Ah, Europe! The haute couture of France, the high of Kensington High in London, the amore of Rome, and the luck of the Irish in Ireland. Sounds like something for everyone! But if your limiting your definition of Europe to those few countries, you’ve only got the half of it.
Historically, Europe was divided into two blocks, the Western and the Eastern. The West is associated with democracy, capitalism, and stability. The East is associated with Communism, and is also generally less economically stable. So, when it comes to vacations, the choice is obvious. Why spend time in an economically ( and usually meteorologically) disadvantaged communist country when you can be exploring the beaches of Monaco with your top off?
Well, it turns out that there is a lot of charm to Eastern Europe, a lot of people with a lot of heart, tremendous beauty, and even some really bizarre and interesting customs and habits that you might want to experience first hand. Here are some of the more compelling reasons you might want to see Europe from the path less taken.
It’s the home of the Croatian language and literature, the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” the home to painters, philosophers, mathematicians, physicists and scholars, the elite crown on the head of all Croatian tourism – but most importantly, it’s the place where “Game of Thrones” is filmed.
It may be known for its gothic castles, history, and beauty, but no one can deny Dubrovnik’s recent surge in popularity from fans flocking to see the real Kings Landing and Quarth, and Dubrovnik is only too happy to capitalize on its newfound windfall. In fact a little shop down from Zudioska Ulica even has a replica of the “Game of Thrones” throne that you can sit on for 30 kn, or free, if you buy the store’s merchandise.
However, if you are more of a purist, there are still many wonderful things to do and see in Dubrovnik. The Lazareti is an old quarantine hospital that now serves as the cultural center for concerts, theater and exhibitions, and Dubrovnik is also a great place to explore the Adriatic Sea. There are many agencies in Dubrovnik that provide yacht and motor boat rentals operating from the ACI rentals. Just be sure to BYO food and drink. The Dubrovnik Sea is unpredictable, and you wouldn’t want to get stuck out on the sea with no sustenance.
If you keep au courant in Eastern Europe, Budapest is the place to do it. While Dubrovnik is dubbed the “pearl of the Adriatic,” Budapest is the Paris of the East. Budapest is the largest city and capital of Hungary, and if you’re hungary for a little of everything, Budapest will not disappoint.
If you find history a bit dry, you haven’t seen the historical sights of Budapest. Here no historical building comes without its own weird and wild anecdotes and features. The Parliament is so immense, the soil surrounding the Danube actually had to be enforced with seven feet of concrete just to support its astounding structure. The Royal Palace is also quite a stunner. Word has it that when a Turkish Ambassador saw its wealth and grandeur, he completely forgot his opening address, and could only say, “The emperor sends his respects.”
And if you want a little conversation piece to take home, be sure to visit Memento Park. Once you make it through the statues of the politicians, and the exhibition about the 1956 revolution, you have the opportunity to see some of Budapest’s lighter side. Possible souvenirs include T-shirts which poke fun at communism, German Trabant model cars, and CDs of Hungarian fight songs.
Also, don’t skip out on the night life. The Trafo House of the Contemporary Arts is the transformer building turned nightclub and most modern cultural center. On ground level, you will find Hungarian and international experimental dance, and with a lively upstairs bar and basement disco, you’re bound to get your party in haute couture.
Unfortunately, the associations with Krakow are not the best, but if history needs never to be forgotten, Krakow is doing a pretty good job of keeping it alive.
However, even though Krakow might be known for its dark past, it is also known for its vibrant present. While the city is sure to acknowledge its dark years under Nazi occupation, most Krakow events are celebrations of the Jewish culture, rather than bleak reminders. The Jewish Culture Festival held there in June and July is the biggest one of its kind in the world, complete with tours, concerts, workshops, and a big Saturday night finale.
If you like your celebrations non-denominational, Krakow has something for you too. The Taste Vodka- vodka tasting tour is sure to be one not to be remembered, and the Kazimierez food tour takes you through 5-6 authentic Polish restaurants, so you may want to loosen the belt a little.
Lastly, you would be remiss without taking in the sights. Krakow’s Old Town and Wawel Castle both place highly on the UNESCO list of historic sites, and the Kazimierez district is rich in Jewish history dating back to the 1500’s.
Want to know one of the best things about Moscow? How about no daylight savings time? Imagine never having to lose that hour of sleep! No wonder Moscow is the second most populous city in Eastern Europe!
You wouldn’t expect the capital of Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union) not to be extremely proud of its 869 years as the financial and political center of the country, and you wouldn’t be hip if you didn’t include Red Square in your visit. The Red Square is the heart of the city, and the first stop for most visitors.
Be sure to stop by Lenin’s Museum for a quick glimpse of the leader’s embalmed body and speculate about whether it is really him or not, and pay a visit to the St. Basil’s Cathedral for some of that inimitable gothic architecture. The Kremlin Museum and Grand Kremlin Palace has rooms dating back to the 16th century, but only an exclusive few will be admitted at a time, so book your reservations well ahead in advance.
