My Experience Traveling in Eastern Europe

In the last month I have visited five countries that were unwilling members of the Soviet Union. Each one is unique, some are doing better economically than others, some have embraced the west while others seem to cling to Mother Russia. Since the Soviet Union fell apart at the end of 1991 much has changed in some places, less in others. Here are my observations from these brief visits.

Budapest, Hungary

My sister-in-law, who is Hungarian, generously allowed me to stay in her family apartment in Budapest for three weeks in January. I had visited my brother and her there in 2017 so I was more focused on ordinary life and meeting local people during this winter stay. Edina and her young adult children, members of my sister-in-law’s family, were very good to me, very welcoming, very helpful. The kids have big plans for the future and they are so talented I expect they will succeed. I was delighted to find a Lidl market near the apartment – very much the same as the one where I buy wine, cheese and chocolate at home. There was a fine laundromat in the next block owned by a very helpful, friendly man. The city art museum has been totally re-habbed.

Budapest was a co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to the end of World War I. The city center is filled with beautiful 19th century buildings which are now home to designer boutiques with names you would recognize as well as with offices of companies from around the world. Unfortunately, Hungary now has a hard right-wing government dedicated to denying immigrants entrance to the country. It is a member state of the European Union and the Schengen Zone.

The photo at the top of this post shows the Chain Bridge in Budapest with the Hungarian Parliament building in the distance.


Ljubljana, Slovenia

My time here was very brief – just a train ride across this beautiful country and an hour or two in the capital with the impossible-to-pronounce name: Ljubljana. Riding along a river within sight of snow-covered Alps is an experience I won’t forget. About life in Slovenia I can only say that on a beautiful Saturday in early spring many people were out in the old town center enjoying lunch and the sunshine. I would like to return here for a much longer stay. Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, is a member state of the European Union and the Schengen Zone

Zadar, Croatia

Zagreb and Zadar, Croatia

When I was a travel agent I visited popular port towns in Croatia three times with cruise groups. I liked them and wanted to spend more time there and I was particularly interested in seeing Zagreb and Zadar. (It’s important to know that Croatia was more an ally of the Soviet Union than a member state as it was part of Yugoslavia which fell apart in a nasty internal war in the 1990s.)

I will admit that I expected Zagreb to be a dull, gray, Soviet-style city. I could not have been more wrong. Planned around a blocks-long park which leads to a huge market square just beneath the “old town,” Zagreb is endlessly intriguing. My AirBnB apartment there was in a small 20th century building in a neighborhood well served by trams and small stores, giving me a peek at normal life.

Zadar is a popular tourist destination and now I know why. It’s lovely. It’s graced by many stone relics of the Romans and by a number of beautiful churches. Like Dubrovnik and other seaside tourist towns, it appears to me that modern life is pushed to the outskirts while the old town’s atmosphere is carefully maintained. My stays in both these places was too short. I hope to be able to return to Croatia which is an EU member country and will probably become part of the Schengen Zone next year.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia

My exposure to 21st century Tallinn was limited to two rides to and from the airport. Cabs took me on the main street through the city center where I saw many new high-rise buildings. My time in Estonia was much shorter than I wanted so I focused my two days there on the touristy but very interesting old town. Everybody I encountered in Tallinn spoke English well so I was able to have conversations once or twice with people about the “old days” under the Soviets.  This is a country that is very happy to have its freedom. They celebrate it in many ways including by warmly welcoming visitors. Estonia is a member state of the European Union and the Schengen Zone.

Just outside my hotel in Riga Latvia

Riga, Latvia

I took a bus from Tallinn to Riga because trains don’t run directly between those cities. The two places could not be more unalike.  I don’t know what is going on with the Latvian government but it’s not good. It would appear that nothing has changed here since 1991 except that deterioration is more advanced.

Riga’s tourism claim-to-fame is its Art Nouveau architecture. As the bus drove through the center of the city I saw some of those buildings totally encrusted in dirt and exhaust fumes. The only high rise building I recall is an old Soviet-built Stalinist government building much like others in Warsaw and other communist capitals. My hotel was old and located, more or less by itself, in a major street lined with abandoned buildings. The only restaurant near it was a small cafeteria where the owner insulted me when I asked for ice for my tea: “We don’t have any ice here.”

I had only planned an overnight stopover here and that was enough. Instead of sightseeing on the second day I went to the airport early and waited there for hours. Latvia is a member state of the European Union and the Schengen Zone.

