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Published: January 3rd 2019
Since returning to Australia, people have asked how I found travelling in Eastern Europe. I always tell them I loved the place, and that I would return at the drop of a hat. An old engineer was bemused by my affection for Romania. He informed me with significant aplomb that he had compiled a list of ten countries where he had no desire or inkling to travel, and Romania was one of them. I looked at him in disbelief and refused to enquire as to the other nine countries, despite sensing his desperate need to share them. I changed the subject and quietly slipped away from his tedious chatter.
We didn’t spend a lot of time in Hungary, as most of our travels were through Romania and Bulgaria, but I can comfortably say I loved all three countries. The straight line architecture, the simplicity in design, the pragmatic way of life – it became incredibly appealing as we made our way from Budapest to Sofia. While it is difficult to encapsulate a journey that yielded so many rich and valuable experiences, I’ve compiled a few highlights of our Eastern European adventures. Budapest
What an incredible city. You
know you’ve fallen for a place when you feel slightly envious of the locals. This is a city we could easily live out our daily lives. The cobblestone streets, the geometric buildings, the congested Danube with its alluring bridges, the National Gallery, the Szechenyi Baths, the Basilica of Saint Stephen (our daily landmark), the cosmopolitan bustle and the friendly ambiance. The locals didn’t smile much, but they were incredibly welcoming. And while it may seem trivial in the broader scheme of things, the view from our hotel balcony was sublime. At the end of every day we would sit and marvel at the rooftops of Budapest as we drank in the city's heady atmosphere. Bucharest
As we walked the streets of this gritty and crumbling city, a travel companion quietly considered the option of renting an apartment in Bucharest and disappearing from the world for a couple of weeks. We were surrounded by art nouveau architecture, and as my gaze was drawn to a decaying building jutting into the sky above us, I couldn’t help but agree with him. My desire to disappear in Bucharest has grown exponentially since returning to Australia.
To say that I loved Bucharest
would be an understatement. It didn’t have Budapest’s finesse, beauty, charm or cleanliness, but there was something incredibly captivating about this fragile city that I just can’t explain. All I can say is that I felt very, very alive when I was there.
We were caught in a monumental deluge on our first afternoon, and it was an incredible experience running through unknown streets as rain inundated the city. On our second day we embarked on an Urban Adventures tour titled Bohemian Bucharest: Markets & Mahallas, and it was one of the most extraordinary city tours we’ve ever experienced. For some strange and unbeknown reason, I didn’t feel like a visitor in Bucharest. Sofia
I’m not sure why, but Sofia did not have the immediate appeal of Bucharest and Budapest. However, I eventually warmed to the place, despite its ugly, staunch and stolid communist-built surrounds. And I loved the design juxtaposition of 4th century structures co-existing with 20th century architecture in the city centre. Transylvania
Thanks to some opportunistic marketing by local tourism operators, Bram Stoker’s Dracula crackles to life in Transylvania, and the hype is impossible to avoid. We enjoyed our stopover in Bistrita, the small
town where Jonathan Harker spends a night before continuing his doomed journey to Count Dracula’s castle, and we loved our time in Sighisoara, the picturesque village where Vlad Tepes was born (the historical character upon which Count Dracula is apparently based). We even enjoyed Bran Castle (one of a number of places that fits the description of Dracula’s castle), albeit from the outside. The less said about tourist behaviour inside Bran Castle the better.
However, there is far more to Transylvania than vampires and wooden stakes. A short distance from Sighisoara lies Viscri, a small Saxon village that we only just managed to access by minibus on a badly damaged road. This tiny rural hamlet was once a cog in the wheel of communist agriculture, and we loved its remote nature and quiet ambiance.
We met a very open and honest Saxon woman who spent 38 years of her life under communist rule in Viscri, and she opened my eyes to the realities of operational communism. Not surprisingly, she debunked the “equal liability of all to work” theory proposed by Marx and Engels. Regardless of how productive a person was, they received the same rations as everyone else,
and this led to varying degrees of effort and application among Viscri’s agricultural workers. There were some who simply pretended to work. Human nature will always undermine social theory!