If the history doesn’t do it for you, do like the Russians do and drink – coffee that is! Bulka bakery is known for its outstanding coffee and desserts, and most Moscow restaurants serve a coffee drink called Raf that’s rumored to knock your super latte mocha espresso out of the Moskva River.
Talk about not going with the status quo. Ljubljana is so nonconformist that it even defies you to pronounce its name. If you think the name Ljubljana is the only sign that it’s too cool for school attitude, there’s more where that came from. In fact, the hippest thing about Ljubljana is the fact that it chooses not to be hip. Ljubljana has no world famous attractions, so you don’t have to worry about crossing major must sees off your list, which means you can chill out in this city in any way you choose.
Of course, that’s not to say there’s nothing to see or do in Ljubljana – quite the opposite in fact. The Zmajski Most Dragon Bridge is guarded by four intricately detailed dragons bearing the city’s coat of arms and Tivoli Park is often cited as the most beautiful and historic amusement parks in all of Europe.
But, when it comes down to it perhaps one of the most nonconformist thing about Ljubjana is its music. Metelkova mesto is a squat turned six club mega party each with its own style of music and program. Gala Hala’s strangely, fun music ranges from indie to rap, to hip hop to funk. Gromka is a similar, smaller version of Gala Hala, usually featuring rockabilly, retro 90’s music, and rock alternative. Menza pri kuritu is all about the punk and metal, Jalla Jalla is gay, and Channel Zero is electronic. Guess you can say Ljubljana is pretty progressive; that is, if you can say Ljubljana at all.
When in Rome, do like the Romans do, and when in Kotor do like the Kotorans do, and in Kotor that means getting lost. Everyone in Kotor gets lost, even the locals get lost, so don’t count on asking them for directions. But the good news is that, when you’re getting lost in Kotor, you’re getting lost in one of the most magical places on earth.
No one knows exactly when Kotor was founded, but archaeologist are sure that it was before the time of Homer, that it was Greek, and it was about IV-VII BC, which means there are some stunning and unusual geological and architectural features in Kotor that you’re not likely to want to pass up.
One of the best and most thrilling ways of appreciating the geology of Kotor is by scaling the Upper Town Walls. The Upper Town Walls could be described as a smaller version of the Great Wall of China on almost vertical cliffs, and you’ll be rewarded for climbing the 1350 steps with the view of Kotor from the Church of Our Lady of Health halfway up, and the St. John’s Fortress at the top. Be sure to choose your footwear wisely, and set aside about an hour for the full ascent.
While you’ll want to start your climb up the walls pretty early, you’ll definitely want to stick around after the sun goes down. When the bars reach their 1am liquor curfew, the party moves to the nightclubs. The locals say Maximus is the place for letting their hair down and Secondi Porto runs a close second. So get your Kotor running!
Prague, Czech Republic
Czech please! Why not start with the good stuff? One of the first things you may realize about Czech clothing is how little of it there is, on the beach at least. Even though much of Czech Republic is landlocked, there are those few naturist and nudist beaches, and you won’t see locals batting so much as an eye.
And while we’re on the subject of natural attractions, the Czech Republic has no shortage of parks and forests that haven’t seen much change in the last hundred years. It’s also a veritable treasure trove of castles – Czech out the Chervena Lota chateau in South Bohemia. It’s painted Renaissance red, and is situated in the middle of a pond, linked to the land by a stone bridge. The nearby Kasperk castle, located near the mountainous Bohemian forests is a gothic legacy to the reign of Emperor Charles IV, and also worth seeing.
Need one more thing to put on your bucket list? How about spelunking in Slovakia? The area of Slovakia has been settled since the Paleolithic era, and that makes for some pretty dramatic geology and spelunking is one of the best, and most fun, ways to check it out. You can spelunk your way through the over 2,400 subterranean caves like the Sobsinska Ice Cave in Slovak Paradise National Park, or the Demanovska Cave of Liberty in the low Tatras. Check out the Slovak Caves Administration website for more info.
If you have a little vampire blood in you, you’ll surely want to take a tour of the Slovakian Castles. The Bratislava Castle is more or less the symbol of the Slovak state and the Bojnice Castle is a gothic masterpiece that cemented centuries of Hungarian rule. In fact, the Orava Castle is so dramatic, it was used for the filming of Nosferatu in 1922! ( insert spooky laughter here.)
Just remember, the food is as heavy as the mood, so be careful to keep your pierogi consumption to a minimum!
What do you think? Is Eastern Europe the new more interesting, cheaper, and more fun cousin of Western Europe, or are you still not willing to deal with the potential impossibility of not being able to get your favorite smoothie every morning? Let us know if you’ve been, what you’ve seen, or what you think about going a little off the radar on your next vacation.