From baroque cityscapes to big-city glam, from an old Venetian port, to Europe’s best wines, Eastern Europe is packed with surprises. Once locked behind the Iron Curtain, these five countries offer fresh takes on the Old World. Here’s the New Europe decoder.
From the old Venetian port of Piran, with its terracotta roofs, and the blue-green waters of the Soča River, to the shores of Lake Bled backdropped by the snow-capped Alps, tiny Slovenia may well be Europe’s prettiest place. Bled-based Domen Kalajžić says his country is simply blessed with natural beauty: “Get lost in the great outdoors, and you’ll find the way back to happy spirits.”
Serbia’s rebellious spirit hasn’t always served it well, but nowadays the country is aiming for European Union membership. The capital, Belgrade, exudes big-city glam, and its clubs are the best in the Balkans. Fun-loving Strahinjića Bana street enlivens the trendy Dorćol quarter. More scenic and lower key: the Zemun waterfront, on the opposite riverbank from Belgrade.
The lures of Lithuania—its pristine forests and lakes, and a long, majestic strip of sand dunes along the Baltic—don’t immediately jump out. Simona Dambauskas, a designer, says life revolves around simple pleasures such as strolling through the capital Vilnius’s baroque cityscape or picking mushrooms in the woods. Lithuania adopted the euro in January 2015.
Europe’s least visited country (about 12,000 visitors per year) produces some of Europe’s best wines east of Italy. Fossil evidence suggests that indigenous communities here were using grapes to make wine as early as 3,000 B.C. Popular varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot thrive in the south, but look out for local grapes such as Rară Neagră or Fetească Albă. Stop by old wineries such as Mileştii Mici and Cricova, where wine is stored in vast limestone cellars.
Not long ago the very model of seclusion, Albania these days tops the list for adventure-seekers and those looking to go off the beaten track. Trekkers head north of the energetic capital, Tirana, to hike the rugged “Accursed Mountains.” To the south, the curvy coastal road from Vlorë to Sarandë unspools between steep mountain passes and the blue Adriatic Sea. The coastline has some wonderful beaches not yet discovered by sun chasers. Plus there are plenty of water sports from windsurfing, kitesurfing, stand up paddleboarding to sailing.
—With reporting by Mark Baker, Julia Buckley, Stuart Forster, Suzanne King, Margaret Loftus, Chris Moss, Pol Ó Conghaile, Mark C.O’Flaherty, and Amanda Ruggeri.
Appeared in the December 2015 issue as “The New Europe”.