Eastern European Travels: Summers Abroad with the Debate Team - My Family Travels
Jesse's picture of Slovakia
Jesse's picture of Slovenia
Jesse's rocket in Estonia

Over the last three summers of high school, I traveled to Europe with The International Debate Education Association (IDEA) which sets up debate programs in countries all over the world. Every summer, they have an international debate competition and schools from several nations send delegations to a central location for two weeks of debate, cultural exchange and trips to prominent attractions in the host nation. The locations of the IDEA Forums have been a bit off the beaten path, so they’re a little different from a typical (western) European vacation.

Summer in Slovakia

The first trip I went on, during the summer of 2002, was to Slovakia. Formerly part of Czechoslovakia, this central European nation split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993. During this just-shy-of-two-weeks-long trip, we stayed in (read: took over) the Hotel Permon (+421 52 471 01 11), a four-star ski resort that was nearly empty during the summer months.

The hotel was in the High Tatras Mountain range in the northeastern region of Slovakia, a designated national park. The area was beautiful, and out of our windows we could plainly see the mountains all around us. We went on an excursion to one of the mountains and since it was summertime and was fairly warm, we walked right onto the lifts, and rode them to the top in order to get a scenic view of the whole region.

When I go back, I would like to see Bratislava, in the southwestern part of the country bordering Hungary and Austria. I heard the state capital is a mix of old and new with a restored castle and Old Town along the banks of the Danube River. Another attraction is the Bojnice Castle dating from 1175, where a two-week International Ghost Festival is held each May. For more info about this country in the heart of Europe, contact the Slovak Board of Tourism or visit the new site hosted by the Tourist and Commercial Office of Slovakia in New York, www.cometoslovakia.com (212/679-7045). This site, launched in summer 2005, offers information on activities, suggested itineraries, transportation, maps, accommodations, the capital city Bratislava, US and Slovak tour operators and travel agencies, and more..

After having a blast visiting a country I had never dreamed of visiting, meeting kids from all over the world, and even getting a chance to debate with some of them, I knew I had to go back.

Summer in Slovenia

The next summer, 2003, the IDEA Forum was in Slovenia. A former Yugoslavian state, Slovenia is the nation created to be the homeland for Slovenes, who are one of the Slavic peoples. The languages of the former Yugoslavian countries are similar enough to each other that many citizens can understand several of them if they know one of them fluently. The two-week trip was a totally different experience from the year before because, rather than being confined to a giant hotel in the mountains, we were staying on the outskirts of the capital city, Ljubljana.

With a population of 280,000, Ljubljana is a hard city to classify. It has eastern European roots and charm, Mediterranean influences (such as pastel-colored buildings) and touches of the Soviet occupation (such as hideous block architecture), but at the same time it is struggling to be a modern metropolis with Internet cafes and McDonalds dotting the streets. If you decide to visit, be sure to try some of the ice cream sold by the vendors that seem to clog the streets leading into the town center. Don’t be wary of the odder flavors that they sell (such as Banana, Tiramisu and Hazelnut), as some of those are the real treats.

The center of the city has a picturesque square, which is pleasant to sit in. At night, the city comes to life with street performers (we saw a guy juggling and spinning fire) and sidewalk cafes and restaurants. Outside the core of the city are interesting stores and markets, many selling fresh fish and farm produce, as well as traditional clothing. Just walking down the narrow cobblestone streets is a lot of fun, too. [Editor’s Note: Recommended Ljubljana hotels include the classic Grand Hotel Union (+386 1 308 12 70) and the simple, modern Hotel Park (+386 1 300 25 08). The budget Celica Hostel (+386 1 230 97 00) is noteworthy as a former prison, but its refurbished cells only have twin beds.]

The participants of the IDEA Debate Forum were taken on two so-called Cultural Excursions: visits to see the host country’s cultural and tourist spots. One was to a beautiful seaside town called Izola on the far western coast of the country, right on the Adriatic Sea which I highly recommend visiting if you get to Slovenia. Due to the coast’s proximity to Italy, it felt like an Italian village. The food was similar to Mediterranean or Italian fare (the pizza was killer!) There were beaches on the Adriatic, a miniature water park, and great stores and markets. Boats were available for rental, the beaches are clean, and the people are friendly. What more could you ask for in a seaside town?