Easter morning, Kiev

Kiev, Odessa and Lviv, Ukraine

I’m writing this in a hotel room in Kiev as I wait to fly out of Eastern Europe. The window in front of me shows me an unending line of high-rise apartment buildings from left to right. At 4:15 this morning I was awakened by church bells – it’s Orthodox Easter Sunday here. If I take away one important lesson from my time in Ukraine it is this: through half a century of communist occupation, the people here clung to their religion. They built new churches. Some of them added gold plating to the domes at the top. In the 1920s, when the Russian communists arrived here, they banned religious meetings. That didn’t work the way they probably hoped it would.

Kiev (pronounced Keeve) is the capital city, growing very fast, estimated current population about 5 million. High rise apartment and office buildings literally ring the city. It appears that the city’s leaders can’t quite catch up with its growth. The names of famous western companies pop up everywhere. I made the mistake of booking a hotel in the business sector which caused me to miss quite a lot in Kiev. If you’re coming here stay near Saint Sofia and the other famous churches and the opera house. They are more authentic and have easier access to the best places to visit.


Which was my favorite place? Odessa or Tallinn?  Yes!!  Odessa is lovely.  It’s small, and easy to walk through seeing everything the tourist wants to see. Unlike Tallinn, it’s not ancient.  Founded on the orders of Czarina Catherine of Russia in 1797, most of buildings in Odessa were constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are beautiful buildings, many of them decorated with Art Nouveau sculpture.  Due to what might be an old competition among the religious denominations, Odessa is graced by beautiful domed churches, many of them dripping gold. It’s a lovely, relaxing small city. I want to return!

I chose my hotel well here. I enjoyed a boutique hotel in the center of everything for less than $40 a night. The people at the Royal Street Hotel are uncommonly gracious and helpful. Because it’s been a tourist town for a century or more finding good restaurants, fashionable shops and evening entertainment is easy.


At the center of Lviv there is a grand market square and at its center is a huge, square city hall.  There you’ll find a tourist office with some of the nicest people I have met anywhere in my travels. Making instant friends in unknown places is about the best thing that can happen to a traveler.

Lviv is a city of about 750,000 people so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. The old city center is well protected and easy to explore. By my count nine old churches are within a few blocks, put up (apparently) by nine different sects, both Orthodox and Catholic. The central area is pretty, has low priced city-sponsored tourist train and bus tours, and has many restaurants and pubs to chooser from. I had a very nice AirBnB apartment there, about two kilometers from the center. There are still neighborhoods of old single-family homes tucked in between the newer high rise apartment buildings.

Ukraine is not a member state of the E.U. nor is it in the Schengen Zone. They’ve just elected a new president nobody knows anything about. Could be a good thing – we hope!


I’ve just spent a month in Eastern Europe plus three weeks in Budapest.  If I’m ever able to do it again I’ll spend at least three months next time. Most of the places I visited offer good value hotels, rentals and restaurants. Ukraine is especially low-priced. Nothing was exactly like I had expected and nearly every place was more like the U.S and western Europe. People are nice. Language is difficult in some places where few people know English. Dealing with the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet in Ukraine made things complicated sometimes. All the other countries use the Latin alphabet.  Trains are cheap but uncomfortable. The tracks are bumpy and noisy. Buses are a good way to get around but don’t expect comfort. Taxi rides are a thrilling experience everywhere. I would have included Belarus to visit Minsk but entry for westerners is very restricted. I had to fly from Riga to Kiev, hopping over Belarus.


To see my posts and photos about individual cities, look under the heading “Former Soviet Union Countries” in the index to the right.

Lviv, Ukraine: a happy city

A city nearly 1000 years old, L’viv is purely Ukrainian (as I was told by a proud young citizen of the town). While Russian is the language spoken by most people in Kiev and Odessa, here people speak Ukrainian.

Perhaps more than anyplace else I’ve visited in Ukraine, this city seems to be happy. Lively people fill the many squares on a beautiful spring afternoon. Street markets offer art and handmade doilies and books. Sidewalk cafés line the streets.

L’viv is located in the western part of the Ukraine about 50 miles from the border with Poland. At various times over the centuries it has been ruled by Poland, Russia, the Hapsburgs of Austria and a place called Ruthenia. Written in English the name can be found as Lviv, L’viv, and Lvov.

The city is centered by a large market square and in the center of that square is the town hall which has an enormous tower sprouting from its center. It is a city filled with old churches. It seems every block has at least one church and sometimes two or three.  Church towers built by Italians and Poles and Russians, by Catholic orders, by Greek Ukrainians sprout up all over the center of the town. The city center is beautiful. There’s a strong French touch — buildings much like those seen in Paris. Pastel buildings about four stories tall surround the square. Lviv is a very popular destination for tourists, particularly young adults. The tourist office here employs the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve encountered anywhere.

