Finding a Home Away from Home in the Former Soviet Union. By Jabeen Bhatti ~ Weekly Exclusive - Views On The Latest Trends Monday, 16th June 2014
Exclusive Travel Feature: The Soviet Union was known for many things but a top-notch hospitality industry was not one of them;
Fortunately the major cities in former Soviet capitals like Moscow, Kiev and Tbilisi have built world class hotels that cater to every budget.
But step outside the beaten path and many towns and cities still struggle with old and tired Soviet-era buildings that can be expensive and none too appealing.
That is creating a black market for alternatives. Whether you plan to stay in St. Petersburg or a provincial town in Russia, many entrepreneurial people are renting entire apartments for reasonable prices.
The advantages are obvious: the comforts of home, a complete kitchen and plenty of space makes this an ideal solution for small groups or families. Of course there are challenges: the language barrier may be more difficult if you don’t speak the local parlance but then again, one can’t expect provincial hoteliers to speak many foreign languages either in the wilds of rural Ukraine.
So how does one find an apartment? Surprisingly it’s not hard to do. In many towns and cities older women will wait with sandwich boards advertising rooms to rents. They’ll show the place before any money changes hands. This of course can be time-consuming so many enterprising owners have started advertising their properties on conventional booking sites like Booking.com and Tripadvisor.com.
This isn’t for everybody and if you plan to flit from one city to the next each day it’s probably not worth it. However, if you want to land in a place and spend a bit of time, there are obvious advantages of having the space and comforts of a residential home at one’s disposal.
This tradition isn’t just limited to Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Many towns and cities in ex-Yugoslavia including the beautiful Croatia and Montenegro coastlines also in summer months have armies of pensioners who meet and greet every bus and train with cries of “Soba! Soba!” which means “Rooms! Rooms!” these people are all too eager to rent out spare properties in exchange for some hard currency that supplements their pension.
That tradition isn't new – it harks back to Soviet times across the eastern bloc and the former Yugoslavia. The thing was, then, it was illegal but authorities turned a blind eye to it – mostly.
Still, the quality of the accommodation has improved tremendously. No more tired coverlets on ancient beds. These days, you can rent and get style and comfort.
Be choosy, though. It’s a largely unregulated market and also one might find they’ve displaced a family -- the foreigner will realize they’re sleeping in the master bedroom while the family huddles together in a small room. That’s not always a comfortable situation to be in but it’s usually pretty easy to tell by looking at the apartment if you’re being offered a vacation rental or someone’s home for the night.
In countries of this region that have joined the European Union (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Croatia), you can still rent apartments or homes, very nice ones actually. But the hospitality industry noticed the void long ago and along with local entrepreneurs moved in to capitalize on market opportunities. As a result, in rural Hungary or Bulgaria or the small provincial capitals of Romania or Poland, there are very nice hotels – even boutique hotels – to lay one's head down in.
But until that happens in rural Georgia or eastern Ukraine, or the small cities of Russia, you might just be better off with a rental.
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Jabeen Bhatti is a reporter and editor in Berlin, Germany. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, she has spent most of her career in hard news and currently manages the international journalism organization, Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA). She gets out of Berlin whenever she can, enjoying local nibbles everywhere and finding the perfect hotel room many times over.
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