They say the days after the New Year somehow pass very quickly, and, with no exception, 2015 is already over. So, if you haven’t crossed a line yet, there is still time to make plans for the future, improving one’s bucket list of books, hobbies, travel, business, and so on. Yes, I know, 2016 has just started, and you already have to deal with so much information. But, do not despair, as this is the reason why I think you will find the article about Eastern Europe quite interesting and useful.
Probably the most important and pleasant plans that we make are those related to travel. In Europe, they say “all the roads lead to Rome” or, in the case of most travelers, to Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, or Barcelona. I admit the West remains a fascinating part of Europe, a widespread and comfortable choice; old and modern, cultural and picturesque. There are countless reasons you should go travel there, but I believe that you should get the bigger picture of Europe and throw an eye over the East. Here lies some of the most incredible history, culture, traditions, art, castles, architecture, people… the list is awe-inspiring. So, check out why you should include some countries from this area in your travel bucket list:
1. It is still cheaper than Western Europe
The services here offer a good value for money. The prices at the restaurants, the hotels and museums, and even transportation and taxis are still lower than those from the West. To make a comparison, did you know that beer in Romania can cost as little as 1 Euro and a 3-course meal can reach in some places even 12 – 14 Euros? According to some statistics, you can easily travel on less than 50 Euros per day in Eastern Europe. It depends, of course, on the type of accommodation and restaurants where you are going, but this budget is easy to follow.
2. Hospitable people
Beyond the past Cold War, here you will meet hot and friendly people. The Eastern Europeans are among the most hospitable people globally, some of them even welcoming you into their homes to taste traditional dishes and discover their customs. You might think the language can be a difficult barrier, but you do not have to be worried about this in the large cities, as most people understand English, and the young ones can speak English pretty fluently. There could be a small problem in the places away from the cities but, again, do not panic. Most of the time, people are really patient, and if you already know a few local words, they will appreciate you, even more, your effort and try to help you accordingly. You should know, though, that you might get a little bit confused, especially in Bulgaria, as the locals move their heads from left to right when they want to say yes and up and down when they want to say no. Are you confused already?
Unfortunately, the Communist mentality is still present in these countries, so you do not have to be disappointed if you don’t receive a smile each time in shops or restaurants.
3. In Eastern Europe, the food is great!
There is a local saying in this area: we believe love does not pass through the stomach, so no matter how in love you are with the places you are visiting, the need for food will always keep you with your feet on the ground. Therefore, food is becoming the main reason for travel nowadays; it represents a way to discover the local culture, and in Eastern Europe, there is a lot of culture to… “taste.”
You will find here an interesting mixture of tastes, each country with its own “flavor.” Despite being different, there is something that keeps these countries together as a whole in terms of food. I have one word for you: MEAT. According to a local joke, it is believed that the best vegetable is… meat. We are talking about the Balkanic food-based meat, each country boasting different ways of preparation and different combinations. For instance, the traditional mousaka, also known as “good with goodness on top,” is very well appreciated in many variations throughout the Balkan region. Beyond the popular Hungarian Goulash, the delicious Romanian sarmale, or the Bulgarian Meshana Skara, there are some strong Mediterranean influences in each country’s local cuisine.
In the Eastern part of Europe, you will find both traditional food reminiscent of the glory days of the aristocracy and simple but delicious comfort food for the hard-working farmers. These authentic dishes reflect the culinary diversity of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Russia.
Also, you will notice that at the restaurants, even though the dishes come a little bit slower, the taste of the food is authentic and natural. So the wait is really worth it!
Another thing you should know is that usually, the portions are quite big in these restaurants, so you should definitely send your diet on a short holiday, as well. It is hard to resist the temptation, and if you are eating with the locals, remember rule no. 1: you always have to finish your dish, as a sign that you enjoyed your meal and appreciated the culinary talent of the cook. The tricky thing is that when you empty your plate, you really like the food, and thus, even though you did not request it, you will, most of the time, receive another portion. And then you will have to remember… again, rule no. 1.
Indeed, we take food pretty seriously!