Anya and Oksana, employees of the Lviv Tourist Office, helped me a great deal — not once, but on three different occasions. They are lovely young women, well spoken in English, very knowledgeable about their city, very interested in people from other places. Their office is in the Town Hall in case you are looking for it.

I’m staying in an AirBnB apartment located about two kilometers from the city center in an area filled with multi-story apartment buildings. It’s interesting to note the differences and similarities between Ukraine and the United  States. There’s a Walmart-size grocery store on my corner where I can buy Lay’s Potato Chips and Coca Cola and peanut butter. There’s a health club in my building and a multi-story shopping mall on the corner. But people who appear to be poor and leftover from the 20th century are seen offering a few things for sale on street corners. The people I see around me here are a mix of middle aged and young adults in fashionable dress and older people, the women in headscarves and old coats, the men in flat hats like berets.

Here are a few photos that I hope will give you a taste of Lviv, Ukraine.

The view from a corner of the main city square.

400 steps to the top of the city hall tower! But the view is awesome.


Another side of the market square at city hall. It’s really a lovely city center.

Apparently the results of a contest, huge Easter eggs displayed in a city square. Easter in Orthodox countries is one week later than in western countries.

Book sellers gather in this small market space behind the statue. The city displays an old trolley car here.

In another small square artists display many of their works for sale.

The altar of the Roman Catholic cathedral.

The view from my apartment. I think the little pink house is typical of pre-apartment block houses. There are still streets of small single-family houses in Lviv.

A tiny market, three or four women selling their eggs and some vegetables on the corner in the late afternoon.

Odessa’s Churches

Ukraine seems to have three main Christian churches: the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (formerly the Russian Orthodox church); Ukranian Greek Catholic church and the Roman Catholic church. Each of these groups has spent centuries building spectacular churches in Ukraine. Each has a cathedral in Odessa. My guess is that there could have been some competition that resulted in three beautiful churches. In looking at these photos remember that the Russian Communists completely opposed religion, particularly in the early 20th century when churches were closed.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Odessa:

The Greek Ukrainian Orthodox Church:

The Greek cathedral banned the taking of photos but I found this one online:

Russian Orthodox (Eastern) Cathedral:

The most spectacular church I found is not a cathedral and I don’t know its name. Below and at the top of this post are two inadequate photos. I believe it is Eastern Orthodox.

And on my last day in Odessa I found the Mosque:

There’s a synagogue but I didn’t find it.

Want to know more? Here’s a link to an informative Wikipedia article about the history of churches in Ukraine. The section beginning with the heading “Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries” is most pertinent, giving the history of the Soviets’ opposition to religion.


Odessa’s Beautiful Buildings: A Very Short History Lesson

There’s been a very popular comedy on Ukranian television recently. The plot: an ordinary man, a teacher, becomes president of Ukraine. As you may have heard yesterday, the actor who plays that ordinary man was elected president of Ukraine on Sunday with 75% of the votes cast! (More detail here.)

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the comedian/actor who stars in the program, is also the creator and producer of the series. It would seem that he has used the popular show to advertise his view of what’s wrong with Ukraine and how to fix it. Now he’s the incoming president of the country.

Ukraine is the largest country in size in Europe. Its location has caused it to be taken over by both Germany and Russia (the Soviet Union) over the centuries. I’ve read that 75% of the population is ethnic Russian while ethnic Ukrainians are only a portion of the remaining 25%. Russian is the language commonly spoken here and written communication uses the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet. Ukraine is the poorest European country with the weakest economy. The Ukrainian dollar today is worth only 3.7 American cents.

You may recall that Russia invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014. Crimea is almost an island, barely connected to the southern edge of Ukraine near the border with Russia. Although the dispute is not truly resolved the Russians seem to have taken over the area. The great majority of people living there identify as Russian and are said to have preferred annexation. Mr. Zelenskiy campaigned on finding a way to end the dispute diplomatically.

Good luck to Mr. Zelenskiy.

Art Nouveau buildings like this one are seen all over the small city of Odesa.

In 1795 Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, caused the city of Odesa to be built with an order designed to create an important port city on the Black Sea. Between 1890 and 1910 Art Nouveau was the predominant style in architecture and many other design arts. Also between 1890 and 1910 most of the city of Odesa was built, largely as a resort for rich Russians. The city of Odessa today is filled with Art Nouveau buildings, many of them in deteriorated condition. Restoration and maintenance have caused there to be a sizable number of these former hotels, apartment buildings and retail establishments in good order today. Three in particular caught my eye.  Here’s a look at them: (Blue words below are links to more information.)

