Mention Eastern Europe, and it still conjures up thoughts of Soviet-era grimness for many people. But with its range of sensational countries and significantly cheaper cost of living, the glorious backpacking reality could hardly be further from this preconception.
A million miles away from anything remotely Soviet, Greece is, in many ways, the original travel destination. Aside from the fabulous city of Athens (home to the resplendent Acropolis), a host of ancient archeological sites like the remains of Mycenae and the mountain-top monasteries of Meteora are dotted amongst dramatic landscapes the length and breadth of the mainland.
Out in the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, meanwhile, the Greek Islands of Crete, Corfu, Ios, Santorini and Kos are littered with lively resorts, stunning beaches and yet more unmissable ruins.
It’s as you move north that the Eastern block clichés begin to resonate just that little bit more. But with its two vibrant cities, Warsaw and Krakow, Poland has quickly won the heart of the backpacking community. And over in the neighboring Czech Republic, few would argue that Prague and the delightful Cesky Krumlov make anything less than compelling travel destinations.
A little to the south, Hungary is similarly packed with history, especially in its striking capital, Budapest – the latest of the Eastern European capitals to really grab people’s attention. Slovakia and Slovenia – with their respective major cities, Bratislava and Ljubljana, to the fore – are now also firmly on the backpacking map.
Elsewhere on the continent, the capitals of Estonia (Tallinn), Latvia (Riga) and Lithuania (Vilnius) have all witnessed surging numbers of visitors in recent years. Bulgaria, too, is one of the fastest-growing destinations in the region at the moment, while Croatia charms travelers with the peerlessly beautiful city of Dubrovnik, as well as some of the most idyllic islands imaginable, scattered off its unspoilt coastline.
The nearby Baltic states of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia may well be known to many for the years of conflict that wracked them, but those days have passed and peace – along with heaps of culture and a thrilling nightlife scene – now reigns.
Its attractive capital Bucharest notwithstanding, Romania seems to have remained synonymous with the legend of Dracula and the man on whom the vampire myth is based, thanks to its dramatically eerie landscapes. The so-called ‘Vlad the Impaler’, who was responsible for leaving a bloody trail across the region centuries ago, lived in Snagov and remains buried there to this day.
Then, of course, there’s Russia… the cause of all those tiresome communism preconceptions in the first place. And if few travelers make it beyond Moscow and St Petersburg, that’s only because the two cities have so much culture to offer and the country as a whole is so inconceivably large…