Eastern Europe has become a popular, mysterious even, destination for the intrepid backpacker. While it’s undoubtedly impressive in its diversity, there are a number of universal lessons that every traveller will learn at some point during their time here.
As you embark upon a trip to this huge swathe of the continent, richly textured by history and nature, here are some life-enhancing lessons you might learn from backpacking Eastern Europe.
1. It’s bigger than you think
Don’t underestimate the size of the area you are about to tackle; while a four-week mega tour hitting the likes of Bratislava, Kyiv, Sofia and Tirana looks doable on paper, you’ll spend much of that time slumming it on buses and trains, or at the stations.
It’s quite simple really: take your time and choose your destinations carefully.
2. It gets hot
If you’re travelling in summer, anything below 35ºC (95ºF) is considered cold, particularly the further south you go. So get those flip-flops out, slip on the shades and slap on the sun cream. But be warned, when it rains here, it rains hard.
3. Drinking is a serious business
Eastern Europeans know how to drink, and so will you by the time you return home. Sure, Czech pilsner is excellent and Polish wódka is delicious, but the universal tipple of choice is slivovica, a throat-curdling fruit brandy, be it pálinka from Hungary, rakija from Serbia, or tuica from Romania.
4. Some places really are the pits
“Ali to je rupa!” (which roughly translates as “but it’s a hole!”). Whilst not as commonplace as they used to be, you may still chance upon the odd smelly hole in the ground in which you’re required to answer nature’s call. Keep some loo roll handy and get practicing those squats…
5. A little language goes a long way
You can try using English, but attempting a little of the local lingo will go a very long way indeed, particularly somewhere like Hungary, which is a different kettle of linguistic fish altogether…“hol van a WC?!”
6. Trains are not what they are back home
What, you mean they’re clean, efficient and on time? Er, no. Quite the opposite. Indeed, in some countries – Romania and Serbia immediately spring to mind – a purgatorial experience awaits. Still, it’s all part of the adventure, isn’t it?
7. Oafish officials are the norm
Interminable waits at border crossings and dealings with boorish customs officers in the dead of night are almost a thing of the past, but there may still be the odd occasion when you’ll be required to rummage through your luggage in search of non-existent paperwork.
8. You’ll need to gen up on your currencies
9. You’ve never partied properly until you’ve been to Belgrade
Fact. Whilst other cities (notably Budapest and Bucharest) might disagree, the undisputed party capital of Eastern Europe is Belgrade. From independent bars and hipster clubs to dedicated rakia bars and splavovi (riverboat clubs), a thumping good time is guaranteed. And please, do dress up.
10. The food is really rather good
For the record, Budapest currently rates four Michelin-starred restaurants, the most of any city hereabouts – not that most backpackers will be able to afford it.
11. You’ll be back
Aside from the fact that you’ll only have time to cover a fraction of this chunk of Europe, there are many compelling reasons to return.
A deeply complex history, wildly contrasting landscapes, and the wonderfully warm and welcoming nature of just about everyone you encounter means that you’ll be aching to get back. One visit simply isn’t enough.