Beautiful Balkans; Mike Smith Takes a Journey into Eastern Europe's Little-Known Treasures

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Smith

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.

Before heading farther east, we did indeed sample all the above-mentioned, but on this visit gave the hot baths a miss.

Instead, we chose a restaurant for our return two weeks later.

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, it is 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.

It is interesting to see mosques and churches co-existing peacefully and, the rain having stopped the next day, admire such gems as 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, although we did arrive, it has to be said, on a national holiday.

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, watching folk dancing and supping local beverages, it was goodbye to Bulgaria as the bulk of our stay in the Balkans was in Romania.

Our increasingly merry band headed for the Paris of the East, Bucharest.

Again, Romania's brand of state Communism has not been kind to the vast, sprawling city.

While money was lavished on grand projects, it seems the city's former elegance was swept aside, along with churches, some of which are now tucked behind modern buildings. …