Travel: A new dawning in the East: As the West wakes up to the joys of Eastern Europe, Simon Calder seeks out little-known delights
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 19 February 1994
Five years ago, the adventure 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 land a speaking part in the Cold War drama.
Now, the faceless bureaucrats have been replaced by entrepreneurs, black marketeers have turned into stalwarts of the business community, and, thanks to the miracles of modern marketing, for under pounds 100 you can catch a bus from London to Prague or Warsaw.
Forty years of pent-up tourism demand have been unleashed, and the world is beating a path to countries that were off-limits to all but the most dedicated of travellers. (Prague, receiving one 1 million visitors a week, is the most vivid example.)
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 for 40 years in a state of in suspended animation. The region's art and architecture signal the existence of an epic past, and newly liberated peoples anticipate a flourishing future.
A journey through the lesser-known corners of Eastern Europe leads to places that neither Communism nor tourism have managed to destroy. As the region struggles to catch up with the 20th century, there has never been a more enthralling time to visit.
You need a sense of humour to travel in the nation which was the last resting place of Stalinism. The hotels are prematurely aged post-war relics, equipped with extravagant staircases and ludicrously inefficient plumbing. (If you are billeted at the nation's tallest building, the Hotel Tirana, you should insist on a room on one of the lower floors.)
Albania is easily Europe's poorest nation, yet the people are the most generous. The manic isolationism of Enver Hoxha - the dictator who for 40 years tried to run the country independently of Planet Earth - did not impair the hospitality of the locals. I have enjoyed embarrassing amounts of free food, tobacco, rail travel, and even a free haircut.
Zog is not a planet, but the former king of Albania. His faintly ludicrous Art Deco summer palace presides over Durres, a port steeped in history. Under the Romans, it marked the start of the Via Egnatia, which stretched hundreds of miles across the Balkans to Constantinople. The 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre is sinking beneath weeds; cattle graze where gladiators once battled.
Durres's splendid beach is no longer off-limits to Albanians (the Communist government wanted to stop them being corrupted by foreign tourists), but is still uncrowded and uncommercialised. Beware of an evening stroll, however: after dark, learner drivers converge on the sands to take part in a hilarious choreography of inept motoring.
Getting there: Regent Holidays (0272 211711) began running trips to Albania 24 years ago, and now sells flights as well as organised tours. A cheaper way, however, is to go the Greek island of Corfu on a charter flight, and take the ferry across the straits to the Albanian port of Sarande.
The domino effect, which saw regimes toppled across Eastern Europe in 1989, hardly wobbled the Communists in Bulgaria. While workers elsewhere were casting off their chains, the Bulgarians merely replaced the dictator, Todor Zhivkov, with his foreign minister. Even when the country's future was put to the test of democracy, it took the electorate two attempts to rid itself of the old guard.
The debris of Communism still litters Sofia, the capital. Behind the National Theatre, for example, lies a counter- revolutionary heap of humiliated statues. The Communist Party headquarters has been converted into a cinema. But Zhivkov still lives in the opulent suburb of Boyana, on the slopes of Mount Vitosha.
This formidable ramp of rock dominates the city, and is dotted with surprises. Well- marked forest trails reveal some startling views - you can see the gleam of the golden dome of the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, amid the architectural outrages perpetrated by the party. Mount Vitosha is also threaded with some good ski runs, the closest slopes to any European city. Amid the stylish villas of Boyana lies an 11th-century church, with a painting of the Last Supper depicting the traditional Bulgarian diet of bread, garlic and radishes. The cuisine in any of Boyana's chic new cafes is considerably more appetising, but capitalism has still failed to solve the enigma of why good Bulgarian wine is easier to find in my local Tesco than in its country of origin.
Getting there: not all of the idiosyncrasies have been eliminated from air travel to Eastern Europe. A round-trip ticket from London to Sofia costs more than pounds 300, but by buying a ticket via Sofia to Larnaca through Tradewings (071-631 1840), I was able to save pounds 50 and get a free side trip to Cyprus. Balkan Holidays (071-493 8612) sells charter tickets and package holidays.