4. Craftsmen and souvenirs
The craftsmen represent the real heart and soul of Eastern Europe. They beautifully and stubbornly defy time, choosing to maintain the local traditions through their work. Their passion is transmitted from generation to generation. Their individual workshops are unique, small universes that are waiting to be discovered by the curious eyes and ears of the tourists. Whether we talk about carpentry, tailoring, traditional pottery, embroidery, painting, sculpture, or perhaps most importantly, local cuisine with dishes and drinks that defy any restaurant or supermarket in the West, the true spirit of this area lies in the work of the people here. If you are not yet convinced, have a look over the story of the Spoonman from Transylvania, Romania.
5. Off the beaten path experiences – the best reason to visit Eastern Europe
We say that Eastern Europe is not yet so westernized. Even though in the large cities, one can feel the “wind of change” coming slowly from the Occident, there is a “different kind of wind that still blows in the rural areas.” In the remote villages, time seems to flow differently, respecting old traditions and superstitions. The locals are still eating food from their backyard farms; kids are too busy running outside to surf the internet. An old lady sweeping the porch of her house is a ubiquitous sight, and you will be surprised to see the cows driven by the cowherd coming from the field each day at the same hour, heading to their own courtyard. Sounds like a Fellini movie, you would say, and guess what? You are in the middle of the action. In Romania, you will find many places like these: in Maramures and Transylvania most of all, there are special hidden gems that attract tourists from all over the world. They enjoy a complete rural experience and discover other dimensions of traveling. Villages like Vadu Izei, Botiza, Viscri, and Valea Zalanului (where Prince Charles of Wales has several guesthouses; read here more), Biertan. Sibiel and Crit are the reason for the saying, “Romania starts where the asphalt ends.”
This kind of village may be found in Hungary, Bulgaria (the village of Arbanassi), Slovenia, Slovakia, and the list may go on.
6. In search of Dracula
This is probably one of the most popular reasons to visit Eastern Europe, as Transylvania is waiting for all the tourists eager to find out the truth behind the legend of Dracula. Read more here.
7. Communism’s legacy – a historical and life-changing lesson
The communist regime left a deep mark on the people’s lives and memories and the local culture. Each country has its own story, and the remains of Soviet-style buildings, monuments, and statues are also a way of telling their story. I think we can very easily say that the streets represent genuine living museums.
You can still admire in streets the “pure” communist cars such as Dacia or the Trabant, the car which gave birth to many jokes (said to have a heater at the back to keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it).
The constructions in Eastern Europe remain probably the most “vocal” proof and legacy of the communist regime. In Eastern Europe, one should have a ride in the residential areas and see the concrete blocks of flats where people had to move when coming from the villages searching for a job. The blocks of flats are also locally known as matchboxes, given the high number of apartments in a building and the size.
Also, there are many museums, statues, and even administrative buildings that keep the memory of this regime and of the people who stood against it: The Palace of The Parliament (the second-largest administrative building in the world) and the House of the Free Press in Bucharest, Romania; The Memorial of Resistance, a former political prison turned into a museum in Sighet, Romania; the Museum of Communism in Prague, Czech Republic; Memento Park and the House of Terror in Budapest, Hungary; The European Solidarity Center in Poland, and so on.
8. Charming accommodation
Local touch of accommodations, restaurants, experiences, with no so many standardized services. Imagine turning back time and experiencing the lifestyle of the local people the way it used to be many years ago. Whether it is about charming mansions, remote traditional houses, aristocratic houses, or apartments, you will find in these places the modern comforts and the charming local touch of each country or region.
9. In search of ancestors
There are nowadays many tourists getting back to Eastern countries in search of their roots. Likewise, Jewish people, Americans, or Germans who had to leave their lands due to political or social reasons are returning to their homelands searching for their life story.
10. Cheap flights to Eastern Europe
Let’s now talk about practical things, as well! We can see a real boom in operating flights from Western Europe to different Eastern European countries. Not only the low-cost airline companies but also the full-service national carriers offer great prices for these destinations. The prices can vary from 50 Euros to 150 Euros per person.
11. Great party destinations
The introduction of cheap flights from the West to the East of Europe attracted a special class of travelers with a very well-defined mission: simply having fun! We are talking about the bachelors who are enjoying their last journey as single and having the time of their lives. Cities like Bucharest, Sofia, Budapest, or Belgrade promise great night parties in the company of beautiful people, parties which can last until the next morning. But not only the parties are attracting this kind of travelers here, as the locals discovered this opportunity and now offer a wide range of experiences for them: from relaxing spas and saunas to the old classic paintball or karting, from fun excursions to exciting thematic dinners.