Another Transylvanian highlight was Brasov. We wandered its cobblestone streets and marvelled at its pastel coloured buildings. In the late afternoon we settled in the main city square and sipped cold sparkling rose as we watched the world go by. In the evening we dined on Transylvanian stew and polenta. We only stayed a short while in this incredible medieval city, and it wasn’t long enough. The Politics
I travelled to Eastern Europe as a romantic Marxist and returned a democratic socialist. In the back of my mind I always knew Marxism was underpinned by unfettered nationalism, which is a concept I’ve been recoiling from for a long time now. And communism – well, it just doesn’t work. Not that it isn’t a good social ideology, because it is. It’s just that we as humans can’t operate within it. We’re driven by an innate urge to survive which, when challenged, will contravene the equality of everyone around us. As Orwell so aptly observed: “All animals are equal, but some
animals are more equal than others.”
We met some incredibly honest, open and reflective people on our travels, and their insights have shifted my gaze to democratic socialism, which is poles apart from the authoritarian socialism that swept Eastern Europe after World War II.
I had a friend at University who was a member of the Socialist Alliance, which he brazenly promoted with a Che Guevara poster on his bedroom wall. He’s now Chief of Staff for a senior conservative politician. How we all change. We still catch up every so often, but politics is rarely on the agenda. Old friendships have a tendency to transcend the values we build over time. 😊 The Apartment Blocks
I became enthralled with the Soviet-era architecture that dominated the skyline of most large cities in Romania and Bulgaria. Wherever you looked, row upon row of endless high rise apartment blocks jutted into the sky with boundless functionality. While these monolithic structures were completely devoid of style and design, I was entranced by their straight lines and sober practicality. However, by the time we reached Sofia, the pervasive structures began to block the horizon and darken my spirit. The Border
I love a good border crossing, and we experienced two on our journey from Budapest to Sofia. The first involved a long wait in an air-conditioned minibus at a border crossing station as we left Hungary and entered Romania. The second involved a long wait in a hot train on both sides of the Danube as we left Romania and entered Bulgaria. The second crossing was by far the most interesting, because it involved a train, an iron bridge, a murky river and friendly border police.
We also came within a few hundred metres of the Ukrainian border as we explored the Maramures region in northern Romania. We didn’t cross into Ukraine, but it was fascinating to see the rooftops of houses in small villages over an invisible but very real border. The Trains
I love train travel, and I loved our train journeys throughout Eastern Europe. I was mesmerised by the passing landscapes – rolling flat agricultural plains, endless fields of sunflowers, small villages built around central stone churches, industrial plants spewing smoke from tall thin chimneys and mountain ranges on the horizon that forever drew my gaze. I also loved the train stations, from the
grand old buildings in large cities to the battered old sheds in the middle of nowhere. The Remoteness
We visited sprawling cities, large towns and small villages on our journey from Budapest to Sofia, and we also ventured off-track into some fairly remote areas, especially in Bulgaria. The train station in Dabovo was in the middle of nowhere (literally), as was the train station on the outskirts of Veliko Tarnovo, and I loved the feeling of isolation as we stood with our packs at each station and absorbed the silence around us. I also loved being shrouded in mist as we climbed the Pirin Mountains, but the place that took the cake for remoteness was Bansko, a bustling ski resort that mutates into a lifeless ghost town in the off season. We were surrounded by empty buildings, empty supermarkets, empty playgrounds and empty streets – an experience I found both unsettling and exhilarating. I don’t think I’d enjoy Bansko in the snow season, as the bustle of life and laughter would somehow seem out of place. I think the buildings, like me, would long for the off-season silence. The Street Art
I was fascinated with the street art
throughout Eastern Europe. It was predominantly absurdist with a steely dark edge, and it was at its brilliant best in Bulgaria. Iron fists, gaunt faces, smug caricatures and watermelon smiles abounded, and lifeless eyes stared out at us from the walls of every city and every town. I was continually drawn to photograph street art at the expense of architecture. The Food and Wine
We have a simple motto in life: 'We work to travel, and we travel to eat'. Music and happiness also come into the equation, but foreign lands and local cuisines are pretty high on our priority list. And the food and wine in Eastern Europe were sensational. I didn’t go with the highest of expectations, because Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria rarely appear in gastronomic articles or food travel shows. However, what they may lack in stylistic plating and ostentatious titling, they certainly make up for in taste. The following is a breakdown (by country) of my favourite dishes. Hungarian food and wine
• The pork schnitzel in Budapest
• The liver and mashed potato in Budapest
• The Bulls Blood red blend wine in Egar
• The paprikash potatoes with sausage in Debrecen. Romanian food
