11 Ott Go to Eastern Europe
by Jack Bellingham from England
Eastern Europe, all aboard! The only traveller heading to Romania by Jack Bellingham
Last summer, with the threat of Brexit and closing borders still on our minds, my friend Phil and I decided to travel across Eastern Europe. It wasn’t exactly a spur of the moment thing, but several weeks earlier we had decided that instead of flying out to visit my family in Romania, it would be far more fun to have an unplanned adventure. So, for two weeks all we had to do was get from Ljubljana, in Slovenia, to the Romanian capital, Bucharest, some 1100 kilometres east. Simple.
Eastern Europe, Church of the Assumption by Jack Bellingham
Eastern Europe is a very forgiving place when it comes to spontaneity, with good transport links and reasonably priced hostels making planning in advance unnecessary for the most part. So, on my first morning in Ljubljana I was sat having breakfast on a cobbled street in the old town with not a care in the world – apart from the fact that somewhere in our hurried “Phil, where are we meeting? Ljubljana. When? Train gets in at 10am,” we’d forgotten to double check the date. I’d arrived two nights before my travel buddy, and had a whole day to myself in sunny Slovenia.
Eastern Europe, Serbia’s Church of Saint Sava by Jack Bellingham
Deciding to skip the usual tourist attractions, as I’d only see them the following day anyway, I climbed the hill not to see the castle, but to get a glimpse of my surroundings and come up with a plan. The walk up Castle Hill is no mean feat, with some paths offering a leisurely route up, and others being steep enough to make you curse and sweat all the way.
Eastern Europe, Ljubljana on the edge of-the Alps by Jack Bellingham
In need of a rest, an exhibition on Slovenian bees seemed like the perfect excuse to escape the midday sun and learn about local ecology. It turns out that Slovenians are bonkers about bees, and rightly so with the native Carniolan honey bee highly valued amongst beekeepers for its docile nature. Estimates put the number of Slovenian beekeepers at eight times that of the UK, when adjusted for population!
Eastern Europe, franciscan Church on Ljubljana’s–Preseren-Square by Jack Bellingham
Inspired by my foray into apiculture (fancy word for beekeeping), I set out to find the botanical gardens. Heading past the stunningly ornate bridges over the Ljubljanica – a beautiful and surprisingly narrow river for a European capital – I kept an eye out for my stripey friends as I ambled along the recently developed banks. The gardens, though maybe not worth seeing for those short on time in the Slovenian capital, did plant the idea of a trip to Bled once Phil arrived.
Eastern Europe, Belgrade Castle. Serbians do blunt well by Jack Bellingham
Lake Bled is, without a doubt, one of the most stunning places I have ever been lucky enough to visit. Surrounded by the Julian Alps, with a castle overlooking the lake and a church on an island in the middle, it’s hard to believe this piece of paradise is only an hour’s bus ride from Ljubljana. Even better, in August the water is perfectly warm and makes for an easy swim to the Church of the Assumption. Thankfully the streams used as beer-coolers by the local salesmen are still icy cold, and they were happy to sell us a drink when renting a rowing boats!
Eastern Europe, for less than one euro by Jack Bellingham
When we did eventually get round to exploring further east, stopping at Belgrade and the gorgeous – but relatively unheard of – Timisoara, each country provided us with new tales and views. The bustling nightlife of Belgrade and its Ottoman influences (great buildings, great kebabs), was just far enough that the inter-rail crowds were thinning out, yet touristy enough for an easy travelling experience.
Eastern Europe, Lake Bled and the surrounding mountains by Jack Bellingham
Further east still, and it became blatantly obvious that we were well and truly in Eastern Europe, having crossed the fuzzy boundary that separates the relatively new backpacking playground that is Central Europe. A station on the Romanian border with no ATM or card machine. One train a night from Timisoara to Bucharest with far too few bunks – but an onboard snack service consisting of pretzels, apples and beer.
Eastern Europe, cobbled street in Ljubljana by Jack Bellingham
With Timisoara being our last stop, I had been expecting a convenient halfway house on the journey from Belgrade to Bucharest.However, we had inadvertently ended up in the city where the Romanian Revolution and Ceausescu’s downfall started nearly three decades ago.It is this sort of unexpected discovery, and the consistently stunning buildings around every cobbled corner, that really define Eastern Europe for me. Whether it’s learning more about the local culture and history, exploring the great outdoors, finding a strange little bar in a side street – or all three – that get you buzzing, there’s a good chance of finding a hidden gem or two in this part of the world. For the affordability, ease of travel, and similar-but-not-quite-the-same feeling, ignore the Pet Shop Boys. Instead – Go East!