Lower prices luring tourists to Eastern Europe, Pittsburg-based “Post Gazette” writes

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With the weak dollar and strong euro blowing the medieval roof off prices in countries such as France and Italy, I'd been thinking a lot about Eastern, the author Carol Pucci says as she begins a trip to Hungary, and Romania and Bulgaria, the European Union's two newest members.

For adventure-seekers looking for an escape from $5 cups of coffee and hordes of tourists, these and the other ex-Communist countries are the final frontier for European budget travel.

Things are changing fast, but for now, there are enough cultural differences to leave you feeling as if you're not in Kansas anymore --or Paris or Rome for that matter -- and enough 21st-century mod-cons to make travel easier than it's ever been.

Remember Europe before the euro when you had to switch currencies as often as you changed countries? That's the way it still works in most of Central and Eastern Europe.

Even though many of the countries are now members of the EU, a move that boosts foreign investment and makes travel easier, most haven't yet adopted the euro as their currency (Slovenia is the exception)-- a separate process that depends on budget deficits, interest rates and inflation.

The trade-off is that things still cost less than they do in Western Europe, and the dollar still buys more.
I'll be paying in Hungarian Forint, Romanian Lei and Bulgarian Lev, but unlike years ago, there are plenty of ATM machines and lots of hotels, shops and restaurants take credit cards.

Communication is easier. I've tried teaching myself some Romanian. It comes out sounding a little like Italian with a mouthful of mush. So I feel better knowing that English has replaced Russian in the schools, and most people under 30 speak enough to help out a traveler.

Everyone has cell phones and e-mail. I used the Internet to book a flight on Romania's Air Tarom and rooms in family owned guesthouses, private homes, hostels and hotels. Bloggers offered some of the best tips. Postings on VirtualTourist.com and TripAdvisor.com yielded lots of lodging suggestions that I didn't see in guidebooks.

No-frills airlines are the Greyhound buses of Eastern Europe. Getting around is faster and cheaper with Sky Europe, Wizz Air, Ryanair and others adding flights from London, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. (see www.flylc.com for a list of who flies where).

Enterprising locals are embracing capitalism. Forget those Cold War images of concrete high-rises and abandoned factories. Think frescoed monasteries, ancient castles, modern cities and restored medieval towns.

It's true that the secret is out on many destinations. Prague and Budapest are flooded with tourists. Europeans flock to Bulgaria's Black Sea coast and Montenegro instead of the pricey Italian beach resorts, and Croatia is on everyone's radar.

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