The EU has just expanded and an exciting new era of travel has dawned. Adrian Bridge goes east to explore.
As of today, the floodgates will open. The removal of borders between western and eastern Europe will mean that what has so far been a trickle could become a torrent. With travel restrictions lifted, it will be easier to slip in unnoticed and, once in, to move around more freely. And as more and more people successfully make the journey — and like what they find — so sisters and brothers, cousins and friends will follow in their wake.
No, we're not talking about eastern hordes about to invade these shores. On the contrary, it is eastern Europe that is bracing itself for an onslaught of tourists from the West. At least that's the hope from Tallinn to Bratislava as eight countries from the former Communist bloc — plus the Republic of Cyprus and Malta — become full members of the European Union.
New bars and hotels have been opening in anticipation of the rush for new sights and experiences, from flying fighter jets in Lithuania and luxuriating in Turkish baths in Hungary to looking for Andy Warhol in Slovakia. And the no-frills airline revolution is already making deep inroads into the region.
EasyJet has started services between Luton and Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia — the first of the former Yugoslav republics to join the EU. Today, the airline begins flights between Luton and Budapest — a city to which SkyEurope, a Bratislava-based airline, has been flying from Stansted since November. Wizz, another newcomer to the budget-airline scene, earlier this year opened up a service from Stansted to Katowice in Poland.
"We have noticed a huge surge of interest in Poland and lots more people from Britain are inquiring about travelling there," said Eva Birkin of the Polish National Tourist Office in London. "After years of being seen as a rather cold place full of sad people in grey jackets, eastern Europe is acquiring colour. It is no longer terra incognita. It has rules and regulations that western Europeans recognise. Rather than all this talk of swarms of eastern Europeans coming to Britain, the movement will be the other way."
Ian Morgan, a 27-year-old entrepreneur based in London, certainly thinks so. To coincide with the EU expansion, he has set up a company (www.infamousevents.co.uk ) specialising in clubbing weekends to Warsaw and Krakow, to which he will be sending his first group later this month.
"I couldn't believe how beautiful Krakow was when I first saw it," he said. "It has a wonderful castle, a huge market place and a real buzz. We want to send people there who want to combine some great nightlife with great culture. This is an exciting time to go: Krakow is on the cusp."
Julian Tall, another British travel entre-preneur, is also confident there is going to be an explosion of interest in the region. He, too, has set up his own company, Baltic Adventures, specialising in holidays to the Baltic states with an emphasis on activities such as paintballing, firing Kalashnikovs, river rafting — and even playing cricket on ice in Estonia. In part, his venture is targeted at the growing number of Britons looking for exotic venues — and activities — for stag- and hen-party weekends. But Tall hopes the appeal will extend much further.
"The Baltic states still have something of a special ring to them," he said. "For people who have been to Madrid, been to Barcelona, been to Nice, they are something a bit different, somewhere to talk about when you get back to the office.
"They are also fascinating for anyone who grew up during the Cold War. The Baltics were part of that huge unknown Soviet world out there, which you can still see and sense — especially when you get out of the capitals. And, of course, there's another great reason to go. They are incredibly cheap."
Low prices have always been one of the main attractions of eastern Europe. Although holidays there are no longer as ludicrously inexpensive as in the Communist era, it is still possible to eat well for as little as £2 to £3, travel cheaply on trains and find perfectly comfortable hotel rooms for £30 to £40 a night — or less. Standards have moved a long way, however.
While you may still catch glimpses of the old Soviet order, cities such as Prague and Budapest now boast designer hotels and restaurants serving fusion food. But unlike during the Communist era, there are now many modestly priced establishments that, in terms of quality, are light years away from the surly service and drabness of the Soviet past.
Also long gone for British travellers are the need for visas and complicated money-changing procedures: although the east European countries joining the EU today will not simultaneously become part of the euro zone, the currency is widely accepted throughout the region and there are no longer any difficulties obtaining local currencies.
Of course, cities such as Prague are hardly undiscovered. But it doesn't take long to get beyond the obvious attractions and to explore what are still, for most British travellers, virgin territories. From the pristine beaches of the Baltic to the bison-inhabited forests of Poland, from the mountains of Slovakia to the brewery havens (or heavens) of Bohemia, there are lots of new travel experiences which — from today — will be much more accessible. Here are just 10 of them:
Loop the loop in Lithuania
The Cold War may long be over, but if you want a taste of how things used to be — and fancy covering a lot of ground quickly — strap yourself into a fighter plane for a high-speed tour of the countryside surrounding the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Rides, which can include looping the loop, a barrel roll and dives at up to 500mph, are in an L29 — a Czech-built jet aircraft — which takes off from an old Soviet airstrip. Like the other Baltic states, Lithuania used to be home to thousands of Soviet troops and the country is still a point of transit between Russia itself and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad . While you're there Take in a game of basketball (Lithuania are one of the world's top teams); walk along miles of pristine beach on the Curonian Spit; be moved by the symbols of resistance to Soviet rule at the Hill of Crosses at Siauliai ; and, in Vilnius, admire the bust of the late Frank Zappa: the zany musician had no link to the country but that didn't stop fans showing their appreciation.