Hidden behind the curtain
Hidden behind the curtain

When Winston Churchill declared in 1946 that an iron curtain had descended "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic", he probably wasn't thinking about how the metaphorical barrier would shape tourism in Europe.

For more than 40 years, that curtain kept a huge swathe of Europe out of sight of the rest of the world. Hidden behind a Soviet ideology, individual national identities were repressed by an overbearing and autocratic system to which nations such as Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and East Germany were shackled.

And while the likes of the Baltic triplets Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and also Ukraine are now fiercely independent, during the second half of the 20th century all were merely components of what was the world's biggest state - the Soviet Union. These places were viewed with suspicion by Western eyes which saw the Eastern Bloc as a shadowy mass under the iron rule of Moscow.

The Soviet Union was a no-go area but the few intrepid travellers who ventured behind the curtain noted that two ideologies, seemingly only united by a mutual hatred and an obsession with the Space Race, were moving further apart and that east of the fissure hung a compelling tapestry of language, history, natural beauty and people out of the reach of mainstream tourists.

Destroyer of the Hungarian revolution and former KGB chief Yuri Andropov was leader of the Soviet Union in 1982 when novelist, literary travel author and renowned bon vivant Bruce Chatwin arrived with pen and moleskin notebook to pierce the heart of Russia.

There could be few better equipped to peek behind the curtain than Chatwin. A master of the English language, he was a frugal wordsmith with an arsenal of cultural experience that allowed him to succinctly contextualise all that he saw. He boarded a 10-day cruise along the Volga and the Don from Kazan to Rostov on the MV Maxim Gorky - then one of the finest riverboats in Russia - and wrote of clear days, cold nights and fellow passengers. All were German, some were former Panzer (tank) officers returning to Eastern Front battlegrounds, others were war widows making the pilgrimage to where young husbands had fallen. The wounds of war were not yet scars.

With a stump-armed Prussian nobleman for company, he occasionally wandered the grass steppes and noted how giant Soviet hydroelectric plants had slowed mother Volga, turning her the colour of molasses.

And as Chatwin explored, he saw dual identities in the places he visited. At Kazan, he found a Russian city studded with kremlins, cathedrals and anonymous grey apartment blocks, a skin that had tightened across the Soviet Union. As he wandered, he found the soul of the city was a Tatar town, a place of minarets and horsemen, mare's milk and rye flour beer.

From the biggest car factory in the Soviet Union and the majestic Mamayev Kurgan to Cossack customs and Doric temples, Chatwin observed reality free of rhetoric.

Yet the image of a secretive and paranoid State wasn't completely undeserved. Chatwin noted that the locks were unmarked on the map of the Volga pinned to a noticeboard for "reasons of Soviet security" and he told of being warned against taking photos. The USSR of the 80s couldn't be called "tourist friendly".

The fruit of Chatwin's cruise was an article, The Volga, that appeared in The Observer in 1984 and subsequently in his 1988 collection What Am I Doing Here?

It would not be the last time the MV Maxim Gorky would be a venue for understanding. In December 1989, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, US president George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the USSR, met onboard the Maxim Gorky to declare an end to the Cold War.

As former Eastern Bloc countries cast welcoming glances west, new travel options opened for the more adventurous as budget European carriers extend their networks east to cities such as Vilnius, Zagreb, Ljubljana and, with great success, to Berlin.

It's never been easier or less expensive to get to Eastern Europe. But as comedian, actor and writer Michael Palin acknowledges in his book and television series New Europe, although the eastern half of the continent is just a few hours flight from his UK home, it is as exotic, exciting and unknown to him as Tibet or the Sahara.

And while Europe is at the bottom of the garden, rather than at our doorstep, the 20-odd years since the curtain fell have seen brutal dictatorships swept aside and previous no-go areas shake off domestic strife and a Cold War aspic, welcoming travellers with open arms. Previously, the domain of fully independent travellers with the energy and means to organise a holiday in countries where language and cultural differences were challenging, mainstream tour companies now have extensive itineraries through nations such as Bulgaria, Romania, the Baltics and even into Ukraine, and they seem to push further east as each year passes.

Gavin Tollman, president and chief executive of Trafalgar, one of the world's largest tour companies, says increasing numbers of visitors are looking for holidays in Eastern Europe. "I would not term Eastern Europe 'mainstream' but it has a mystique behind it."

He says there is the underlying question of what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain, and that's why Trafalgar's Be My Guest program works particularly well in Eastern Europe.

Be My Guest is an exclusive invitation to meet and eat with locals. For example, in Budapest, Hungary, Trafalgar guests are taken to the Schieszl Winery, where they are welcomed by the Schieszl family, which owns and runs the winery, and taken down to the cellar for cheese, olives and wine tasting, followed by a typical Hungarian meal.

Trafalgar has itineraries through Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Estonia, Czech Republic and Russia.

Insight Vacations, which offers premium touring in comfortable coaches with quality central hotels, has taken a step further. Of its 22 new tours for 2012, seven are in Eastern Europe.

And president and chief executive John Boulding puts up the Ukraine and the Crimea tour as a prime example. Over 12 days, and for $4599, it visits Moscow in Russia, and Kiev, Odessa, Kherson, Kurpaty, Yalta, Balaklava and Sevastopol in Ukraine.

Mr Boulding points out that the tour combines well with Moscow and St Petersburg in the Grand Tour of Russia, Ukraine and the Crimea tour, over 17 days, from $6250 per person.

"What fascinates me about this area is that the battles of the empires were there after Napoleon," he says. "The Crimea, Florence Nightingale, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred Lord Tennyson - they are all part of its story.

"This is a vital piece of all our shared history; it is the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle in the history of Europe."

It's never been easier or less expensive to get to Eastern Europe.

The West Australian

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