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Originally published June 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 26, 2007 at 3:13 PM

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Travel Wise

The price is right in Eastern Europe

We were in the mood for splurge when I decoded the Cyrillic letters and found the sign for Etno, a basement restaurant in downtown Sofia...

Seattle Times staff columnist

SOFIA, Bulgaria — We were in the mood for splurge when I decoded the Cyrillic letters and found the sign for Etno, a basement restaurant in downtown Sofia known for its home cooking and white tablecloth service.

Between the wooden covers of the menu we found our favorite dishes: The "Shopska" salad, a chilled mix of tomatoes, cucumbers and salty white cheese; a platter of roasted eggplant; parsley fritters with yogurt and dill sauce; stuffed bell peppers; and roasted pork.

It was our last night, so my husband and I ordered them all along with a half-liter of Danube wine.

The bill for two was $28, the most we paid for a dinner in three weeks of travel in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

While the weak dollar and strong euro have combined to push up prices in Italy, France, Germany and other parts of Western Europe, pizza and beer money still buys a gourmet meal in the former Soviet-bloc countries that still use old-fashioned currencies such as the forint (Hungary), the lei (Romania) and the lev (Bulgaria).

Here's what some things cost in Eastern Europe

• Beer at a cafe on the town square in Eger, Hungary: $1.50

• Day pass for the subway, trams and buses in Budapest: $7

• Coffee at the Central Kavehaz, Budapest: $2.50

• Maxi-taxi ride (one hour) from Sighisoara to Targu Mares, Romania: $2.30

• Big Mac, McDonald's, Baia Mare, Romania: $2.90

• Family entrance to State Art Museum, Veliko Târnovo, Bulgaria: $2.10

• Dorm room with breakfast, Nomads Hostel, Veliko Târnovo, Bulgaria: $13

• Entrance to Alexsandar Nevski church, Sofia, Bulgaria: Free

• Taxi from downtown to airport, Sofia, Bulgaria: $7-$10

In Bulgaria, a first-class ticket for a seven-hour train ride in an air-conditioned car costs 17.5 lev, the equivalent of $12, $1.20 less than a one-day pass for travel on the London Underground ($13.20)

In Romania, the price for a room, breakfast and dinner in a rural guesthouse runs about 73 lei, or $30 per person, the amount I paid for dinner alone last February in a Paris bistro.

In Hungary, waiters in long white aprons deliver frothy coffee concoctions on silver trays for what Starbucks charges for a latte in a paper cup.

If you're looking for an affordable European adventure, these countries may be the last frontier when it comes to budget travel. They're euro-free for the moment and nearly two decades after the fall of communism, they're alive with stylish restaurants, cafes, clubs and good public transportation.

Young English-speaking entrepreneurs cultivate a "we try harder" attitude missing in more developed countries jaded by mass tourism. We ordered a pizza to share in Romania, and the waiter cut it in half and delivered it on two plates. Guesthouses and hostels offered to pick us up at train and bus stations. Hotels packed us breakfast to go when we had to catch dawn flights.

You'll change currencies as often as you change clothes depending on how many countries you visit, but you won't be disappointed in what the dollar buys.

Small towns, small prices

Take Eger for instance. This little town of 70,000, 80 miles from Budapest, is Hungary's version of Germany's Rothenburg or Belgium's Bruges without the crowds or high prices.

Famous for its thermal baths, baroque architecture and Bulls Blood wine, Eger is a popular weekend destination for Hungarian and Ukrainian tourists. Prices are higher than they might be in an Eastern European town with no attractions but lower than in similar towns in Western Europe that attract wealthy Americans or Italians.

We paid about $54 (the equivalent of 10,000 Hungarian forint) for a double room with breakfast at the Dobó Guest House (http://hungary.egerhotels.com/doboguesthouse.php) near the town square.

Marianna Kleszo has seven rooms in her family's home, each with a private bathroom and TV. Ours was outfitted with pine furniture, including a big wardrobe and desk. A bay window covered with a lace curtain looked out onto a cobblestone street lined with buildings painted lemon yellow and mint green.

Dozens of wine cellars dug into hillside caves line an area called the Valley of Beautiful Women, about a mile or so from town. For $1, you can fill a small plastic water bottle with wine siphoned directly from the barrel.

