Travels in Communist Europe – 1981

visa-berlinNow it is relatively common for New Zealand school children to take school trips to other countries, but when I was young it wasn’t at all common. It was too expensive – and perhaps it just wasn’t considered something worthwhile. I grew up in the North Island inland town of Masterton and had one school trip to Nelson in the South Island, and hockey team trips to New Plymouth and Napier.

My first overseas trip was when I was 18 or 19 and it was to Melbourne and parts of Victoria (Australia) with the under-23 Wellington women’s hockey team. We came last in the hockey tournament, but I enjoyed the travel. The next year a friend and I went to Tonga (briefly) and Fiji for a holiday and about 16 months later I did my ‘big OE’ (“overseas experience” – almost a rite of passage for young New Zealanders). I was in the UK and Europe for eight months, based in London when I wasn’t travelling, which I was most of the time.

Lynette and I did three organised tours of Europe – the first took in France, Spain, Morocco and Portugal. The second: France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Istanbul (Turkey), Yugoslavia (very briefly), Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. [For a couple of photos of my visit to Switzerland see this post.] The third trip was called ‘Scandinavia and Eastern Europe’ but as half of the six weeks was spent in the Soviet Union, the visits to the remaining countries were mainly brief stops in the capital cities.


My USSR tourist visa, listing the main stops (Leningrad, Kalinin, Moscow, Karkhov, Yalta, Kiev, Odessa).

 As Eastern Europe was then under communist party rule and under the influence of the Soviet Union, I thought it would be interesting to write about that part of my travels. I’m afraid this is not of high literary merit – I’m no Jan Morris! I kept a travel journal and wrote a few postcards and a long letter to my parents – as I didn’t want to post it in a communist country I kept adding to it over weeks until it was 21 handwritten pages! I referred to it as my mini-book. The quotes come from those sources. I have added a few ‘editorial’ comments along the way.

But in 1981 few would have predicted that the communist eastern bloc would crumble at the end of that decade. After World War 2, the Soviet Union, which had been communist since 1917, set up communist governments in most of Eastern Europe, including East Germany which also controlled East Berlin (West Berlin was divided into three sectors run by the British, French and Americans). In 1961 the East Germans built a wall to stop its people leaving for West Berlin. This wall came down in November 1989 marking the ‘start of the end’ for the eastern bloc and Soviet Union. A short-lived freedom movement Solidarnosc (Solidarity) was flourishing in Poland when we were there, but it would be crushed in December 1981.

*      *      *

east europe 4.PNGCrossing the border into the USSR (Soviet Union) from Finland took three and a half hours – “a reasonable check, not as thorough as I’d thought they might do it – although they did the bus fairly thoroughly”.

I was excited to be there: “it’s not a country you ever really think you’ll visit. Soldiers everywhere it seems. Scenery to Leningrad was mainly forest – a bit of coastline, a few farms, one or two villages – houses were set back among trees quite often. Saw a church in one village (onion dome type) which appeared to be under restoration. Mainly trucks on the road.”

Had lunch at Vyborg – “parked by the railway station where we bought cakes (not a great choice but reasonably priced).” We stopped at the Leningrad camping ground, which was about 20 kilometres out of Leningrad [now St Petersburg] – we had A frame cabins – two people to each. We had quite a nice meal in the hotel restaurant attached. In a long letter home, begun in Leningrad and not sent until we reached Vienna, I drew a picture of the A frame cabin.

On the next day (a Friday) we picked up our Intourist guide, Ludmilla, who would stay with us for the whole time we were in the USSR. We had a two and a half hour sightseeing tour – I commented that Leningrad was a lovely city architecturally, built by Peter the Great, the oldest building built in 1705, and along the banks of the river Neva the palaces and mansions of the old aristocracy all of a similar style. We saw quite a few wedding parties – Friday and Saturday being the main wedding days. They usually have a civil ceremony in the ‘Palaces of Happiness’ then drive around for about an hour visiting favourite spots plus special monuments like the revolutionaries monument and eternal flame where they usually put some flowers. Then it’s just a quiet party at a friend’s or relative’s house (or so we were told).

Leningrad badge and ‘Mischa’ bears – the official symbol of the 1980 Moscow Olympics

I had a free afternoon and wandered by myself along Nevsky Prospect – the main shopping street – and went to the Moscow Olympics souvenir shop. I was looking for a stuffed toy ‘Mischa’ bear (the official symbol of the Olympics). Instead I bought a fish hook for my father, noting that when you see what you want you go to a cashier and get a ticket for the amount you want, then take your ticket to the counter and make your purchase (except at the Beriozka shop, which is for foreigners and you pay in foreign currency).

