40 years of communism, followed by horrific civil wars has meant much of Eastern Europe has been virtually closed to the last two generations of tourists and travellers.
Today, Eastern Europe is shedding its bleak past and emerging as the new shining star of European tourism. While some former Eastern Bloc countries, such as Bulgaria and Albania are still emerging a little bleary eyed, others have thrown open the Iron Curtain to reveal a bright and modern outlook, especially in tourism, hospitality and the arts.
While a new generation of Eastern Europeans forge a fresh future, unburdened by the memories of oppression and war, you can still immerse yourself in the rich and fascinating history of countries that have been for so long, a mystery.
We spent a week cruising the Danube River, exploring the towns and cities along Europes second largest river. These are the towns and cities that once formed part of the infamous Eastern Bloc.
Once dubbed the Paris of the East, decades of communism managed to strip most of the beauty suggested by this former title. Urban decay is still very visible throughout the city. However, capitalism is now thriving in Bucharest and the city is on its way back, shaking off a cold, dark past and gaining a reputation as one of the new, coolest cities in Eastern Europe. Bucharest reminded us a lot of Riga Latvia. Wide, leafy streets lined with lush green parks, plenty of dedicated bike and pedestrian lanes, and glimpses of delightful neoclassical architecture. While the characterless communist era architecture may still dominate the landscape, there are plenty of fabulous aspects of Bucharest to explore.
The Old City, a small section of Bucharest that through nothing more than sheer timing, escaped being flattened under the former dictators grand vision. This once abandoned section of the city, home to thieves and criminals, is now a thriving social centre. Beautiful old buildings are slowly being reclaimed and restored. Bars, galleries, restaurants and theatres line the maze of streets in the pedestrian only zone. This colourful, dynamic, cultural area of Bucharest speaks volumes about the future of the city.
If you want to witness megalomania at its finest, head to The Palace of Parliament. The second largest administrative building in the world and the most expensive. This colossal building is still a sore point for Romanians who lived through the Ceaușescu period.
The Dimitrie Gusti National Village, one of the oldest and biggest open air museums in Europe, is a lovely insight into traditional Romanian village life. Original farm houses, churches and other buildings have been transported from various regions and carefully reconstructed in the centre of Bucharest.
Bucharest can be forgiven for being a little shabby in parts because what it lacks in pizazz, it delivers in spades in charm and an energetic new outlook. This is a city to watch.
A little further out of town is the Belogradchik Fortress. A stunning landscape of rocks sculptured through millennia of erosion hides a fortress with a history as far back as Roman times through to the Bulgarian tsars and Ottomans. The spectacular rock formations are only overshadowed by the view from the top. The scene is reminiscent of the whimsical landscape of Cappadocia in Turkey.
Iron Gates Gorge – Serbia & Romania
The Iron Gates Gorge forms part of the boundary between Romania to the north and Serbia to the south and separates the southern Carpathian Mountains from the foothills of the Balkan Mountains. The Iron Gates National Park lies to the Romanian side and the Derdap National Park to the Serbian.
Sailing this stretch of the Danube is nothing short of breathtaking. Cruise past the pretty Mraconia Monastery on the rivers edge in the Romanian town of Orsova. Watch as the 130 foot high cliff carving of Decebalus, the last king of Dacia is revealed as you round the bend. Sailing through the Iron Gates is an experience you won’t soon forget .
Its position at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers has always made Belgrade an important city of Eastern Europe. After years of communism and some very recent unrest, Belgrade is again shaping up to be one of the new go to cities in Eastern Europe. Much like Bucharest, Belgrade’s urban landscape is tarred with the communist brush but still manages to paint a pretty picture. With loads of beautiful open spaces throughout the city, pedestrian only promenades lined with busy cafes and shops, and beautiful art nouveau architecture, making it easy to forgive the grey Eastern Bloc atmosphere in some quarters. Like nowhere else in Eastern Europe, you feel an atmosphere of pride and excitement about projects, restorations and a new flourishing social scene that is reinventing the city.
