The Jewels of Eastern Europe: Getting Behind the Iron Curtain

Today I'm introducing Caitlyn of Olympic Wanderings she's a twenty-something Australian living in the Netherlands. Seven years ago she crammed her life into a backpack affectionately called 'the Beast' and hit the road, anxious to see all the world's Olympic sites. Needless to say, she got a bit distracted along the way. Today she's a tour guide in Europe, and blogs about what she loves; travel, sport and food. 

I had been a tour guide for two years before I decided to venture over to the other side of the Iron Curtain and begin guiding tours of Eastern Europe. Only a couple of weeks into my new gig, I had no idea why it had taken me so long.

On my first trip to Europe as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 21-year old, I hardly thought about Eastern Europe. Instead, I’d planned an itinerary around the European big-hitters; London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona and the like. But some of these more conventional stops had put a massive strain on my finances, so I laid out a map of the continent and saw that I could stay in the region longer if I perhaps ventured East.

Like many, I was nervous. I pictured Eastern Europe to be decades behind its Western European counterparts, with people who didn’t speak English, ate strange stodgy food and were stern and unfriendly. I even pictured Eastern Europe to be perpetually cold; I’d seen enough Cold War-era movies which depicted the East to be grey and bleak.

Fast-forward a few years, and all of a sudden I was guiding groups of mainly non-Europeans (plus Euro rarities like Sammi) through Eastern Europe, from Poland and the Czech Republic in the north to Bulgaria and Turkey in the south. On the first day, I would be prepared for the nervousness. Tours of Eastern Europe can be a great idea because they can cut through that nervousness; all of a sudden you’re with a group of people who have also caught wind of the charms of Eastern Europe yet want a little assistance in discovering the region without the little speed bumps.

That’s where I would come in. In Hungary, for example, I would arm them with the knowledge of a few words in the very tricky Magyar language (say ‘have a shag a day’ very quickly and it sounds a lot like ‘cheers’), guide them through the steps of visiting a thermal bath and show them how to budget in a country where dinner for four can cost you tens of thousands of forints.

In Bosnia, giving people an historical background of the region was key. In Turkey, I would give reminders of dressing more modestly and a rough guide on how to bargain at the Grand Bazaar. In Albania, informing everyone that nodding meant no and shaking your head meant yes spared us from some confusing conversations. And in Poland, I would give the group a vodka lesson in the best way possible; by taste-testing various local brands.

A lot of people say that the best part of my job had to be visiting all of those wonderful places every day. Yes and no. That was brilliant of course, but what I always loved was seeing people at the end of the week long tour, gushing with praise for the region and vowing to come back. These would be the same people that at the beginning of the week looked pretty nervous to be venturing into the unknown.

Because Eastern Europe still is virtually unknown. Many people don’t realise how much history, culture and FUN can be found on the eastern side of the continent. To me, seeing the Mostar Bridge loom up in front of me was on a par with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Croatia’s pizza and pasta beats the pants off what can be found in much of Italy. The Old Town of Kotor in Montenegro looks like something out of a fairytale. Europe’s biggest party city, in my eyes, is Belgrade.

And maybe you’ve been dreaming of drinking coffee and eating pastries in Paris, but do you know what? The quality is better and the price is but a fraction in Budapest. And you won’t have to stumble through your high school French to order it, either, because English is more widely-spoken in the East compared to places like France and Spain.

So yes, Eastern Europe is still virtually unknown. But it won’t be like that for too long. These days, young travellers are often told of the ‘good old days’; the days without the crowds, smartphone cameras and RyanAir. Those ‘good old days’ can still be found in much of Eastern Europe.

So what are you waiting for?


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