I had an ice cream for lunch – there were plenty of sidewalk vendors and always people buying them, although usually only two flavours – vanilla and chocolate. I was approached by a woman selling, or perhaps wanting to buy, mascara and nail polish – she had them in her hand, but I couldn’t understand her. I sat by a fountain for a while and some men next to me seemed interested in my jandals, but I couldn’t understand them either. At least that’s what I thought they were interested in!


My jandals, which caused interest in various places.

I stopped at a bookshop and one of the books published in East Germany on America began: “the term ‘global strategy’ exemplifies the foreign policy and monopoly capitalism in the USA since World War Two. It is used against socialism, the forces of liberation and the proletariat in the USA.” In the Beriozka shop I bought a Mischa bear (pronounced ‘Mishka’, it is short for Michael and a common name for a small boy); and then went back to a Moscow souvenir shop and bought a cheap version of the Matroshka dolls – the wooden dolls that fit inside each other. I saw a man surreptitiously selling religious objects on the street.


The meals we had in the first few days were pretty good. I said “it’s fun being able to walk into any Intourist hotel and use their facilities, just because you’re a tourist, even though we’re on a camping tour. Most USSR camping grounds are attached to a hotel.”

On the third day we visited both the summer and winter palaces. After picking up Ludmilla we got a hydrofoil to Petrodvoritz – the summer palace of the tsars. It was heavily damaged in World War 2 and has been in the process of restoration ever since. A question after about ‘workers’ museums got a reply from Ludmilla: “we don’t come here and say ‘oh look at this throne, don’t touch, Catherine the Great sat on it’ – we say look at this, admire it as a work of art, it was (possibly) made by a Russian”. We had a walk around the park – it has a lot of fountains – and then got the hydrofoil back to Leningrad.

We then drove to the Winter Palace, home of part of the Hermitage Museum – “the most visited museum in the world – 10,000 people per day / 3 ½ million a year”. It has 10,000 (or was it 100,000?!) objects and if you spent one minute looking at each item it would take five years to get through the museum”. Of course, my impressive facts came from Ludmilla. It was very good, but we only had a rushed two hours and we were all rather tired. “Saw Renaissance, Impressionist, Dutch painters, objets d’art – the palace itself was amazing”. We then had half an hour at the Beriozka shop where I bought some Russian chocolate and three badges.

The tour leader (who for some reason was called a courier) and Janet (the cook) went shopping for dinner – he queued for 1½ hours to get 2 kilos of tomatoes and 1kg of cucumbers and Janet for 2 hours to get cold meat and cheese. He tried queue jumping but it didn’t work – he got abused and abused them back, in English of course, which he hoped no one understood. Locals usually shop in twos or threes so one can buy the tickets while the others wait in various queues.

On Sunday we left Leningrad early and drove towards Moscow. The villages we drove through seemed to be mainly arranged in a line along each side of the road and have wooden houses (unlike most of Europe). Some were built of log – in my letter and trip book I drew the common board pattern. They had a small garden around each – with vegetables, fruit trees etc. We stopped the night at Kalinin in cabins again. “Toilets aren’t as good as in Leningrad. From Intourist publication: USSR is first in the world in production of oil, coal, pig iron, steel, iron ore, mineral fertiliser, cement, diesel and electric locomotives, tractors, woollen fabrics, leather footwear, sugar and butter.”

What I didn’t write in my trip book or letter for fear of it being read by the authorities was that each of us took into the Soviet Union a new pair of Levi jeans and the courier sold them on the black market – although a few of us, including me, had to leave with the jeans as the customs official had noted them on our forms when we entered the country. This gave us the extra money to stay in cabins instead of tents, and eat out more often.

The next day we picked up a local Kalinin guide (Tanya) and had an hour’s tour – the only things of note were the war heroes’ monument and a little park with reliefs of fables. We left there about 10:30 and got to Moscow about 2:30. The houses along the way were quite decorative and slightly different than the ones between Leningrad and Kalinin.

In Moscow we had the rest of the afternoon free – I went to the Intourist hotel to collect mail and buy stamps. We then went to Red Square where I had a “just think, here I am in Red Square” moment. There were a lot of people there and we were impressed with St Basil’s Church so we queued for 20 minutes to get in. [ed. Coming from New Zealand I was not used to – and didn’t like – queuing!]

St Basil’s was like nothing I’d seen before. Downstairs were a few rooms with exhibits, then some narrow stairs leading to one fairly small – for a church – central room with a corridor around it and small chapels coming off that. There were some lovely icons too! From there we walked up Gorky Street (a main shopping street) and walked around near the Kremlin

‘Moscow’ badge and more Olympic badges!

The next day (a Tuesday) we had a city sightseeing tour in the morning and then a few free hours. The tour was “interesting and not too long”. On our sightseeing tour we learned that there are 50 active churches in Moscow. We also saw some prefabricated apartment blocks being built – floor by floor rather than the frame all at once and then covered.

