Eastern Europe: the final frontier. Too obscure for some travelers to even consider adding it to their bucket list, so rarely does it enter the spotlight that very few bother to find out what lies around the corner.
At the borderline between two strong currents, the assimilating west and conservative east, these realms do not enjoy a very good publicity. Why is that? Maybe it’s the long black cloud left by the Iron Curtain, still floating over these countries. Perhaps it’s just the negative press. It’s no paradise, I’ll give you that. Progress is slow and poverty is a shocking aspect outsiders will notice at first glance. But far beyond communism, vampires and gypsies lie the true colors of Eastern Europe. The misty Carpathians and blue Danube may be its symbols, but these lands have many surprises in store for those who dare venture further east.
The concentration of different cultures, perhaps higher than anywhere else on the planet, should be a good enough reason to give it a try. Eastern Europe could easily rival its western counterpart in terms of natural wonders and medieval castles and towns. Some cities have already become coveted tourist destinations. Take Prague and Budapest for example. Their price tags are starting to align to Western standards. But the further east you venture, the deeper you’ll swim in uncharted waters, the fewer the crowds and the more mysterious the places and cultures you’ll encounter.
But where do we draw the line when it come to Eastern Europe, you ask? Well, there are many different opinions on this one, but let’s just say that everything to the east of the old continent belongs to the east. So let’s name the countries that are undoubtedly eastern: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia.
Europe’s first street lights were inaugurated in Timişoara, Romania. Paris may be the city of lights, but on November 12, 1884, Timişoara stole the spotlight when it became the first European city with electrically illuminated streets.
Winters can get harsh. Eastern Europe’s climate can be quite a challenge if you are not used to having four separate seasons. Drastic weather changes can occur every three months or less. Summers can get really hot and winters quite cold. Call it a land of extremes if you like, from all points of view.
The Czech Republic is the world’s no. 1 beer drinking nation. Beer has been brewed in these parts since at least 993 AD. Now, it’s cheaper than water and they serve it in breakfast cafes too! If you’re a beer fan, make sure you take a brewery tour. You can even send the night in one. Some breweries in cities like Plzen and Stříbro have been turned into hotels. If you’d like to discover Czech Republic at your own pace, a GPS application might come in handy. Enter our giveaway for the chance to win an iOS GPS travel guide of Prague to keep you company, offered by GPSmyCity. Check the bottom of the article for more details.
People in Eastern Europe are heavy drinkers. And I’m not talking about beer, although Czech Republic does deserve a prize for that. According to a World Health Organization report, Eastern European countries occupy the top spots when it comes to alcohol consumption, with Belarus on the first place, followed by Moldova. When traveling to small towns, you should know it’s customary among locals to offer a little something to drink to tourists and guests, and it’s considered rude to refuse.
Romania has one of the fastest broadband connections in the world. So no need to worry about staying connected with family and friends, or getting some work done on your computer while traveling here.
Head shakes may not mean what you think. Say you’re traveling around Bulgaria. You ask some locals if you’re going in the right direction. They shake their heads, you feel discouraged and head back. Don’t be. By shaking their heads, Bulgarians show their approval. It’s a positive thing, just like we nod our heads. Such behavior can also be found in some parts of Macedonia and Albania.
Overhearing bagpipes, are you? No, it’s not your mind playing tricks on you, nor is it some Scottish piper showing off his talents. Not if you’re traveling through Bulgaria anyway. Bulgaria’s national instrument is the gaida, a type of bagpipe that might look a bit different but sounds just the same.
Poor infrastructure. Sure, there are a few downsides to Eastern Europe, and infrastructure is one of them. Expect to find bad roads every here and there. And if you’re expecting to drive on highways, you’re in for disappointment. Romania ranks last among these countries when it comes to highway infrastructure.
It’s still pretty cheap. The further east you go, the cheaper the prices and the fewer the crowds. On top of the list we have capitals like Kiev, Chisinau, Bucharest and Sofia as the cheapest cities in Eastern Europe, half the price of their Western counterparts. Often overlooked destinations, they are definitely worth a visit for a sense of their culture and history.
Death penalty is still carried out in Belarus. The only European country that still carries out capital punishment is Belarus. Murder, sabotage, treason are punished by death. Officially, executions are by “firing squad.” In reality, prisoners are shot in the back of the head after being forced to their knees, hours or even minutes after hearing their sentence.
One of the merriest cemeteries on the planet is found in Romania. Near the Ukrainian border, the Săpânţa Cemetery has colorful wooden crosses carved in oak and painted with scenes of the deceased’s life and a short poem about their role on this earth and reason they died.
