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Essential Europe

Prague Old Town Square. Image: GettyPrague Old Town Square. Image: Getty

From their authenticity to attractive value, Eastern Europe’s charms are growing in popularity among Americans, says Ben Lerwill

For some, Eastern Europe is a region of supreme natural beauty ripe for outdoor exploration. For others it’s a place where history and culture take center stage, with chocolate-box architecture combined with the more recent heritage of the post-war years. And for others still, it’s somewhere primed for river cruising, roots tourism or simply getting off the beaten track.

Even what constitutes Eastern Europe divides opinion. Countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland (nations also marketed as Central Europe) are the mainstays of the region, although it can be stretched to include everywhere from Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria to the three Baltic states, and even Russia.

While the region’s borders are a little hazy, its charms are anything but. “Eastern Europe is authentic and not overly touristy,” Ilene Koenig at Let’s Travel! explains. “Coupled with this is the chance to discover beautiful, unique areas, and the strong value for the dollar — there’s very good pricing.”

The area typically appeals to tourists who have already experienced Western Europe and are keen to see more of the continent. There’s huge variety in terms of scenery, cityscapes, cuisine and cultural traditions. As a result, a trip usually incorporates several countries with package tours tending to hinge around handsome cities such as Budapest in Hungary, Prague in the Czech Republic, or Krakow in Poland.

The whole region was behind the Iron Curtain for much of the 20th century, so it’s a very different, but no less rewarding, travel experience to the likes of France and Italy. There are plenty of luxury hotels, but there’s also a unique historical and cultural feel to the region.

“Many of my customers seem to be interested in their roots,” says Richard Schwartz at Dream Travel. “Another big draw is the architecture of the Middle Ages, what’s left of WWII sites and how the communist regime affected these countries.”

To whet your appetite, we’ve put together a list of 10 essential Eastern European experiences…

CRUISING DOWN THE DANUBE, HUNGARY

The mighty Danube River is the second longest in Europe and flows through 10 different countries. It passes right through Hungary, where different cruise options caters to those travelers who want to experience the country’s scenery from the water. The Danube dramatically bisects the much-admired capital city, Budapest, where it’s possible to take short dinner cruises. This is an enjoyable prospect in itself — particularly given the hill-softened beauty of the city by night — but serious river-lovers can sail much further. North of Budapest, the Danube Bend is considered one of the most scenic stretches of the entire waterway and can be reached on a day trip. Or why not push the boat out and join a cruise across the continent?

ON THE TRAIL OF COUNT DRACULA IN TRANSYLVANIA, ROMANIA

The landscapes of Romania are among the most picturesque in Eastern Europe. This is especially true in the central region of Transylvania, where centuries-old towns nestle in green valleys and peaks loom over the countryside. There’s also a darker side to the district. It’s said that Bram Stoker found the inspiration for his Dracula novel from Bran Castle, a hilltop fortress associated with the 15th century prince Vlad III. There are other Dracula-related sites too, such as the 14th century town of Sighisoara and the tiny village of Arefu, where tales of the supernatural are still recited.

FOLLOWING THE TRAIL OF THE COSSACKS, UKRAINE

Ukraine is one of Europe’s largest countries but also one of the least visited, a fact that belies the nation’s superb array of natural and cultural treasures. The history and romance of bygone eras are still alive here, with golden-domed cities such as Kiev complemented by sweeping Cossack landscapes. In 2012, Ukraine showed its modern face when it co-hosted the Euro 2012 Soccer Championships but it’s the country’s tradition-rich past that lures most visitors, with the surrounding wine region of Odessa and the beaches of the Crimea Peninsula providing further reasons to come calling.

VISITING AUSCHWITZ AND BIRKENAU, POLAND

Europe is enjoyable, of course, but it’s also educational. There’s arguably no greater example of this than Poland’s infamous WWII concentration camps. The scene of horrific crimes by Nazi Germany, they act as a moving reminder of one of the continent’s darkest periods. Auschwitz and Birkenau are in southern Poland, near Krakow (by contrast, a warm medieval city) and can be easily combined in a day trip. The camps have been preserved as a means of ensuring their stories live on. There are far cheerier visitor experiences in Poland, but very few as powerful.