In my free hours I bought a few books in English (children’s fairy stories mainly) and an ice cream, then went to Pushkin’s monument and took a couple of side streets to get back to the bus. I was tired, but didn’t have time for a rest as we started a walking tour of the Kremlin grounds. It covers a larger area than you’d think – there are a lot of buildings, some streets, four cathedrals, etc! Postcard of the Kremlin.


In one enclosed area it was hot, I was in the middle of the group … and then I fainted. A few friends and Ludmilla went with me to a park just outside the walls – Ludmilla bought us a cake each and we went to an Intourist hotel and waited for the others to finish the tour. We had dinner at the National Hotel – fish entrée, chicken Kiev, peas and rice, and ice cream, tea and cake. Drove to Tchaikovsky theatre and took in a “terrific dancing show – every act was just superb”.

On the postcard I wrote: “Went to a great show last night – Russian dancing… Something similar to Georgian State dance co. that we saw in NZ…Even the courier who’s been to similar shows thought this was the best…I have the dubious distinction of fainting in the Kremlin!”

The next day we picked up a local Moscow guide and drove to the Economic Achievements Park, where we had a general tour then looked at two pavilions – the space one (Kosmos) and technology/handicrafts. At the Kosmos pavilion there was a very impressive sculpture of a rocket on a pedestal with a shiny titanium covering. We got the metro back to Revolution Square where the bus was parked. On the way we did a metro tour – some of the metro stations are architecturally very impressive. The service is efficient too – a train about every two minutes.

Back at the bus, Janet wanted help with the shopping so two of us went with her. It was interesting, but I wouldn’t want to do it every day! As soon as we got to the vegetable shop I’d get in one queue, Caroline in another and Janet would get the tickets – whoever got to the front first would buy the food. I stood in a queue for 20 minutes and got right to the front when the shop assistant left (for a tea break presumably). I waited 20 minutes for her to come back. Meanwhile a whole lot of crates of grapes appeared and the locals started tasting them, so naturally ‘when in Rome…’ – they were nice. There was more fresh food than I originally thought – tomatoes and cucumbers are most plentiful; potatoes, cabbage and another vegetable looking like parsley are readily available. There’s some sort of brown thing, which I think might be a dried fungus. For fruit you can get prunes, apples, maybe pears and grapes and bananas if you’re lucky. Bananas are especially popular, but go quickly once they arrive.

The bread shop was slightly different, in that you take your bread (which everyone has poked and prodded to see how fresh it is) to the counter and pay there. And in one shop we had something like a supermarket style…only once you got your docket you handed it to another woman as you went out the door (I suppose to prove you had paid?). Then you’ll get some people who can queue jump – maybe pensioners or war veterans / high-ranking communist party people? It happened once or twice with us. Others will get in the queue then ask someone to mind their place while they buy their tickets – two people asked me to mind their place – I didn’t understand what they said, but it wasn’t too hard to guess! Some, too, will queue, pick their food, have it waiting on the counter and then go and get their tickets – one woman did that and obviously didn’t get the right amount and got into an argument with the assistant. She ended up having to get another ticket for the extra amount.

On the way back to the camp we stopped at two Beriozka shops – one specifically for food and one for souvenirs. We had a meal at the camp hotel – we were meant to go to a cabaret but it was booked out.

The next day was a day of driving – we left Moscow about 9am and with two toilet stops and one for lunch, we arrived at Oryol at 5pm. As we drove through villages today people were selling food in buckets – apples, cucumbers and potatoes – farmers can sell any excess produce privately. I read Soviet literature most of the way. A 500 card game competition has been organised with about 18 taking part (not being keen on the game, I haven’t joined). Some quotes from my reading:

“The main reason for the difficulties and shortcoming for the bottlenecks in the economy is … that we have not entirely done away with the force of inertia, the traditions and habits left over from the period when the emphasis was not so much on quality as on quantity” (N A Tikhonov, Chairman of Council of Ministers)

“Consumption of dairy products, fish and eggs is close to the ideal. That of meat, veges and fruit falls short of it, while consumption of sugar, bread and potatoes is excessive” (The Soviet Union: 100 questions & answers)

In Oryol we had a hotel – Shipka – a local TV crew were filming because it was the 10th anniversary of the hotel! After dinner we met with some local English-language students and about six of us talked to 19 year olds Natalie and Olga. Both were members of Komsomol [Communist Youth Organisation] and have met a number of tour groups before (picked or voluntary?)

The next day (Friday) was another day of driving as we headed towards Yalta. We had a large lunch at Kursk at an Intourist hotel (salad entrée, soup, meat and chips and tea with cake). Apparently if we stop at a hotel the night before we’re entitled to a lunch. Drove to Kursk monument which is quite a way out of the city – it was the site of the largest tank battle of World War 2 (1943). Their monuments are “pretty impressive”. There were quite a lot of horses and carts in the villages we passed through and a few concrete or brick houses, which predominate south of Kursk; a lot of geese too, being herded like sheep. Spent the night at Kharkov and had a quick guided tour when we arrived – stayed at Motel Oruzhba.

