A Balkan Quest; MIKE SMITH Went into the Depths of Eastern Europe and Found out More about Its Myths, Legends and Some Recent History

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Byline: STEVE RACE

THIS was a trip to really get my teeth into.

Like Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula, I was in Budapest at the beginning of a journey that would take me deep into the Carpathian Mountains and the land of the undead.

Who could tell what surprises and adventures lay before me as our bold expedition delved deep into Europe's little known Eastern territories?

Well, having already studied that mystical text, the Cosmos Balkans and Transylvania itinerary, it wasn't to be too much of a surprise.

Adventurous, yes, but every day was carefully charted and ran as smoothly as a gentle heartbeat.

The beautiful fantasy on the Danube that is Budapest is a city you can visit over and over again, to admire the Neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture, sip coffee and tuck into hearty fare.

But the allure of the trip was venturing into the Balkans; a brief visit to Serbia before getting to know Bulgaria and Romania, culminating in a taste of Dracula's Transylvania.

Once out of Hungary (and the EU) and into Serbia we had entered the Balkans.

After lunch in Novi Sad and one of many currency exchanges we headed into Belgrade. It is hard to believe this is a city we bombed less than a decade ago; modern, comfortable and familiar, brimming with young people and full of life.

Before settling into a restaurant we milled around the city's sparkling shops, made a tour of the sights all wonderfully illuminated and strolled around Kalemegdan Castle which dominates the sweep of the Danube as it joins with the tributary Sava.

Our all too short stay in Serbia over, we entered Bulgaria heading for the comfort of our hotel in Sofia. It might be one of the prettiest names for a capital city but it has a long way to go before the gloom and blandness of half a century of state Communism is erased.

Mosques and churches co-exist peacefully and we admired gems like the ornate Aleksander Nevski church, a monument to the Russians who helped end Turkish rule.

It proved quite a trek but our itinerary took us to the most famous of Bulgaria's monasteries at Rila. Surrounded by snow-packed mountains the monastery retains its charms despite vast number of tourists.

The years have also been kinder to the city of Plovdiv, a more picturesque town boasting wonderful architecture from the Turkish period all lovingly restored.

After days of sightseeing and evenings in taverns it was goodbye to Bulgaria and off to Romania for the rest of our trip. Our increasingly merry band headed for Paris of the East, Bucharest. …