Let’s talk about “Eastern Europe.” Not the Warsaw Pact region from the 1980s, but the array of independent counties as they presently exist today. I’ve presented overviews of where we visited previously, and a number of common themes are present in this vast and often underlooked region.
First, let’s address the term “Eastern Europe.” I’ve been using it throughout these posts as an easy point of reference, but the people who live in this region get fairly upset when they hear that we refer to them as part of this region. To them, Eastern Europe is Russia: their occupiers, and they wish nothing to do with this constructed geographical term. “Heart of Europe” may be a much more apt phrase, but for the continuing purposes of not confusing anyone, I’ll keep calling it “Eastern Europe.” Just be aware that this term carries with it a number of implications and baggage that you may not realize or wish to convey.
Eastern European cities are typical European urban centers, and in many ways surpass their Western European peers in city planning and transit. The historic centers have been preserved and markets are still found in almost all towns. As you move away from the center squares, you’ll quickly notice that the architechure rapidly transforms into the Soviet-style of prefab concrete. These buildings are slowly decaying, and entire hills are often a drab color of grey.
Transit is largely extremely well-developed and efficient. The Soviets were really good at building and designing mass transit, and it shows. Every major city has a large metro network, and they often have streetcar grids to supplement their transit offerings. Although the rolling stock can be old, the fares are affordable.
The violence and devastation that World War II wrought upon these nations are remembered, but they do not dwell in the past. Recovery, delayed in many cases until after the early 1990s, is reawakening national pride and industry. With planned economies behind them, Eastern European nations are coming into their own. Many are aligning with the EU, and although pro-Russian parties are present in all of these nations, the majority believes that their future lies with Western Europe. Don’t let this economic recovery fool you though, prices are still fairly cheap by American and European standards, and in many of these countries you’ll be using a local currency as they have not fully integrated into the Eurozone.
For much of Eastern Europe, the food is primarily meat-based with a distinct lack of seasoning or creativity. You’ll get very full eating their meals, but that’s about it. Each region has their own interpretation of dumplings: some places view them as moist bread-like slices, others have them as your “traditional” round dumplings that we commonly think of in the United States. Vegetarian and Vegan places are fairly easy to find in major cities, with at least two or three restaurants in each. And the beer? Superb.
This region of the world carries with it a bit of a gritty reputation. Don’t let this dissuade you from visiting these vibrant and history-soaked nations. As these are largely small nations, English is the common tongue, and you can get by with just a few phrases in each country you visit. The prices are cheap, the people are friendly, and the sights are perhaps even more interesting and authentic than in Western Europe.
But what about touring? Isn’t this a thing you were worried would be unfun and weird? It was an interesting experience, to be sure. I’m not sure how much benefit we got from this in the big cities: the walking tours and other things were nice, but it’s the kind of thing we can do on our own. The real value came from transportation between cities and where to make our stops for the night in small towns. These were all amazingly cool, and we never would have thought to stay in these places if we were on our own. Our guide was quite excellent, and emphasised transit skills so we would all be able to go to independent touring in all of the cities we were at. The itinerary itself revolved around cities the first 5/8ths of the trip, and natural beauty for the rest of the time. This meant we had a super fast and fun pace at the beginning, and then it markedly slowed down during the end of the trip as we stayed in small Mediterranean islands and deep mountain towns.