The next day (Saturday) we had a breakfast of salami and yoghurt cakes. Drove until we had a toilet stop (some bought apples nearby) and stopped for lunch at the roadside – near a cow! Got to Zaparozhia about 3pm and had an hour tour. It was very interesting – Zaparozhia is set on the Dnieper River and has a large dam on it. Went to the camp which is about 20 kms away [ed. They always seemed to be about 20kms out of the town or city!] – we had a 3-person cabin with four in it – the toilets weren’t very nice!

On Sunday we stopped for lunch on the Crimean peninsula – I went towards the sea and ended up treading in mud and didn’t make it to the sea. We got to Yalta about 5pm and are staying in a 5-star hotel – we have a 7th floor room. Yalta is ‘on’ the sea with hills behind. Yalta Hotel is the third largest in the Soviet Union – takes 2,700 people. After dinner most went to a bar on the 15th floor – I had an early night as usual! I was feeling tired by now – in my letter I commented: “Six months constant travelling is having its effect. Although enjoyable, in future I’d limit any constant travel to about four months or live in just one or two places – its being on the move so much and having to live out of a suitcase that gets me the most… I’m looking forward to coming home and being able to sleep-in every morning for a whole week! Bliss – also a decent shower and toilets.”

Yalta badge and two postcards of Yalta, including our hotel: ‘This is our hotel in Yalta. We have our own private beach too’ (postcard). But the lifts were very slow.

Our first day in Yalta was a free day and I started with a walk into town (about 20 minutes) and looked at the market where there was quite a wide range of food and some things I hadn’t seen before. Had a taste of a “plum-tasting but berry-looking” fruit. I sat in a park, went to a toyshop, walked along the crowded waterfront. Met three others who had been to a bookshop so I went there, then went back to the hotel. The architecture of the houses in Yalta is very similar to Greece and the European part of Turkey.

The next day we had a tour down the coast visiting two castles and taking photos of a third. The first (Livadija) was where the 1945 Yalta conference was held – it was very nice, not over elaborate. The Alupka was a combination of English and Italian styles. After lunch there was a tour of the botanic gardens – only four of us went with our local guide Vladimir. We got two taxis there and had a long wait getting back, but it was a nice walk and good to have only a small number of people for a change.

We left Yalta and went back to Zaparozhia, where (horror!) we had to put up our tents for the first time on this trip since Stockholm. On the bus we started a friendly argument about the relative merits of Australia, New Zealand and Canada which must have occupied about 50 kms of monotonous scenery. [Ed. I seem to recall vast distances of wheat fields – but I also saw haystacks, so perhaps it was post-harvest empty fields.]

The next day we picked up a local guide, Natasha, and drove about 40 kms back towards Yalta to visit a collective farm: Vasilyevka. It was interesting; we had a talk, ate grapes and drank a local variant of Pepsi-Cola called Bajkal. We went to the school and drove around some of the farm then went back to Zaparozhia and dropped off Natasha. It was a 300 km drive to Poltava where we stayed at an Intourist hotel. I wrote down a lot of facts about the farm.

“Some farm facts: In the Zaparozhia region there are 150 collective farms and 100 state farms. 27,500 collective farms in USSR – average of 6,000 hectares each. 19,600 state farms, ave 18,000 ha. On collective farms the land is owned by the state but the wages come from the profits; state farms = wages are fixed and come from the state.

On this farm each worker gets c. 30-150 roubles /month, plus some foods; they have about ½ ha private plot and are allowed one cow, two pigs, three sheep and as many poultry as they like. This farm has three large villages and about 1,500 people in total. Although they don’t earn a lot, they probably don’t have to queue for their food! Also a lot of amenities are free or cheap. I learnt a lot more facts, but it is difficult to put it into perspective without a comparison.”

The next day we left Poltava about 9am and got to Kiev about 3pm. [ed. I remember nothing about Poltava, but I must have bought this badge somewhere (maybe at the hotel).]


‘Poltava’ (CCCP = USSR)

There was some interesting scenery on the way – the drive across the Dnieper River was lovely, with the sun reflecting on the gold roofs of monasteries; a ‘Motherhood of the Ukraine’ statue on the hill was very picturesque.

The lunch stop (between Poltava and Kiev). Getting some exercise (badminton).

There is a painted Mischa Olympic bear on the well –  Mischa and Olympic games symbols were everywhere –” even in the smallest village you’ll still see a bear painted on a fence or a truck door”.

