Words and images by Shubham Gupta
The first images that come to mind when you hear “Eastern Europe” are usually of an old soviet-era city, falling apart at the edges with old people in wintery, khaki jackets, walking around with vegetables in tow. Eastern Europe is anything but that.
In fact, it is quite the opposite. A magical, eclectic place with amazing scapes and vibrant, energetic people. Whether you go to Prague, Budapest or Dubrovnik, this part of Europe is bound to surpass your expectations. No matter how long you stay there, you will leave wanting more.
A work trip got me the opportunity to take time off and explore Eastern Europe for a couple of weeks. And boy, am I glad I latched on to it. The moment I stepped out of the airport in Prague, all my preconceived notions were blown to bits.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague was superlative. There is a really nice youthful energy to the place. You just want to walk, walk and walk some more around the city. The architecture with its mix of old and new is beautiful, with breathtaking details around every corner. The vibe in the city is brilliant, the old town square is as good as it gets, and the historic Charles Bridge that crosses the Vltava river, just carries a lot of charm. Between shots of “Becherovka”, a supposedly Czech digestive aid that feels great until it doesn’t, while seated in a Beer Garden from 1499; walking around the city at three in the morning; and meeting new people, Prague really is inspiring. Intellectually stimulating, young and vibrant!
A conversation about the insanity of populist politics with random stranger (turned good friend) Jana reinforces how alike we all are despite being topographically different and geographically spread out. The aspirations of young Czechs, their likes and dislikes, are very similar to what you’d find in Singapore, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Trdlo (the Czech chimney cake which should come with a sugar warning) is such a delight that having it all over the world would make the world a better place.
Of course, an opportunity to be in a new part of the world would be wasted without driving around a bit. So, having picked up a car at the airport, exploration of what old Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were all about began. (Travellers’ tip: Dropping the car off at a different location can cost a whopping 350 Euro extra, so it is best to plan a loop itinerary).
Bratislava was the next stop on my itinerary – and it is as different from Prague as it gets. An old city, with an almost sleepy feel to it! A stark difference is in the average age of folks. In Prague, everyone seemed young. In Bratislava, everyone seemed to have frozen in the Soviet era time zone. The city is full of good sights though, and I’m glad I got to spend time here. The Church of St. Elizabeth, commonly known as Blue Church is Bratislava’s most appealing art nouveau building and I was lucky enough to get invited to a Slovakian wedding there, which was a fun and memorable experience. An old café near the city centre that I randomly ducked into, served some fabulous local food. Spending just a few hours in this city probably didn’t do justice to it, but then again, it wasn’t a place I would like to spend an eternity in.
Istanbul has been the only place outside of Singapore that I have ever wanted to settle down in. Budapest now joins that shortlist. From the lights on the banks of Danube, the buildings, the architecture, the warm baths to the energy of the eclectic ruin bars, Budapest is a brilliant place to be in. Top all that up with some goulash and a fun crowd and you’ve got a place you might want to live in forever.
The free walking tour of the city is great – it is simply amazing to see the city and to hear about its history, especially how it was torn apart by the Germans and then the Soviets. (Travellers tip: Free Walking tours across Europe are great, and a really good way to get introduced to a city. You pay a tip at the end of it as your desire, and it’s well worth it).
The river cruise that runs through the middle of Buda hills and Pest is not to be missed. I took the cruise at dusk and it was one of the best cruises ever. Watching the lights come on along the bank and give a magical glow to the Hungarian Parliament Building is an experience. The ruin bars, Oh My God, the ruin bars! These are old buildings from a bygone era that were left to fall to ruin, and now are the location for the most thriving nightlife in town. Szimpla Kert, Budapest’s oldest and most famous ruin bar, is a place you just won’t want to leave once you enter. Bring cash or bitcoins though, credit cards are too ancient for the pub.
Zagreb & Dubrovnik, Croatia
Though Zagreb isn’t much to write home about, the interconnected Plitvička Lakes and the waterfalls are a sight to behold. It is crazy that every vista you climb up to, every corner you turn, is picture postcard perfect. Although the hike does take about 4 hours, these will probably be the most picturesque 4 hours ever.
While the Dalmatian Coast carries more of the same splendour, the amazingly blue Adriatic Sea and awesome beaches add much more to the landscape. Dubrovnik, Montenegro, Bosnia; each so beautiful, each unique. This probably is the best coastal drive one could undertake, perhaps even better than the Californian or Australian ocean drives, which are world renowned themselves. The sunrises, the sunsets and the coffees in random towns are all memories to treasure for a lifetime. The ancient vibe of Dubrovnik’s walled city is fascinating, and taking a boat trip into the Adriatic Sea around it is strongly recommended. The beaches around the city are pretty great – white sands, blue waters, the stuff of dreams…
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Lake Bled. In one word – wow. Probably, having Kreme cake sitting by the side of the lake is going to be an enduring lifetime memory and also the constant thought behind telling myself that travelling should be my full-time job. The fall colours were a delight to wake up to and the 2-hour walk around the lake at dawn was beautiful, calm & refreshing. If there is one picture-perfect moment I had to pick from the trip, it would probably be of the church in the middle of Lake Bled.
The scenic drive back to Prague through Austria and the Czech countryside was the cherry on the cake. So, if you are in the vicinity – actually forget being in the vicinity, just take two weeks off and head to Eastern Europe. Pick up a car in Prague, spend a few nights in Budapest and then drive over to Dubrovnik/Montenegro and drive back through Lake Bled and Austria. Family, couples or solo, you just wouldn’t regret it.
Top Five Experiences
- An early morning walk/run around Lake Bled, and having a Kreme Cake for a sweet ending.
- Boat Trip on the Danube in Budapest, and then a beer at Szimpla Kert.
- Plitvička Jezera (or Plitvice Lakes National Park), Croatia, with a decent camera.
- Dubrovnik and stopping for coffee in a small town on the Adriatic Sea drive.
- Walking around Prague, and savouring Trdlo on the way.