Reasons to visit eastern Europe (besides the undeniable beauty of the East)
Let me guess, you’re planning to visit new destinations next year, aren’t you?
We all have our dream destinations and when you dream, you’d better do it passionately and boldly!
I dream of Japan and Thailand, Barbados, Jamaica or North Africa.
When it comes to planning though, dreams are scaled down (but never given up on) and you think: given the time and money I have available, where can I go to see something beautiful and exotic? What can teach, give and tell me a lot, leaving me amazed and full of new ideas and lessons? (it’s an aspect I at least tend to pay a lot of attention to when travelling)
Then, another aspect to think about is also where we can make beautiful Instagram stories and take great pictures. (well…yeah, this is something I also take into consideration, I confess).
Let me tell you: plan some trips to eastern Europe and the Balkans. These places are mysterious, wonderful, magic and above all… unexpected, full of surprises and exotic as well, even though they’re basically just around the corner and not very far away.
Besides the beauty of these places, here is why you should really consider travelling east!
I still remember what the man I used to meet every morning on the Mostar bridge, in Bosnia once said: the coexistence of different cultures and religions as well as the clash of civilizations is a recent western invention that makes no sense to us. Three religions have been coexisting here for over a thousand years!
His words were ratified by the bells chime, followed by the muezzin chant (they even shortly overlap with each other) coming from the minaret located in front of the orthodox cathedral.
Well, have you ever heard the bells chiming and the muezzin chanting at the same time, while you’re sitting on the steps of an old house in a medieval village and watching the sunset?
This is way more “exotic” than you think. All this happens in less than an hour flight from Bari.
Have you ever been to a square where you can visit a mosque, one of the biggest synagogues in Europe as well as an orthodox and a catholic cathedral dating back to various periods of time and in different styles, all of which are still active and operating?
You don’t need to go far, it’s just one hour flight or so from Rome and Milan, with very cheap direct flights to Sofia.
We haven’t felt the thrill of visiting a European country and changing currency for quite some time now, at least in the main western destinations. Well, not only the majority of the countries belonging to the former Soviet bloc are not part of the Euro zone, but they also have a very favourable exchange for us, that is why you can enjoy a little extra pampering without spending a fortune. I stayed in a 4 star hotel in Warsaw and spent the equivalent of what I would pay in Rome or Paris for a decent hostel and, believe me, if you want to visit a European Capital with all the features of a real capital, you need to go to Warsaw!
Well, let’s now try to focus on the question of the strong Euro currency: don’t act like wealthy colonizers, please! Eastern people don’t appreciate it by the way (and they do well). Therefore, you should leave at home your hope to find relief in “such poor people, yet so happy”; leave at home, possibly in the garbage, the unfriendly attitude of the colonizing saviour that we all carry along when we travel to Africa or Thailand. Eastern people are very proud. They actually don’t care that much about your wealth: if you’re kind and act reasonably, then they will be kind to you. If you do stupid things, they’ll point that out to you regardless of how many dollars or euros are in your wallet.
Some months ago, I was interviewed during the radio program Capital in The World to “defend” Sofia from the ironic but also resentful attacks of Doris Zaccone.
She has a very bad memory of Sofia, so negative that she wouldn’t recommend it as a destination to visit. The reason is that one morning the owner of a bar snapped at her because she wanted to pay breakfast by credit card (that’s actually what she says, even if she states that she didn’t understand a word in Bulgarian).
Dear travellers, you should be aware that in many countries credit card transactions carry a fee that is retained by the issuer of the card. Therefore, before paying by credit card the equivalent of 80 euro cents, as if we were in Manhattan, let’s consider the possibility that the fee might cost the owner almost the same amount that we paid.
If the answer is positive, a straight “screw you” in Bulgarian is the least we can expect.
In my dream world, poor people don’t always have to feel forced to smile for all the bullshit of rich people.
Discovering “faraway” things while staying close
There are times when we, as travellers, desperately need to visit some exotic place and see something really different; we actually want to be where we don’t understand things and therefore have to put our back into it. Well, if you can’t afford to go to Japan or China, Thailand or Africa, eastern Europe is more than just a compromise.
Being baffled by Bulgarians shaking their head to say “yes” in the way we do when we say “no”, knowing the dour tameness of women in the Balkans, witnessing hours of balls and singing trumpets at Serbian weddings or watching young and old people who don’t know each other spending time together in Belgrade, in the awesome park of Kalemegdan: all this will put you in front of the intercultural shocks that “those who travel” actually need.
Feeling a weird emotion with a weird, forgotten name
My advice, especially to those born before 1990, who had to decode the tragedy of the Bosnian/Serbian wars along with the fall of the various regimes and the bloodshed that took place before and after them, is to visit Tirana, a vibrant and young city, enjoying the Blloku neighbourhood with its wide boulevards. I also suggest you have a closer look at the areas that still depict the past of the regime, that are surely less instagrammable yet definitely worth a visit and a place in your memory.
Otherwise go to Timisoara to enjoy its theatres and cultural events or stop by the romantic historic centre of Belgrade or Novi Sad (Serbia).
You’ll notice how beautiful, lively and young they are. They’re among the best places where a European freelancer can live (just have a look at the amazing co-working spaces in Sofia!!).
What you’ll feel will be new, weird and especially uncommon to many of us in Italy, a feeling that entails a sense of light-heartedness and deep breath: something called hope.
Hope that something currently collapsing can be back and flourish anew in 10 or twenty years. All it takes is work and going through all the sacrifices and hardships it implies.
Go beyond the obvious in 2018, go far by staying close, let yourselves be amazed by the East.