Other general impressions noted in my letter – the shape of haystacks – about 30 metres long! Yugoslavia was particularly notable for the different varieties – on the bus we’d think up names for them – ‘hay mounds’, ‘hay piles’, ‘hay soldiers’ (neat rows close to each other). “I haven’t thought of a name for the Soviet variety yet – maybe ‘hay glider-hangers’? I mentioned how popular ice cream is, but I don’t think I mentioned the drink machines found everywhere. They don’t have plastic cups – they have proper glasses and a washer to wash them in when you finish (a tap operated by pushing the glass down). For 1 kopek (about 2 cents) you can get either plain or mineral water (I’m not sure which); 2 kopeks gets something else; 3 kopeks (about 5 cents) gives a type of ginger ale, or at least it did at the machine I used.”

We had two hours free time in Kiev and I wandered by myself looking at shops and the food market, where I saw cauliflowers for the first time. A much wider range of food in the private market compared to the state owned shops (in the private market the food is privately grown and sold but the building was probably city-owned). Because of that we had a nicer lunch than usual. Our camp was about 20 kms out of town (they always are!) We had four to a cabin. Kiev is the capital of the YCCP = Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The next day we picked up the local Intourist guide for our bus sightseeing tour. We went into St Sophia’s built in the 11th century in ‘reply’ to St Sophia’s in Istanbul. Other things seen – a summer palace of the Tsars, gardens, new housing estates, etc. We had a two hour break for lunch – I had a nice lunch for 25 kopeks, something like a boysenberry ice cream, a meat pastry thing and a fruit one. We had an afternoon tour to Kiev Pechery monastery which was “quite good – saw some catacombs”. After dinner at Hotel Lybid we went to a circus – “quite enjoyable”. First half of clown, trapeze, acrobatics, horse, cows etc (and “stupid women who were just glamour objects”). [ed: Cows?!] The second half was only 30 minutes, but all magic, which was good.

Sunday: Kiev to Odessa. Left Kiev about 8am and arrived at Odessa about 4:30 – four to a cabin again (the toilet smells). I wrote about four pages of my ‘mini book’ on the bus – “On the road to Odessa – scenery is as per usual for the Ukraine – wide open farm land, village here and there but nothing of great interest.” I would have liked another day in Kiev. I said, despite about 20 days in the Soviet Union I feel I’ll be leaving not knowing much more than I did when I arrived (of course, not knowing the language didn’t help). “For example, you travel through a village and the footpaths are dirt or mud, the water is provided by wells, there are horses and carts (but not to give the wrong impression there are also reasonable wood or stone houses, some trucks, etc) – then you’ve read all these figures on the Soviet economy – largest producer of this, that and the other thing, and the question that comes to my mind is why hasn’t more filtered through the system to the villages?” Whatever the answer, you’re not going to find out here.

At this point I got ill, which recurred annoyingly at times over the next few days.

Odessa (Monday): Our morning city tour was “pretty boring – I only managed to get out of the bus a couple of times”. About 15 of us went to a question and answer session with a local professor which was quite interesting. He earned 320 roubles a month, his wife – a chemistry teacher without a degree – earned 180 (the average in the USSR was 172). I tried to use my remaining 3 roubles but failed – went to bed missing dinner. [ed. I should explain this fixation with money – in the communist countries you had to exchange some foreign money – pounds, dollars or Deutchmarks in particular – for local money and it was useless outside that country, so you tried to spend it before you left.]

On our last day in the Soviet Union we stopped at Kishinev, the Moldavian SSR capital, to use up our roubles. Then spent three and a half hours at the border – I was first through customs so I go a lot of questions compared to the others – they were particularly interested in my literature, they read a bit of my trip book, what I thought of the USSR, did I have any USSR addresses, had a look at my camera, was I religious (he pondered for about 5 minutes over a historical-religious book I picked up cheaply in Amsterdam), what did I do, etc. It must have taken about 15 minutes – not many others got that treatment – he wasn’t at all interested in my money or the pair of Levi Strauss jeans! The Romanian side of the border took only quarter of an hour. Our Romanian guide is Stephan.

ussr-pcard I wrote on this postcard while waiting at the border for the rest of the party to cross. It is ‘the village of Butucheny, Orgeyev district’ (USSR) [ed: no idea if we saw it. I didn’t post it in Romania as postage was too expensive and didn’t get the chance in Hungary so I probably brought it home.]

“We probably won’t get to Bachau till 8 or 9 now. Fortunately we’re in a hotel. Haven’t had lunch yet either and it’s 3:15pm. … As part of our compulsory exchange we get one bottle of Romanian champagne each so I should have a good birthday tomorrow! Had an interesting time in the USSR – it went quickly.”

My first impressions of Romania – the scenery seemed more interesting – a few hills help, they give vantage points. The villages seem a bit poorer, but just about every child waves to us, something that seldom happened in the USSR. The language is easier to understand too – they use the Latin alphabet and it has similarities to the Italian, Spanish and French. Arrived in Bachau at 7:30pm and had dinner at 8:30, which was fairly plain except for the delicious dessert of hot donuts and melted cream.

