One of the most beautiful experiences in life is the feeling of elation as the plane descends and you excitedly and frantically look out the window trying to see this new land you will soon be exploring. The knowledge that when the plane touches down, when you finally disembark, you will be launching yourself into a world hitherto unknown is a remarkable, freeing experience.
I made such a descent one dreary, rainy September day into Ruzyne Airport in Prague, knowing I was gazing upon the city that would be my home for the next four months.
While the scattered industrial shrapnel dotting the landscape was less than overwhelming, I held out hope and was rewarded as I stepped out of the airport into the soupy air that enveloped me outside the terminal. One breath and I knew it was a magical place, a city like no other.
I would come to realize over the next few months of academic neglect and blissful wandering that there is a magic to all of Eastern Europe, a magic too few have experienced.
Few realize the depth and majesty of culture in the region. Indeed it rivals, and in some cases surpasses, its better known Western counterpart. From the early Polish kingdoms to the once powerful and still majestic Bohemian lands to the undeniably unique Magyars, Europe's forgotten stepsister has much to offer any traveler willing to take the time to explore her.
Beginning in Prague, truly the crown jewel of it all, one is reminded of a rich culture spanning the centuries simply by stumbling down the cobblestone streets, whether the destination is Hradcany (the Castle District) or the Stare Mesto (the Old Town). Charles University, one of Europe's oldest, calls Prague home, as does the Astronomical Clock, a feat of engineering brilliance completed sometime in the early 15th century. From the Charles Bridge to Petrin Hill, there is an inspirational spirit which permeates the city and has inspired artists for countless generations--a spirit which has survived not only communism but also the rule of both Nazi Germany and the Habsburgs.
The often forgotten other half in what was once Czecho-slovakia should not be understated either.
Slovakia, from it's mountains to it's charming capital Bratislava, is a country rapidly gaining attention as a destination--and for good reason. Classic Eastern European cuisine, slivovice and a people whose kindness is rarely encountered make it a place more than worthy of exploration.
A jarring but oh-so-eventful 10-12 hour train journey north will land you in Krakow, Poland; a city I affectionately call Little Prague. Located in southern Poland, and formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Krakow is now a vibrant and beautiful university town of about 750,000 people. It is also a one-hour drive from Auschwitz, an emotionally draining yet enlightening experience.
If you're daring enough to venture further into the frozen Polish north, you might stumble across Warsaw. This is where many of the cold, gray, industrial, Eastern European stereotypes come into play. Bombed to the ground in the Second World War, Warsaw is a communist wet dream. Don't let that deter you however, there are some definite gems including the Russian black market where everything from U2 bootlegs to gas masks to various weapons can be had.
South of Prague, about eight hours by train, is Budapest, the capital of Hungary and former seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Boasting the brilliance of centuries of architecture and the sublime relaxation of a plethora of public baths, the center of Magyar culture is anything you want it to be.
After hiking up a series of switchbacks and past numerous lookout points you end up atop Gellert Hill at the Citadella, a centuries old fortress with a view of up to 50 miles in any given direction. Surprisingly free from the hypercommericalism beginning to make significant inroads across the region, the Citadella is a great place to relax, reflect, and buy old Red Army medals and uniforms.
Budapest is also a perfect gateway to the Balkans.
Despite being ravaged by civil war and ethnic violence over the past two decades, the lands that make up the former Yugoslavia are among the most earth-shatteringly beautiful I have ever had the pleasure of laying eyes upon, particuarly Croatia.
While train travel is still problematic due to unforgiving borders, Croatia has a very well-developed and reasonably priced bus system which can take you anywhere you'd like.
From the undescribable beauty of the islands in the northern Adriatic to the interwoven network of rivers and waterfalls in the central Plitvice National Park to the one-of-a-kind noble paradise of Dubrovnik on the southern coast, Croatia is unmatched.
A fan of the less civilized and perhaps the eerier side of things? Try Romania.
While much of the country is making significant strides, there are still some quirks found only in the country Count Dracula called home. With Mercedes' passing horse-drawn carriages on the highways and packs of wild dogs wandering the streets of the capital Bucharest, Romania can be quite the experience. The native land of the Roma, or gypsies, there is a definite unique flavour to Romania.
If your time is limited, try to make a trip to Cetatea Poienari, the "real" Dracula's castle. Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler, spent the majority of his time here, just outside the beautiful village of Curtea de Arges, two and a half hours from Bucharest. The better known Dracula destination is Bran Castle, in Poiana Brasov, which houses a museum and has a much more imposing Gothic style than Cetatea Poienari.
All that is but a taste of what this relatively unknown, but certainly not inaccessible, slice of the world has to offer. But, like any journey you take, Eastern Europe will be whatever you choose to make it. Whether it's coming down off a blissful blend of pills, pot and pilsner after a night at the Roxy, having a traditional Romanian feast under the watchful eye of Dracula's Castle, sharing a bottle of Bikaver with a Croatian girl atop Gellert Hill or resting your weary head against a bus window listening to Jeff Buckley as the sun rises over the Adriatic, Eastern Europe has a brilliance that cannot be forgotten.