CZECH REPUBLIC: Brno
The first thing to know about Brno is how to pronounce it. An enthusiastic 'brrr-NO' should be sufficient to help you buy a ticket from Prague to the capital of Moravia - not (yet?) an independent nation, but half of the Czech republic.
What Brno lacks in vowels, it makes up for in architectural intrigue. Take the House of the Four Ninnies, for example, built in 1901 by a wealthy Jewish industrialist. The ninnies are four huge, muscular stone figures who support the building, their expressions twisted in agony. Another 20th-century indulgence is the Villa Tugendhat, the masterpiece of Mies van der Rohe - the last master of Bauhaus. Cernopolni would be an unprepossessing suburban street were it not for this minimalist white cube of a house at number 45.
By comparison, the Capuchin monastery is ordinary, but the contents of its crypt are bizarre: the remains of monks and noblemen from the 17th century on public display, the corpses preserved by the constant stream of air. Some of the faces convey a terrifyingly vivid sense of mortal horror.
Getting there: Kingscourt Express (081-673 7500) runs three buses each week from London to Prague, costing pounds 85 return. For flights and inclusive holidays, try Cedok (071-378 6009).
The collapse of Communism began five years ago with a single snip in the Iron Curtain, close to the town of Sopron. The Hungarian authorities relaxed the rigid enforcement of the border with Austria. Suddenly, East Germans in their hundreds started taking their holidays in Hungary. They simply walked across the frontier to political asylum - and left behind a roaring trade in abandoned Trabants. The rest is recent history.
In their haste, the defectors did not stay long enough to appreciate a lovely part of Hungary. The elegant town of Sopron basks in comfortable obscurity. Its inner ring is a vision of medieval townscape, with elegant Renaissance loggias and imposing Baroque palaces. Wandering with no fixed itinerary, you stumble upon all manner of gems, such as the ancient synagogue rediscovered only 20 years ago. More prosaically, you may find the first branch of Marks & Spencer to be opened in Eastern Europe.
Getting there: fly to Vienna - pounds 149 return from Gatwick on British Airways, through Major Travel (071-485 7017) - and travel by train across the Hungarian border to Sopron. Danube Travel (071- 493 0263) specialises in organised tours to Hungary.
The bad news is that you cannot fly direct between the UK and Poland, due to an inter- governmental squabble over landing rights. The good news is that you can reach Poland for pounds 90 return by bus, and most of the country is pleasingly free of tourist crowds.
Most visitors converge on Krakow, the medieval masterpiece where Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler's List. But to avoid the crowds and glimpse the roots of opposition to state Communism, head north to the Baltic port of Gdansk.
The city was established in Roman times as a trading centre for 'Baltic gold' (amber) and has been squabbled over for centuries. Much of it was destroyed during the Second World War, a conflict that began on the outskirts of Gdansk on 1 September 1939.
In 1970, more than 30 shipyard workers were massacred by troops as they protested against price rises. A monument to them was erected 10 years later at the gates of the Lenin shipyard, where Lech Walesa founded Solidarity, the first free trade union in Eastern Europe.
The story of Solidarity, and its role in bringing down Communism, is traced at the church of St Bridget. The exhibition concludes before the election last year which brought former Communists to power.
Getting there: Eurolines (071-730 0202) runs cheap bus services from London to Warsaw; direct services to Gdansk begin in April. Fregata Travel (071-734 5101) offers air travel via various European cities, and organises tours.
Eastern Europe is pocked with evidence of the sweeps of power and population. At the heart of the old republic of Transylvania, torn between the Habsburgs and the Turks, the Saxon city of Brasov is home to substantial Hungarian and German minorities.
The multicultural flavour has been tainted by Nicolae Ceausescu's vicious policy of 'socialist territorial reorganisation' - effectively ethnic cleansing - but the clutter of Gothic spires, Orthodox churches and Lutheran chapels survives.
