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.

Beautiful Buildings in Budapest

The streets of Budapest are lined with beautifully decorated buildings dating from the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) and much earlier. Government buildings and churches were extravagantly decorated. Along the major avenues large apartment buildings with carved exteriors stand proudly, continuing to be prime places to live. Following World War 2 the Soviet Union gained control of Hungary. As in many places in eastern Europe, the poverty of the Iron Curtain era protected beautiful old buildings from change or destruction. Today these countries proudly protect their architectural heritage.

The photo above shows the “Chain Bridge” — the first of today’s bridges to cross the Danube in Budapest. Behind it, along the water’s edge, the extraordinary Parliament building of Hungary is seen, the building with the dome. (Learn more about it here.)

Here are a few examples of the beautiful buildings that line the streets of Budapest.

The castle hill above the Danube in Budapest.


A closer view of the beautiful church on the castle hill.


This building standing watch over the Danube is dated 1782.

This building just across the Danube from the building shown above is the three-level market hall.

This is a view of the church on the campus of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. It was founded as an engineering university in 1782, making it the oldest such college in Europe.


Another view of the campus and its church, plus the connecting bridge. It’s common in Austria and Hungary for churches to have patterned tile roofs. This one might be due for some upkeep.

On the Buda Side of the Danube

The star of the show in Buda (the west side of the river) is the great castle on the hill. Built in the mid-1700s under the direction of Empress Maria Thersa of Austria, the castle has its roots in the 1200s. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries since. A detailed history of the castle and a room-by-room description with old photos is on Wikipedia – click here.


Occupying the ridge at the opposite end of the castle hill is a charming neighborhood of lovely old buildings painted in pastel colors. The cathedral of Budapest is placed between the castle and neighboring residential district.

Below the castle on the Buda side of the Danube there are gracious old apartment buildings in busy neighborhoods.  The apartment where I stayed was built in 1907. My friend’s grandparents bought it in 1947 and it has passed down to her. It’s a large apartment of the grand old style. Three large rooms overlook the city street below. At the rear of the apartment is the maid’s room (now storage) and a tiny original kitchen, obviously designed for a maid as well. Because this apartment has been handed down intact it contains the memories, the artifacts, the style of many decades. I felt lucky to spend a few days there.

Although Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain for much of the 20th century and on the losing side in both World Wars 1 and 2, the people of Budapest continued to preserve the great buildings and neighborhoods constructed when their city was a co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. That pride of place can still be seen throughout the city today. Despite its difficult past, there is a charm to Budapest that many modern cities have lost. As with many places that were once behind the Iron Curtain, the damage inflicted during bombardments during the 1940s was repaired long ago and the gracious style of the late 1800s can be seen throughout the city today.

I hope the pictures I’ve shared here will give you a bit of the sense of beautiful Budapest.

Old meets new on the Danube

This is where my friend A. attended grammar school. It remains a school today. It was originally a convent.


The Famous Gellért Hotel

If you’ve seen a travel guidebook about Hungary chances are you’ve seen a swimming pool at the Gellért Hotel on the cover of the book. There are not many hotels in the world featured on the cover of guide books; not many with names recognized by international travelers. The Gellért is one of that select number. The history of the hotel is a story of destruction and interruption during the wars of the 20th century and rebirth during the Soviet occupation. Wikipedia’s article about the Gellért provides a good, brief history.

The hotel is obviously grand but it’s the spa and its swimming pools that attract attention and draw people from everywhere. I’m borrowing from Wikipedia a description of the spa at the hotel: “Hotel Gellért is famous for its thermal baths. The Gellért Spa, connected to the hotel directly, is a special attraction and its indoor and outdoor swimming pool, wave bath, sunbathing terrace and thermal spa can be used by the hotel guests [and the public]. Thermal baths are used for healing different diseases and illnesses. Jacuzzi with its glass roofs, which is opened in the summer, and the wave bath are the favourites among guests.”

Although I didn’t stay at the Gellért Hotel I was able to walk into the art deco interior of the spa and to snap some pictures, indoors and out.

