The Other Europe

Beyond Central and Western Europe, discover this historically rich region that offers diversity few destinations can match.

By: Mark Edward Harris

Vlad the Impaler should have been in a better mood living in such a beautiful place. The legend of Dracula is thought to have come from him, a prince who displayed the speared remains of invaders to dissuade others from venturing into his domain in Transylvania, a region in central Romania. Fortunately, these days this part of Eastern Europe is a bit more welcoming. It also happens to be easier on the wallet and less crowded than its Western European counterparts.

I had entered this historically rich and diverse part of the globe two weeks earlier by ship. Cruising on the Radisson Diamond as we threaded through the Dardanelles, we passed Gallipoli where Australian troops battled Turks in one of the bloodiest battles of World War I. We then circumnavigated the European waters of the Black Sea calling at Nessebur in Bulgaria; Constanta in Romania; Yalta, Sevastopol and Odessa in the Ukraine; and finally, Istanbul.

I found cruising from port to port and then flying from capital to capital over a two-week period allowed for a leisurely trip with exposure to an incredible variety of cultures and travel experiences. While Romania, Bulgaria, the Ukraine and Turkey are worthwhile destinations in and of themselves, first-time travelers to this region in particular might feel their dollars are put to better use on an escorted or unescorted tour. There are plenty of highlights to see in the European countries bordering the Black Sea in this up-and-coming part of the continent.


I traveled to Transylvania via Romania’s capital, Bucharest, which was founded in 1459 by Prince Vlad. I stayed at the city’s historic Athenee Palace Hilton, located in the heart of the city, yet only a 20-minute drive from the airport. Built in 1914, the 272-room Athenee was restored to its pre-World War II glory in 1997 under the management of Hilton. The hotel overlooks the Royal Palace, the National Library and the 19th-century Romanian Athenaeum concert hall.

Many tour operators use the Athenee Palace for their Bucharest accommodations. Tauck World Discovery, for example, begins their new Black Sea to Budapest itinerary here. Brennan Vacations and Globus offer their Danube cruise clients the opportunity to extend their Bucharest stays at the Hilton. For independent travelers, the hotel will arrange private city tours which usually include the Palace of Parliament, the Triumphal Arch, Revolution Square and Patriarchal Cathedral.

To venture into what the local travel industry refers to as “Dracula’s Transylvania,” I arranged a car and a guide for a day through the Athenee Palace’s concierge (check with the hotel to arrange in advance). For $200 it was not only relatively economical, it was extremely convenient, given the infrequency of public transportation and the distances between points of interest. The cost for this excursion is indicative of the lower costs in Eastern Europe.

The usual itinerary to Transylvania includes a visit to the walled town of Brasov, 87 miles northwest of Bucharest; then 30 miles to Sinaia for a tour of Peles Castle with one of Romania’s most important museums and the final resting place for several Romanian monarchs; and finally the location most tourists (myself included) come to visit, Bran Castle, popularly known as Dracula’s Castle. Dating from the 1300s, the gothic castle is now the property of the Romanian State, which opened it to the public as a museum in 1947.

Among the many stories connected with Bran Castle is that it once belonged to or was occupied by Vlad Tepes (1431-1476), aka Vlad the Impaler, and most famously, Count Dracula, thanks to Bram Stoker’s terrifying novel, first published in 1897.

Vlad was revered by Romanians for standing up to the Ottoman Empire. He enforced the law by liberally applying the death penalty and impaling all those he considered enemies. It’s believed that Vlad’s alter ego, Count Dracula, came about because he used to sign with his father’s name, Vlad Dracul. Dracula is derived from the Romanian word for devil or dragon. For those who want to pay tribute to the legend of Dracula they can also visit the final resting place of Vlad Tepes at Snagov Monastery, located on a tiny island in the middle of Snagov Lake, 29 miles north of Bucharest.

While the legend of Count Dracula conjures up visions of a dark and gloomy medieval landscape, the reality, at least in summer, is a place with some of the most beautiful rolling green hills I’ve ever seen. The movie “Cold Mountain” was filmed here because of its resemblance to North Carolina in the 1860s. You can still see horses pulling carts loaded high with hay. This is no movie set. It is daily life in Transylvania.

Given how similar some areas of Europe can seem to the U.S. these days, this “Old Country” feeling should make for a unique and fascinating experience for most clients.


After a day of legend and lure I took a short flight from Bucharest’s Henri Coand International Airport to Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia. While the train is an option, infrequent schedules and slow travel times do not make it the best choice.

The Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan is in the heart of the city within walking distance of the business and commercial districts, government offices and major tourist attractions, including the 4th-century St. George Rotunda, the Presidential Palace, the streets of Roman Serdica and the spectacular Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Sheraton itself is one of the city’s grand hotels and an architectural landmark. Its two ballrooms have hosted many spectacular events. There’s also a casino for those who can’t resist leaving some of their greenbacks in the country.

For great views of Sofia and an equally impressive dinner, the Panorama Rooftop Restaurant on the top floor of the Kempinski Hotel Zografski is highly recommended.

One of the must-see destinations in Bulgaria is Rila Monastery. The monastery was founded in the 10th century by the monk St. John of Rila and was rebuilt in the 13th and 14th centuries. Once again, I arranged for a driver and guide for the visit, giving me the flexibility to stop along the scenic drive.

While Rila deserves to be on the top of any day trip opportunity from Sofia, for those with more time a worthwhile excursion is to Plovdiv, the most important southern city of Bulgaria, with some of the best classical remains, Byzantine churches, mosques and Bulgarian National Revival buildings.


The cruise portion of my Eastern Europe exploration included three port calls in the Ukraine Odessa, Yalta and Sevastopol.