The Grand Moscow Hotel
When I arrived at my hotel in Odessa I was astonished by rich appearance of the great, green building next door. I subsequently learned that it had been a grand hotel for Russian visitors during the period around 1900. Google found some information for me about the restoration of this building which has been ongoing since 2014.  The exterior appears to be complete but the windows are all still covered in plastic so interior work is unfinished at this time. (The terms “reconstruction” and “restoration” are used interchangeably in every website I have found about this building’s recent history.)

A postcard image of the original hotel is here

A close-up of the roof decoration featuring griffins. It certainly looks brand new but can it really be?

Odessa Passage

If you’ve been to Paris you may have discovered the “passages” there which were the forerunners of modern shopping centers. There are number of them. None that I’ve seen there come close in style to the extravagant “Passage” in Odessa. I first walked past it, noting the decorative sculpture above the entrance and nothing more.  Then I found it highlighted on the city-produced tourist map so I returned. I was astonished by what I found there.

Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre            

The city of Odessa seems to be most proud of its opera house. It is in the rococo style of the first half of the 19th century, not Art Nouveau. It’s a large horseshoe shaped building said to have excellent acoustics.

I was not able to tour it so I’ve borrowed a photo of the interior found on Wikimedia Photo by Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Tomorrow I’ll show you some spectacular churches.


Odessa, Ukraine: A Gracious City by the Sea

A beautiful old girl located at the top of the Black Sea, Odessa was the  Miami Beach of Russian Oligarchs before the 1917 revolution. It’s a beach town today – Russians still come here as do many eastern Europeans. Begun on the orders of Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1797, Odessa is not a “beach town” of tacky souvenir shops but rather a stylish city well planned and constructed in the 19th century.

Odessa is a delightful destination and an amazing off-season bargain. (The value of the Ukarinian currency is extremely low.) Shopping is wonderful, especially for young adults. Deribasovskaya Street is the main east-west street and the location of many restaurants, hotels, boutiques and bars. It leads to the sea. Crossing Deribasovskaya running north and south and directly to the railroad station is Katerynyns’ka Street. Several blocks of department stores and other retailers are on this street. The cathedrals of the three major Christian sects and the Muslim mosque are on or near Katerynyns’ka Street. Sycamore trees and old buildings line this avenue giving it the feeling of being in France. Odessa is small in size, making it very walkable.

There’s more than a touch of Paris here. Between 1890 and 1910 Odessa was booming as evidenced by the large number of decorative Art Noveau hotels and apartment buildings. Clearly the 20th century wasn’t the best time here and many of the fine old buildings have been neglected although others have been restored. Next to my hotel a superb example of Art Noveau decoration is being restored in a multi-year project now nearing completion. Once called the “Grand Moscow Hotel” (or sometimes the “Big Moscow Hotel”) this building is now as beautiful as it has ever been. The exterior is complete and work seems to be going on inside. Come in a year or two and you may be able to stay there. I’d love doing that!*

There’s so much to show and tell about Odessa that I plan to create three posts this week to show some of what I found there. I’ll begin with some pictures I hope will give you a sense of the city.

“CTEUKXAYC” spells “steakhouse” I think but I’m showing this for the red cow of peace.

A good idea: a picnic spot along the path through the park.

A charming hotel and a cafe named “Maman” (French for mama).

New buildings and old outside my hotel.

Deribasovskaya Street is the center of the party. Each evening young women offer ponies and donkeys, dressed up for a party, for children’s rides. I liked this one’s tutu.

The Great Moscow Hotel — more about this in my next post.

Almost Spring!

Taking wedding pictures on the boulevard overlooking the sea.

Odessa’s most important buildings are on Primorskiy Boulevard, overlooking the sea and the famous Potemkin Stairs.

Come back soon for photos of some spectacular buildings of Odessa.

*I can recommend Royal Street Hotel, a really nice small hotel at a price under $40 a night off-season, directly on Deribasovskaya Street.

Elizaveta (my name in Russian!)

Kiev: Saint Sofia Cathedral (Museum)

Following the disaster at Notre Dame de Paris yesterday, and because I’m in Kiev this week, it seems appropriate to share my photos of Saint Sofia with you today.

Begun in the early 11th century, Saint Sofia is the most famous site in Kiev, Ukraine. It was built in the eastern orthodox style. Its roof contains 13 cupolas of varying sizes, some of them covered in gold. A gold-covered carved screen surrounds a door made of silver.  Two-tier galleries comprise a second floor on three sides. Fresco paintings — some ancient and most newer – grace the galleries.

