(Almost) Everything You Think You Know About Eastern Europe is Wrong

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For Westerners of a certain age, Eastern Europe conjures up very specific images. Soviet soldiers. Dour people waiting in food lines. Stark, monolithic buildings. Even the name that describes the former border between East and West — the “Iron Curtain” — is harsh and unwelcoming.

Who in the world would want to go there?

Even after the end of the Cold War (in 1991), the former Soviet Bloc countries didn’t attract much attention from the West. Sure, Budapest and Prague, and later Dubrovnik, became international destinations. But the rest of Eastern Europe? Wasn’t it dirty, ugly, and unsafe? Was there really any reason to visit?

That was certainly our attitude. When Brent and I left Seattle in December 2017 to become digital nomads, Eastern Europe was the last place we thought we’d end up. But when our plans to stay in London for five months fell through, we had people telling us to consider visiting Bulgaria — specifically, the mountain resort town of Bansko, which was quickly becoming a hub for digital nomads.

We figured we’d check it for a week and see what we thought. If it was awful, we’d buy a cheap ticket and head for greener pastures.

We wound up staying three months. We’ve had a chance to check out other Bulgarian cities too: Velingrad and Sofia.

Forget, Miami, Malta, and Matera, Italy. Bulgaria has turned out to be our favorite stop of the year. And after listening to fellow digital nomads regale us with tales (and photos) of their visits to other Balkan countries, we now want to explore all of Eastern Europe, especially Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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What makes Eastern Europe such a fantastic place to visit and/or live?

The cost of living, for one thing. Our charming, two-bedroom apartment here in Bansko costs $270 a month. No, not per week. Per month.

In Seattle, we paid $2,300.

What about food? A nice dinner out for two will set you back about $12. Including tax and tip. With wine!

But the prices are hardly the only reason we love Bulgaria. The natural beauty is amazing. Chalk it up to ignorance (and Cold War propaganda), but our image of Eastern Europe was pollution-spewing factories and vast tracts of depressing, Soviet-era housing.

On the contrary! Bulgaria is a land of picturesque valleys, verdant fields harvested by hand, and cool, green forests. Here in Bansko, our apartment window looks out at the towering peaks of the (surprisingly rugged) Pirin Mountains. It’s a twenty-minute walk to trails leading into the wild forests of a vast national park.

Meanwhile, a thirty-minute gondola ride takes us to the heart of the mountains, the start of the steep climb up to the summit of Mt. Vihren at 2,900 meters (nearly 10,000 feet). Or we can climb the Koncheto, a rocky, knife’s edge ridge with the staggering drops off from either side.

Meanwhile, the town of Bansko itself is utterly charming: a combination of old-world buildings and cobblestone streets, updated with modern amenities like juice bars and play areas for the kids. The history of Eastern Europe is very interesting too: nearby, Kotor, Montenegro, which we’re visiting next month, was ruled by Venice for nearly 350 years, has a distinctly Venetian feel — without the Venetian crowds or prices.

No matter where we’ve gone in Bulgaria, there are almost no crowds — and definitely no hordes of selfie-taking tourists. That means the locals are not exhausted or jaded by said tourists either. For the most part, they are open and welcoming (if sometimes, yes, a little dour).

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Eastern Europe is not without its flaws. Regulations are minimal, so construction can be sub-par. Some specific products or brands are expensive — or not available at all. And food handling … well, it might be best to look the other way.

But we’ve loved our time here, which doesn’t coincide at all with the image of Eastern Europe that was in our heads.

The next time you’re thinking about a trip to the Continent, consider its eastern half.