We?re chatting with Sarah Field, destination manager and ex-tour leader at Tucan Travel about two new Eastern Europe tours that have been launched for the 2014 Europe summer. She speaks about her research trip to Romania to develop the award-winning Transylvania Tale tour ? a two week tour from Budapest to Istanbul exploring citadels, fortified churches and Dracula?s castle ? and her recent trip to the Baltic cities of Tallinn, Vilnius and Riga and how the area surprised her.
What gave you the idea to develop the Transylvania Tale?
The tour is part of a longer trip that starts all the way up in Russia, so passengers have the option to join the full two-month expedition or smaller sections. The last section from Budapest to Istanbul didn?t really do the area justice, so it was decided to lengthen the tour and explore more of Romania and give people the chance to see something a little bit different. The new tour also includes more time in Bulgaria, specifically Plovdiv which is home to a vast Roman amphitheatre.
What are your impressions of Romania as a travel destination?
My first impression of the place is that there is so little English spoken. People are very friendly and welcoming, but they speak little or no English and there are generally no English menus. There is a lot of sign language that goes on! The locals are not yet used to foreign visitors; it?s refreshing when compared to the very well-visited Western European countries.
What are your recommendations to travellers to Romania?
Romanians are unlikely to approach you and are fairly reserved, but if you make an effort to approach them they are generally very helpful and kind. If you can, it is very useful to learn some words in Romanian and also have a few food words written down to help decipher menus.
Did anything surprise you about Romania?
The cities were lovely; I was half expecting bleak ex-communist places but they were very pretty. Brasov is an attractive city with gothic and renaissance buildings and churches. Sighisoara really is the most beautiful medieval city. On the tour, we have arranged to stay inside the citadel where you have a view down into the rest of the town and the river. From Sighisoara you can take a trip out to Viscri which is one of the world?s best preserved medieval villages. Also, the fortified churches at Viscri and Prejmer were like nothing I had seen anywhere in the world. They are churches with space for the village to go inside and live during a siege. The one in Prejmer is huge and the walls surrounding the church are hollow as people would live inside them during times of war.
What were your highlights of the Baltic Capitals?
The highlight for me was Estonia. Tallinn has stunning medieval cobbled streets and is quite small for a capital city. The old town of Tallinn is just how you?d imagine a medieval city to be with parts of the old walls intact and a main square lined with cafes and shops. It also has one of the most famous medieval-style restaurants called Olde Hansa. This restaurant uses traditional medieval recipes and everything is prepared in an authentic medieval way. You eat by candlelight and the ambience is like nothing I?ve experienced elsewhere.
After Tallinn, I would probably say my next highlight was the KGB museum in Vilnius which is an included excursion on the tour. This place really affected me. One of the reasons was the local guide ? he fought against the communists and was involved in the final shootout in the very building where the KGB museum is housed.? His parents were also part of the resistance and his son is studying history to ensure what happened in the area never happens again. The building itself is an old office block with cells underneath it where political prisoners were taken for torture. It was in the middle of the city right under everyone?s noses and they would monitor people that walked outside the building. Even walking on the street outside too often could implicate you, such was the level of their suspicion and paranoia.
Anything else you?d like to add?
Travel with an open mind. These places are amazing and completely distinct to other European countries, so go and enjoy them for what they are before the tourists move in. Don?t think just because they were once behind the iron curtain that there?s nothing but communist concrete here. Their history is so much older than that and is truly beautiful.?