This was a country-bagging challenge rather than a leisurely soaking-up of regional cultures and I found that travelling through 36 countries in three and a half months didn’t leave a great deal of time for detailed assessment of a country or provide too many chances to interact with the locals. I did see a huge number of interesting sites and sights,and the journey has opened my eyes to further travel potential in Europe,in which travel could be slower and remain more local.
Many of my opinions are based on anecdotal findings or an impression gained from viewing a country as I passed through it over just a day or two. The challenge itself became the most important aspect, as opposed to immersing myself in a culture, but that was always the intention: I needed a spur to ensure that I kept going. What provided the incentive to visit interesting places along the route was firstly the usual tourist’s one of curiosity, but having established a secondary challenge of amassing visits to Unesco World Heritage sites ,I had further motivation to make appropriate detours(whether you can regard the Unesco list as a true league ranking of man’s cultural achievements is a matter of opinion}Finally, I found the keeping of a daily blog one of the biggest drives to look for something new each day, in order to be able to write about something interesting each evening.
I had two trips home mid-journey, leaving the van at Treviso and Budapest airports.This divided my trip neatly into three chunks.For various reasons at home I had to hurry my final third , which was the longest distance, and while earlier in the trip drives between destinations had sometimes been as little as 30km,in the final two weeks I was managing up to 500 km per day, and no doubt missing much of interest in between stops.
I have divided my debrief into three main areas, firstly the tourism interest value of each country, which hopefully might be useful for anyone wishing to visit some of the places themselves, and secondly the cultural aspect particularly in relation to the different nations’ perspective on the EU-both for those already within the EU and those hoping to join. (Or leave !) Maybe this is of some interest in relation to the UK’s promised referendum on leaving the EU. This, by nature of my relatively few detailed conversations with locals, has to be very unrepresentative opinion.
Finally I have added a few notes regarding issues relating to the van, which held up remarkably well, and also the practical points of camping in it, and this I have added to the separate “The Van" blog.
Biggest culture shocks
The culture shock was cushioned by staying in an excellent campsite run by British people
Despite this I got the feeling that Albania is a safe and friendly country and I would recommend people to pay a visit before this country changes from the really unique place it currently is ,to become less distinguishable from other Balkan counties: there is some fantastic scenery and already a small but well established tourist itinerary.
Albania also provided my most scary moment, when I was taken aside by the border police and had my van examined for illicit drugs and firearms, after I had distinctly seen someone come round from the back of my unlocked van while I was standing at the passport booth.
Despite Bulgaria being in the EU, some areas of the countryside especially in the south are staggeringly poor, with crumbling home-made houses and dirt roads through the villages. The main road infrastructure is however very good and the countryside, despite the lack of spectacular scenery, is open and attractive. There is a surprisingly large British expat community, one of the largest in evidence in Eastern Europe. I do not recommend visiting the cheap tourist resorts on the Black sea coast, from what I heard.
- Monaco and the Cote d’Azur.
Admittedly I visited when the weather was bad here but there seems little to detain the average tourist. It’s very overcrowded, and difficult to get around
- Mostar, Bosnia.
This is widely touted as a major Balkan destination. You can’t take away the photogenic setting of the restored bridge, but the tourist area is in fact very small, and one can “do” the whole thing in 30 minutes. Probably not worth a coach trip up from your holiday on the Croatian coast unless you have time to kill, although it is of interest to see the cultural difference between this majority Moslem region and the predominantly Catholic and Italian-like Croatia.
After a rather unpleasant arrival in Romania via Budapest it was a real pleasure to find that Transylvania was not the area of dark forests that I had imagined, but rather a combination of spectacular alpine scenery of the Carpathians, and a rolling bucolic countryside which I imagined might have been what the UK looked like 100 years ago. The triangular area bounded by the 3 cities of Brasov, Sighisoara, and Sibiu, with its old Saxon villages and fortified churches is beautiful and culturally and historically interesting (and very cheap) .Prince Charles owns property here for a reason!
- The Spanish Interior in March. This is an area relatively under visited by the British, yet has spectacular scenery- including mountains and extensive beautiful arid regions. March is the time to go. The snow on the mountains adds to the scenery, the place is very quiet, and the weather when I was there was very pleasantly warm-any later in the year and it would be intolerably hot.
There is a huge amount of interesting cultural history, yet the country is an advanced European nation, with good infrastructure, and the people are friendly, with English widely spoken
Biggest pleasant surprises-cities
Although fairly expensive ,and having bit of a bad traffic problem in the city, there is much to see and do in this city and its spectacular setting of islands and waterways .If I’d had more time I should have liked to have visited the outer islands
Although Riga and Vilnius are both very interesting, Tallinn has just a bit more, but pays the penalty by being also much more touristy. Take your choice!
