Where East meets West?

by Disa Witkowska

“Surreal, exciting and constantly surprising, Eastern Europe is an amazing warehouse of culture, history and architecture as well as mind-blowing scenery. Coverage includes: Planning chapters, Albania, Belarus, Bosnia&Hercegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine and Survival Guide.”

The advertisement above reflects one way of dividing Europe but East-West dichotomy has been present for a long time in history. But how do Westerners perceive the Danubian countries today? Do old and somewhat stereotypical views still hold? Are we able to draw a border between East and West at all? To answer these questions that we are now dealing with on The Danube, one of the strands of a Global Citizenship Programme, I decided to compare what Lonely Planet articles say about different Danubian countries. Lonely Planet is one of the most popular tourist guides the British choose, therefore, it exerts great influence on how Britons perceive regions they travel to. At the same time it reflects the “Western” way of thinking about these regions.


Up to a certain point, Danubian countries are portrayed as wild, unexplored and pristine areas that almost no one has ever set foot on. Since Bulgaria entered the EU it has been slowly becoming more and more popular tourist destination for Western Europeans who previously regarded it as “a country best known for not being known much at all.” However, fear not: “Enough of Bulgaria’s wildness (literal and figurative) remains to guarantee that travellers have their own unique experiences while exploring the country.” Women travelling to Bulgaria do not have to worry either, Bulgaria is quite a developed country, “feminine hygiene products, such as tampons, are widely available in supermarkets and pharmacies across the country.”


Transylvania is often a synonym of Romania. “Some may think it’s fictional […], [but it] is a real place”, as Lonely Planet assures its readers at the very beginning. Transylvania is “the mysterious land of bloodthirsty vampires and howling wolves” and “the land beyond the forest that still feels undiscovered” by – I assume – Westerners. Tourists are also advised not to forget that mythical regions and “romantic notions” have one serious flaw as well: “poor infrastructure, such as potholed roads and slow trains.” But I would say they should be really happy to encounter at least some means of transport other than their own feet since – as a writer put it – Transylvania is “the last truly medieval landscape in Europe”, so one should not be surprised at inconveniences. However, there is a discrepancy to be noted: “travelling around Transylvania […] feels like you’ve gone back 100 years” at the same time. As far as I know a hundred years ago even in Romania, it was still the 20th century, not the Middle Ages.


To my surprise, Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia, was nicknamed “one of the world’s wildest party destinations” Is it there then where West begins? Not really. Rather, it is a modern way to convey once more that people living in the East are wild and barbaric: “Serbs are proud of exploring limits and letting go” and “it’s easy to go wild in Serbia.” “Underrated destination in the European traveller’s mindset”, as one author notices well (but at the same time fails to notice their own contribution to shaping traveller’s mindset in a particularly influential way), “will make you feel as though you’ve somehow stumbled into another world.”


Located in Central Europe (what a progress!), Hungary is still “Europe at its most exotic”. Even though Budapest itself, its capital city, is primarily described as a host to many cultural festivals and a place that has “willingness to embrace outside influences while at the same time remaining grounded in tradition”. Debrecen, the second largest city, is “Hungary’s wild east”, where “wilderness beckons”. To see and feel how “myths and nature reveal themselves in a whisper” a traveller should visit Hortobágy’s great plains. Do not forget that “it’s also the spiritual heart of the region, awash with folk stories and nostalgia for the golden age of Hungary’s legendary horsemen.”


Being “a bastion of untrammelled wildernesses”, Slovakia has its unique status on Lonely Planet website. The country is so untrammelled that it hardly has any coverage. Short introductions to Slovakia and its most popular destinations elaborate a little bit more on what “wild” means in this case. Firstly, it is a culture completely unknown to you, Western tourist, as Slovakia “cradles an entrancing folk culture most European nations have lost.” Secondly, it means lots of castles and “wonderfully untouched buildings.”


Is Austria unexplored and wild? Well, you can still find some regions that could be regarded as such (what I will discuss a bit later) but generally Austria is known. It can be even known best for this or that, in contrast to the other countries depicted above that were and still are, as we have already seen, mostly unheard of by the (Western) public. Germany is not much different. In spite of having “a magical natural matrix” it is mainly perceived as “a roller coaster of feasts, treats and temptations”.

However, one quite important question that up to now remained shrouded in mystery – to use the “Western” travellers’ language – should be given a more in-depth thought. How do they do it? How do travellers describe the other (country, place, region, people etc.), so that readers that have never been in any contact with what is portrayed will eventually feel curious enough to go on a journey themselves, or to carry on reading at least? The writing process reflects the way of perceiving: face the unknown with the well-known. In practice, make parallels between reality and literature, follow paths of famous people and compare venues to more “universal” must-sees in Western countries.

