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Traveling to Eastern Europe - What's behind the Iron Curtain

The Cold War was still being waged when I was at school in the 1980s and the countries behind the Iron Curtain - Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania - were names on the map with populations to be pitied because they didn't share in the delights of Western life. We didn't learn much about these places beyond basic anti-Soviet propaganda that painted these countries as bleak places, full of concrete apartment blocks and empty shops. So when my sister and I decided to travel to eastern Europe in 2003, we had a lot to learn about these former Soviet puppet states. Although the Berlin Wall had long fallen and the Cold War ended, our knowledge had not progressed much beyond these stereotypes and the countries we chose to visit - Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic - barely featured a mention in the media.

We travelled before these countries joined the European Union, so we happily traded our dollars for zlotys, forints and korunas and found that, unlike much of western Europe, the poor Aussie dollar fared very well in these currencies. In fact, much of the charm of western Europe, which has long been tainted by glitzy, overpriced tourist traps, still existed in eastern Europe. As well as ugly, drab concrete blocks of units, we also found well-preserved medieval villages, lush farmland, efficient public transport,great cafes and restaurants serving authentic food and capital cities full of photo opportunities that weren't overrun by hordes of tourists. But we also found that we were more used to a well-trodden tourist path than we imagined.

With a less well-developed tourism trade comes interesting challenges for the mono-lingual Aussie traveller, not least being the language barrier. You can always have a stab at French, German or Italian and hope to get by without too much trouble. It's almost impossible to attempt the same in Polish or Hungarian, with the unfamiliar jumble of consonants, like rz, cz and dz, and strange symbols like an 'l' with a line through it that is pronounced 'w'. While the language barrier is not insurmountable, it feels overwhelming at times. Without basic language in common, even a casual hello to a shopkeeper is off limits and the muteness and incomprehension is frustrating. Spending just a few weeks in a foreign country gives me the utmost respect for any migrant who manages to learn the language and start a new life in a new country. Language barriers can also lead to some interesting situations, such as when we found ourselves stranded in eastern Poland, well off the tourist track, in a town we didn't want to be in, with no map and no English speakers to help point us in the right direction. Fortunately sign language and gesticulation, as well as some pathetic attempts at pronouncing Polish words, managed to save us!

Throughout Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, we found ancient towns, dating back 500 years or more, full of history, cobble-stoned streets and well-preserved houses and buildings. Quite often, these beautiful old buildings, which would be featured on countless postcards if they were located in western Europe, seemed to be taken for granted by the locals, and seen as part of the historic fabric of the town, rather than as special tourist icons to be shut up and admission charged for entry. Walking down the night-time streets of Sopron, an ancient town on the border of Hungary and Austria, we could have been in the 1600s, as it was so dark and quiet and there were not many signs of modern life around.

Modern life has made the world smaller and travel easier. But in these days of mass commercialism, environmental concerns and awareness of preserving local culture, it is right to be concerned about the damage that rampant tourism can do, particularly to local customs and ways of life. I hope there will be a way we can balance tourism needs with these concerns, because it would be a shame if people stopped travelling. Travelling to another country and culture opens your eyes to different ways of life and hopefully encourages greater tolerance and understanding between people.

Article courtesy of Anthony Willis