An old bloc party

David Whitely takes a look at the eight host cities for Euro 2012.

WHILE the Olympics in London is Europe's biggest sporting drawcard this year, another major event is happening further east. The European Football Championships are third only to the World Cup and Olympics in size and Euro 2012 will shine the spotlight on hosts Poland and Ukraine.

The tournament takes place between June 8 and July 1, spreading across four Polish and four Ukrainian cities. Go for the football and it's a chance to get to understand two former Iron Curtain countries that have taken somewhat different paths since the fall of communism.

Poland

Of the two nations, Poland is the most accessible. It steered a Western course after the Eastern bloc disintegrated and is a fully fledged member of the EU. For many visitors, a trip to Poland equates to a long weekend in Krakow. Interestingly, though, none of the Euro 2012 games are being held in Krakow. And that means the rest of the country should get to show off.

Wroclaw is arguably a less-heralded version of Krakow. It's got the pretty old town and majestic central market square combo but not nearly as many tourists. Among a good collection of churches and museums, the stand-out oddity is the Raclawice Panorama - a giant war painting that takes up a huge cylindrical building in a park. Poznan is more of a business city but a massive student population gives it good-time energy and it acts as the gateway to the hiking trails, lakes and forests of the Wielkopolska National Park.

The capital, Warsaw, has the biggest Euro 2012 games and is an unexpectedly rewarding city. The Old Town was rebuilt almost from scratch after the city was decimated by bombing in World War II.

Dig around a little more and you've a host of odd monuments and a city with real life to it. Stumble through gateways on the main shopping streets and you'll find yourself in courtyard complexes full of bars.

The big surprise is Poland's fourth host city, Gdansk, best known as a shipbuilding port but 300 to 400 years ago, the prime-port status brought it riches and wealthy merchants tried to outdo each other with contributions to public projects and flashy additions to their own buildings. The result is that the Main Town area is a feast for the eyes. It's also the nearest major city to the enormous Malbork Castle, a red-brick masterpiece dating to the 13th century.

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Ukraine

This host nation is big, complex and has opened itself up to tourism in a half-hearted, almost wary manner. It's symptomatic of a country that's torn between East and West.

Nevertheless, visa restrictions for most countries (including Australia) have gone and budget airlines are gradually adding more frequent and affordable connections from the rest of Europe.

The Euro 2012 final is being played in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. It's the great European city that no one seems to mention - Russian civilisation began there, it's the spiritual home of Orthodox Christianity and it's a genuinely exciting place to be. The communist relics - ridiculous, huge statues and tanks on display - are still there but the numerous golden-domed churches and monasteries built into cave systems show an older heritage.

Of the four cities hosting Euro 2012 games, it's fair to say that Donetsk holds the least appeal. Unless, that is, you really like mining slag heaps and looking at the expensive cars of oligarchs parked outside restaurants.

Kharkiv isn't overburdened with attractions, either. But it does have the hang-out factor. It's a university city with lots of open spaces where the buzz is more important than the museum-schlepping. Lviv is Ukraine's most "European" city, situated in the very west of the country and just over the border from Poland. It's the gateway to the Carpathian Mountains and is an architectural gem.

Frankly, if Lviv was in Germany, the Czech Republic or even Poland, tour buses would be all over it.

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