WALKING IN THE HIGH TATRAS, SLOVAKIA

Slovakia has much to recommend it, from the old-town cafes of Bratislava to the cliff-top castles of the countryside. For outdoor types, however, a clear highlight is the High Tatras mountain range, a rugged ribbon of alpine peaks along the country’s northern border. They can be enjoyed according to the season, with ski runs drawing visitors over the winter months and a network of hiking trails attracting tourists in the summer. The clear air also makes it a popular spot for spa tourism, while blue lakes, quality hotels and pretty valley settlements cement the appeal. The mountains, towering over almost the entire Eastern European region, can be visited easily by rail or air from Bratislava.

DISCOVERING A 2,300-YEAR-OLD TOMB IN SVESHTARI, BULGARIA

Bulgaria is often overlooked as a travel destination, which when you consider its far-reaching natural charms and deeply-held traditions, makes a visit to the country all the more rousing. A location at the junction of Europe and Asia means it has a multi-cultural past, nowhere better illustrated than in the village of Sveshtari, where a superbly preserved tomb from the third century BC was excavated in the 1980s. The tomb, now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is an unforgettable sight. Thought to be the work of the Thracians, an ancient people who had close links with the Greeks, its central chamber is decorated with 10 female figures. Like much in Bulgaria, it’s very special.

ADMIRING ART NOUVEAU IN PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

There are plenty of good reasons to visit Prague, among them the music, the beer and the general sense of wandering into a medieval fairytale. It’s a riverside city with impossibly good looks and lots of character — nowhere in Eastern Europe has become more accustomed to tourism. Its famously ornate buildings range across different architectural styles but art nouveau, a decorative approach hugely popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is one of the most notable. Not only is it a prevalent style on many of Prague’s central streets, with their floral ironwork and murals, but the city was also the home of celebrated art nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha — there’s even a museum devoted to his work.

TAKING TIME OUT IN RIGA, LATVIA

The local tourist board slogan is ‘Latvia — Best Enjoyed Slowly’. This is another country that remains off the radar of most American travelers but it still has the capacity to beguile. The middle of the three small Baltic nations, it has six UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Capital city Riga is the best place to begin, with its cobbled lanes, art nouveau facades and extensive parkland. There’s a thick sense of history, although the hotels, bars and restaurants add a lively element of funky modernity. And when you’re done with city living, head out into the countryside for national parks, long beaches and historical villages — Latvia is a classic example of an uncrowded European gem.

ENJOYING THE OLD AND NEW IN TALLINN, ESTONIA

The three former Soviet states on the Baltic Sea       — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — all have very real selling points. Estonia is the smallest of the trio (it’s less than half the size of Indiana), but packs in a considerable amount for visitors, from winsome coastal towns and rolling forests to grand castles and unspoiled rural villages. The jewel in the Estonian crown is capital city Tallinn. It strikes a neat balance between medieval homeliness and cosmopolitan comfort, with 14th-century churches and old-world squares to admire, as well as a focus on fashion, luxury and art. It’s an enchanting mix — even more so if you like the idea of nightlife that beats on until dawn.

VISITING RED SQUARE AT NIGHT, MOSCOW

There’s nowhere quite like Russia. Very few places can conjure up the same blend of thrills and intrigue, and in Moscow it has one of the most enigmatic capital cities on the planet. Second city St Petersburg might boast wide canals and stately avenues, but Moscow is where the sense of Russia’s turbulent and evocative past is felt most keenly. The broad expanse of Red Square is a natural focal point. The space is fringed by Lenin’s Mausoleum and the spectacular onion-domed St Basil’s Cathedral, as well as the red-walled bulk of the Kremlin itself, stretching along its western side. By night the whole area takes on a magical glow, with the cobbles of the legendary square bathed in soft light.

SELLING TIPS

Key players: Interest in the region among US travelers is strongest in the Czech Republic and Hungary, and has been for several years.

Multi destinations: US citizens will often visit three or four Central and Eastern European countries during a vacation.

Added value: Although some destinations are becoming more expensive, the region offers more value for money than Western Europe.

Cruise control: River cruising holds a significant appeal for visitors, particularly during the March to October period.

Time travel: History is a genuine selling point of the region, from its medieval legacy to the recent influence of the communist years.

PUBLISHED IN THE WINTER 2012/2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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