In Part 1 of Ten reasons why you should travel to Eastern Europe we spoke about going before the crowds do, the spiritual monasteries, the fantastic hiking, the beautiful old cities, some unique experiences, the chance to visit places people have never heard of, the wonderful landscapes, the ethnic mix, the ballet and theatre and how the region offers real value for money.
In Part 2 we take another look behind the Iron Curtain and we find another Ten reasons why you should travel to Eastern Europe now.
There is an undeniable energy in cities in Eastern Europe. Moscow and St. Petersburg are obvious choices. Kyiv on a sunny day is a pleasure to walk around. Treat yourself to a freshly-brewed coffee from one of the many stands and do some serious people watching on the Maidan. Bucharest's nightlife is fun, Lviv's old world charms infectious, Plovdiv's old town and galleries are worth exploring. Or join the fun at Odesa's beach-side promenades.
Bran Castle in Romania sits perched on a rocky spur overlooking the trade route between Wallachia and Transylvania. It is probably one of the country's most recognizable images. Prague Castle should be on anyone's list who like to explore charming cities. Malbork Castle in Poland is an officially designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built by the Teutonic Order, harking back to a darker period in history that saw struggles here as well as in the Baltics.
Nature and landscapes
Time stood still in Eastern Europe and nowhere is that more obvious than in the well-preserved natural landscapes. The thick woods, marshes and lakes of Lahemaa National Park in Estonia form an invitation to a lovely bike ride while a little further south the beaches and dunes of Lithuania's Curonian Spit make for great walking and beach combing.
Romania's Danube Delta is the best preserved of Europe's river deltas and is a fascinating area to explore by boat and bike. Further inland, hiking the stunning Carpathians is a treat.
Cycling on quiet roads
With traffic travelling on the major highways, backroads in Eastern Europe are very quiet. These same backroads take you through small villages that time forgot. Capture some of the ancient history of Russia, get rhapsodic in Bohemia, discover the borderlands of Europe in Lithuania, Poland and Belarus, explore the history and stunning landscapes of the Balkans and find the best Central Europe has to offer on a ride from Prague to Budapest.
Food, glorious food
Eastern Europe for food? Yeah, it wasn't what came first to me either, especially when I remembered the food I had in 1991 in the Czech Republic. Then I had perogies in Moldova and Nalysnyky (crepes) in Ukraine and I was sold. (I no longer eat my pancakes with maple syrup - jam and cream Ukraine-style is more my speed now). So what will you try on your next foodie trip> Goulash in Hungary perhaps? Or Poppy seed rolls in Poland, cabbage rolls or borscht (everywhere), kvass? And if you want to find out what Mamaliga and Papanasi are, visit Romania.
The history of Eastern Europe is one of empires, cultures and religions battling each other: Russia versus Prussia versus Poland versus Sweden versus the Habsburgs; crusaders versus Balts, Protestants versus Catholics versus Orthodox versus Islam. There is tension between Germanic, Roman and Slavic cultures and the Holocaust comes back to haunt you everywhere. And of course the epic battles of West versus East which stretch back much further than the first and second Cold War. If you are an armchair traveller, one of the best books I have read is The Fault Line: Traveling the Other Europe, From Finland to Ukraine by Paolo Rumiz. But the best way to experience the contradictions is by visiting northern Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine.
When I travelled around Transylvania I had the pleasure to spend some time in the traditional Saxon villages of Biertan and Viscri. These are idyllic villages of red tiled roofs and the latter is a World Heritage site, virtually unchanged for 900 years. Romania, Moldova and Ukraine are sprinkled with traditional villages, especially in Maramureș and the Carpathians.
Meanwhile, on Estonia's Saaremaa Island, discover tiny traditional villages and stay in a farmhouse where your hosts treat you to a delicious local dinner.
Step back in time
One of the attractions about travelling to Eastern Europe is the feeling you are stepping back in time - sometimes it is as little as twenty years, sometimes it feels like centuries. The way of life in Maramureș and the Carpathians
has not changed much in the past couple of hundred years. Belarus’ appeal lies in a tranquillity that needs to be experienced first hand before it can be fully understood, whereas in Transnistria time has stood still since the break-up of the USSR. And to get a sense of how Russia's communist past still haunts the country, visit its far north.
Witness the communist past
Castles, cathedrals, rich forests and soviet structures – Belarus is a diamond, shining with post-war intrigue. Ukraine has its legacy of the Chernobyl disaster, Transnistria still revers Lenin, while in Lithuania you can visit an old Soviet missile launch site. And to get a sense of how Russia's communist past still haunts the country, visit its far north.
Museums & Art
Some of the best art museums in the world can be found in St. Petersburg and Moscow. But don't miss out on the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, The National Gallery in Prague or the Art Museum of Estonia. In most smaller towns you will find world-class museums, hidden gems like the Odesa's Fine Arts Museum.