• The veal and mashed potato in Vadu Izei
• The haricot bean stew with smoked sausage in Sighisoara
• The lamb casserole in Viscri
• The kurtoskalacs
(chimney cake) at Bran Castle
• The Transylvanian stew in Brasov
• The mici
(skinless sausage) in Bucharest. Bulgarian food
• The shepherds salad in Veliko Tarnovo
• The meatballs Mimi Ivanova in Plovdiv
• The breaded cheese in Bansko
• The grilled trout with fried potatoes in the Pirin Mountains
• The fresh bread and vegetable stew in Gorno Draglishte
• The banitsa
Last and by no means least, there was a spirit that transcended all cultural borders – fruit brandy. Depending on the country or region in which we were travelling, this formidable and abundant aperitif went by a variety of names, including palinka
. It appeared on every table (as commonplace as salt and pepper), and it packed an almighty punch. We started most meals with a glass or two, and we also enjoyed it as a digestif, sitting around the table at the end of a long travel day with a small glass before retiring to our rooms. The Beer
I don’t know why, but I kept a beer log on this journey – something I’ve not done before. It may have been the daily selection anxiety I faced (there was a lot of beer), or the variety of tastes, or the sheer enjoyment of a cold beer on a hot travel day. Regardless of the reason, the following is a breakdown (by country) of my favourite beers. Hungarian beer
Arany Aszok, Borsodi, Dreher, Soproni and Szent Andras Meggyes Sor (Cherry Beer). Romanian beer
Cuic (pronounced 'chook'), Timisoreana, Ursus and Zaganu (craft beer). Bulgarian beer
Astika, Pirinsko, Shumensko, Wymehcko and Zagorka.
My standout favourite was Cuic, because there’s nothing quite like ordering a chook when you’re thirsty in a big city. SHE SAID...
When we boarded our flight to Eastern Europe at the start of this trip, I had that familiar feeling of fluttery butterflies in my stomach… a mix of anticipation and excitement that I feel whenever we walk along ugly airport carpets onto a plane. New and unknown destinations were waiting for us at the end of that plane trip! 😊
Over the course of our trip we
discovered the three beautiful countries of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. And we thoroughly enjoyed every one! Our blogs have described in detail our experiences in each place we visited. However, here is a broader summary of my thoughts and feelings that covers the good, the bad, the awkward and the amazing. The Region
• We knew very little about the specific histories of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria before we considered this trip. In order to understand their contemporary cultures, we had to grapple with and decipher the long and complicated histories of their political, religious and cultural pasts. A past that spanned not just decades or centuries, but millenniums.
• These Eastern Balkan countries have been constantly reshaped by several invading empires and migratory influences for thousands of years. The strategic geographical positions of these countries – in between east and west – strongly influenced who conquered them, who passed through for trade, and who migrated there.
• It’s perplexing that Romania and Bulgaria are still so underrated by tourists. However, given the more popular tourist destinations are groaning under the weight of unsustainable tourist surges, I should probably be careful what I wish for. I can only hope
that countries like these (that are newly emerging onto the tourist radar) will learn from the mistakes of their Western European counterparts, and plan ahead accordingly.
• Even though we feel we know the three countries a little better since our trip, we are also very aware that we only scratched the surface and there are vast expanses of these countries still to explore. Return trips are definitely warranted. The Trip
• Although our journey was a relatively short 25 days, I felt it was all-embracing of the cultures we visited. It allowed us to… navigate layer upon layer of history and religion; admire the diverse scale of architectural styles in cities; envelope ourselves in the old-world charm of unique small villages; visit castles and fortresses with gruesome tales; soak our travel weary bodies in historic mineral rich thermal baths; wander through vast and sweeping landscapes; partake in local brandy and wine tastings; absorb the contemporary culture in eclectic cafes and bars; and gorge ourselves silly on delicious traditional Eastern European food. 😊
• Using Hungary as a gateway into Romania and Bulgaria was a nice introduction to the region. It allowed us to start in the comfort of
Budapest and make our way to lesser known and harder to get to places. The first part of our trip was from Budapest to Bucharest; and the second part was from Bucharest to Sofia.
• Tourism hasn’t hit its strides in parts of Romania and Bulgaria, so travel was slightly more complex as a result. But despite this, or maybe because of this, it was a very rewarding travel experience.
• While we only visited two (and a half) cities in Hungary, we explored a wider cross-section of cities, towns and villages in different regions of Romania and Bulgaria. It gave us a feel for various geographies, regional cultures and socioeconomic groups.
• The homestays in the villages were insightful and offered us some of the best food on the trip. And in the larger towns and cities, unsurprisingly, we enjoyed our stays in the quaint Old Towns the most.
• Our main modes of long distance transport were minibuses, and intercity and intercountry trains. And locally we also caught metros, trams, trolley buses, normal buses and taxis.