It will certainly appeal to the British that “Prince Charles developed a particular interest in Romania’s countryside” and Romania can now proudly boast Prince Charles Walk, “although this diversion was always a popular day trip, long before the royal visit”, what Lonely Planet does recognise (A big plus!) but continues to advertise the trip with the Prince’s name. If you are a bit anxious about Romanian roads, you know, holes, stray dogs, then take advice from Top Gear [ex-]presenter Jeremy Clarkson and go for a ride on the Transfăgărășan Road, which he named “the world’s best road”. If you are more of a bookworm (or even if you are not), you just cannot miss Transylvania, a home of famous Vlad Dracula, a protagonist in Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel. Still unsure if you want to visit Romania? Do you remember “the backdrop for the movie Cold Mountain, starring Nicole Kidman”? There is an opportunity for you to find it out on your own. Last but not least, “if you like London’s Highgate Cemetery or Père Lachaise in Paris”, Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest is a place for you. (By the way, am I the only one to notice that the wording here is really odd and adds an extra layer of meaning that an author probably did not want to convey…?)

The broader issue that a discussion of travellers’ accounts on the Danube region raises is about a definition of civilisation. We voiced our opinions on a tutorial and agreed that we would like civilisation to be understood in terms of social development and progress to become a more and more conscious society, not in terms of industrialisation, technological advances and urban infrastructure. But we were also aware that this is exactly how travellers usually define civilisation.

A sample of articles that I read in preparation for writing this text confirms our assumptions. The passage below clearly illustrates an inherent connection the authors see between civilised world and industrialisation: “To dramatist Mór Jókai, who said that Hortobágy was an ‘island of the land’, afloat in the civilised world. To revolutionary author Sándor Petőfi it was ‘the forehead of God’. The horsemen represent a fading pastoral life, galloping far from city woes, leaving industrialisation behind in a dust cloud.”

Civilisation is associated with more and more advanced stages of human settlement and its material development by another writer who is talking about Slovakia: “The densely forested Small Carpathians are just a 30-minute walk from the train station; the trailer to a mountainous extent that runs countrywide, virtually unimpeded by civilisation.” Progress is seen as a feature of material, not social and political structures: “As the minerals ran out and mines closed, progress stopped, leaving buildings wonderfully untouched.”

I think we are finally able to attempt to draw a border between West and East. The question how to do it has been present since the very beginning of the Danube Summer School. I do not try to investigate the issue in all possible dimensions, my article is too short to tackle such a significant matter. I can, however, propose a presumable explanation basing it on how travellers describe each country they go to: how and where they classify it and what descriptive language they use to appeal to readers.

The border between East and West is then the border between the unknown and the known. To describe the Eastern European countries, authors usually use adjectives such as unexplored, mysterious, undiscovered, exotic, which very rarely appear in travel accounts in relation to the so-called Western countries. There is the other set of modifiers confined to a description of the known: irresistible, classical, exciting, picturesque, flabbergasting, faultless, pretty, curious, impressive, dizzying, stupendous, spirit-lifting, artistic, moody, spectacular, sophisticated and the list goes on. Not only do we immediately notice that there are far more adjectives that describe what is known than what is still to explore but a qualitative difference also draws our attention. Being wild seems to be the only characteristic of East, whereas West has a wide variety of both material and natural wonders. Travellers tend to concentrate (mostly or solely) on East natural beauties, while they generally focus on material culture whenever they depict West.


I would argue, however, that the boundary between East and West is not strictly set; it is rather a continuum of different degrees of wilderness and high culture that a tourist can experience. Travellers’ articles reveal that a desire to discover fairy-tale places, or to put it more scientifically, a drive for escapism, for disconnecting from daily life seems to be a common human characteristic. According to the writers, people will enjoy “wildest and most inaccessible mountainous terrain”, “idyllic half-timbered villages, architectural masterpieces and fairy-tale palaces” as well as “legend-shrouded castles” and “woods which are indeed so dark and thick that one might expect to stumble upon the witch’s house in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale.” And it does not really matter that the places portrayed above are in Austria or Germany. Even there visitors are willing to devote their time to seeing the wild.

Therefore, one may ask: so what makes people say that Austria or Germany belong to the known? How are they different from Bulgaria, Slovakia or the other Danubian countries regarded as the unexplored? Having analysed travellers’ accounts in detail, I can say that it is a quantity and quality of descriptive expressions used that makes an overall impression which category a place falls into. If an author constantly reminds their readers of the country’s wilderness, this is most likely because he considers the place to be unknown to the general public. On the other hand, in the case of Germany or Austria remarks about fairy-tale landscapes and wild forests are always accompanied by an overwhelming number of descriptions about material culture must-sees.

Interestingly, travellers are rarely aware that they base their text on stereotypes. Only when a country is well-known do they start to realise that there is much more to it than just a few well-worn phrases people keep on repeating: “You’ll quickly discover that the local food is so much more than sausages and pretzels, schnitzel and roast pork accompanied by big mugs of foamy beer” or “Beyond the clichés awaits a cornucopia of regional and seasonal palate-teasers.” This may be a good indicator of whether the country has been explored enough to consider it as a member of the known in the eyes of a Westerner.

All in all, I have investigated where the border between East and West in Europe might be. I turned to guidebook literary texts to see how Lonely Planet writers (who, for the purpose of the task, represented the Westerners view) describe the Danubian countries. However, the question of where the frontier lies is still open. What I have written so far is only part of the story. What the other side has to say? How do Easterners portray themselves? How do they perceive Western world? The attempt to answer these questions should be taken into consideration as well. But that is a topic for another article.