The other excursion we went on was to Bled, another major tourist destination in Slovenia about two hours from Ljubljana by train. It’s absolutely beautiful in and around Lake Bled because the water is a very stunning shade of azure blue due to its high content of natural salts. This lake, long renowned for its healing properties, has been a destination of emperors and kings of Europe for centuries. Now the lake and the surrounding region function as a resort, with swimming, hiking, bike rentals, boating, and spas for visitors.

Overlooking the lake is a medieval castle which has been turned into a medieval art and architecture museum. You can hike up to it for a great look at the Slovenian countryside. If you rent a row boat (about US$5 per half-hour), you can row to an island in the center of the lake which is the site of an ancient church. In Bled, we heard the Bledec Hostel (+356 4 574 52 50) was nice and inexpensive. For more information about this country, contact the Slovenian Tourist Board.

Summer in Estonia

The most recent trip was to Estonia, during the summer of 2004. Estonia, which lies on the Baltic, is much farther north than the other countries, and as a result has more extreme weather. For nine months of the year, the country is very, very cold. The average temperature is between 0° and –10°F degrees and the lowest recorded temperature is around –50°F degrees. During the summer months, the country is much warmer, and the natives flock to the beaches to get as much time out in the sun as possible before winter moves back in.

Also, because the country is so far north (above the northernmost point on all of the British Isles), it is very dark all winter, and very bright all summer. (This summer, I stayed up one morning till 5 am, and it was as bright then as it was at 10am when I woke up. Also, the sun set at 11pm, and it wasn’t totally dark till after midnight.)

For this year’s debate forum, we stayed in the little Roosta Resort (+372 47 97 230) campground near the Baltic Sea in the northwest of the country. The participants of the Forum went on an excursion into the capital city of Tallinn, which was fun. We primarily spent time in the area of the city called Old Town, which was where all the old buildings (dating back to the 11th through 15th centuries) were located. A lot of the shops, restaurants and street vendors are themed to look like they’re right out of these centuries.

Estonian culture is interesting because it combines Nordic and more central European influences, yet still has traces of the Soviet occupation, most notably the architecture of some of the more modern buildings. Our group was given nearly eight hours to explore the city. Throughout the course of the day, we visited the Estonian National Library, The Parliament, and various beautiful churches around the city. We even tossed my Frisbee around in a park in the center of the city, much to the confusion of the residents.

For more information on Estonia, contact the Tourism Board of Estonia or call the office in Tallinn at +372 64 577 77.

Planning Your East Europe Visit

Lastly, since many of the nations I’ve mentioned are so small (with a population of about 1.4 million, Estonia has less than 1/8th of the population of the New York Metropolitan Area) and close together, a trip to any one of these nations lends itself to being combined into a larger tour of several European countries. The system of trains, buses, and planes throughout Europe is good enough that adding another country onto your itinerary is sometimes as simple as booking hotel reservations.

For example, a schoolmate and I visited Helsinki, Finland for a few hours after our stay in Estonia, because it’s only an hour away by ferry. It was painless to get to the ferry terminal, buy tickets, board the ferry, and before you know it be in a totally different country! We paid a lot for our tickets, about US$50, but we went with the first ferry operator we found, Silja, which happened to be quite luxurious. If we had looked a bit harder, we could have taken one of the many other lines offering trips to Helsinki, often for less money. Several other members of the IDEA Forum went to Finland as their first stop on a tour of Sweden or Russia.

Why not visit several of the former Yugoslavian nations such as Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro or Croatia (which looked especially beautiful from pictures I saw) instead of just one? This allows you to maximize the number of languages, cultures, and currencies you end up coming in contact with, and can make for a vacation that is two or three times the fun.

Jesse Spielman traveled around Eastern Europe with his debating team from Hunter College High School in New York City in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

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