Walk through the grounds in and around the Belgrade Fortress and the Kalemegdan Park. On a nice day, you will find most of Belgrade taking advantage of the beautiful gardens and public sports facilities on offer here.
Take a bike tour to see the best of the city including the Ada Bridge. The 964-meter-long, cable-stayed bridge is famous for its single 200-meter-high pylon design, one of the tallest in the world.
Head into town and stroll the pedestrian malls. Soak up the atmosphere of alfresco restaurants lining the promenade or window shop in the many popular and sometimes high end stores. Wander down the side streets to discover Belgrade’s so called Bohemian district.
In this little historic quarter of the city, you will find a wonderful atmosphere of cafe’s, restaurants, street art and more. This is the place to head for a lazy lunch or relaxed dinner.
Osijek is where the Danube meets the Drava river. It is due to this strategic location that Osijek, a large and once prosperous town suffered significantly during the Croatian War of Independence in the early 90’s. While restoration efforts are still taking place, the very pretty town still bears the scars of the conflict which saw more than 1700 people from the mostly agricultural town killed. Bullet holes and shrapnel markings on building facades are still common place. Wander the narrow streets of Old Town to find the Church of St Michael and the Tvrda Fortress.
One of the oldest towns in Hungary, Kalocsa is famed for the cultivation of “red gold”, Hungary’s national culinary treasure – Paprika. While the history of paprika cultivation and the quaint nature of the town itself is probably worth a visit, the real drawcard to this region is the spectacle at the Badok Puszta Horse Farm on the outskirts of town.
Csikós or Hungarian Cowboys are the mounted horse herdsmen of the Puszta region of western Hungary. Famous the world over for their skill and fearlessness with horses. Horses are bred and carefully selected, along with talented horsemen to train in the traditional methods of herding and hunting.
Since a bow was traditionally used, a horseman was required to let go of the reins with both hands, this required extraordinary equestrian skills to shoot on the move. The relationship between man and horse is a sight to behold, especially one man riding up to 10 galloping horses. Apparently, many of these talented horses also have a second job as stunt horses. Recently helping John Snow guard the wall in Game of Thrones. Many people will make the 100km journey from Budapest to witness this incredible display.
It’s easy to fall in love with Budapest. Many do. After all, it is beautiful. The Pearl of the Danube or the Heart of Europe, whatever you want to call it, Budapest has become one of Europe’s top weekend getaway destinations for a reason. While we often talk of former Eastern Bloc countries being tainted with the communist brush, Budapest is one city that appears to have survived unscathed with its full, beautiful, and rich history in tact.
An exciting mixture of sophisticated elegance to rival Paris or Vienna and a cool counter-culture is attracting people from all over Europe. A reputation for some of the best classical music in Europe as well as hipper than hip coffee houses and the cool retro styled “ruin pubs” that pop up, and disappear equally as fast in abandoned buildings, creates a unique atmosphere that is undeniably Budapest.
Split into two sides, Buda and Pest, the city has so much to explore. It is as easy for those with only a few days to get the most from this city as it is for the long term visitor. Take the waters in any one of Budapest’s beautifully restored thermal bath houses. An experience the city has been famous for since the time of the Romans. Walk the banks of the Danube and take in the architecture, this is a city to rival Paris for its romantic cityscape.
Enjoy some of the best cuisine Eastern Europe has to offer or wander through the Jewish quarter and visit some of the simple, yet very moving monuments such as the shoes on the banks of the Danube or head to the hills for a spectacular view of the city from above.
Whatever your pace, Budapest is a city that will never disappoint and will more than likely have you wanting to return.
We travelled from Bucharest to Budapest as guests of Viking Cruises “Passage to Eastern Europe” cruise.
The 11 day cruise includes 5 countries and 7 guided tours.
See here for information on our cruise through Russia with Viking Cruises.
Contact Viking Cruises for more information or to access their great Early Bird deals.
We would again like to thank Viking Cruises for hosting us.