Romania has the world’s largest civilian building on the planet. The Palace of Parliament is the second biggest building on earth after the Pentagon. It can be seen from outer space for God’s sake! It is the work of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, who originally named it Casa Poporului, the House of the People. It’s also the world’s heaviest building, and rumor has it it’s slowly sinking. So hurry up before it’s too late!
The Cucucteni-Trypillian culture is the oldest European civilization. Some 7,000 years ago, a mysterious culture emerged in the lands we know today as Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, believed to predate the ancient civilizations of Sumer and Egypt by hundreds of years. A mysterious Neolithic people, an egalitarian Eden, very little is known about the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture. Every 60 to 80 years, they would burn their sophisticated settlements to the ground to relocate, a practice that continues to puzzle historians and archaeologists. They inhabited far-eastern Europe until around 2700 BC, and almost nothing is known as to why they disappeared.
Prince Charles is a big fan of Transylvania. And for good reason. He fell in love with these enchanting places while on a visit back in 1998. Now, the Prince of Wales is the proud owner of two restored cottages in Transylvania, which he visits a couple of times each year and rents out the rest of the time.
The largest surface of virgin forests in Europe is found in Romania. Some 65% of Europe’s virgin beech forests are located in south-western Romania, with an estimated age of 450 years or more. Europe’s largest pristine forest, home to the largest surviving populations of wild predators in Europe, wolves, bears and lynxes, as well as chamois and rare flora, is unfortunately under serious threat. Romania is losing its virgin forests at an alarming rate due to illegal logging.
Europe’s largest and best preserved delta is found in Romania. The Danube Delta, formed at the mouth of the river right where it flows into the Black Sea, is home to a flourishing ecosystem and a great number of species of birds and fish living in these rich lakes and waterways.
The largest population of brown bears in Europe inhabits the Carpathian forests of Romania. Around 5,600 of them live a pretty laid back life here. For some reason, the population grew during the Communist era, perhaps because dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was the only one allowed to hunt them. Rest assured that you are in no danger. Feel free to roam these mountains and hike their ridges, there’s no ambush waiting for you. It simply means the ecosystem is still healthy. But if you do encounter one (or more) bears on your walks, please make sure you go in the opposite direction and don’t irritate them.
If you do wish to get close and personal with brown bears while in complete safety, you can visit the Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, Romania, one of the largest in Europe.
Estonia’s forests keep getting bigger. More than half of the country is covered in forests, and they continue to occupy more lands. This is most likely due to the declining population.
Some of Europe’s largest marshlands are found to the south of Belarus. The Pinsk Marshes, also known as the Pripet Marshes, cover an area of approximately 270,000 square kilometers (104,000 square miles) to the south of Belarus and north of Ukraine, and are among the continent’s largest wetlands.
Ukraine is huge. Few people know that Ukraine is about the size of France or Texas. It is actually the second largest country in Europe. Including Crimea, it is home to 45 million people.
Ukraine’s town of Pripyat has become a ghost town, On April 26, 1986, an explosion at one of the reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear plant caused the world’s worst nuclear disasters. Less than three kilometers (two miles) from the reactor, the 50,000 inhabitants of the soviet town of Pripyat were evacuated in 36 hours. They left most of their belonging behind, now frozen in time for the few visitors that set foot in this abandoned place to see. Pripyat is one of the world’s most photogenic ghost towns.
Moldova is home to Europe’s largest underground wine cellar. Cricova wine cellar near Moldova’s capital of Chisinau stands as the very symbol of the country’s wine culture. Visitors can drive their car around the 100 kilometer (60 miles) of tunnels dotted with thousands of barrels of wine.
Europe’s oldest prehistoric town was unearthed in Bulgaria. In 2005, excavations near the Bulgarian city of Provadia revealed the walls of Solnitsata, the oldest prehistoric town on the continent. The settlement dates from between 4700 and 4200 BC, some 1,500 before the kick-start of the Greek civilization, and it seems to have been an important salt production center.
Plovdiv might be Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Counting over 6,000 years of history, Bulgaria’s city of Plovdiv is a colorful tourist hotspot with grandiose Roman amphitheater, plenty of museums and old cobbled streets to stroll on.
Mljet Island is Croatia’s greenest island. Over 72% of its entire surface is covered with forests and the rest with green fields and meadows. Those who have been here will go as far as to say it is the world’s most beautiful island. Why not see for yourself?
Now that you’ve got a few things straightened out, what are you waiting for? And if you’ve already had a close encounter with Eastern Europe, why not let us know your thoughts on it?