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.
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?
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?
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?
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.