Fifteen miles to the south- west lies a castle that looks as if it has been rejected by Disney designers on the grounds of excessive caricature. Castle Bran, perched on an outcrop above the Carpathian plateau, was reputedly home to Vlad the Impaler - the Dracula of legend. Few Romanians have heard of Bram Stoker's book; it was banned by Ceausescu. Squeamish visitors should know that Castle Bran is not completely devoid of bats.
If you prefer to prepare for the next Winter Olympics, a bracing hike through blissful mountain scenery takes you to the resort of Poiana Brasov, where the dramatic slopes make up for dismal apres ski and crass architecture.
Getting there: one of the oddest new air routes to Eastern Europe links Stansted with the Romanian city of Timisoara; from here you can travel by train to Brasov. Two specialists to Romania are Friendly Travel (081-566 9040) and East Coast Travel (081-348 2000).
Europe's newest capital city feels more like a provincial town than a seat of government, but is all the more charming because of its modest size and aspirations. Parts of Bratislava, have been bulldozed into obscurity by sadistic town planners, but much remains to bear witness to a chequered history.
Bratislava is plumb in the middle of Europe: you can walk to Austria in an hour or to Hungary in 90 minutes. It is an ethnic crossroads, a confusion of Slovaks, Hungarians, Slovenes and Serbs, a rich muddle of European and Ottoman influences.
There has been a culinary collision, too, bestowing Bratislava with plenty of new restaurants. Under Communism, menus were imaginative fictions, advertising dishes which had not been on sale since the last-but-one five-year plan. Now you can wander into any of the cellars lining the lanes in the old town and enjoy hearty servings of meat, vegetables and an astonishing variety of halusky (dumplings). Politically, Bratislava may be an infant capital, but on the gastronomic map it has long been the dumpling capital of Europe.
Getting there: take a cheap flight to Vienna ( pounds 149 on BA from Gatwick through Major Travel, 071-485 7017); a bus service runs from the airport across the Slovakian frontier to Bratislava.
THE BALTIC REPUBLICS
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were dragged into the Soviet Union under a cynical deal hatched between Stalin and Hitler in 1940; popular uprisings wrested them from the clutches of the Kremlin ahead of the final collapse of the USSR, and today the republics are blossoming.
Scenically, their attractions are limited: a flat, marshy landscape which only occasionally threatens to break into modestly rolling hills, dotted with pine forests and yawningly many lakes. But the three capital cities counter the monotony with a flourish.
Vilnius feels much more like a provincial town than a capital city, even for so concise a nation as Lithuania. Gently crumbling mansions preside over a straggle of cobbled lanes, and most of the state socialist defiling has taken place away from its medieval heart.
Almost inevitably, there is a pretender to the title 'the Paris of the Baltics', and the offender is Riga. Latvia's capital sprawls with a certain elegance along some grand boulevards, and possesses some handsome 19th-century homes, but sans chic; 'the Dusseldorf of the Baltics' would be a more appropriate title. Still, spacious squares are linked by narrow alleys, in which Romanesque and Gothic rub balconies with Renaissance and Baroque.
Finest of the trinity, however, is Tallinn, one of the Hanseatic ports. Its trade these days is mostly in tourists, imported from Helsinki by the boatload. Remember Reagan and Gorbachev? Their 1987 summit in Reykjavik took place aboard the Georg Ots, which now ferries in Finns seeking cheap beer.
Despite the ravages of state Communism and weekend visits by marauding Finns, Tallinn retains great charm, with some superb architecture. It is a city with a sense of continuity: an apothecary's shop in the main square has been trading for 500 years, and was once visited by Peter the Great. Climb Toompea Hill, along lanes named 'long leg' and 'short leg', to enjoy a splendid panorama. Drunken Finns rarely get this high.
Getting there: Regent Holidays (0272 211711) sells tickets and tours to all three republics. A return to Riga, direct - would you believe? - from London City Airport, costs pounds 290. Further information: Baltic States and Kaliningrad - Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 9.95) available mid-March.
Simon Calder is co-author, with Emily Hatchwell, of the Travellers' Survival Kit: Eastern Europe ( pounds 9.95), published on Monday by Vacation Work.
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