12. A truly great variety of travel experiences
I think we can very easily say that Eastern Europe has it all! And, if you see the list below, we will come to the same conclusion:
- Budapest, Bratislava, Ljubljana, Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia are some of the most important and beautiful cities in Eastern Europe that can shelter you for a short city break if you are looking for a short holiday destination. These are truly metropolitan and vivid cities in Eastern Europe. Tourists will find interesting and even unique attractions, all with good travel services often comparable with those from the West. This is the result of the economic development from this area, specifically for the former communist countries after 1989.
- The breath-taking but little-known Carpathian mountains: home to bears, wolves, and elusive lynx, is perhaps the last great wilderness in Europe, seen as never before. (Charles Ottley – Wild Carpathia documentary). The Carpathians stretch through eight countries: Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. They represent the cradle of ancestral civilizations, a place where humans learned to respect nature and live in harmony with their surroundings. The Carpathian Mountains are a fragile and unique ecosystem, home to many remote villages where life flows, respecting different patterns. Here, one can meet picturesque and colorful characters such as craftsmen, shepherds, local artists, and eco partisans trying to preserve the charm and the glory of this unique place so that future generations can benefit from it. Tourists can discover all these thanks to countless hiking trails and bike paths.
- There are over 70 UNESCO Heritage Sites in Eastern Europe, including cities, churches, medieval fortresses and citadels, castles, natural reserves, rivers, etc. More about these in a future post. Discover the UNESCO Sites in Romania here.
- The Carpathians boast beautiful and unique forests, as well as fragile and breath-taking national parks and natural reserves: Gauja National Park in Poland; the national park of Plitvice Lakes in Croatia; Durmitor National Park in Montenegro; Triglav National Park, the only one in Slovenia; Retezat National Park and Bucegi National Park in Romania.
- Other natural treasures that the Carpathians host are the beautiful caves, rock formations, and salt mines. The list is quite impressive: Danube Gorge, the Sphinx, and the Old Ladies natural formations, Turda and Slanic Prahova’s salt mines (the last one is the largest salt mine in Europe) are to be found in Romania. Belogradchik Rocks and the cave of Devetaşka are in Bulgaria. In Montenegro, there is Tara River Canyon, the longest canyon in Europe. Finally, in Serbia, a natural spring flows underneath the unusual rock pyramids at Djavolja Varos Rock Formation. More about these in a future post.
13. Now is the time
This is probably the most important reason why you should travel to Eastern Europe, TIME. There have been only 26 years since the people from the post-communist countries took the way of democracy, learning what freedom means and what they should do with it. These countries received the powerful and large multinational companies with open arms that saw great market potential in this part of Europe. Thus, the historical Eastern European cities are beginning little by little to look like the Western ones. This is not necessarily bad, but it can be a bad thing to copy the West instead of rationally and soulfully adapting the West to the East. So, the local legacy is not yet lost. However, the new generation faces an important challenge as they try to face the fast-growing globalization without losing their local legacy in manufacturing, handicrafts, lifestyle, food, holidays, traditions, culture, and so on. I will give one simple example to justify this. Valentine’s Day, probably the most popular celebration after Christmas, was spread rapidly worldwide; Eastern Europe is no exception. All right, so far, nothing bad happened. But, in these countries, Saint Valentine was considered one of the saints of spring and not the saint of love. And now, by adopting the new celebration, the local genuine traditions related to this Saint are getting lost. Furthermore, in some countries, different traditional love celebrations nowadays struggle to survive despite Valentine’s Day fervor, like the Dragobete celebration in Romania.
Also, the hammer and the sickle represent something that all Eastern European countries have in common. And, like it or not, communism is also part of their legacy, of their identity that should not be forgotten or forced to be erased from the collective memory. However, in the light of the West, communism becomes a shadow that can be used as an advantage in terms of tourism if one can detect the opportunity.
These things being said, I can sincerely conclude there is no better time than NOW to pack your bags and step outside the “Western comfortable box” and discover something different, meet different people and dare to explore…in a different manner because this is what Eastern Europe has to offer: something different.