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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?