Eastern winters of content

Bratislava and Sofia are still thawing from the Cold War. By Simon Calder

Checkpoint Charlie at dawn was a rather more exciting gateway to Eastern Europe than Victoria Coach Station is today. Seven years ago you had to spend weeks filling forms, acquiring visas and plotting how to satisfy (or transgress) arcane currency regulations. It was a venture into the unknown. The process of visiting Eastern Europe was like playing an extra in a monochrome spy movie; and sometimes, if you strayed across the ill-defined line between international comradeship and potential espionage, you could be given an unwelcome speaking part in the Cold War drama. I spent an uncomfortable 24 hours in the company of Ceausescu's Securitate in Bucharest after a spot of careless photography.

Now, the faceless bureaucrats have been replaced by flashy entrepreneurs, and black marketeers have turned into stalwarts of the business community. Thanks to the miracles of modern marketing, you can catch a bus from Victoria Coach Station to Prague, Warsaw or even the Ukraine for under pounds 100 return.

The thrill of treading in truly alien territory has evaporated, but in its place is the joy of being able to explore freely a part of Europe kept in suspended animation for 40 years.

Seven winters ago, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe collapsed. Bratislava and Sofia were two of the capital cities set free by the winter of discontent.

Bratislava

On New Year's morning 1993, Bratislava woke up and discovered it was, once more, a capital city. Unable to remain intact without the heavy hand of state communism, Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia - the hilly heart of Europe. Its largest city is parked in a corner of the country, from where you can walk to Austria in an hour, to Hungary, 90 minutes.

Celts settled here two millennia ago, Romans and Slavs followed. Bratislava became capital of Hungary when the Turks captured Budapest in 1536, and Hungarian monarchs were crowned here for more than 300 years. The coronation church is a Gothic masterpiece, the cathedral of St Martin, which trembles a little each time a lorry grumbles past on the trans-European superhighway that abuts it. The cathedral is best early on a bright Sunday morning, when the sun streams through the stained glass, softening the raw, austere interior - and the traffic outside is lightest.

Blearily shaking off the 45-year sleep under communism, the Slovak capital is blinking into metropolitan life. The new nation is still trying to purge the detritus of Soviet domination such as the Slovak National Uprising Bridge, perched like a wanton alien astride the Danube. It is a piece of decidedly uncivil engineering, an equilateral triangle on an absurd scale. But three-quarters of the Old Town has survived, comprising a startling muddle of Gothic, Baroque and Ottoman buildings.

Organising your mission: fly to Vienna, for around pounds 160 return through discount agents, then take the connecting bus direct from Vienna airport across the border to Bratislava.

Sofia

Most of us have a pretty good idea of what eastern European capitals are like. They are all ringed with standard-issue graceless and faceless apartments, while their centres are architectural battlegrounds where office blocks - the bureaucrats within insulated by grubby net curtains - have smothered any semblance of style and history.

And Sofia must be worst of all, I thought. Bulgaria was the last of the Soviet satellites to embrace democracy, and its former leader Todor Zhivkov even toyed with the idea of turning his state into the 16th republic of the USSR. But Sofia is the great, uncelebrated eastern capital. It specialises in boulevards, seemingly dozens of them, each broader than the last and graced with slender plane trees.

Most of the city's landmarks are strewn casually around the Vitosha Boulevard axis. The mix of the humdrum and the historic has a certain charm, as if you have stumbled into a movie studio lot where the sets for a Fassbinderesque tale of urban angst have been jumbled up with a middle European fairy story.

The National Museum is a good place to get a political fix on the city. Specifically, wander around the back of this Italianate palace to the patch of wasteground where the statues of those who have fallen from favour are stacked, undignified and unkempt. The building which does the most damage to Sofia's skyline is the one where the statues were commissioned: the former Communist Party Headquarters, a spectacularly Stalinist structure which casts a long and still-threatening winter shadow over the city. It has since become a cinema. The Long Kiss Goodnight is showing soon.

Invading the Balkans: Sofia is served from London by Balkan Bulgarian (0171-637 7637) and British Airways (0345 222111).

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