A five-minute walk from the dock in Odessa, the Black Sea’s largest port, is the Potemkin Steps, immortalized in Eisenstein’s film “The Battleship Potemkin.” The steps were built from 1837-1841 under the direction of Italian architect Franz Boffo. Tour buses drop off their clients at the bottom and meet those willing to scale the 193 steps at the top. Also included on most shore excursion itineraries is the baroque-style Opera House and Uspensky Cathedral. Tours exploring the Jewish heritage of the city are also popular.

In Yalta, we were transferred to a tour bus for a shore excursion to the picturesque Eagles Nest Castle then on to Livadia Palace, the former residence of Russian Czar Nicolas II and the scene of the historic Yalta Conference where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met for the final time near the end of World War II.

Sevastopol gained world attention as a battle site during the Crimean War (1854-1855), the first major conflict to be recorded photographically. A tour of the city’s most popular museum, the Panorama, has an in-depth photographic record of the war. Rising out of this war was Florence Nightingale, who became synonymous with the profession of nursing because of her heroic actions in the Crimea.


Istanbul is a logical place to begin or end an exploration of Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, after all, is not only the gateway to Asia but the gateway to Europe, as well.

The city’s history dates back 16 centuries to the Byzantine Empire, when it was called Byzantium. Following Greek and Persian occupation, the city fell to the Romans. Istanbul was declared the Eastern Roman capital under Emperor Constantine, who renamed the city Constantinople. It later served as a capital for the Ottomans, who renamed it Istanbul. The Ottomans fell to the Turks and the Turkish Republic was established.

One of the top hotels in Istanbul is the Ciragan Palace Hotel Kempinski Istanbul, located on the banks of the Bosporus River. It was Turkey’s first member of the Leading Hotels of the World because of its combination of architectural grandeur and modern comforts. Simply put: This is where the diplomats and celebrities stay, and for good reason. The rooms are palatial; the views, spectacular. In the neighborhood are some of the hippest restaurants and nightclubs, a surprise to many first-time visitors to this Muslim country.

To literally immerse myself in the local culture, I headed to the historic Cagaloglu Hamami Baths. This hamam (Turkish bath) dates back more than two centuries and has been visited by celebrities and statesman alike including King Edward VIII, Franz Liszt, Mark Twain, the Rockefellers and Richard Harris.

Among the many must-see attractions in the city is the 16th-century Suleiman Mosque constructed by the Ottoman architect, Sinan; the Beyazit Mosque commissioned by Bayazid II, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1481-1512); and the Hagia Sophia (St. Sophia), a magnificent Byzantine Church considered one of the finest architectural works in the world. In 1934, Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, converted St. Sophia into a museum that today is famous for its magnificent frescoes and mosaics.

For those who want to bring home some treasures, vendors at the Grand Bazaar will be happy to oblige, except on Sundays when it’s closed. Rugs are on the top of many shoppers’ lists. Studying the many types of rugs in advance and gaining some semblance of knowledge before beginning the inevitable haggling will yield a better outcome.
There are few travel destinations that can compete with the diversity of cultures and unique travel experiences of the Black Sea and its environs. Cruise lines and tour operators have taken advantage of this, and because of the strong dollar in relation to the local currencies, a trip here is affordable for just about any client.

Cruising the Black Sea

As mysterious as it is beautiful, the Black Sea’s dramatic, diverse attractions have beckoned invaders and visitors alike for centuries. And thanks to a unique geographic vantage point, those visitors can arrive in both river and ocean-going vessels. It’s a distinction shared by few other bodies of water.

Europe’s mightiest of rivers the Danube flows to the Black Sea, making Danube to the Black Sea itineraries a fixture of river cruise catalogs. The most popular versions of the cruise venture from Prague (or Budapest) to Bucharest, calling at ports in Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Highlights include Belgrade, the Paris of the East; ancient Kalocsa, Hungary, founded by St. Stephen in 1009 and famous for paprika; and the resort town of Constanta, Romania. Located on the coast of the Black Sea, Constanta is also the site of the 40-mile-long Black Sea Canal, an impressive feat of engineering completed in 1984.

River cruise companies offering Black Sea itineraries in 2006 include Avalon Waterways, Uniworld and Viking River Cruises.

Ocean-going vessels also cruise the Black Sea, with itineraries bearing names such as Black Sea Interlude and Jewels of the Black Sea. Most of the trips are Athens to Istanbul itineraries, with forays to some of the Black Sea’s most famous cities, including Odessa, Yalta and Sevastopol, in the Ukraine.

Odessa is the Black Sea’s largest port, a thriving commercial hub immortalized for its connection to the battleship Potemkin and the revolution of 1905. Odessa is also a renowned resort destination, with stretches of beach dotted with therapeutic spas, and known for its historic Opera House that hosted both Tchaikovsky and Anna Pavlova.

Yalta, of course, is home to Livadia, the Russian Imperial family’s summer home that served as a venue for Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill’s famous 1945 summit.

Originally built as a fortress, Sevastopol endured attack during both the Crimean War and World War II. Its defenders in the former conflict included the writer Tolstoy. And during the latter, its valiant stance against the Germans earned Sevastopol the honorary designation of “Hero City.”

Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea each offer cruises to the Black Sea region in 2006.


Athenee Palace Hilton Bucharest
1-3 Episcopiei St., Sector 1, Bucharest, Romania

Ciragan Caddesi Kempinski Istanbul
32 Besiktas, Istanbul, Turkey

Radisson Seven Seas Cruises

Sheraton Sofia Hotel Balkan
5 Sveta Nedelya Square
Sofia, Bulgaria