• Matthew Waters

Escape To Eastern Europe

So I don’t know about you but my plans of travel have not really gone ahead this year. I am

meant to be in Beijing right now, living there and teaching English but in the grand scheme of things if that is my biggest issue I have gotten off likely and count myself as a lucky one. Travelling abroad seems like a distance dream. Travel has now got the added problems of fear of contracting Covid or giving it to others, wanting to be responsible and other worries like not losing out on money because of change in Covid regulations or worse not being able to get home. But still in these difficult times the thought of my next travel destination is a great sense of escapism and a dream that I look forward to fulfilling when this is all over. Where have I picked as my first destination after Covid? Well I think I am going to Eastern Europe. I know a massive generalisation but just somewhere in Eastern Europe. For me that is anywhere East of Germany, West of Russian and North of Greece.


Eastern European countries have always been a favourite of mine since 2016 when I travelled through a decent chunk of the region when interrailing. They are often cheaper than Western Europe, the people are friendly, they have a very different history then our own in the West, after being behind the iron curtain, and it is a little less travelled then the more popular Western European tourist destinations. All of this means you can really get into the culture of Eastern Europe whenever you go, not have to worry about your wallet and often you don’t have to strip away the touristy bullsh*t to find what is real. So a great place to go no matter what. But during these difficult times it may have jumped over the West as a travel destination for other reasons. The fact that it is cheap to get to and cheap once you get there means you don’t have to worry about losing too much money if plans have to change. It isn’t to far away, meaning it is less of a culture shock for your first time abroad in about a year if not more. But it still is different enough to find differences and adventure. Also, in terms of Covid numbers, the region is safer than that of its Western European counterparts. So get your escapism mindset ready, and let's delve into why Eastern Europe is the place to go for your first holiday, when you are able to escape.


First of all Eastern Europe is cheap! Now this is something I love at any time. Being a young traveller it is important that I don't have to worry about my wallet too much while I am away. I find it very difficult to have fun in destinations like Venice where the food is overpriced and every experience is extortionate. I am cursed with the mindset of always being worried about money, even if I have saved up enough for the trip. I always think of what else I could do with the £50 for a canal tour. That is the money for flights to Barcelona and Riga! So being able to get to grips with a country and see its traditions, taste its food and view its sights for as little as possible is important to me. Eastern Europe offers this luxury.


Money savvy travel is especially important in these difficult times as well. You don’t want to shell out for expensive flights and an expensive hotel only to find out the borders have been closed, or the cases are rising in the city you want to travel too, making it no longer safe. Most companies are offering refunds for Covid related incidents but refunds, especially from airline companies, can take months as they look to hold onto any capital they can to keep them afloat. My refund from LOT airlines will take four months for example. So you need to find cheaper options so you aren’t going without as much compared to a more expensive destination.


I have never worried about my wallet on a holiday to Eastern Europe. Return flights to Riga are often found around £25, and when travelling through Eastern Europe our hostels averaged out at around £10 a night, and they weren’t disgusting 18 person dorms like in Vienna and Amsterdam that cost over double the price, they were often great value. A two person airbnb in Vilnius cost around £15 a night, with probably one of nicest airbnbs I’ve stayed in being in Riga costing £50 each for 5 nights. It isn’t just getting there and staying there that is cheap. Eastern European food is good hearty food that will fill you up for hours, but it is also very cheap. An amazing goulash in Budapest train station, £2. A creamy mushroom soup in a loaf of bread finished off with a Stein of beer, that’ll be £4 please. Three course meal in the centre of Krakow with a bottle of wine, that will be £10. But most importantly in most Eastern European countries beer is cheaper than water! Perfect for those of you who honour the British tradition of amazing your friends with how cheap the pints were on your holiday compared to in the UK. A basement beer hall in Prague selling beautiful pints for 85p will lead to some fuzzy memories of your time in Prague, Budapest and Ljubljana.


It doesn’t just stop with the food either. You can do plenty of cool and memorable experiences for very little money. There are free walking all across every major city in Eastern Europe, mainly Sandemans classical tours but also tours like in Riga showing how the people of Riga live, or the graffiti and street art tours in Ljubljana and Vilnius, that are more alternative and show a different side to a city. These give you a great sense of what the city is like and can give you great ideas of where to go and what to do.


It isn’t just walking tours, there are plenty of more memorable cheap experiences to do. For example the water park on Lake Bled filled with slides, water polo courts and a big pool all in the surroundings of Lake Bled, stunning! You can also row to the island in the middle of the lake with a castle on it, in a boat more than big enough for four people for only £10 an hour. Eastern Europe is the epitome of a safe travel investment in these times, where if you are like me, you are worrying how long you will be able to make money for.


Another positive to Eastern Europe in these difficult times is that it isn’t too big of a culture shock for your first time abroad in a year or maybe more. Eastern Europe although less popular than Western Europe as a holiday destination is starting to see a rise in British tourists. This means you can go to most cities and find someone who speaks English. Normally I try to look for places less travelled but for my first time abroad after Covid I may try to find somewhere a bit easier. The fact that students in most Eastern European countries now have to study English from a young age shows that it is becoming an easier place to travel then it used to be. They are now leaning more politically to the ‘West’ and getting away from their Soviet and Yugoslavian past, with the EU flag brandished proudly from a lot of buildings. Politics is a window into the society of a country and this political movement away from Russia shows that it is becoming a familiar place to Western Europeans meaning there is no real ‘culture shock’ travelling through Eastern Europe.


Although Eastern Europe does allow you to chill out in your comfort zone, you can also push the boundaries. Eastern Europe is more than different enough to feel like an adventure. Surrounding those EU flags are often towing grey blocks of flats clearly from the Soviet era. Although they are moving out from behind the Iron Curtain, it is by no means forgotten. Coming out of the train station in Belgrade is an experience I will never forget. Surrounded by grey buildings and faced with a building size poster of a women in full military regalia, with Cyrillic writing down the side of it, it was clear, I was somewhere very different. Eating a boiled pig’s ear in Lithuania was definitely an experience and getting asked to do a sketch in Latvia because I was British was certainly different too. It is very strange seeing how different societies view British people, but more on that another time. Europe’s most successful squat is in Ljubljana known as the Metelkova Arts Centre and is another experience that would be difficult to find in the West, a free area inhabited by squatters, a must see for those of you who love to see alternative lifestyles and street art. There is plenty in Eastern Europe that will push your comfort zone more than heading to Cornwall or the Lakes.


Finally, going on holiday in Eastern Europe is statistically safer, in terms of not catching Covid then going away to Western Europe. No Eastern European Country is in the top 25 in terms of cases worldwide. I would say Russia and Ukraine aren’t part of my UK centric view of Eastern Europe. The UK is 11th, France and Spain are 8th and 6th respectively. So if you are looking for a get away and especially a get away from covid, the less built and up and less popular tourist destinations of Eastern Europe may be the place to go. Most Eastern European countries aren't on the exemption list for the UK however, so you will have to self isolate when you get back, but three of my favourites do make the list. If you decide to travel to either Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania you will not be required to self isolate upon your return. So book your tickets now and check out my Baltics blogs as well.


So Eastern Europe may be the ideal location for those of you getting itchy to get away. Cheap, so not a huge financial risk. Familiar, so not too much shock. Different enough to find a little adventure, and safer in terms of Covid than other more popular holiday destinations. But most importantly it is so much fun. Some of my best travel memories are in Eastern Europe and it is a region very dear to my heart.


Thank you for reading. Stay safe. Hope to see you back sometime soon.

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