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„Eastern Europe? Why???“

Ever since I have more seriously joined the travel blogosphere, I have met all kinds of great people, read very many wonderful stories, narratives and articles on all kinds of different destinations, been part of a few excellent twitter chats on travelling and gotten to know a lot of different travel ways, fashions and likes. I am learning so much and I really love the community. There is just one thing that strikes me again and again, and it is time that I took up the cudgels for something that is almost ridiculously under-represented in the travel blogging community – and that is my beloved Eastern Europe.

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

Montenegro – did you know that Eastern Europe was this beautiful?

When I told people that I would travel for a while after grad school, the most common response was: „Oh cool. South East Asia or South America?“ When I said: „South Eastern Europe!“, faces went aghast and a little freaked out. The most common verbal response: „Whyyyyyy???“

I never really know what to say to this. I guess „Why not?“ is an appropriate response. Or more like „Why the hell not??“ I do notice that both in- and outside of Europe, a lot of people still think that Europe ends at the Eastern boarder of Germany. Travel bloggers write that they have been to Europe, but by that they mean Rome, Paris, London, Barcelona and Berlin. There are the few odd exceptions that include Prague, Budapest and Krakow. But while no one would have to justify why they want to see Bretagne or Andalusia or Tuscany, a lot of people don’t even know about Mavrovo, Tatra or the Curonian Spit (FYI, those are in Macedonia, Poland/Slovakia and Lithuania).

There are still many misconceptions about the countries that used to be hidden behind the iron curtain. I would really love it if I could eradicate some of them here. Most of the things I have heard are variations of the three things I discuss below.

1. There’s not really anything to see in Eastern Europe. It is ugly and has nothing to offer apart from relics of its Socialist past.

If you think this is true, you could not be more wrong. Eastern Europe has it all – thriving cities, gorgeous little villages, beautiful mountain ranges, beaches, swamps, forests, even what is widely considered the last European jungle (in North Eastern Poland, it is called Bialowieza). It is both for the nature lovers and for the culture lovers amongst us. It is extremely rich in history; from the Balkans that used to be under Ottoman rule and show the Muslim influence via Central Eastern Europe with its Austro-Hungarian grandeur to the Baltic Republics with their very own strive for freedom after being forced to be a part of the Soviet Union. Or would you say that this is ugly or uninteresting?

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina

Bosnia and Hercegovina – in Sarajevo, you have a minarette and the towers of the orthodox and the catholic cathedral all in this picture.

Ohrid, Macedonia

Macedonia – at Lake Ohrid you have a gorgeous view onto Albania

Ksamil, Albania

Albania – yes, Eastern Europe holds beaches that can stand their ground in an international comparison!

Kosice, Slovakia

Slovakia – this beautiful town, Kosice, is actual European Culture Capital 2013!

2. People in Eastern Europe are rude and unfriendly. They don’t like Westerners there.

Ok, this must be the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. I have never experienced hospitality like this anywhere else. Couchsurfing hosts insisting on me sleeping in their beds and taking the floor instead. The genuine interest in any traveller and the smile on someone’s face when they learn that you are in their country just to see it for its beauty. The enormous amounts of food people will get from the most hidden corners of their houses when someone comes to visit. The bus driver in Albania between Tirana and Berat who didn’t speak English, but called his son, passed us his phone and had his son tell us in English that if we needed anything, he’d gladly be of service. The girl in the internet cafe in Plovdiv in Bulgaria that ran after me for two street blocks in 40 degrees heat to bring me my water bottle that I had forgotten. The boy in Riga in Latvia who took us to the train station personally when we had asked the way. Need I say more?

Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina

Bosnia and Hercegovina – Hostel hospitality with Bosnian coffee in the morning

3. Travelling in Eastern Europe is challenging because the living standards are low and they only speak those weird languages with the many consonants. 

