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Europe, when you think about it, is a pretty small place. Jump on a plane in London and you can be all the way across the continent, in big old Russia, within just a few hours. And for not much cash.

 Where, however, is the fun in that? Where are the random meetings, the weird meals and the lost in translation moments that come from taking the road less travelled by bus, boat or train? There aren’t many places in Europe still untouched by mass tourism, but most that do still exist are out east.

It’s more than 20 years since the fall of Communism, but the former Soviet states are still relatively cheap and undiscovered, plus safe and easy to get around. Sure, many cities get swamped with no frills flying weekenders, but escape the bright lights and you’re not likely to hear much English.

One route characterised by its medieval castles, stunning old towns and vodka-swilling locals is one we like to call the Baltic Bear, starting in Prague before heading north-east, all the way to St Petersburg.


Czech Republic

The lowdown: Fairytale-like and atmospheric, the Czech Republic is simply gorgeous. From Disney-esque castles to cobblestone villages and lush forests, it has only been a country since 1993, but offers a timeless experience for visitors. No longer quite as cheap as back in the day, Prague, or Praha as the locals know it, is only gaining in popularity.

The Czech capital escaped virtually undamaged from World War II and then avoided redevelopment due to its extended era as a communist country. Plus, you can get there for as little as £26 from Luton with Wizz Air.

Highlights: Don’t miss the Old Town Square and one of Europe’s weirdest clocks, the Orloj, or astronomical clock, which puts on a little show every hour. Prague Castle, meanwhile, dates from the 9th century and is seriously massive and stunning.

Then there’s the Charles Bridge, so beautiful you almost won’t believe it’s real, especially before the 10am tourist rush. Finally, don’t miss a poignant reminder of times past by seeing Europe’s best-preserved old Jewish ghetto. The Nazis chose not to destroy it, plus its six synagogues and cemetery, because they wanted to turn it into a museum of extinct races.

Moving on: Jump on the overnight train to Krakow, Poland. The eight-hour trip costs from £38.


Time warp: Krakow's main market square

Poland

The lowdown: With historic cities, snow-topped mountains and even a beach or two, Poland is one of Europe’s most underrated countries, as well as one of the biggest.

Highlights: Start in “cultural capital” Krakow, widely considered the Poles’ most beautiful city. While there, make a visit to Auschwitz to tour the remains and museum of the largest Nazi concentration camp in Europe. Even history haters will find it a day impossible to forget.

Using Poland’s reliable trains, then consider heading straight north to Gdansk (eight hours, £30), where the historical centre has countless ancient monuments, the largest European medieval marketplace and plenty of magical pubs and cafes. It’s also the top choice for a seaside town.

While there, mission out to Malbork Castle, the world’s biggest surviving medieval castle. And don’t forget to try the vodka – Poland, after all, is the spirit’s birthplace, so maybe don’t challenge the locals to a drinking contest.

Moving on: After checking out Polish capital Warsaw for a bit, grab a bus to Vilnius (seven hours, £15), or you could fly from £67 with Air Baltic.


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East side story: Explore Eastern Europe by travelling arm-in-arm with the 'Baltic Bear'
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