By Rich Witty, guest writer
Eastern Europe is a region of discoveries. As it proved with me, you find what you look for. No strict planning is needed, and I would advise you to not to relay too heavily on travel guides since, in most cases, the stereotypes do not appear to be true. When I used to think about Eastern Europe I always envisioned Communism, vodka, poverty and farming. That perception changed the moment I visited the region. Once again, the stereotypes proved to be wrong, and more strongly so with every day I spent there. With that said, I want to share four common misconceptions about the Eastern side of the Old World to help break these stereotypes for others.
Beer and vodka. For life.
Not quite so. Although beer is one of the staples of the Germanic and Eastern European countries, it is not the only drink available at the bar. And not the only one you should try when ordering your meal. Dark and white, filtered and unfiltered, foamy and perfected through the centuries, beers and in last decades have faced tough competition with emerging small winery produced wines.
More and more loved by the locals and preferred by tourists are not only the traditional wines made from grapes. In the North, small production quantities and independent farmers sell their own produced non-grape fruit wines. Apple, rhubarb, pear, cherry and other varieties are a few to name. Blended, spiced, dry and sparkling – you will surely find your favorite. The quality may differ from farmer to farmer, but as the wines are sold in farmers’ markets, one can almost always taste it before deciding.
If you are more of a traditionalist, for your surprise and luck grapes are cultivated and wine is produced in Eastern Europe as well. Although producing excellent wine, you may have not heard about the Bulgarian wine industry. In times when Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot are the go-to wines, Bulgaria with their own Melnyk and Mavrud have lost a little bit of prestige.
To truly enjoy and dive into the tastes of Eastern Europe, you must enjoy a glass of characterful Melnyk in Bulgaria and sparkling white fruit wine in Baltics. Bringing Latvian blended fruit wine back home to my friends, it was confirmed to be one of the lightest and best dessert wines they had tasted. Slightly sour Northern fruitiness combined with sparkling and sweet notes of berries made the taste full. Its novelty and small production quantities are the key.
Potatoes, potato pancakes and potatoes again.
While enjoying a glass of wine, I cannot resist to dive into local cuisines and enjoy different kinds of food. Warned to be consuming potatoes every single day, at every single meal, I first believed the myth. True, potatoes were available at any imaginable form and cooked in every imaginable way. Cakes, Lithuanian capellini, mashed potatoes, potato pancakes, French fries, and all the other varieties gave the impression of never ending consumption of staple foods. However, the fact that potatoes were only introduced in the 16th century came as a surprise to me. Historically, root vegetables, legumes and grains were cultivated.
With that in mind, completely different cuisine opened to my mind. Latvian grey peas, cold beetroot soup, cranberry soup desserts and other hearty but healthy and superfood filled foods made me fall in love with local food. Affordable healthy meals available in restaurants and home cooked food is the secret recipe to the health of the East. We in the West have lot to learn.
Communism: Back in time.
Growing up at the times of cold war, it was no surprise that I expected to see poverty, terrible architecture and other attributes of socialism at its finest. Again, not true. Although corruption, undeveloped infrastructure and poverty is still a major concern for several countries, most European Union member states striving to the better future. Not only infrastructure is developing, but the poverty gap is closing and the environment is becoming increasingly welcoming for foreigners, yet interesting, distinct and even exotic enough for Westerners to visit. You may find lots of communist architecture around the centres of the major cities, but even more so Eastern Europe will take your breath with its beautiful narrow Medieval streets, extraordinary Art Noveau buildings (Riga is calling) and truly rustic farmhouses.
English is not spoken.
If there is one thing that scares me away from travelling to a certain region, it is the communication. As a native English speaker, I presume to be able to communicate in most parts of the world I visit. And contrary to what media claims, Eastern Europe did not cause any issues. Although English was not much of a help in rural areas (at least not in the case of Tiraspol in Moldova), there was always someone appearing to speak the language. Generally better in capitals and in communication with younger generation, it even landed a night’s stay in Riga’s Old Town hotel. Indeed, in return of online marketing consultation, I was welcomed to Neiburgs Hotel for a night.
Not only English will help you to communicate with younger and more educated; it will also open doors to job opportunities and – especially important when living as a digital nomad – to be welcomed into the networks of likeminded.
Have you visited Eastern Europe? Did your perceptions change?
About the Writer: Ritch Witty is an adventurous digital nomad who loves to travel. Whenever he travels he tries to go past the beaten tourist track and to explore the destination as a local would. You can find more about him and his adventures at his blog – The Witty Traveler or his Facebook page.