Clearly anyone who says this has never been to Eastern Europe. Most of the countries that fall under this category are part of the European Union. Even if they aren’t, the Union is funding lots of projects in other European countries to maintain infrastructure and help growth and development. Out of the Eastern European countries that did join the EU in 2004 and 2007, Slovenia, Slovakia and Estonia have the Euro. This is where another misconception comes in – Eastern Europe is not necessarily cheap anymore. I found places like Tallinn, Estonia to have higher prices in their downtown coffee places than Berlin. Living standards rising is a complicated issue, and sometimes I wish my favorite places could forever keep their morbid, slightly run down charme (like the Wroclaw Train Station in Poland). It is a fact however, that travelling in Eastern Europe is hardly a challenge anymore. All the young people speak English, and if the lady at the ticket counter doesn’t, someone is sure to help you out (see above). And the languages are weird, but really, are the languages in Asia any better? At any rate, Eastern Europe is more Western than Western Europe at times. Capitalism has hit hard and fast. Coffee places, bars, clubs, restaurants, but also opera houses, museums and theatres will shower you with a diverse offer that you won’t even be able to digest so fast. How about a visit to one of these places?

Lviv, Ukraine

Ukraine – Opera House in Lviv

Belgrade, Serbia

Serbia – National Museum in Belgrade

Tallinn, Estonia

Estonia – having the richest hot chocolate ever in a living room coffee house in Tallinn downtown

Summing it up, I really don’t understand about the weird looks and shocked reactions. I can just strongly advice everyone to go and experience the amazingness of Eastern Europe for themselves. But hurry. Once word is out, the place will be flooded with tourists.

Have you been to anywhere in (Central, South or North) Eastern Europe? Did you love it or hate it? What other places are there that people are suspicious of travelling to?

44 Comments

  1. Having living in Romania, no doubt that there is beauty here. While Bucharest holds its metropolitan feel, the countrysides are amazing and untouched. About the language, people are always happy to help with English even when they can’t speak English! They are really friendly here, of course there are exceptions when people don’t wanna try (like the post office!) but hey you get that in ANY country!

    I think Eastern Europe is definitely underrated and there are a lot of beautiful places here to be seen and explored. We need more travel blogger like you dear Mariella 🙂

    • bridgekeeper

      Januar 31, 2013 at 4:26 pm

      Thank you, Aggy! I do think we need travel bloggers to write about every part of the world – it just annoys me when people refer to Europe and what they really mean is just one half of it. And that when the other half is so amazing! It’s like people referring to Germany and thinking only about Bavaria – something I will most definitely write a post on sometime!!

  2. You traveled it all through! Lovely!

    • bridgekeeper

      Januar 31, 2013 at 10:51 pm

      Yeah, I just love it there… I’m missing four Eastern European countries: Russia, Belarus, Romania and Moldova. I won’t make it to any of those this year probably, but I’m really hoping to do Romania and Moldova soon!!

  3. So much love for this post! I think you’ve got the misconceptions down exactly. I almost don’t want the word to get out about Eastern Europe, because I want it to stay cheap and non-tourist-flooded 🙂

    I find a lot of people thing people in Eastern Europe are unfriendly. But I suspect the problem is an understanding of what friendliness is. There is a book, called „America… What a Life!“ (translation of the title from Russian), which explains to Russians what America is REALLY like. One interesting thing there was pointing out that in North America, superficial friendliness – smiling cashier, etc – is much more prevalent. But it often ends at the surface, and that you can’t show up to a friend’s house unannounced in the middle of the night to talk over your problems 😛

    • bridgekeeper

      Januar 31, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      Thank you, Maria! Yeah, the idea of what friendliness means can differ widely. It’s in the Slavic languages too. They have different concepts of politeness. I find Eastern Europeans to be a bit distanced, but super polite, and very honest and genuine in their display of emotions. I mean, when they hug you, they really mean it. Americans will hug anyone right away. Eastern Europe is truly very different from the States. Although to be fair, I do have American friends that I could call upon unannounced in the middle of the night 🙂

  4. Great article, more and more people go to eastern Europe and they enjoy spending time there.
    It’s cheap, people are friendly an there are some great landscapes… Also most of the youngsters speak English and know how to have fun.

