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Giving Eastern Europe a chance

Times Staff Writer

WHEN I was a little girl, I used to lie in bed at night, eyes closed, trying to imagine how the room would look if my feet were where my head was. My recent travels in Eastern Europe have been a little like that for me, an exercise in intentional self-disorientation that has allowed me to see things from fresh angles.

Last spring, I started work on a series of articles about Eastern European destinations: Serbia; the old spa towns of Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) and Marienbad (Marianske Lazne) in the Czech Republic; the Danube River delta in Romania; and Budapest, Hungary, for its Art Nouveau. On each trip, I made some discoveries.

Since the end of the Communist era, tourism in Eastern Europe has boomed, but I encountered few other Americans, except in Budapest. Western Europeans have led the way east; Russians crowd Adriatic beaches and Czech spas; atop Gellert Hill in Budapest and at Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade, Serbia, I was surrounded by Chinese tour groups, increasingly drawn to Eastern Europe.

Immigration from Asia has also increased since the lifting of the Iron Curtain, which may explain why the first thing I saw when I drove across the border from Germany to the Czech Republic was an Asian market.

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It was enlightening to be the only American around. A Budapest cabdriver told me he wanted to visit the U.S. but couldn’t get a visa. An elderly Serb paused when I asked him how he felt about my country, then politely replied that he loved it before the 1999 American-led NATO bombing of Belgrade. A friendly but misguided young Romanian on his way home to Bucharest from Paris made my blood run cold by complaining about the way Jewish people run the U.S.

I had been to Eastern Europe about 10 years ago, choosing Sofia, Bulgaria, and hoping to find it as beguiling but less crowded than Prague, the picturesque capital of the Czech Republic. But Sofia’s streets were empty and cracked, the museums closed, the hotel choices grim.

Like most Americans, I continued to think of the former Soviet bloc as a region shrouded in mystery, far away and exotic. It is not so to Western Europeans. They, of course, share a continent and, in some cases, the European Union, with countries that now include Poland and the Czech Republic. Most of the eight Central and Eastern European nations that joined the EU two years ago are expected to adopt the euro by 2010.

Meanwhile, exchange rates make travel relatively inexpensive, and most of the region can be reached by plane from London or Paris in a few hours. The growth of European budget carriers such as EasyJet, Ryanair and SkyEurope has made flying east easy and cheap. Budget airlines now account for about 30% of all scheduled air service on the Continent, according to the European Low Fares Airline Assn., an industry lobbying group based in Brussels, and have helped put new destinations on the map. Young travelers snag cheap tickets for getaways in Eastern Europe, turning cities such as Riga, Latvia, into weekend party towns.

In 2005, the Adriatic Coast of Montenegro was the flavor of the week, touted as being an inexpensive alternative to the already popular beaches of neighboring Croatia. I went there in the spring of that year to check it out, booking a room at the Hotel Sveti Stefan, an island resort near the town of Budva favored by the glitterati in the 1960s.

Reached by a causeway beneath rocky coastal mountains, it still enjoys a smashing setting, though government ownership has left the hotel run down. My single cost about $100, including breakfast. But the coffee was so bad I had to go elsewhere for breakfast, and I spent most of my time fantasizing about what I would do with the place if I had a few million dollars.

Last spring, Montenegro voted for independence from neighboring Serbia, something of a pariah state since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, putting Montenegro on the fast track for all the economic benefits that accompany entry into the EU. So I wasn’t surprised to hear recently that the luxury Aman Resorts chain, which has its headquarters in Singapore, had entered into negotiations to lease the Hotel Sveti Stefan, reportedly pledging an investment of $25 million. That’s enough to make the hotel enchanting. But when the renovations are finished, how much will the rooms cost? It’s a classic conundrum for travelers who appreciate good coffee but would hate for upgrades to turn uncut gems like the Hotel Sveti Stefan into hideaways for the affluent.

Luxury hotels are springing up all over Eastern Europe. A decade ago, I paid about $15 a night for a room in a Sofia pension; in Budapest last month, I stayed at the Art Nouveau landmark Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel for about $300. Experts suggest the boom at the high end has been driven by budget airline passengers, who use the money they save on plane tickets for rooms in five-star hotels.

Travelers who book accommodations in small, independent hotels can still find bargains. In the Serbian mountain resort of Zlatibor, I stayed in a suite with a kitchenette at the Vila Bajka for about $80 a night, and my handsomely furnished double at the Hotel Romance in the Czech spa town of Karlsbad cost about $100. Food, activities and souvenirs are all relatively inexpensive too. I found a beautiful, hand-knitted jacket at a market in Zlatibor for $40.

But hunting for bargains and seeing great sights like Budapest’s medieval Castle Hill aren’t the best reasons for traveling in Eastern Europe, I found. More meaningful to me is watching Russian children learn how to swim in the Adriatic, having a gum massage in Karlsbad, passing horse-drawn wagons on Romanian highways and finding out what the Balkan wars mean to Serbs. See Rome, but don’t die. There’s too much in less-trammeled places like Eastern Europe to miss.

susan.spano@latimes.com


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