Countries on the borderline, torn between the ever-changing west and tradition-bound east, crushed under the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe has evolved in a very different direction from the rest of the continent. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to find there’s much more to this distant corner of the world than communism and vampires. Beyond its ashen capitals and far from the crowds lies the true magic of Eastern Europe. Bathed by the gently-flowing blue Danube and overshadowed by the mighty Carpathians, picturesque treasures await those who dare venture into the unknown.
The sheer natural beauty, lush countryside and sense of complete and utter freedom will show you the real meaning of being a traveler. While tourists scout the product, travelers are only there for the experience. And I assure you Eastern Europe’s best kept secrets are such stuff fairy tales are made of.
Eastern Europe’s Natural Paradises
The Czech Republic and Hungary are already getting their fair share of tourists, and for good reason. But they are on the way to becoming the new Paris and London, with matching prices and flocks of tourists. For a taste of authenticity, head beyond the touristy attractions brochures often recommend and venture further east, to the very edge of Europe, and have your breath taken away at the wonders you’ll behold.
Eastern Europe’s unique charm lies in nature’s artistic talent. Let’s start from the south-west. When I say Croatian natural beauty, I mean Plitivce Lakes, the country’s pride and joy. The postcard-perfect turquoise lakes, waterfalls, vaulted caves and abundant wildlife blend into a secret paradise yearning to be explored. A tad bit to the east, Bosnia’s Kravice Waterfall is equally captivating, dropping into a natural plunge pool just perfect for testing your diving and swimming skills. Still not convinced? Pushing further to the edge, we have Romania’s Bigar Waterfall, deemed one of the world’s strangest and most beautiful cascades.
While in Romania, the Danube Delta takes at least one whole week to explore its intricate canals. Europe’s largest and best preserved delta, boasting the biggest compact surface of reed in the world, it is home to over 320 species of birds and 45 species of fish, all thriving in its rich marshes and lakes. Impressive, right? Wait till you see what’s next.
Moving north, the scenery does change a little, as fairy tale forests and steppes take hold of the land. At the border between Poland and Belarus, Bialowieza Forest is home to around 900 European bisons. Its centerpiece is Belovezhskaya Pushcha, Europe’a last surviving old-growth forest and one of the last places where European bison still roams free.
The Hungarian cure for a hangover is a nice session at the spa. Not just any spa, thermal baths like Széchenyi Baths and Gellért Baths in Budapest. Hot springs are the blood and veins of Eastern Europe, gushing out from the depths of the earth, their therapeutic and soothing powers have been known since ancient times. Budapest might be dubbed The City of Spas, but there are other hot bath destinations worth exploring in the neighboring country of Romania, like the imperial resort of Baile Herculane and the coveted baths at Baile Felix.
These realms are as glorious on the outside as they are on the inside. I’m talking about caves, deep ones, maze-like ones and frozen ones. If it’s dragons you’re after, you might want to start with Slovenia’s Postojna Cave, a world-famous attraction. Legend has it baby dragons still live down here somewhere in the 12.5 miles of tunnels. See if you can find one yourself! Dobsinska Ice Cave in Slovakia is one of Europe’s largest and one of the world’s most impressive of its kind. And if we had a time machine, we could travel back to 1946 when public skating was allowed inside the cave.
Are you getting used to the coolness and darkness of the underworld? If so, follow me and sink into Romania’s Scarisoara Ice Cave, the second biggest underground glacier in south-eastern Europe. Let’s not leave just yet. In the heart of magical Transylvania lies one of our planet’s oldest salt mines, recently turned into the world’s deepest underground theme park – Turda Salt Mine. Oh, and let’s not forget Romania is sitting on Europe’s largest gold deposit. That should make you feel rich!
Heading north, the Republic of Moldova is the final frontier for most tourists. Too obscure to be considered a destination, it is as forgotten as it is surprising. More than 200 feet below the surface of the earth lies Cricova, the world’s largest underground wine cellar. Visitors can drive their car along the 60 miles of oak barrels filled with some of Eastern Europe’s best wines.
Eastern Europe is not a famous beach destination. But I’ve got to hand it to its coastline, which does exceed all expectations. Opening to not one, but two seas – the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea, each unique in its own way, it offers a wide array of water sports, vibrant nightlife and a nice touch of history. Croatia has some top-notch cliff diving and deep water soloing spots worth hitting in summer, while Albania, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Ukraine are proud of their countless fortifications perched above the sea, water splashing straight into their centuries-old walls.
Perhaps this would be a good time to mention Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, with its medieval city enclosed by massive fortification walls. And Ukraine’s Yalta, the capital of Crimean resorts, with its emblematic Swallow’s Nest Castle perched 130 feet above the Black Sea.
No, they are not covered in mist all the time. But it’s in those misty evenings that legends come to life and dragons and giants get out of their den. The Carpathians are the proud residence of Europe’s largest populations of brown bears, wolves, chamois and lynxes. Most of them are concentrated in Romania, which also boasts the largest surface of virgin forests on the continent, without taking Russia into account.
Then there are the glacial lakes mirroring the very soul of these mountains, places where man hardly ever sets foot. To add to the mystique, secluded hamlets lie scattered on the hilltops and on the valley floors. Herds of sheep roam free, grazing on the green grass up where the mountains meet the skies. Life unwinds at a slower pace in these time-forgotten settlements, whose inhabitants recognize hardly any laws but those of nature and God.
Old World Charm
Eastern Europe’s fairytale castles, awe-inspiring fortifications and medieval towns have played their part in history. They are the inspiration behind chilling vampire and ghost stories and have given birth to countless legends. Perched atop steep cliffs or nestled at the foothills of the Carpathians, Poland’s Torun Castle, Slovenia’s Predjama Castle, Slovakia’s Draskovic Castle, Romania’s Bran and Peles castles are just a few examples.
The emblem of Bosnia’s medieval city of Mostar, the 16th century Stari Most Bridge, has long been the place where young men tested their spirit by plunging 65 feet into the turquoise river below. Destroyed in 1993 during the Croat-Bosniak War, a faithful replica was rebuilt that has now become an acclaimed venue for annual diving competitions.
Further north, the painted monasteries of Bucovina are set in a picturesque mountainous region. Their unique mural paintings have been preserved in their original form for over five centuries, some of the colors used still impossible to reproduce. Exceptional masterpieces of Byzantine art, eight of them have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. While here, make sure you explore the traditional region of Maramures by steam train on the narrow gauge railway crossing the Vaser Valley, the only one of its kind to have survived in Europe.
So what is it that the brochures don’t tell you? Believe me when I say I could write pages on the subject and still wouldn’t be getting close to expressing what Eastern Europe really feels like. So think of this as a teaser, urging you to take a bold step into an obscure realm that just might rock your world. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, so I’ll leave the rest for you to discover.