  5. Just discovered your blog and love this post! Think your are absolutely right! And I have to admit, that until some years ago, I didn’t even consider to travel to Eastern Europe as well. And exactly as you say, with Eastern Europe I mean behind the former german border! And while I have been travelling quite a lot on all continents, I hardly knew half of „my own continent“ and even country.
    This is why my boyfriend and me decided to change this a couple of years ago. First mission: discover Germany! So we planned our main holidays of the year in Germany. The East! We finally made a round trip in east Germany, what was amazing. I discovered so many awesome places and since this time we love to go back again and again. And even though this doesn’t seem to be a big thing, it is! Because not everybody could understand why we would travel in Germany. But: why not?! Our country is wonderful!!!
    Now, because of my Eastern Europe lack, we decided to do our honeymoon trip in May there. We are still not sure about the exact route and if it is more in the south (Albania, Croatia, Slovenia) or further in the north. But you can imagine the reactions on telling people about our honeymoon plans! But, as I can see, I found the perfect blog for our plans…

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm

      Dear Nina, thank you for your kind words about my writing! I do know exactly what you’re talking about. Having grown up in Hamburg, I went to university in Greifswald – in „the East“. Oh my, you should have been there when I told people. I love all of the former GDR, and I especially think the German Baltic Sea coast is among the best things Germany has to offer. What an exciting plan for your honeymoon to see some of Eastern Europe! Please don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything!! Most of my posts on my great Balkans trip are in German, but that’s not gonna be a problem for you 🙂 I’ll gladly be of service as you plan your trip. I think you couldn’t have picked a more lovely area for your first trip as a married couple. Also, the Balkans are PERFECT in May. It’s the most lovely season there!

  6. Ashamed for reading it this late, but hey, better late than never right? For a change to, unfortunately, many people I absolutely love Eastern Europe. Actually Europe (which includes Eastern Europe) is my favourite continent =) I love your post!! Haven’t been to as many countries as you but I loved Latvia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bosnia, Croatia… all so beautiful! I definitely want to see more of Eastern Europe, so many stories, history, beauty, adventures and don’t forget the food… and the people? Well comparing them to Western Europe I bet we can learn something from them. The individualism of the Dutch people cannot be found in Eastern Europe which is a relief… I hope that more people will see the beauty, on the other hand I hope not too many because I love the authenticity of those countries, no mass tourism for Eastern Europe. Thanks for sharing!! =)

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 2, 2013 at 10:50 am

      Oh, the food… yes, I should have written about the food!! There will surely be a part two to this post. More misconceptions: „All the food is greasy and disgusting.“ Or also: „It is very dangerous and people will stab you and sell you to the Russian mafia.“ I’m collecting more suggestions for a follow-up! 🙂 glad you agree with me. Oh yeah, and reading this ONE day after I posted it is truly HORRIBLE, how could you DO this? 😛 I’m always glad when you stop by and leave acomment, Milene!

      • Haha, yeah don’t forget the Russian maffia… Can tell you many stories about them… Oh and all Eastern Europeans are either hippies or gipsies. They wash themselves with dirt water from the river. Oh and of course most girls are prostitutes sent to the Netherlands by their husbands to earn money.. 😉

        Yep yep, heard lots of stories about Eastern Europe, most of the time right before I travelled to Eastern Europe or right after I came home: Do they really smell that bad? And is it true that many people there have no teeth left in their mouth? Hmpff…

        Keep on going girl! Love your posts =)

  7. It sort of blows my mind that those are the common misconceptions!

    When I told friends/family that I was going to the Balkans, the main questions/concerns I fielded were: But wasn’t there a war there recently? Isn’t it still dangerous? Why do you want to go where all the Ruskies are?

    It’s funny how we build things up in our minds to be completely different than how things actually are, but then we convince ourselves that we’re right and don’t bother proving ourselves wrong. I loved the Balkans region and can’t wait to go back and explore even more. As for other Eastern European destinations, I am heading to Prague in about three weeks and couldn’t be more excited about it. (Unfortunately I won’t see more Eastern Europe this time!)

