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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.