Taking the waters at the city baths is a social event that just about anyone can afford. Hungarians call the Eger bath complex a spa, but the pools fed from underground hot springs are more like an adult version of an American water park. A day pass costs $5. We borrowed towels from our guesthouse and bought shower sandals at a store for $1.50 a pair.

Similar to Eger is the town of Veliko Târnovo in Bulgaria, three hours by train from Sofia. Before the Turks invaded Bulgaria, Tarnovo was the royal capital from 1185 to 1393. If you're exchanging American dollars for Bulgarian lev, you can still live here like a king.

Starving after an eight-hour train ride from Bucharest, we settled in for dinner at the Gurko Tavern (www.hotel-gurko.com/index_en.html), a cozy restaurant and hotel built into a cliff overlooking a canyon cut by the snaking Yantra River.

We started with beers and a plate of roasted red and green bell peppers. Then came cold yogurt soup with cucumbers, a whole baked trout and polenta with cheese and sausage. Dessert was crepes with bananas and ice cream. The bill was 20 Bulgarian lev, the equivalent of about $14 with tip.

We might have snagged one of the Gurko's 11 rooms with balconies, air conditioning and cable TV ($67), but the hotel was booked, so we went next door to the Nomads Hostel (www.nomadshostel.com) where we paid $30 for a private room with the same great view, bathroom in the hall.

Notice, I omitted the word "youth." Eastern European hostels don't tend to use it. At Nomads, we met a man in his 60s from Atlanta and a New Zealander in his 50s as well as a young Peace Corps worker in his 20s. Fedio and Maria, the young owners, ran the hostel like a home, inviting guests onto the balcony in the evenings for homemade brandy and conversation.

Getting around

We used discount airlines, trains and maxi-taxis or minivans to get from town to town. If we had been in Italy or France, we might have rented a car, but hiring a guide with a car for day trips turned out to be an affordable luxury in Romania and Bulgaria.

In Târnovo, we arranged a day out in the countryside with our hostel owner, Fedio, for about $40. To visit some of the traditional Romanian villages in the rural Maramures near the Ukraine border, we found Nicolae Prisacaru in the village of Vadu Izei. Nicolae charged the equivalent of $34 a day, plus mileage, or about $110 for two days, a bargain, considering rental cars start at around $65 per day plus insurance and gas.

He spoke excellent English and seemed to know everyone. At the weekly animal market in the one-time salt-mining center of Ocna, we mingled with the locals who came with horse, sheep and boxes of pigs to sell. A few miles away in the village of Sarbi, we met Gheorghe Opris, who owns a wooden watermill where villagers come to do their laundry.

Nicolae also helped us find a room in a guesthouse owned by Ioan and Ileana Borlean (www.vaduizei.ro), who live Swiss Family Robinson style with other relatives in a compound of traditional wooden houses. We paid $34 each including breakfast and home-cooked evening meal for a cozy room with a modern bathroom heated by a wood stove stoked morning and night.

Big city values

The surprise for me was stylish Sofia. It would be stretching it to call the Bulgarian capital the next Prague, but there are plenty of churches, museums, markets, parks and gardens to easily fill a relaxing couple of days.

We checked into the 20-room Maria Luisa Hotel, (www.marialuisa-bg.com) a boutique business hotel in a renovated older building across from a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque.

The price was $127 for a double, $25 less than what we paid in Rome last year for a small B&B in the upper floor of an office building near the train station.

The Maria Luisa's breakfast buffet kept us going all day, and service was Old World quaint. I came back to the room to find that the maid had folded my clothes and lined up my toiletries according to the size of each tube and container.

At a restaurant called "Before & After," the high ceilings, wooden floors and moody jazz reminded me of Vienna or Paris — except for the prices. Dinner for two ( a roasted red pepper and baked cheese appetizer, salads, baked trout and a half-liter of white wine) was $22.

Transportation was a bargain. A single fare tram ticket is 50 cents compared to $1.90 for a trip on the Paris Metro and $8 on the London Underground.

Unlike in those cities, however, inspectors regularly check for tickets.

When a man with a badge asked for ours and saw that we had only two, he demanded we pay a fine of 7 lev or $5, 10 times the normal fare.

Suitcases and backpacks require an extra ticket. Oh well. At least he fined us for only one bag instead of two. What a deal.

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

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About Travel Wise

Carol Pucci's column is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', she'll cover everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture.
cpucci@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3701

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