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 2, 2013 at 10:55 am

      Oh yeah, the war thing of course is huge, but only for the Balkans. Most people know, fortunately, that the Northern countries in Eastern Europe haven’t seen a war in a while. But you’re right, with the Balkans a lot of people asked me the same thing, especially with Kosovo. I hope by talking about the beauty of all of it we can, in fact, prove wrong those who think that there’s nothing to see in Eastern Europe. You will love Prague, I’m sure. It is a bit touristy for my taste, but it is a grand city, truly. Say hi to Charles Bridge from the Bridgekeeper :))

  8. I traveled to Eastern Europe last winter. Unfortunately, I was there under one of the worst cold snaps in history. You could hardly go outside in places like Slovenia and Croatia. So I would love to go back and see these places in the sun.

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 4, 2013 at 8:37 pm

      Oh my Bosnian friends told me about that… they were completely snowed in. You should go back in summer – May or September are perfect for the Balkans. For Central Eastern Europe, i.e. Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, I’d recommend June through August.

  9. I agree that Eastern Europe is under-represented, although I feel like it’s growing in popularity. I just spent a year traveling through all of the former Soviet Union, starting with 3 months in Russia and stops in the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova before heading on the Caucasus. With the exception of Moscow, I found the people to be quite friendly, prices to still be much cheaper than western Europe (even in the Baltics) and plenty of interesting sites to see!

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 4, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      Hi Katie – yes, I had been to your blog before, what and AWESOME project you did there! I am totall keen on doing all the -stans – Kazachstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan… one day. I’ll come back to you for advice when it happens 🙂 it’s also true that EE is catching on in the travel world, but it stil doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and I am fairly shocked to see how often it is just left out, as if Europe literally were just half its actual size, history and cultural variety – and that bothers me. Anyway thank you so much for stopping by, I hope you come back to my blog sometime!

  10. I LOVE this Mariella! I completely agree with you. Eastern Europe is friendly, beautiful and very much undiscovered by mass tourism. You mentioned so many places I’m going to visit this year and now I am more excited than ever!

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 4, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      Thank you so much, Sarah! I had hoped you’d like this 🙂 and you SHOULD be excited. I’ll have to live vicariously through you… I am really so excited to read all about it!

  11. Great post – well-researched and full of very insightful comments. I’m Polish, now on the other side of the pond, and throughout the years I’ve held many conversations with North Americans about Central and Eastern Europe. I couldn’t have put some of the things better myself.

    If someone has an issue with consonant clusters, maybe they need to stay home… or get over it ASAP! The former Soviet bloc is an underdog in the travel world, but thankfully it’s changing (didn’t Krakow get some 8 million visitors last year?).

    It drives me crazy when people are stuck on the region’s past, without realizing that most of the countries did not welcome the Soviet rule. It’s been two decades since the fall of communism and the pace of changes has been tremendous. You’re absolutely right that a lot of the places feel very Western.

    Needless to say, this is a region to visit, period. And those who don’t will miss out on A LOT.

    Thanks for this post, Mariella.

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 7, 2013 at 9:14 am

      Ha, Pola, I love it how you get almost as wound up about in your comment as I always feel. I might come to Chicago this summer, if that works out, I think coffee is in order! Consonant clusters – well if you are willing to open up to it Slavic languages are the most beautiful ones EVER! I think so at least. Also, yes, people know nothing about the region’s history and their struggle and hardships with different regimes that the people didn’t choose themselves. And there is such variety!! I mean, the Baltics were actually part of the SU (involuntarily), then there’s Central Eastern Europe that wasn’t, but was under much control, and then there is the former Yugoslavia that was non aligned and did their own little thing under Tito. ComPLETEly different stories.

  12. Eastern Europe (esp. the Balkans) have been long sitting in my must-visit list.
    But still hadn’t the chance to do so.
    Your pics are gorgeous and make me want to visit them even more!!

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 9, 2013 at 9:12 am

      Thanks, Esti! You should definitely go, and please don’t hesitate to ask if you need advice on anything!

  13. Yes, I agree totally. I particularly like the photo of the older lady serving coffee in Bosnia. Its like they force hospitality on you and I love it.

