At 5pm next Friday, all sporting eyes will be on the Ukrainian capital, Kiev - venue for the draw for the finals of Europe's biggest football tournament.
From 8 June to 1 July, Poland and Ukraine jointly host Euro 2012; the event will introduce two much-neglected nations to fans who like to combine football with travel. Football's moving east, which spells adventure. Two decades after they broke free from state communism, both host nations remain far less popular among British holidaymakers than they deserve to be. In the late 1980s, Richard Branson heralded holidays in the Ukrainian resort of Yalta. They never happened, and since then travel agents' shelves have not been overburdened with brochures featuring Ukraine. And Poland, easily the most accessible nation of the "New Europe", attracts few tourists to delve much deeper than the charms of Krakow.
Euro 2012 should change all that, with England and the Republic of Ireland safely in the draw. Whether your team is there or not, it's always good to be ahead of the crowds. Only one of the eight host cities, Gdansk in Poland, is a recognised tourist destination. Yet all of them – with the possible exception of the Ukrainian mining city of Donetsk – have much to offer besides world-class sporting venues.
Despite the ravages of war, they are steeped in heritage. They offer a warm welcome and convivial hospitality. And, more pragmatically, they are both refreshingly cheap destinations, with everything from beds to beer a fraction of the prices in the hosts for the previous tournament: Austria and Switzerland in 2008.
This your essential guide to their tourism potential of these six fascinating cities. Keep it by your side as the drama of the draw unfolds...
The tournament begins here at 6pm on 8 June next year when Poland take to the field at the National Stadium. At first glance, the centre of the Polish capital looks like a typical middle-European city, with ageless buildings crowding around a market square. In fact, almost everything you see is a post-war reconstruction. Warsaw was flattened in the closing stages of the Second World War. To recreate the city, the builders used everything from old photographs to sketches by a nephew of Canaletto.
For some unrestored history, head for the Lazienski Gardens, which form the real highlight of the city. The old royal hunting grounds have become pleasure gardens, studded with palaces and other indulgences that are a delight to explore.
Feels like home for: Russia, as some of the city's post-war architecture is straight from the Kremlin catalogue.
Away you go: British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and LOT Polish Airlines (0845 601 0949; lot.com) compete from Heathrow. Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) flies from Luton, Doncaster-Sheffield and Liverpool.
The fans of the teams that play in the Baltic city will be obvious by the later stages of the competition: they'll be the ones with the tans. Besides being a Hanseatic port with great maritime credentials – and the Lenin Shipyard, where anti-communist insurrection began – Gdansk is also the gateway to some fine beaches.
For your pre-tournament inspection, base yourself in the resort of Sopot, less than 20 minutes by frequent trains from Gdansk. You will be able to revel amid early 20th-century loveliness, for example at the Villa Baltica (00 58 55 52 800; villabaltica.com.
Spend the morning enjoying the eastern sun on the beach, then head into the city to explore its churches and museums, or chilling wartime history, followed by some of the finest cuisine in the old Warsaw Pact area. Or go to Hel, the fishing village at the end of the peninsula of that name.
Feels like home for: Germany, who knew the city fondly as Danzig (though a similar past tenure applies to both Poznan and Wroclaw).
Away you go: Wizz Air flies from Luton, Liverpool, Doncaster/Sheffield and Prestwick. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted, Leeds/Bradford, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Bristol.
This city, strategically located halfway between Berlin and Warsaw, has played midfield in too many conflicts to retain much of its original grace – but the old Town Hall is a fabulous confection. Today it has become the Museum of the History of Poznan, where the elaborate interiors are as much a draw as the contents. But as capital of the region known as "Greater Poland", Poznan also serves as a hub for a couple of fascinating day trips.
The first is the trip on Europe's last remaining steam-hauled main line, wheezing its way 45 miles south to the town of Wolsztyn – where you can roam around the locomotive workshops and turntables.
The other is the town of Zagan, close to the German border, and location for Stalag Luft III – the prisoner-of-war camp featured in The Great Escape.
Feels like home for: Greece. Not because of climate or cuisine – but because the railway from Poznan is redolent of the surviving train services in Greece.
Away you go: Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Stansted are the four UK airports connected to Poznan by Ryanair; Wizz Air offers Luton and Doncaster-Sheffield.
