Exploring The Iron Curtain

A road odyssey through the erstwhile communist regimes of Eastern Europe

 
Exploring The Iron Curtain

By Ashish Gokhale

When we think about vacations in Europe, the natural tendency is to take a package to the major tourist hotspots in Western Europe. While these are stupendous places in their own right, our desire to explore the unknown made us take a trip through East Europe. Just as a background, East Europe is typically referred to as the erstwhile communist regimes of Hungary, Yugoslavia and beyond. Actually geographically these are bang in the center of Europe but the communist line beyond Austria and Italy divided Europe into the capitalist West and the communist East. This is colloquially called as the European Iron curtain. Traditional tourism in Europe has been centered on the Western part from France, Spain to Italy. After the fall of communism in Europe in the 1990.s there was a political upheaval in the region causing the split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Yugoslavia broke up into Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia in many cases paid the price of a bloody civil war. The twenty first century has seen a period of stability and economic growth in the region and slowly becoming a tourist hotspot and a great alternative to its West European counterparts. Anyone planning to visit this should spend some time in researching this recent history to make the experience richer.

The route followed through four countries of Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia over 2200 kins in 14 days
The route followed through four countries of Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia over 2200 kins in 14 days

We landed at Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and rented a car straight from the airport to drive on to the Hungarian Capital of Budapest, moved on to the Croatian Capital of Zagreb, the stunning Plitvice Lakes National parks, the Adriatic seaside towns of Nin and Cricvenica, the Slovenian paradise at Lake Bled, capital Ljubliana and back to Bratislava. The whole trip took 14 days driving about 2250 kms through the European countryside. I would rather let the pictures do the talking. In general the two major concerns we had was the safety and the language issues. We had absolutely no issues or even a whiff of safety concerns throughout the trip and these places are as safe as any other place as long as one takes usual precautions against petty pickpockets in crowded touristy areas.

The magnificent Hungarian parliament building on the bank of the Danube in Budapest
The magnificent Hungarian parliament building on the bank of the Danube in Budapest

We were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to go about in English especially with the younger generations. Driving was a breeze and the roads were of fine quality throughout. My most memorable experiences were the stunning terraced waterfalls and lakes in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, our sea facing apartment in Cricvenica, watching the Croatia knockout match in the FIFA world cup with locals in a pub, eating the famous cream cakes in the picture perfect Slovenian jewel of Lake Bled, the cliffhanging castle at Predjama and many more.

Quirky street monuments honoring the common man are found all over East Europe. This bronxe statue of the ‘Manhole Man’ in Bratislava, Slovakia shows a sewage worker taking a break.
Quirky street monuments honoring the common man are found all over East Europe. This bronxe statue of the ‘Manhole Man’ in Bratislava, Slovakia shows a sewage worker taking a break.

Some tips for anyone planning this or a similar trip around Europe.

While package tours have their merits I am completely in favor of a self-planned trip. In fact the more enjoyable part of the trip it the research and planning stages. Package tours typically stick to the cities and the tourist bus circuits and ignoring the charming countryside with its lush green countryside and quant villages with history seeped in its every nook and corners.

Picturesque countryside in a typical alpine village in Slovenia.
Picturesque countryside in a typical alpine village in Slovenia.

Split your trip into 4-5 hubs where you stay for about 3 nights each and explore the areas around that hub. As far as possible limit the big cities to one or two unless you are majorly interested into the history and architecture. Any place has a touristy part and the resident part. Ideally spend a day ticking off the main tourist areas of interests and keep one day to explore the areas which are not frequented by tourists. While in Budapest we found this charming hill railway exclusively operated by school kids and the awesome Budapest Circus. We also spend some time aimlessly going on public transport buses and trams. This is where we actually got a feel of the real city of Budapest.

The Buda castle on the hills on the river Danube in Budapest
The Buda castle on the hills on the river Danube in Budapest

While public transport in Europe is generally good, renting a car gives immense flexibility to completely immerse into this rich treasure. Driving is pretty straight forward as long as you follow the basic rules around speed limits and lane discipline. If driving in not your cup of tea, spend some time in evaluating the various rail passes and benefits. Another good alternative is to take trains on the longer hub to hub portions of the itinerary and hire cars around at the hubs.

The harbour village os Senj along the adriatic coast in Crotia.
The harbour village os Senj along the adriatic coast in Crotia.

I would highly recommend the local Bed and Breakfasts or Apartments in Europe as a great option over the typical 3-4 star touristy hotels. These are extremely easy to find in every small corner and give the unique opportunity to closely interact with locals and possibly make new friends.

One of my best castle viewing experience in the strategic cliffhanger in Predjam, Slovenia.
One of my best castle viewing experience in the strategic cliffhanger in Predjam, Slovenia.

The most important part is not too cram too much into a day. In my experience my most memorable experiences are those idyllic village pubs and the interactions with the charming locals. Give yourself ample time in a local café or a pub and don’t hesitate to talk to the locals. This would stay with you far longer than any castle or park. Keep an open flexible mind without any fixation around visiting specific spots and enjoy the journey rather than the destination.

Ashish Gokhale
A banker by profession, Ashish is passionate traveler looking to explore the real places away from the typical touristy traps, meet the locals to know the real story. He is also a passionate runner and wild life photographer.