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 15, 2013 at 11:55 pm

      Absolutely 🙂 we’re not even used to that kind of hospitality anymore, we need it to be forced on us, or else we would try to repay it with money. But this is about immaterial things, and that makes it so pure.

  14. This is a great post; I absolutely love Eastern Europe! I’ve been to a few Eastern European countries, but would love to visit more (ie. all of them!) I find it much more interesting than France, Spain, or Italy, for example. Have you read/seen „New Europe“ by Michael Palin?

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 21, 2013 at 10:28 am

      Thank you Michelle – we agree on that then 🙂 I will have a look around your blog! I have read „New Europe“, but admittedly not entirely. It’s on my book shelf and I think I’d appreciate it much more now that I’ve been to all the places myself than I did value it when I tried to read it *before* travelling there. I should give it a go again! What are some places that are high up on your list?

      • Sarajevo is top of my list at the moment! But I’d also like to see more of Russia, too (I’ve only been to Moscow.) Where are you off to next?

        • bridgekeeper

          Februar 23, 2013 at 6:35 pm

          Sarajevo is incredible – so multi-layered, so full of history… it can totally compare to places like Berlin that way, even though it’s so much smaller. I have never been to Russia, can you believe it… I really want to go! But what’s even higher on my list right now is Romania. I might go there in March, but my plans aren’t finalized. It’s all about spontaneity. Gotta love living in Berlin, you are anywhere in Europe within a matter of hours 🙂

  15. I certainly agree, Eastern Europe is a great place to go. Unfortunately its history give it a bad rap, but it is nothing of the sort. It just isn’t Western Europe. Agreed, thanks for sharing!

    • bridgekeeper

      Februar 25, 2013 at 5:14 pm

      That sums it up beautifully, Andy – it just isn’t Western Europe. I don’t see why people woud expect that either. You don’t expect Europe when you go to the States. You don’t expect Latin America when you go to South East Asia. Travel is about going somewhere to find out what the place works like, in my opinion. Glad you agree with me. Where in Eastern Europe have you been?

  16. Ha ha, this is exactly the response I get all the time when I tell people I’m learning to speak Serbian/Croatian. How do I explain how I fell in love with the country, the language, the people? How learning that language will allow me to meet and speak to people across the Balkan region?

    I really love this post and all of your gorgeous photos. It makes me happy that I’m not the only one enamored with Eastern Europe, even if I have yet to travel the region as extensively as you.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm

      Govoris na srpski / hrvatski? Ja takoder pomalo govorim. Pomaaaalo 🙂 I adore the language, it is so beautiful!! Thank you for the sweet words about my writing. I feel very lucky to have travelled Eastern Europe so much, but I’m not nearly done with it, there is so much more to see!!

  17. Predivno 🙂 I just love this post, it just says alot about Eastern Europe and people there. I should know because I’m from Croatia. Have you ever visited Bol on the island of Brac?

    • bridgekeeper

      März 28, 2013 at 5:13 pm

      Hvala puno 🙂 Glad you find yourself in this post! Of course I have been to Bol, however shortly it was, on a day trip. Also I was a liiitlle bit drunk I think 😉 so I will have to come back. My next dream destinations in Croatia are a bit more up North though, I haven’t been to Istria in 10 years!

  18. Hi Mariella
    Your site echo’s my sentiments exactly. I have been travelling eastern Europe for years. For the past three years I have been putting a website together on travel in eastern Europe. It is a very comprehensive site covering how to get there using low cost airlines from western Europe to travelling around (over 140 destinations) as well as travel around that country and travel to bordering countries. The site has links to all airlines relevant bus and train companies not only at the destinations but also country and Europe wide. You can find almost everything you need on one site within 3 clicks.

    I hope you and your friends like it. http://www.traveltoeasterneurope.com

  19. I get ya! Kinda with you on this one. Give me Eastern Europe any day. You’ve been to Lviv – isn’t it wonderful.

    • bridgekeeper

      Januar 29, 2014 at 8:53 pm

      I loved it. It’s been way too long ago. As of now my fascination with Ukraine is only growing for obvious reasons. If only I had made it to Kyiv sooner…

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