Tamara Sheward discovers that you really can drink wine from a baby’s crib in Georgia.

If you plan to travel around Eastern Europe on your next holiday – anywhere from Serbia to the Ukraine – it may help to take some of these secrets with you.

Heavy Metelkova – Slovenia

Slovenia’s orderly, clean and somewhat twee capital city, Ljubljana, is one of the last places you’d expect to find a harum-scarum realm of mischief and mayhem. But Metelkova, an anarchic autonomous cultural centre, is renowned for breaking all the rules.

Based in an abandoned army barracks, the ramshackle, three-acre compound started life as an artists-cum-activists’ squat following Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia. Despite ongoing battles with local government and the occasional redneck unenamoured of its little-l liberal lifestyles, Metelkova has become both a haven and a heaven to those who heart art: behind crumbling, graffitied walls and super-hip sculptures, scores of alternative galleries, studios and nightclubs reminiscent of New York in its arty 80s heyday lurk and pulse. Metelkova is also the home to Slovenia’s only gay and lesbian clubs. Get there before they tear it down.

 

Get Your Kicks Being Beaten With Sticks – Russia

While catching a glimpse of a bare babushka may not be at the top of every traveller’s to-do list when visiting the world’s largest country, it should be. For when it comes to culture, conversation and cleanliness, nothing beats a banya.

The banya, literally translated as “bathhouse”, is the Russian equivalent of the sauna and is the dominatrix of the bagnio world; in a ritual barely altered in a millennia, those seeking what Russians call “the ultimate cleanliness” subject themselves to 100+ degree temperatures, freezing pools, and ferocious whippings with bunches of dried birchleaves, said to open the pores and release toxins. A must-do after a gruelling ride on the Trans-Siberian…or just a night on the vodka.

Visit Russia’s most legendary banya: http://www.sanduny.ru/en/index.php

 

Doin’ the Cha Cha – Georgia

Georgia is, according to many experts, the birthplace of wine, and the locals are beyond keen to show off their progeny to visitors. Vino is served from bottles and buckets and drunk from any receptacle going: at one weekend binge, the men were swilling from a hollowed-out baby’s crib.

The wine, while delicious and plentiful, is strong, but it has nothing on the equally ubiquitous grape-derived cha cha. It may sounds like a dance or the invisible friend of a precocious little rascal, but don’t be fooled: cha cha is an evil, mind-warping, heart-chewing firewater that gives you the powers to converse in dead languages, ride other people’s horses and lick your own eardrum. Liver, prepare thyself.

 

Guca Festival – Serbia

Does gypsy music blow your hair back? Can’t help but belly-dance at the sound of hectic minor chords? You haven’t moved until you’ve been to Serbia’s Guca Festival. Billed as “the wildest festival on earth”, the week-long celebration in Serbia’s west is a frenzy beyond compare. Attracting half a million revellers, the tiny town of Guca (pronounced “Goocha”) goes berserk to the sound of hundreds of trumpets all played at turbo speed. And while brass bands are often thought of in terms of school concerts and dorky parades, the hot-blooded “Balkan brass” sound is such that even Miles Davis remarked “I didn’t know you could play trumpet that way”.

 

Salivating in Sarajevo – Bosnia and Herzegovina

Eastern Europe is a carnivore’s paradise – meat-eaters can sink their fangs into savoury specialties like pleskavica (grilled beef and lamb patty about the size of a frisbee), kransky (baby’s arm-thick Slovenian sausage) and shashlyk (hunky, chunky shish kebab) for less than a price of a crapburger back home. But in the former Yugoslavia, it is cevapcici – toothsome nuggets of grilled meat rolled in garlic and spices – that reigns supreme. And the seat of its empire has to be Sarajevo.

The old quarter of the former war-zone sizzles and drools in clouds of woodfire smoke: eateries specialising in cevapi (as it’s known locally) abound, and the hungry congregate at long, communal tables where dozens of these meaty treats are served up with pita bread, onion and lashings of kaymak (similar to sour cream).

Even for vegetarians, Sarajevo is a surprise: this beautiful, hilly city serves up a lunatic nightlife and after the long siege of the 90s, its people are in possession of the most delicious black humour you’ll ever come across.

http://www.sarajevo.ba/en/

 

Down and Dirty – Azerbaijan

Remember the exploding “Just Another Wafer Thin Mint” guy from Monty Python? The far-flung and oft-neglected country of Azerbaijan has one-upped the self-detonating Mr Creosote with the biggest collection of mud volcanoes found on the planet.

Located a mere 65 km from the Sovietesque capital city of Baku, 300 of the world’s 700 mud volcanos burp, belch and spew constant stream of thick, sludgy muck and methane into the air. Given how hard it is to find a postcard or souvenir map dated after 1960 in Azerbaijan, it’s no surprise that the volcanoes are completely devoid of tourists, leaving the mud-happy to frolic unrestrained across its flatulent, oozing cones.

A word of advice: as thrilling as it may be, don’t jump on the volcanos yelling “Virgin sacrifice!”. You will fall in. I speak from very messy experience.

Visit http://www.azerb.com/az-mud-volcanoes.html

 

Kosmetiika in Kiev – Ukraine

Ukrainian women have a deserved reputation as being some of the most gorgeous and glamorous creatures on earth. From the tips of their super-stylised hair to their frighteningly pointy shoes, these devushkas know how to dress to impress. So why should a little water get in the way of all that hard work?

Hydropark, an island in the middle of the capital city of Kiev, is – depending on your orientation – either a great place for a swim or a massive perv-fest. Of course, if you’re a cynical bastard, it’s also the perfect way to spend a day laughing your guts out: supposedly the place to go for all sorts of rigorous aquatic activity, the beach is more akin to a frenzied catwalk, with everyone trying desperately to strut the sands in six-inch heels and leather bikinis. Women with impressive pelvic floor skills hoover in their already skimpy G-strings (for that perfect labia tan), babushkas trowel on the war paint at river’s edge and supermodels sneer from behind 24-carat sunnies. Leave your insecurity complex at home.

Visit http://www.kiev.info/

 

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: Transnistria

Transnistria does not officially exist, but if you’re the intrepid type with a sense of curiosity as big as a pile of 100 dead cats, that shouldn’t prove a problem. Located in a small corner of Europe’s poorest nation – Moldova – Transnistria is a de facto republic that still believes it’s part of the USSR and has the hammers and sickles to prove it. A fascinating look into delusions of grandeur on a national scale.

The ups: Wander through a living, breathing USSR theme park decades after the end of the Cold War. Booze is top-shelf and costs less than bottled water.

The downs: Regarded by crims the world over as a supermarket for illegal weapons. Universal corruption. Is not real.

 

Top Tip

If you order pizza in Eastern Europe – particularly in the less Westernised nations – you must remember two words and two words only: No mayonnaise. Unless you’re, like, really disgusting or something.

About Tamara Sheward

In between travelling to exotic places around the world, Tamara Sheward has worked as a toy spider salesperson, a Guinness packer, a Quizmaster and an occasional journalist. She is the author of Bad Karma: Confessions of a Reckless Traveller in South-East Asia, the co-author of 101 Sudoku for Kids, and the author of The Little Aussie Alphabet Book and The Little Aussie Numbers Book.