Smoking! We had forgotten how much it used to be part of our culture and how dramatic the change has been in the UK these last ten or twenty years. The further east you travel, the more you travel back to a time when smoking was the norm. Lots and lots of smokers, young and old; cafes and restaurants where you’re not allowed to smoke are in a minority. Even on station platforms in Germany and Austria, smoking is allowed apart from in a few of the bigger, newer stations. By the time you reach Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey, smoking is endemic. By contrast, the average BMI reduces in direct proportion to the distance travelled southeastwards. By the time you reach Bulgaria, a fatty is a rare sight. So maybe that balances the books on the public health front?

It’s striking, as you travel across the Balkan countryside, north of the mountainous regions and deeper and deeper into Serbia and Bulgaria, that the landscape is very similar to what you left behind in the east of Austria and even parts of Germany. Forests, agricultural land, a bit of livestock but mostly crops, small towns and villages. But the standard of living seems very different – the difference is history rather than geography, the heritage of communism is etched deeply in the east. It’s clear that life is still much, much harder and that we are much, much more privileged in the European northwest. We live in a good place, in spite of its flaws. This trip reminded us how lucky we are. It’s poor out there. Towns and villages are rundown and there’s squalor in the cities alongside their faded grandeur. It’s hard to see the scope for this to change and for these economies to grow; it’s hardly surprising that the young want to come west.

Travel always involves stories of toilets. They always seem to be a place where cultures divide. And thus it was! Himself has been very impressed with the quality of cisterns all over Europe, much improved from trips in his Mini in the 1960s. They certainly give a good flush! Turkey clings onto a few of the old style standover jobs where you’re never quite sure which way to face and have to have the door unlocked ready for escape before you pull the flush ( if a flush is, indeed provided). Common feature across the entire continent is the absence of plugs for the sink. Plugholes, of course, but no plugs in most places, presenting a daily challenge to yours truly to insert contact lenses safely (have once lost one down a plughole and it’s no fun trying to get it back), and also to himself, AKA Dame Wishy-Washy who likes to give the smalls a good soak of a night. he finds he doesn’t quite get the same result under running water!

Hostelling has its moments but generally we found those we stayed in were clean, comfortable and a great way to meet local people, especially the young people who run them, as well as other travellers and talk to them a little about their lives. They were bright, enquiring and most had an amazing command of English. They have a passion for their country and their city and want to know how you like it. They’re ready to listen to your story and they are eager that you hear a bit of theirs. A shared loo and shower and a bit of late night noise – a small price to pay for the characters, the insights and the fun.

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