The next day was my birthday – I still wasn’t feeling 100% well. We arrived at Bucharest about 1pm and had an orientation tour. I offered to help Janet with shopping as I couldn’t be bothered doing anything else. She wanted some of the men to help but they were going to have a drink first so we went to a sleazy beer garden first. I left them about 4pm and had a look at a couple of souvenir shops. Later we drove to a folk park – “quite pleasant. Put up tent. Had folk dancing and quite rich food. Enjoyable show and evening, but all-in-all not a very happy birthday”. [ed: I was disappointed my birthday was in Bucharest as I had wrongly thought that it was going to be in Budapest!] Bucharest did not seem very interesting!

The next day I was ill again – as were four others on the trip. The main stop of the day was to visit one of ‘Count Dracula’s castles’ – I was too ill to even leave the bus – I lay down over a couple of seats in a sleeping bag.

“The Transylvanian houses seem better built – brick and plaster and bigger than the Moldavian ones. Smaller shops around, more than in the USSR, and churches seemed more prominent – a lot of houses had crosses on them too.”

Cluj to Budapest. I felt better, but still not 100%. I shopped in Cluj market – I always find markets interesting – there was a wide choice and good quality vegetables, although the fruit was more limited. Stopped in a small village to spend remaining money – they have roadside stalls with lovely embroidery. I noted the only real food queues in Romania were for meat. There were also hills, lots of haystacks, some trees turning to autumn colours (we have been lucky with fairly good weather for all except the first week of the trip). We realised after our guide left us that he took some cassettes from the bus with him!

The border crossing took about 1¼ hours but there were no problems – the change to Hungary was noticeable – the roads were better (I could write more legibly on the bus!) As we only had one day in Hungary not everyone changed money – I changed ₤10 and one of the others bought ₤5 off me – she gave me Deutsch Marks for it. In Budapest the advertising was noticeable – the city had a more modern and ‘capitalistic’ look (or more Western looking than the other Eastern bloc countries). Arrived in camp at 6pm local time (7pm Romanian time).

However, the next day I was ill again, this was becoming a habit! This was a “damn nuisance because I’m stuck at the campsite in the one city I really wanted to see on this trip” [Budapest]. I “read ‘Day of the Triffids’, went for a walk with Bridget [a New Zealander] who was also sick, had a long hot shower”.

I felt better by dinner time so I went to the national meal and had a little bit to eat. [Ed: We had one special meal in every country that was included in the trip cost and called the ‘national meal’ to sample local food.] It “seemed a lovely city – beautiful cathedral, Parliament buildings quite impressive too. Menu – Goulash soup, salad, beef Budapest and side salad, apple strudel and coffee.”

This postcard map may have been my only Hungarian souvenir – rather ironic as I didn’t see much of Budapest!


I cheat here by adding two photos I took in 1994 of Budapest and of the Parliament buildings.

Budapest to Vienna: Feeling a lot better and had a reasonably easy border crossing. Arrived in Vienna about 2pm and went to the Schönbrunn Palace – the ‘summer’ palace of the Habsburgs. The gardens were lovely; so was the palace, but similar to other palaces of the 17th / 18th centuries. Came back to camp about 5:30. I put up the tent.

After dinner at the camp we went into town – some of us at least to listen to an open-air Strauss concert in a park – however, because it rained it was held indoors. Some of us listened from the foyer, a few paid to go in. Then about ten of us went to a McDonald’s – which seemed a real treat back then, I even wrote that it “made my evening!”

Next day, we picked up our mail then drove into the centre of Vienna for a half hour orientation tour. We had free time from about 11 until 3pm. I walked around – the only place I went into was St Stephen’s Cathedral. “A very lovely inner city”. I shopped for some basic things I hadn’t been able to get in the communist countries. At 3pm we drove to Grinzing – a “charming old village but now encroached on by Vienna”. It’s full of wine bars but three of us just walked around. Then we drove through some of the Vienna woods for a panoramic view of Vienna. Had our national meal that night near the camp – Wiener Schnitzel!

20161231_114422I sent a postcard ‘Souvenir aus Wien’ to my brother – “had a good time in Vienna – made a nice change to be able to go into the shops and get everything I wanted with no hassles… It’s a pity we only have a day or two in each country – it hardly makes it worthwhile being held up at their borders for a couple of hours each time.” I noted one difference with the eastern bloc countries and the USSR is the absence of political signs – especially of Lenin and ‘Slava KPSS’ (Long live the Communist Party of USSR).

Vienna to Prague: Rain most of the day. Took about two and a half hours to cross the border – they checked a few bags at random. We stayed on the bus. On the motorway to Prague the scenery was mainly forests or open farmland. We got to the camping ground about 6pm and managed to get cabins.

