Eastern Europe LATE JULY 1977 - SEPTEMBER 1977

First to Poland: The ferry boat from Stockholm to Gdansk, Poland marked a dramatic transition as I entered communist eastern Europe the through the port of Gdansk. The port was to become famous a few years later as resistance to the communist regime manifested itself there under union leader Lech Walesa. Entering the Eastern bloc countries, prices for travel dropped dramatically, and almost everybody wanted to change US dollars on the black market. The already reasonable prices compared to what I had left behind in Scandinavia became extremely cheap. I stayed at a youth hostel in Gdansk. Back then, the difference between hostels in Scandinavia, or any place I had been to in Western Europe, was stark.

The vast majority of hostellers were Polish and other students from Eastern Bloc countries, often in their late twenties and early thirties. As a hitch-hiker in Poland, the government had a wonderful program called the “PTTK Autostop”. You bought a “Autostop pass” booklet with a bulls-eye on the front cover for about $5. As you got to the edge of town and started hitch-hiking, you held out the little booklet in your hand to passing cars. You then handed the driver coupons from inside the book based upon the distance you had been taken. Drivers with the most coupons were later given prizes by the state. Although I sometimes had to walk for an hour to the edge of town, I never had to wait long for a lift. Using this PTTK System, I hitch-hiked to Warsaw, the pilgrimage center of Czestochowa, and Krakow.

A short sojourn in East Germany. East Germany was the most severe and authoritarian country in the Eastern bloc at the time, but at a campsite in Warsaw I met two East Germans who offered me a place to stay at their apartment in East Berlin. A Western foreigner trying to hitch-hike in East Germany was considered extremely inadvisable, so I took a train from Krakow to East Berlin. It was an unusual entrance. I suspect I was one of the few western backpackers in the 1970s who only ever saw the divided Berlin from the eastern side. Propaganda tended to exaggerate the differences between the competing ideologies of the time. The East German students with whom I stayed were very pragmatic. Life was OK for them, and although they would have liked to have been able to travel freely to Western Europe, they had enough money to travel around the Eastern Bloc countries and to enjoy their experiences there.

Then working my way south to Greece: From East Berlin, I went down to Prague, memorably meeting a fantastic Australian backpacker named Sean Warren. I fondly remember drinking lots of the best draught beer I had ever tasted at the Prague railway station as we discussed life and travel. Over eighteen months later, I stayed with him in Adelaide and we had a terrific time together. It is these amazing friendships which can develop spontaneously out of almost nothing that remains one of the most appealing aspects of global backpacking.

I took the train from Prague to Salzburg in Austria, then to Zell am See in the Alps, Klagenfurt and Vienna. I then crossed into Hungary to Budapest. In Poland, I has met some Hungarian students who had invited me to stay with them at their flat in Pest. We went camping together at the Danube Bend. Later I went down to Belgrade, Yugoslavia which, on one level, was the most relaxed country and which had steered an independent course from dependence on the Soviet Union. Yet I noticed in Belgrade, the largest number of local itinerants and street people that I saw anywhere in Eastern Europe. It was the one country in the Eastern Bloc, and for that matter almost anywhere in the world, where the people I talked to seem to have a genuine respect for their leader at the time – Josep Broz Tito.

From Belgrade, I crossed into Romania to Timisoara, Tirgu Mures, Sighisoara and Bucharest. Romania was the most rurally picturesque European country I visited, but it was easily the poorest country in the region. With horse drawn carriages a common form of transport and peasants working the fields with scythes, it seemed like a bygone European era out of the 1800s. I was picked up by a middle aged couple while hitching near Sighisoara and listened as the woman decried the regime of Nicolai Ceausescu stating “While it may not be obvious to you, this country is one vast prison”. I later crossed into Bulgaria, to Veliko Tarnovo, Sofia, and the Rila Monastery up in the mountains. Shortly after I crossed out of Eastern Europe to Thessaloniki and on to Athens.

« »