• Our first Intrepid Travel group was made up of many good and hilarious humans. I hate to compare, but the first
group had been so much fun that the second group was probably always going to suffer by comparison. The second group didn’t immediately bond the way the first group did, and early on there was a small rough patch on the road caused by a controlling personality type. Thankfully it was resolved without much bloodletting, and we settled into the trip.
• We have many litmus tests of how well a group is getting along, one of which is as follows: Is there anyone in the group that people don’t wish to sit next to at dinner? Judging by that criteria, there were two people on the first trip we didn’t particularly connect with, and even then, only one of them REALLY annoyed us. To keep it fair, we devised an informal ‘taking one for the team’ roster and all shared the load of sitting next to them at meals. At the start of the second trip there were a few people we didn’t wish to sit next to either, but thankfully, they kept to themselves – so win-win! 😊
• On these small group trips we spend a lot of time sitting on transport and at restaurants with fellow
travellers… so we get to know each other rather quickly. As in the rest of life, we’ve learnt to ignore or avoid the one or two we don’t connect with. But with the others…we share hand sanitiser, snacks, travel excitement, journey discomforts and hilarious travel anecdotes. Those humans certainly enrich the trip, and sometimes end up being good friends.
• Another litmus test of how well a group connected is judged by whether the goodbyes at the end are genuine and heartfelt. And there certainly were genuine and heartfelt goodbyes on this one. The Landscape
• Every road and train trip offered different geographical vistas that held our interest. The vast flat plains of Hungary gave way first to hills and then mountains that ringed most of our travels in Romania. This continued with a tag team of mountain ranges throughout our travels in Bulgaria.
• The Danube River followed us from Budapest to the border of Romania and Bulgaria, and almost every city and town had a local river running through it or gracing its periphery.
• A seemingly unending carpet of agricultural land was laid out on our trip. Small and largescale farms covered every centimetre of
available flat land. The primary crops were cereal grains, corn, potatoes and sunflowers. When we started our travels in early June, the sunflower fields in Hungary held new plants with small buds, and by the time we journeyed to Bulgaria in late June, the fields offered big happy yellow sunflowers that brightened our views.
• In between the many farms, the landscape was studded with small towns and tiny hamlets, each with a tall steeple church. But sporadically, that picturesque panorama would be interrupted by heavy industrial factories spewing smoke through their chimney stacks. The Politics and Religions
• In the large span of its history, the ugly human need to dominate and control other humans is writ large in this region. It has been a continuous battleground where Christians, Muslims, nationalists, Nazis, Jews, Communists and capitalists have fought multiple times. Much of this dramatic past can still be felt in many tangible ways, both good and bad.
• The recent global swing towards the right of politics is echoed here… with vocal ultra-nationalistic / anti-immigration surges being pitched as protecting their cultural identities. Bullet holes are still visible in buildings from previous times they’ve allowed hatred and division
to flourish, so I was perplexed that there wasn’t more repugnance for anything similar starting to bubble again. The stain of ethnic cleansing and genocide still marks this region, and it made me wonder whether they could slide down that rabbit hole again. 😞
• With changing eras, the dominant religion and how it was practiced has also changed and transformed over time. A record of these shifts can be seen in the buildings that at various times over the centuries have had to change their identities from Catholic churches, to Orthodox churches, to Muslim mosques, to secular administrative buildings, and now back to Orthodox churches or museums. The People
• As with many places that have been war zones for long periods, the people left standing in these countries are stoic. Years of WWII followed almost immediately by decades of communist rule has no doubt marked the people. At first I felt that they were somewhat resistant to tourism and weary of strangers. However, the longer I spent in the region, I started wondering if maybe that stoic outer layer was more resilience than resistance…?
• It was unnerving to realise that some of the traumatic events were
only in the recent past, and some wounds were still fresh. We heard personal stories from people who lived through food rationing; people whose families were targeted by ‘the regime’; and people who had been at the protests when bullets were fired at them.
• Even though it seemed that the populace wanted communist rule and dictatorships to end, the older generation seem to look back on some socialist aspects of those regimes fondly – specifically, guaranteed housing and jobs.
• In some ways, it seemed that right now the people were trying to straddle the past and the future all at once. By this I mean that the older generation feel tied to the past while a new generation wants to forge a fresh identity for their countries. This is probably a symptom of sudden and rapid change (rather than change that occurs organically over time in countries with long periods of peace).