Prague. Drove into central Prague. Walked to old market square and watched the 14th century astronomical clock strike 10, then went up the tower for panoramic view.

Photos of Prague old town square – 1981 (top) and 1996 (bottom) – Church of Our Lady of Tyn. Right: Astronomical clock (1996 photo) [ed: Noticeably more drab in 1981 compared to post-Communist 1996.]

“Some lovely buildings, you can tell it’s an old city – not very heavily damaged in WW2 either”. Drove bus to castle on the hill – saw Loreta Church (Baroque) and treasure, St Vitus’ Cathedral – begun a long time ago but not finished till 19th / 20th centuries. The stained glass was absolutely beautiful (20th century work). Saw St George Basilica – a nice plain style; refreshing after the heavy ornamentation of the Baroque. Went to Golden Lane – a small lane of old houses now souvenir shops. Met the bus, drove to St Nicholas Church – another Baroque one. Had free time from 2pm to 4pm.


Postcard of Golden Lane sent to my brother: “Both Prague and Budapest have been lovely cities – Bucharest I could happily avoid, however.”

Had a look at the 14th century bridge and St Wencelas Square.

Had to spend ₤10 compulsory exchange – I bought a wooden mug and a wooden doll.

Came back to camp and stayed there. Others went back into town. There is quite a wide range of goods in the shops –”makes you realise just how planned and rigid the Soviet economy is – unnecessarily so if the other socialist countries are anything to go by.”

Prague to Krakow (Poland): Took one and a half hours to cross to Poland but no problems. “Felt quite exciting to be in Poland, but no noticeable differences.” Drove to Auschwitz concentration camp – arrived at 4:20pm, stayed till 6pm. Watched a film, then walked around through some exhibitions. A lot more preserved than at Dachau. The other main difference was the buildings were in brick not wood.


In a letter I said “quite horrific to see the piles and piles of shoes, spectacles, suitcases, blankets made from human hair; the death cells used for punishment, the square where 20,000 were shot; portable gallows; gas chamber and crematorium, etc… It still has the double fence – heavily barbed wired…the signs saying ‘halt’ and with a skull and cross-bones are still by the fences, as are the guardposts. One of the blocks has the sign saying it was the hospital – nicknamed by inmates as the “anteroom to the crematorium” where Dr Mengele and cohorts carried out their so-called experiments.”

Arrived in Krakow about 7pm – couldn’t get cabins so back to tents.

Krakow to Warsaw: Went into Krakow about 9am and parked near the castle. We had free time until 12:30 – with US$60 to spend everyone went shopping. Krakow is very pretty – the only one of Poland’s major cities to survive WW2 largely intact. By 10:15 we’d found the handicraft market – in a building right in the middle of the square. Unfortunately the embroidery stalls were closed for stocktaking for a sale tomorrow! I ended up getting mainly wooden things and a handbag. I explained in a letter home that we had to change US$60 and as it was worthless outside Poland we had to have a spending spree. “I’ve found the people here reasonably friendly…One woman started talking to me (in Polish!) – I worked out she was intrigued by my jandals. She asked if I was German…”

We had a quick look at the castle grounds before we drove to Warsaw in the afternoon, arriving about 6pm.

In a letter written ‘on the road to Warsaw’ I said: the “countryside’s quite pretty – undulating farms, scattered houses and villages and autumn colours coming on. Incidentally the houses and villages look better than in the Soviet Union…The houses are better constructed, there are footpaths, the shops are also better stocked. So far the only noticeable problem in Poland is the long food queues – providing you’re not buying food there aren’t many delays, and there’s certainly more souvenirs and handicrafts to buy.”


I noted the Polish haystacks were a bit like hedgehogs – small piles very close together. I drew a picture of them. “Another difference between Poland and most of the other socialist countries is that the land is mostly privately owned (industries are state-owned as per usual)… We just passed a man ploughing his farm using a couple of horses. There are quite a lot of horses and carts on the road too… Oops, we’ve just had to pull up abruptly while some ducks cross the road. Practically every farm and village house has ducks and chooks.”

Market square, Warsaw

Warsaw. Started the day with a city tour. We looked around the ‘old’ and ‘new’ cities – actually it’s all new; about 90% of Warsaw was razed in WW2; however they’ve reconstructed these two parts as they used to be.

They’ve done a good job – the city walls look good and it’s a nice area to walk around. Saw a film on the destruction of Warsaw – purposefully destroyed on Hitler’s orders. We went to the Warsaw Ghetto monument, then to a park before coming back to the hotel. Free time in the afternoon – I walked down one of the main streets in the modern area and tried to buy a couple of wooden plates as gifts – not the selection of Krakow and much more expensive. Ended up only getting one and not what I wanted. I had chips, a ‘hot dog’ (filled with fried mushroom due to lack of meat) and ice cream for lunch.

