Exit the gherkin. It will be sadly missed

As eastern Europe takes its final step into the West, Mark Rowe takes a fond look back
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The Independent Travel

Sixteen years ago I stood in a youth club in Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia, watching a punk rock band called Helmut and the Hosepipes. Helmut, discovering I was an Englishman inside the Iron Curtain, invited me home to share a drink with friends. The Moravian wine and Czech beer flowed. Gherkins were munched. We sang along to Helmut's treasured tapes of the Velvet Underground. And when this punk rocker's mother came downstairs to tell us to go home, we meekly obeyed. Eastern Europe hasn't simply become loveable in the soft focus of memory: it was always loveable.

Sixteen years ago I stood in a youth club in Brno in what was then Czechoslovakia, watching a punk rock band called Helmut and the Hosepipes. Helmut, discovering I was an Englishman inside the Iron Curtain, invited me home to share a drink with friends. The Moravian wine and Czech beer flowed. Gherkins were munched. We sang along to Helmut's treasured tapes of the Velvet Underground. And when this punk rocker's mother came downstairs to tell us to go home, we meekly obeyed. Eastern Europe hasn't simply become loveable in the soft focus of memory: it was always loveable.

From the Baltic to the Black Sea, travel behind the Iron Curtain was uncompromisingly foreign, usually difficult and frequently comical. With this week's expansion of the EU, the acceptance of the region into the world community - begun in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall - will be complete. No more gherkins. In their place, battalions of Pringles will conquer where Napoleon faltered.

The talk today is of the great experiences that await Western tourists. I'm not so sure. When something becomes easy, its appeal is often diluted. Do the hordes of stag-night parties stumbling around the bars of Tallinn have any idea of the hoops you once had to jump through to travel there? Cheap flights were the stuff of madmen's dreams. You queued for hours, days even, outside the Soviet embassy for a visa. You travelled by ferry from Helsinki, or overnight bus. I still pinch myself when I fly into Prague. Fly! The favoured route, of course, is by night train from Vienna, taking in a tedious interrogation from conscript border guards.

When, finally, you arrived in these countries, it was to discover the entire tourism industry of Eastern Europe was haunted by the fear that you might actually have fun: to prevent this, hotels charged absurdly high rates in high currency; empty restaurants refused to serve you; wonderful churches and museums were pointlessly kept closed.

New visitors to Poland will never know the joy of finding one, just one, café in Gdansk that was pleased to have your custom. They will dance in Prague nightclubs but have never heard of the Plastic People of the Universe (a psychedelic post-Prague Spring rock band, since you ask). When the cappuccino culture sweeps across a nation, brushing aside plate upon plate of pickled cabbage, something, I think, is lost for ever.

Today, no one wants my chewing gum and everyone knows that Czech Budweiser is better than the American version. The secret is out. Yet some places, half-forgotten and seriously bizarre, await the deserved higher profile that tourism will bring. Travellers will make it as far as Medzilaborce in Slovakia, with its museum dedicated to Andy Warhol, fronted by giant Campbell's soup tins. And surely an adventurous soul will finally discover just what and where is sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. As of next week it's a member of the same club as you.

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