As I set off again back to Eastern Europe, this time to explore Hungary and Serbia, it reminded me of an internal debate I’d had a while back. During my last two years in Europe, I’ve seemed to alternate between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Western Europe has always been more familiar to me, having spent parts of my childhood there in places like Belgium and Sweden. But the East has constantly surprised and delighted me in a vastly different way. This mental divide of Europe got me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of each part.
Now I know that it’s a gross oversimplification to say theres’s some neat line that splits Europe in two. Why not Northern versus Southern Europe? What about Central Europe? The Baltic? The Balkans? Point taken but that’s all a bit too hard. So humour me as I use the old Iron Curtain as my imaginary border between East and West. I also note that these are generalisations and there are plenty of exceptions, but for the most part I think they hold true. So without any further disclaimers, my thoughts on the benefits of Eastern and Western Europe.
West: The Iconic Sights
When you think of the main sightseeing attractions of Europe, where do you think of? Eiffel Tower? Big Ben? The Colosseum? Surprise, surprise they’re all in Western Europe. These are often the places you dream of visiting one day on your first Europe trip.
Western Europe has been historically much easier to travel to for most of the globe and that has driven society’s image of it. Seeing more images and hearing more stories about this half of Europe as we grow up has shaped our idea of Europe. It makes perfect sense then that these places would become iconic and the places we’d dream seeing in person.
East: Sense of Exploration
In a similar vein, ask yourself what you know about the main attractions of Eastern Europe? Unless you have heritage from there or a keen interest in reading a lot of travel articles, you’d struggle to answer this. Now this is admittedly changing, with dramatic increases in visitors to this part of Europe, like Budapest and the Croatian coast. But to outsiders there is still plenty of unknown and with that comes the opportunity to put the guide-book down and explore.
The number of places I’ve visited in Eastern Europe with few or no other tourists has been quite high. With that comes the chance to learn about destinations in a more organic and exciting way, no longer travelling by checklist. Theres no burden of “must-sees” and no fear of missing out, or “NOFOMO”. If that appeals to you, look eastward.
West: Reliable Train Network
I’d forgotten how nice train travel in Europe could be until I visited Belgium. Taking the train network there wasn’t a chore as it was clean, modern and comfortable. And while every rail network has delays, they were minor inconveniences for the most part. Same in Switzerland. Same in Spain. Occasionally even having Wi-Fi on the train was the cherry on top.
All of this is obviously because these countries have had the money to invest in the infrastructure in the first place. The same can’t be said until recently for many countries in eastern Europe. To preface my next statement I will say there have been eastern countries I’ve visited that had decent trains. However, generally I’ve found train travel in Eastern Europe to be challenging, uncomfortable and delay ridden. I fully acknowledge and understand why, but that doesn’t change the current reality. At this point in time, I’ll stick with bus travel which is often the faster and cheaper choice.
I don’t think many people realise how affordable it really is to travel around Eastern Europe. Speaking generally, due to the worse economic state in many of these countries and the lower cost of living, your money will go a lot further than in the West.
While it varies country to country, you should everything across the board is cheaper. I’ve paid 30% the cost of a dorm room in Norway for a spacious private room in Bulgaria. I can’t count the number of staggeringly cheap dinners I have had in places like the Czech Republic and Republic of Macedonia with a full meal the price of a French entrée. And while an hour on a train in Austria may run over 20€, next door in Hungary I can travel twice as far for only 5€. I’d say my budget is about 50% more travelling in the West compared to Eastern Europe.
West: Western Standards
As someone who has spent their whole life living in Western countries, I’m used to the Western style and standard of life. It’s what I’m used to, which in itself is neither good nor bad. It just is. So when I travel to Western countries, I tend to understand the way things work. It’s familiar.
The same can’t always be said for Eastern Europe. With different cultures and different ways of doing things, there’s bound to be friction and confusion. I’m not talking full-blown culture shock here; more a culture zap, a culture spark. While I can appreciate this is the way things are done there, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to like them.
A great example of this are wet rooms, or as a friend once dubbed them, Shoilets (shower/toilets). Essentially, these rooms have no boundary between the shower and the rest of the bathroom, meaning everything gets wet. I really don’t care for it. You have to remove anything (like say toilet paper) from the room when you shower and everything’s covered in water for sometime after. Again, an element of a different culture that I respect, but not one I would desire in the slightest.
East: Fewer Tourists
Western Europe in summertime can be a pretty crazy place to be. As the peak tourist season, most places in Western Europe are simply crawling with tourists. I’ve visited places like Florence in both summer and winter and there’s just no comparison in how busy it gets. The same could be said to a lesser extent for the Germanic countries around Christmas, when people flock for the Yuletide markets.
And yet, with the exception of the few really popular spots like Prague, Budapest and the Croatian coast, tourist numbers in Eastern Europe can be pretty minimal. Visiting the Bulgarian coast last summer and capital cities like Bucharest, Sofia and Skopje, I was surprised just how un-crowded they felt despite the season. This goes back to people travelling to places they know, instead of venturing to parts unknown. And while you may miss out on the iconic landmarks you know so well, the still has beaches, cities, Christmas markets and pretty much whatever else you could need.
West: English is Everywhere
One of the more confronting things about travel has to be the language barrier that often arises. If you can overcome or bypass it, that certainly takes the pressure off. So it can be quite the relief when you come across so many people in Western Europe that speak English.
To be clear, this isn’t an expectation that everyone should speak English. Simply that it’s pretty common place these days. Knowing even a little of the local language is extremely valuable, both for getting around and endearing yourself with people. But it can be a real challenge for some.
When it comes to Eastern Europe, you’re less likely to have English to fall back on. Sure it’s slowly changing but only little by little. If there is a second language that is useful in Eastern Europe, I’d say German is probably your best bet. I’ve found it invaluable when hand gestures weren’t enough.
East: Less Jaded Locals
Ever been somewhere, probably at the end of the tourist season, and felt like everyone just wishes you weren’t there? The waiters ignore you. The person at the hotel front desk is brief or uncooperative. It’s likely they’ve been worn down by the revolving door of tourists and are desperate for a break. That feeling of not being welcome can really tarnish an otherwise happy holiday.
I’ve very rarely come across that attitude in Eastern Europe. In fact, more times than I can count, people have been graciously welcoming and even excited to have someone travel all the way to visit their home town or city. I especially tend to get looks of welcome surprise when I say that I’m from Australia. Because they haven’t had to weather hordes of tourists, they’ve yet to reach that state of indifference and jaded frustration. I know I’d much rather that than the alternative.
If you’ve travelled through Western and Eastern Europe, what are your thoughts on the comparison? Do any of these points make you more interested in visiting Eastern Europe? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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This post is part of The Weekly Postcard over at Caliglobetrotter. Please head on over for more great posts.