I saw some embroidered tablecloths but they were quite expensive. “I should explain – at bank rates there are about 34 Zlotys to US$1 and 66 to UK₤1. On the black market there are about 300 Zlotys to US$1 and 600 to UK₤1. So a tablecloth for 1200 Zlotys could be ₤2 or about ₤18 – and seeing as all my money is at the official rate it would have been ₤18 had I bought it.” I bought some tea from shops that seemed to specialise in tea – or (more likely) most other things had sold out. I tried to buy some chocolate which was on display but I wasn’t allowed! Only food and a few souvenir shops were open today.

“Saw a couple of things here that you wouldn’t see in the other socialist countries – a Marilyn Monroe exhibition (paintings of her) and cars being raffled (Polski Fiats). Our guide talked a bit about ‘Solidarity’ – he’s all for it, although not a member himself. I asked him if he thought the Russians would invade and he said “well, we’ve got to be prepared for anything, we hope not of course”. Like a lot of people in Eastern Europe, he doesn’t think too highly of the Soviet Union…Got dinner to look forward to – I wonder if we’ll get synthetic chicken patties again! (Not actually synthetic, I think there was real meat there somewhere – just mixed with quite a bit of bread, herbs, etc.) Well, we actually had real chicken for dinner. A couple on the trip, trying to spend Zlotys, had a decent hotel meal for lunch and said, provided you could pay for it, there wasn’t much you couldn’t get. They had venison; there was smoked salmon, caviar, steaks on the menu as well. One thing we noticed today was that there wasn’t much stock in the shops.”


Warsaw to Berlin: “What a day – apparently the longest of the trip, plus two border crossings – were tempers frayed?! Started in Warsaw with a few wrong turns and the courier and driver annoyed with each other; then a police car stopped us even though we’d done nothing wrong.

We made the Polish-DDR [East Germany] border at 3:35 pm, fortunately it only took 1¼ hours. We got to the DDR-West Berlin border at about 6:45 – that probably took about half an hour. The camp ground is way out in the wops of West Berlin – by a river that stinks, or else the camping ground stinks. Put up tents in the semi-darkness. Luckily we got a meal in the camp restaurant (I was pleased because I was on cooking duty). We have a lot of food kitty money left over so we’ll be eating out for the next few days as well as getting some money back. Tomorrow we’re getting 50 Deutchmarks (about ₤10) to spend on whatever we like – I’ll use 30 to go into East Berlin (that’s 5 for a visa and 25 compulsory exchange – which is rather a lot but the opportunity is too good to miss.)”

Berlin – we had a bus tour in the morning – Victory Statue, Brandenburg Gate, Rathaus, Potsdammer Platz (Hitler’s bunker), ending at Checkpoint Charlie. We looked at the museum about the people who escaped (or tried to and failed) from East to West Berlin. I bought a book called “It happened at the wall” – a picture history of the Berlin Wall (a catalogue for an exhibition held in summer 1981) -these few photos show the wall went through houses, on the first day an East Berlin soldier helped this boy get through, but was caught by his superior officer – the commentary says they don’t know what happened to him.

It took about half an hour to cross to the East. A friend and I went up a street which had about three souvenir shops in it. Ended up at Alexanders Platz at the TV tower – we didn’t climb it as there was a queue. We went to the markthalle (the market hall) – more like shops rather than temporary stalls.

Tried to get into a huge bookstore but it was closed for renovations. Walked down the main street Unter den Linden – saw the war memorial. Being Monday most of the museums were shut – except for the German history museum. We spent about an hour there. It was interesting – there was no Bismarck in the 19th century just a lot of Karl Marx and WW2 was what Hitler did to the socialists/ communists and what they did to him.


Berlin badge.

From there we went to a few shops – I spent my compulsory exchange on a box and little wooden ornaments. Adriana bought a calendar and pictures of old Berlin. We had some salad for tea bought from a supermarket. The range of food was surprisingly good, and not many queues either. Went back to West Berlin about 7pm. Got the U-Bahn (metro) to Kufurstendam and had a pot of hot chocolate at a lovely café. Got U-Bahn again and took a line that went from the West to the West but through the East – the first station in the East was like a ghost town with only a couple of soldiers with machine guns. Went along K’damm again – I had a cob-of-corn and a coke. The bus took us back to camp at 10:30 – a tiring but very enjoyable day.

Berlin to Köln (Cologne). Only had 20 minutes at the East German border and not even a stamp in the passport. We stopped just over the West German border and everyone went crazy buying chocolate and chips, etc! Got to Köln about 5pm and pitched our tents for the last time…

Some East European visa stamps in my passport.


One thought on “Travels in Communist Europe – 1981

  1. Fascinating record of a not-so-distant era … great descriptions – thank you, Viv … the idea of ‘compulsory exchange’ of foreign currency by tourists is so evocative …


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s