A Surprising Gem

Wednesday & Thursday 8 & 9 Jan It was a leisurely start to the day as we had decided to catch the 11.30 train to Vienna. Stephen popped out to the nearby supermarket for croissants for breakfast in the room and some excellent German rolls and cheese for lunch. Then we had a short walk back to the station via a local park and past the imposing palace of justice.

The journey through Bavaria and into Austria started Christine reminiscing about our bike ride down the Danube nearly five years ago (sheesh is it really that long since we set out on the Big Trip?) which led to a broken arm just outside Belgrade and also our many other holidays in the area. The Alps were visible with a dusting of snow, the lakes looked beautiful (but cold too) and all the towns were picture postcard pretty and spotless.

We alighted in Vienna and headed to the ticket office to book ourselves on the evening sleeper to Bucharest via Budapest. There we were given the bad news that they could not book us in couchettes but we might be able to arrange them on the train. We sat down to explore our options and saw that there was a train leaving for Budapest in a few minutes which arrived there about 40 minutes before another train to the Romanian capital left. We rushed to Platform 9 – and found ourselves back on the train we had just left!

Another city, another ticket office and again we were told they could only reserve seats for us but we might be able to arrange couchettes on the train. Deciding that that seemed to be the way of the world we went for it.

By now we had less than half an hour before the train left in which to buy ourselves dinner and food for the next day because the train was due in to Bucharest just after noon and there was no buffet or restaurant car. To make life even more interesting we only had about £1.25 in Hungarian money! 

A quick dash into KFC with payment by card and two sandwiches from a little stall in the station paid for with a mixture of our few forints and some Euro coins meant that we would not starve so we joined the shabby old Romanian train and settled down to wait for the conductor. Luckily the train was far from full (we can’t understand why there aren’t throngs of people wanting to travel overnight from Budapest to Bucharest in early January!) so we secured two beds in an otherwise empty four berth couchette compartment.

After all the excitement we decided to have an early night and turned in just after 9 o’clock. We were just drifting off when the train stopped and the conductor opened the door to murmur something about the border before he hurried off down the train. Christine hurriedly dressed and was decent by the time the door was unceremoniously flung open by a Romanian policeman asking for our passports. He went away satisfied thank goodness and after a 40 minute stop the train set off again.

But only for about 5 minutes before it stopped again and the door was opened by another police officer (female this time) who also wanted to see our passports. It is not clear to us why there were two separate checks so close together but hey ho.

That proved to be the last of the interruptions to our sleep and we woke on Thursday morning to the sight of fields and trees covered in snow as we climbed up into some mountains (the Carpathians?) in the middle of Romania.

The heating in the compartment was pretty woeful but in the corridor seemed nonexistent – you could see your breath as you made your way to the loo. (And you did “your business” as quickly as possible, there being a big disincentive to having a leisurely sit down!)

The ride through the mountains was very pretty with snow several inches thick in places but once we got down onto the plain it had all disappeared.

Arriving in Bucharest, we checked into a hotel near the station and headed off, without rucksacks, into the city. We were very pleasantly surprised. The guidebook said that the city didn’t deserve its bad rep and we would agree. There are some rather impressive buildings set on wide boulevards. Some buildings may be a little shabby or dilapidated but there are many grand ones. It seemed to us to have echoes of Paris or Vienna, even if not so illustrious yet – just give it a few decades.

We had read about the Palace of Parliament which was built by the former dictator Nicolai Ceausescu and us the second largest adminstrative building in the world (after the Pentagon). Of course it was a folly built at vast expense paid for by the impoverished people but you could say the same of the medieval cathedrals in Western Europe which we admire so much! We were left impressed by the building but conflicted by the effect it had on the people.

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