Through the centuries Saint Sofia has often been at the center of conflict between various Christian sects.  Wikipedia says, “After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and during the Soviet anti-religious campaign of the 1920s, the government plan called for the cathedral’s destruction and transformation of the grounds into a park. The cathedral was saved from destruction primarily by the effort of many scientists and historians. Nevertheless, in 1934, Soviet authorities confiscated the structure from the church, including the surrounding 17th–18th century architectural complex, and designated it as an architectural and historical museum.”  It remains a museum today.

(The image at the top of this post is of a model of St. Sofia located at the site. I think it gives you a better idea of the cathedral than any of my photos of the exterior do.)

This is the baptistry which is still in its original condition. If you look carefully you may see images of people.

This is the interior of the main dome which is located above the altar. The paintings are recent.

This is the gold and silver screen that separates the altar from the nave. It is wood covered in precious metals.

Fresco paintings on the old walls, some recently restored and some not.

This is the bell tower (and the last blue sky I’ve seen in Kiev.)

A personal note: Since my granddaughter was a tiny child I’ve told her I’m taking her to Paris one day. Soon she’ll be old enough for that. Sadly, she will not be able to experience the awe-inspiring beauty of Notre Dame cathedral. Paris, my favorite city, has been the location of some very unfortunate events in the past few years. Don’t let that keep you from visiting!  Paris will always be the world’s most beautiful city. If you have been to Paris, please share your favorite memory or place with us in the Comments section below.

Tallinn, Estonia – Very Old and Very New

I left Zadar’s 70 degree (Fahrenheit) days to return to winter. On my first day in Tallin the temperature was 30 F degrees for most of the day and light snow had fallen overnight. Quite a change! But knowing my stay here would be short, I toughed it out and walked five miles around the city, enjoying it tremendously. On the second day the sky was blue and the sun shown most of the day but it remained quite cold. All the natives of Tallin were quick to assure me that last week the temperature was in the high 60s. (The scene above shows that we had snow on the morning of my arrival but very little of it. I like the way the old town is reflected in the window of a newer enterprise.)

Tallinn’s town hall is centuries old, gothic in style and was built to be the town hall. It is the center of the old town and the centerpiece of the large market square.

I’ve found the Estonian people to be exceptionally pleasant and friendly. Most of them speak English well. I pre-booked an old hotel near the center of the Old Town and I was very happy with my choice.

Tallinn’s medieval city walls are studded with many towers. They are still intact in most places despite many attacks over the centuries including World War 2 bombing.

The tourist office here is the best I’ve found. Not only do they patiently explain in English the answer to questions but they have also arranged three daily free walking tours.  I especially liked the “Medieval History of Tallinn” tour with Gregorian, a guide who made history fun.

Tommy was chosen to be our flag-bearer for our Medieval Tour group and with pride and good humor he carried the banner through the town. Greg, the guide, was very good, funny, full of information, a natural actor.

I asked our tour guide about life under the Soviets.  He’s young and probably doesn’t have direct memories of the years before 1991. Although I had asked about which government restored his city that had been heavily bombed during WWII, he replied about the freedom he had to speak his mind, to make jokes about the government, to be himself. He made it clear that he was very happy with Estonia’s new political system.

A typical cobblestone street filled with old buildings in the Old Town section of Tallinn. Some of the buildings date from the early medieval era.

Tallinn gives every impression of being a very westernized city.  The new part of town has many new glass towers.  One of them is the 30-story Swishotel. It is only 27 years since the Soviet Union controlled the government here as it had done since the end of World War II. Tallinn has become a very popular stop for Baltic cruises and that no doubt raises income levels here. I came because friends who have visited Tallinn on Baltic itineraries have told me how much they liked it. Surely that word has spread far.  It is a city well worth visiting.  Beautiful, old and new, well-maintained, friendly, English-speaking. I’m writing this in Riga, Latvia – Estonia’s next door neighbor. As you’ll read in my next post, that town tells an entirely different story.

Lovely entrance to a building on the market square in Tallinn. Perhaps originally a theatre? Tallinn has many beautifully painted and carved doors — so many that they’ve created a poster and other items showcasing doors.

I had to share this with you! Spring 2019 shoe styles from Estonia. Lots of fun! (Click the image to enlarge it.)

For my friend Clare: an ancient Lutheran church, older than the Protestant Reformation. Small, beautiful, still in use regularly.