If you have the opportunity to visit Budapest, grab it! If you’re considering a river cruise on the Danube, make a point of beginning or ending here. If your time there will be outside the summer season, look into staying at Hotel Gellért. It’s location in the center of the city is perfect for touring fascinating Budapest.

This is a view of the spectacular entrance to the famous indoor pool at the spa. Above the area shown here is a gorgeous stained-glass dome.

This is the best picture I could get from the closest point to the famous indoor pool.


But this borrowed photo shows you how fabulous this place is!

By poking my camera’s lens through rails on a fence I was able to capture this scene of the outdoor pool area on a very hot day.

No one from New Bern NC (birthplace of Pepsi) could skip this shot, also taken from the other side of the fence.

Resources: (great pictures here).

Here’s Anthony Horowitz’s take on Budapest.

A Walk in Pest

My friend A. and I spent a day walking through the edge of the Pest section of Budapest, near the Danube river. (Budapest is actually two old cities, Buda and Pest, which were combined into one city in 1873.)

We began at the large old market hall which is two stories high plus an Aldi store installed in the basement.

The large old market hall is located at the edge of the river, just off one of the principal bridges. It’s filled with fresh food and items designed to appeal to tourists.

Those are peppers piled up beside the shopper.

Here, from another stand, a peck of peppers. The price is a bargain: about 40 U.S. cents for two and a quarter pounds.

From there we strolled through a popular tourist area, then on to the mercantile town center.

The splendid Cafe Gerbeaud, a Viennese style café and bakery serving Budapest since 1858.

Two little curious shoppers, tempted by something good.

When we stopped to visit the Basilica we were briefly entertained by a band of young musicians from Friedberg, Germany.

A lunch time concert from the visiting band with the facade of the Basilica behind them.

The basilica is richly decorated. It’s in the Greek cross shape, that is it has four arms of equal length, making an X shape. As with many (most?) of the public buildings in Budapest, it has a beautiful dome.

From there we walked on toward the Parliament building, which is very large and very richly “dressed,” much like a flamboyant French cathedral.

In the course of our walk we passed many people, many shops and stores and sidewalk cafés, many old buildings – some recently restored, some still in need of restoration.  I hope these pictures give you a bit of the sense of fascinating Budapest.

A tourist having his picture taken with a statue of Ronald Reagan.



My long-time friend (whom I will call A), a native of Hungary, and her American husband (I’ll call him B) invited me to join them in Budapest recently. They have the apartment that A’s family has owned for 70 years. It’s located a short walk from the Danube in a very interesting and attractive neighborhood. While we were there the temperature passed 100 degrees Fahrenheit one day and 96 degrees another. We wandered around the city through the heat each day until this blogger could go no farther.

The delightful Parliament building, the Danube and one of the towers of the famous Chain Bridge.

Budapest is sometimes called the “Paris of the East.” I think, given the number of truly spectacular buildings, that it may be even more beautiful than Paris. Most of the famous buildings were constructed during the Austro-Hungarian empire when Vienna and Budapest served as joint capitals. A monumental palace stands on a hill overlooking both sides of the city, Buda and Pest. Two magnificent churches – one the cathedral on the Buda side of the river and the other a basilica on the Pest side – are crowning jewels. The parliament seems to be made of spun sugar. Three bridges with tall towers overhead cross the Danube just blocks apart. Parks abound, including on one an island in the middle of the river. The architecture, mostly late 19th and early 20th century, consists primarily of highly decorated office and apartment buildings of fewer than ten stories.

The castle glowing in the dark. Look closely to see a river cruise ship docked just under the palace. Many river cruises begin or end in Budapest, on the Danube.

Because there’s so much to see and photograph in Budapest I plan to write several posts and to share many photos to allow you to see more of this fascinating city, beginning with some of the best known places along the Danube.

Located near the palace at the top of the Castle Hill, the cathedral is graced by a very tall tower and a multi-color tile roof, much like the cathedral in Vienna.