?