• Changing to suit a new paradigm isn’t a new concept for this region – they’ve had to do it many times in their histories. From an outsider’s view, it was exciting to hear people talk of being on the verge of a renaissance. I’m very
much looking forward to seeing how they reinvent themselves in this current version of their countries’ metamorphoses. The Streets
• While empires have come and gone, the old buildings still standing are first-hand witnesses to what happened over the centuries. If only they could talk. And I suppose they do – in their unique architectural language, they are the most visible representation of those past memoirs.
• In some cities, the dichotomy of the traditional past and the modern present blended successfully and beautifully… but in others, it desperately needs a lot more town planning work (Sofia, I’m looking at you).
• When it worked, the diversity of architectural styles in city centres and old towns were a joy to behold. I’ve never seen such a heterogeneous array of buildings in close proximity before… ancient city walls, old Roman and Ottoman Empire relics, 18th and 19th century grandeur, experimental modernist statements, crumbling communist-era buildings, contemporary glass and steel constructions… sometimes all within a block of each other!
• Conversely, the outskirts of most cities were homogenous dense blocks of functionalist communist-era apartment blocks that haven’t been up-kept for decades. For this and other reasons, the outer suburbs of most
cities were even grittier than normal. Sometimes it felt like a study in greys… Soviet cement grey, graffiti grey, grime grey and abandoned building grey. So much grey.
• The unique region-specific architecture we encountered was fascinating… the striking wood-heavy houses in Maramures in Romania, with their ornate high gates and weaved wooden fences; the evocative traditional Saxon houses in Viscri in Romania, with their bright limewashed walls and gingerbread-like tiled roofs; the enchanting gothic castles and fortresses straight out of a fairy-tale in Transylvania; and the whimsical upside-down looking Bulgarian Revivial-era houses in Veliko Tarnovo and Plovidiv.
• The main charm of all the places we visited on this trip lay in the fact that their streets were all very walkable. It enabled us to wander the streets at will, experience the buildings, enjoy the cafes and restaurants, absorb the street culture around us, and very much be part of the place. Every time we turned a corner and saw remarkable architecture gracing the skyline or colourful fragments of street art, I fell a little more in love! 😊 The Food and Drink
• The food brought elements from the various custodians of these lands to the table.
Literally. The dishes gave us insights into the amalgamated history of not only each country, but the broader Eastern European region too.
• Even though each country has put unique spins on this fusion food, their original culinary traditions and influences were still noticeable.
• There was a lot of hearty comfort food at the start of our trip – with meaty stews and soups, potatoes, sour cream and cheese in most meals. However, as we travelled towards the Mediterranean, the flavours got lighter and fresher – there were more salads, the meat was grilled and yoghurt replaced sour cream. But there were still stews, potatoes, fried food and cheese aplenty!
• Many of my favourite meals of the trip were served at our village homestays – delicious but dense local dishes that were designed for hardworking farmers. Everything we ate was grown or raised in that village, and I don’t think I’ve had a more sincere or more flavourful paddock-to-plate experience before.
• I discovered a new tea flavour that I loved – black tea with thyme! Sadly we didn’t encounter it again after Transylvania, and I really regretted not stocking up on some supplies before we left the
• The other regional drink that we indulged in (many, many times) was fruit brandy. Variously called palinka
, it was most commonly made from fermented plums, and it was almost always distilled at home. The basic white spirit didn’t have an odour or particular taste, but definitely made itself know when it hit your throat and stomach! Andrew liked the plain version, but I preferred the flavoured varieties (we tried sour cherry, quince and honey) which were sweeter and easier to drink. It was offered to us as a welcome drink, an aperitif or a digestif – and it would have been rude to refuse such generous hospitality! 😊
• The combination of delicious but heavy Eastern European food and their substantial portion sizes, unsurprisingly, contributed to a decent weight gain on my part. My biggest pro tip for people travelling to Eastern Europe would be: pack elastic-waist stretchy pants!
We genuinely hadn’t anticipated loving this part of the world as much as we did, and we’re already very much looking forward to going back! I have many brilliant memories from this trip, but my most favourite ones involve sitting around a table,
eating big delicious meals and drinking homemade fruit brandy… what’s not to love about travel days like that?
Well, it’s been grand.
Viszlat, La Revedere and Dovizhdane people, and may all your travel experiences be extraordinary! 😊 Flying ships on this trip... Virgin Airlines (Hobart – Sydney)
; Qatar Airways (Sydney – Doha – Budapest)
; Qatar Airways (Sofia – Doha – Melbourne)
; Virgin Airlines (Melbourne – Hobart)
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