Day 15: Bucharest

Posted: August 2, 2014 in Bucharest
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Marie and I were feeling better this morning (not 100% but definitely better – can’t say for sure but maybe the Dukoral we have taken for each of our trips – including this one – pays off in reduced symptoms if it doesn’t stop problems altogether). Hopefully that’s the extent of our illness on this trip (touch wood) – although to be safe, we’ll probably cut back on the salads in some of the places we’re traveling to.

We didn’t have anything in particular we needed or wanted to do today so we kind of lazed around a bit this morning and enjoyed breakfast (yogurt) at home before heading out to explore Bucharest. We started by walking to the “Old Town” area – basically Bucharest’s version of Siem Reap’s “Pub Street” or a host of other such places… First I had to take a picture of the “private sex shop” right next door to the “Christian Tour” travel agency… Sort of sums up a lot of what Bucharest is about it seems. Lots of contrasts.

Basically Old Town is a whacking great lot of bars and restaurants housed in some really nice old buildings interspersed with souvenir shops, boutiques and (in Bucharest’s case) erotic massage parlours, night clubs and art galleries. It’s actually a pretty cool area – lots of nice old buildings and an air of “we’re here for a good time.” We’d really only walked to old town during the day (it’s pretty deserted) to find a stop for the hop-on hop-off bus as we’d decided (at $8 can each) to do the city tour as a way of getting an over view of the city and seeing some of the more distant sites without having to hassle subways, etc.

We eventually found one of the stops (through a combination of being in the right place at the right time and just plain luck) and waited for the first bus to come along then dashed like mad to catch it as it stopped hundreds of metres from its allotted pick up spot (probably because a whole bunch of tour buses took his spot). We piled on the bus, paid our fare, grabbed our English tour headsets and settled in to see the sites. First up was the “people’s parliament” – the second largest building in the world (after the Pentagon)… It’s really big. We didn’t go inside but apparently there’s miles of staircases, an underground nuclear fallout bunker, hundreds of chandeliers and all kinds of other ostentatious displays of wealth… If I remember correctly, this building was part of the reason people rebelled against Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989 (there were a bunch of other reasons too – but building a big old building at the expense of things like education, social welfare, etc. is a good way to get yourself executed by an angry populace…). After the parliament we spent a lot of time stuck in traffic but did see a bunch of old buildings, a really big park, some nice monuments and generally had a nice drive in the sunshine checking out this interesting city… There’s a lot of construction going on in Bucharest right now (apparently there has been for some time)… Even their replica of the Arc de Triomphe was under construction (but at least they were nice enough to put up a picture of it to hide the scaffolding!)

After the tour we got off back in old town and then grabbed a bite to eat and something to drink at one of the Irish pubs in the area. The food was good, the prices were reasonable and the service was excellent… Marie even got control in hearts … an almost unheard of occurrence! After lunch we decided to look for a metro station (on the advice of our very helpful server) and head back to the train station to buy our tickets for the epic journey to Istanbul… We’d considered a bunch of options (flying to Istanbul, flying to Sofia and then training to Istanbul, flying to Sofia and then flying to Istanbul) – in the end we decided to stick with our original plan and go overland to Istanbul from Bucharest with a one night stopover in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. On our way to the metro station we got distracted by “The Old Court” – the ruins of a medieval fortress supposedly built (or conquered and expanded, I can’t remember) by Vlad Tepes (you know – Vlad the Impaler – the reputed source for the legend of Dracula) and a 16th century church that seemed to be filled with people looking awfully downcast about things they’d done. The church was quite interesting – lots of intriguing paintings but I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures given all the people actually doing whatever it is you do in church. The Old Court ruins were mostly just the excavated basement – lots of barrel vaults and bricks – but still kind of interesting.

After these brief distractions, we found our way to the Gara de Nord  train station (with only one misstep requiring us to switch trains and get ourselves back on track) and found our way back to the international ticket office where the very kind ladies helped us sort out our transportation to Istanbul. We were very impressed with the city beneath the city subway system and with how easy it was to navigate. Instead of taking an overnight train straight to Istanbul, here’s our revised means of getting from Bucharest to Istanbul:

1) Leave Gara de Nord (the main train station) at 1255 pm on Saturday. Arrive in Gorna Oriahovita in Bulgaria at 1817 on Saturday evening.

2) Take the bus from Gorna to Veliko Tarnovo (about 20 minutes) and spend the night in Veliko as planned.

3) Explore Veliko in the morning and then catch the bus leaving Veliko at about 1920 on Sunday night. Arrive in Dmitrovgrad around 2310 on Sunday night.

4) Switch buses and depart Dimitrovgrad around 2327 and arrive in Kapikule, Turkey around 0230 on Monday morning, Clear customs, get our passports stamped, etc.

5) Board the train and depart from Kapikule around 0256 in the morning and arrive at Cerkezkoy, Turkey around 0544 Monday morning.

6) Leave the train and transfer to a bus leaving Cerkeskoy around 0600 Monday morning and arrive in Istanbul around 0800… Find our way to our hotel and hope they have a room available for early check-in. Otherwise, drop our bags and go grab something to eat and explore until they can let us in our room… Then crash for a while.

In the end this trip will prove to be much more adventurous and ended up costing us about $70 cdn per person instead of $200 per person to fly or $350 per person to fly to Sofia and then on to Istanbul. And we didn’t have to skip Veliko Tarnovo – which we all kind of want to see.

After getting our tickets, we headed back to Old Town, grabbed something to eat and drink at a nice little Italian trattoria (apparently when I ordered my Peroni beer I was entered in some kind of contest where I could win something “if I had luck”… unfortunately, I did not have luck and didn’t win anything…). After dinner we wandered back to our apartment (stopping first at a larger grocery store to grab something to eat at “home” as no one had really felt like eating a full dinner earlier). Along the way we checked out the metro stop we’d need to use to get to the train station on Sunday. Then it was time to put some dinner together (spinach and feta tortellini for Caitlin and Marie, some yogurt and cereal for me), pack the bags and call it a night.

Bucharest turned out better than we were expecting. There are lots of old buildings and some very attractive ones (there’s a reason it had the nickname “Little Paris” at one point) but there’s also a lot of decay – a cautionary tale of what can happen when you don’t preserve your architectural heritage. In all, it’s dirtier and more rundown than most of the other European cities we’ve visited but still worth a visit. There were bunch of museums we didn’t make it to that might have been worthwhile and the Old Town area is fun to explore and hang out for dinner and drinks. In all, we’d come back to Bucharest but it wouldn’t be first on our list…

Tomorrow we start our two day overland adventure to Istanbul!

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