A walk across the city formerly known as Vratislav (in Czech) and Breslau (in German) is to take a hike through the history of central Europe. Wroclaw has, over the years, been part of Bohemia, Austria, Prussia and Germany – which has left the deepest impression on the city. The main square is a contender in the "most attractive in Poland" stakes, while on the far side of the Oder river you can visit the restored cathedral.
Stay at the 16th-century Dwor Polski (00 48 71 372 3415; dworpolski.wroclaw.pl), a gabled city-centre gem where a double room at weekends costs only 260 zloty (£60), including breakfast. A similar hotel across the German border would cost three times as much.
Wroclaw is also temptingly close to the mountains that rise to the south and west – and offers an unusual day out in the shape of Zittau, the town located where Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic all meet.
Feels like home for: Czech Republic, because the city centre is a carbon-copy of many Bohemian towns.
Away you go: again, it's a carve up between Ryanair (from Bristol, East Midlands, Liverpool, Prestwick and Stansted) and Wizz Air (Doncaster-Sheffield and Luton).
Moscow and St Petersburg, the other great cities of the former USSR, cannot compare with Kiev in terms of its dramatically beautiful location high above the Dneipr River. The original settlement, based around the Caves monastery in the south of the city, provides a great starting point for a walk through the centuries – past churches and graves, palaces and Parliament to the modern centre of the Ukranian capital. Kiev deserves time for you fully to appreciate the way that the brutal might of Soviet-era architecture coexists with 19th-century grace and medieval monasteries. To the west stands a good contender for the greatest railway station in the world – at least in terms of the number of great places you can reach direct, from Berlin to Odessa to St Petersburg.
One tour that may appeal to football fans is the day trip from Kiev out to the location for the Chernobyl nuclear reactor: "Visitors get to see a reactor, the 'dead town' of Pripyat, and the 'red forest' where pine trees turned reddish orange because of radiation," says the organiser, SoloEast (00 380 44 279 3505l; tourkiev.com).
Feels like home for: France, perhaps surprisingly. Like Paris, Kiev is a three-dimensional city on an impressive scale, with a great Metro and dominance of the nation it governs.
Away you go: BA flies from Heathrow to Kiev's Borispol airport, but Wizz Air flies from Luton to the far more convenient Zhulyany airport.
The former Polish city of Lwow is one of the leading contenders for the tiresome category of "New Prague", due to the Unesco-listed confection of gothic and renaissance architecture.
Lviv was location for one of the poignant population shifts at the end of the Second World War; this Polish city found itself cut adrift in Ukraine, and many of its people were shipped of to near-deserted Wroclaw.
Its cosmopolitan nature is best seen in the many churches, with Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian congregations, as well as a functioning synagogue.
Feels like home for: Poland, spiritually if not territorially.
Away you go: All three of the provincial Ukrainian host cities are bereft of direct links from the UK. The best gateway for Lviv is Rzeszow in south-east Poland, served by Ryanair from Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands and Stansted. The cross-border journey takes a couple of hours.
"Ukraine's Oxbridge" may be pushing it a bit, but the nation's second city is a huge student town. The main attractions are Soviet relics: life revolves around the vast Ploshcha Svobody, designed in the 1920s as a parade ground as well as civic hub; the Hotel Kharkiv is the place to find Soviet chic. The other great municipal treasure is the three-line Metro network, as ornately aspirational in station design as Moscow's.
Feels like home for: Ireland, with two Irish pubs in the city.
Away you go: the best hubs for connecting flights from the UK are Vienna (Austrian Airlines) and Istanbul (Turkish Airlines).
By the time you reach the coal-mining city of Donetsk, you're almost at the eastern end of Ukraine – and probably close to the last page of your guidebook. In the case of Lonely Planet, that reads "There's almost nothing to lure the casual visitor". But anywhere twinned with Michael Palin's home town of Sheffield must have a saving grace. In Donetsk's case, that will be classical music, either at the palatial Opera and Ballet Theatre, or 900ft below ground level in the nearby Soledar Salt Mine, where the Donbas Symphony Orchestra occasionally plays.
Feels like home for: England. Besides being united with Sheffield, the city has strong British connections; it was founded as recently as 1869 by a Welshman John Hughes, and since Wales cruelly missed qualification the next best fit are England.
Away you go: Austrian Airlines has the best connections via its Vienna hub, but Istanbul (Turkish Airlines), Munich (Lufthansa) and Prague (Czech Airlines) are the other possibilities.Reuse content