3)Ohrid ,Macedonia. Seeming to be a breath of fresh air after Albania, It is both very scenic and has a rich cultural history
The city centre is striking in its unified architecture within the RingStrasse, which is all walkable.
Places or regions I’d go to again, other than those mentioned above.
I breezed through Germany quite quickly: those cities I did stop at were rewarding, with lots of history, even though many had been reconstructed since WW2.Germany seems to have as high as concentration of Unesco World Heritage sites as Italy, and there is much to explore: not only that, Germany is ultra campervan-friendly.
So the major question –should Britain stay in the EU?
I feel that the answer is yes.While many in Britain moan about the EU, its interference with national governance, its labyrinthine regulations, and its cost, I heard very similar complaints in other countries, including in some of the poorest. The EU has provided generous investment to infrastructure projects, but of course the money doesn’t always end up where the majority would have wanted it. In Romania I heard that the EU’s drive to bring drinkable water supplies and mains sewerage to the rural towns and villages had met resistance as the new facilities were going to mean increased cost for the consumers when many felt they could carry on with their old (free)wells and septic tanks.
Interestingly,when I spoke with a young couple in Slovakia,whom I felt would be natural supporters of the EU’s incoming investment and EU-wide working rights,they turned out to be vehemently anti EU,feeling that their country put more in than it got out,and that foreign policy was wrong, both in being anti-Russian and allowing incoming migrants to spread out over the continent.Their only stated alternative would be to go it alone,which I do not think is realistic.They were also very keen to make it clear to me that they were anti-Muslim.Eastern European countries have somewhat of a reputation having racist elements(especially evident at some football clubs)but in some ways I can understand how this attitude has been allowed to linger,these countries having no history of ethnic mixing and no history of a colonial past.Since my arrival home I saw that the Slovakian government has formally stated that they will decline to accept non-Christian migrants,so it would seem these attitudes may not be confined to a few.
Subsequent responses of the former Eastern European countries to the Syrian refugee crisis escalates came as no surprise to me,with countries such as Hungary,Slovakia and the Czech Republic refusing to allow settlement of refugees,or to accept any imposed quotas.Also the legacy of WW2 ,which I have recounted through my blog as I have felt it to be still an abiding influence,has shown itself clearly,with Germany falling over itself to distance itself from its racist past and accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees with apparently open arms. As well as that,the countries such as Slovakia.and Hungary,have shown themselves very hostile to what they regard as German bullying,again a legacy of Germanic hegemony across Eastern Europe,not just in WW",but in also previous centuries .
Britain is almost alone in the EU in having had permanent borders for hundreds of years (created by its geography).With the exception of just a few countries(e.g. Portugal) most countries in central and Eastern Europe,have had very fluid borders over history,which are not necessarily representative of ethnic populations, which spill across borders. I think the EU is playing an important role in keeping these states and ethnic populations knitted together, and if countries such as Britain decide to leave, others may well do so, which would risk a Europe fragmenting and allowing regional inter-ethnic grievances to come to the fore. Currently there are still considerable tensions in the Balkans, and between Greece and Balkan states, together with a fear in some Balkan states that Albanian accession to the EU would heighten the nationalist ambitions of Albanian ethnic minorities in surrounding countries.Finally,the EU plays an important role in motivating governments to maintain proper legal systems,outlaw ethnic , minority and gender discrimination(which still flourishes in some parts of their populations)and reduce corruption.Firstly ,accession to the EU necessitates demonstration of certain standards in a nation’s governments,which provides a powerful incentive,and then provision of ongoing grants is also dependent on preservation of those standards. For example,Bulgaria is denied some funding as corruption is still considered too endemic.In terms of foreign policy,I found particularly in the Balkan states ,and in Poland,a real fear of Russia and the risk of the loss of hard won independence.
The EU is facing a massive pressure from incoming migrants and this pressure is primarily on the poorest southern European countries.Hungary especially ,as one of the entry points to the Schengen area,is under enormous pressure and the border facilities I saw are just not adequate.The EU needs to get its finger out and create a properly funded international border force,and Northern EU counties need to actively help in policing the southern borders,or tensions between north and south EU countries over this issue will quickly escalate.
While we in the UK worry about inward migration from the EU’s poorer countries ,those poorer countries are just as worried about this, in terms of the brain-drain of talented youth which it creates, exacerbating a heightened demographic time-bomb of an aging population. I heard about this in Lithuania, where the emigrating young are not expected to return.I believe they are returning to Poland, now the economy is vibrant, but I learned that even Poland has had to strike an immigration deal with India to allow immigration from there to replace those Polish workers lost to Western Europe.