Day 16: Bucharest to Veliko Tarnovo

Posted: August 4, 2014 in Bucharest, Getting Around, Veliko Tarnovo
Tags: , , , , ,

Our only objective for this morning was to be up and out of the apartment by 11am and at the train station by noon. After another home breakfast of yogurt (with some orange juice this time!), we left the apartment precisely at 11am and, thanks to the efficiency of the Bucharest subway system were at the train station by 11:30am. As our train didn’t depart until 12:55, we had a bit of time to kill. Much of this time was spent trying to spend off the last Romanian currency we had because it’s pretty much worthless anywhere else in the world… I think we had 53 leu (about $17 cdn) to spend so we stocked up on food for the train ride to Veliko… In the end we had about 3 leu ($1 cdn) we couldn’t find anything to spend on so we’ll add it to the souvenir bag of coins from the various countries we’ve visited – which is much more complete given that we finally solved the one mystery of our Europe 2012 trip… we carried a bag of coins and bills from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia around for the last half of that trip and then it just disappeared… We thought it might have been taken out of one of our hotel rooms (although why anyone would want those currencies outside of those countries made no sense) or that maybe we’d left it behind somewhere… When we got home at the end of the last trip we scoured the many pockets of our packs and daypacks and still didn’t find it. As we were packing for this trip, there it was at the bottom of one of the day packs… No idea how we all missed it when we went through the packs at the end of the last trip but at least we finally solved the mystery…

Back to this trip. Today’s train trip would normally be done on the Bosphorus Express – an older but apparently well-maintained train with wood panelled sleeping cars and a cool kind of retro vibe. Not this time. With the disruptions in the train routes, they appeared to have pulled a couple of very old passenger cars out of storage and pressed them into service. Our tickets said we were supposed to be sitting in the usual 2 facing 2 kind of car with a little table between us. For some reason they put us into the car with the little 8 person “cabins” – I think these tickets are usually more expensive but I’m not sure this was an improvement – although instead of air conditioning, you get windows that open (always a bonus when traveling through agricultural areas and past sewage treatment centres!). We were “helped” onto the train by one of those super high energy people who just pull you along… the kind who (even through you don’t actually need help) kindly show you to your compartment – in this case whichever one happened to be open (numbers don’t matter he says) and then once you’re settled, makes his pitch for, in this case, helping people with TB. After he left, we double-checked with the real train staff if we were in the right car and then settled into our assigned seats. Our cabin-mate for the trip was a young Romanian woman traveling to visit a friend in Sofia… she didn’t seem too pleased at first to have to share her compartment but warmed up when we let her have one whole side of the cabin so she could stretch out and sleep. On our train were a few other travellers making the trip to Istanbul who really weren’t sure how the whole thing was going to work out… It appeared we’d been given the most complete information (we even got a little slip of paper with all the train and bus times on it)… which given the amount of confusion in the explanation given to us makes us wonder whether some of our fellow travellers might end up a long way from Istanbul.

The train pulled away from the station right at 12:55 and the first part of the trip passed without incident until the Romanian border town of Giurgui – which occasioned muffled howls of laughter from Caitlin and Marie (not to mention our Romanian cabin-mate) as they listened to the older Aussie woman in the cabin next to ours trying to pronounce the name of the station… It was almost as funny as Marie’s Cafe Aleebee moment. What wasn’t funny was the officious looking border police who showed up, took all the foreigners’ passports and then disappeared into the train station – this was cause for much concern on the part of some of our fellow passengers who (like us when it happened to us the first time) recalled the dire warnings you receive with your passport to never, ever let it out of your sight… We have had this happen a number of times on our various trips so it was kind of old hat… Besides, we weren’t going anywhere – our locomotive had disconnected and bailed out as soon as we arrived at the station…. More concerning was the quite vociferous command not to take any pictures of them as they walked away with the stack of passports. More humorous was the fact that there were two of them who came on the train but only one guy actually did anything – the other guy (a quite heavy set guy to be polite) did absolutely nothing. He just chaperoned the guy who did all the work… Maybe he was there for muscle and wasn’t authorized to touch passports. Who knows?

After about 15 minutes they returned with the stack of passports and handed them back to everyone all stamped and ready to go. I think they actually managed to complete this entire task without cracking a single smile. Must be in the training manual or something – no smiling at the tourists – it will just encourage them… A few minutes after our passports were returned, a locomotive (along with a couple of extra passenger cars) attached itself to our train and we were off.

Soon, the process more or less repeated itself at the Ruse train station in Bulgaria. Only this time they came on the train (1 guy at each end of the car) and prevented anyone (or at least tried) from getting off the train. This time they radioed the information on our passports in to the central office, spelling out our names and other pertinent information and presumably getting some kind of confirmation before stamping our passports. This process also involved a bit of delay as an English family we talked to a couple of times during the trip as they were heading to Istanbul as well and weren’t really sure how it all worked – ran into a problem with their passport that was expressed as “too much names” – This resulted in about a 20 minute delay as the issue of “too much names” was sorted out. After that it was smooth sailing (well not that smooth really – this was a really old train). At some point during the journey we discovered that it was the sort of train where the toilet “flushes” directly onto the tracks below (probably explains why you never see anyone walking the tracks here). Caitlin’s first (and only for the rest of this trip, I’m sure) trip to the “water closet” resulted in the best line of the trip thus far… “I think I need to disinfect my bum!” This caused a bit of a confused look for Marie who explained that she perfected a technique a long time ago (for the outhouses when we were doing a lot of camping) where her butt never touches the seat in such places!

After a couple of stops at barely decipherable stops we arrived at Gorna – at least we were pretty sure it was Gorna because most everyone piled off the train. A quick check with someone in uniform confirmed that it was, indeed, Gorna and that the bus to Istanbul would be out front in 5-10 minutes… More like 35 to 40 minutes but at least he had the location correct. So we waited out from with the other dozen or so folks heading for Istanbul (or various stops along the way) until a battered old coach showed up and piled us all on. Before we pulled away, we confirmed with the driver that the bus would be stopping in Veliko, that it would be stopping there again tomorrow night and that we could board it from Veliko to make our way to Istanbul… So far so good. We piled on the bus, avoiding a minor international incident when Marie tried to sit in the front row of passenger seats (she must have forgotten that those seats are always – on every bus we have ever taken – reserved for bus company staff… even when there is no bus company staff riding the bus).

After about 20 minutes we pulled into the Veliko Tarnovo train station and with some pointing at old analog watches confirmed that the bus would be returning to the same spot around 7:15 the next night and that we could catch it then. After that we were approached by a gentleman who spoke good English who had a) a car and could give us a ride and b) rooms to rent if we needed them… We literally had no money (having spent down to our last 2 Romanian lei before we left) so told him that we would walk… He helpfully decided to show us the way… Along the dirt road through a sketchy looking park. Fortunately, I’d google mapped our destination before we left and the park was shown as the quickest route so we followed along… At some point he asked again if we would like him to get his car and give us a ride… We explained we really didn’t have any money and that we were happy to walk so he left (with a bit of a disgruntled look but he did give us rudimentary directions to our hotel).

So we headed off through some sketchy overpasses, a couple of highway underpasses and a residential part of the town before we saw what looked like a main street and followed it to another main street which led us to a bank machine and what had to be the main tourist drag. At this point we’d walked about 2.5 km with our packs in the early evening heat and the sweat was literally dripping from us… So we decided to stop at the first restaurant we came to, used their wifi to confirm where our hotel was and grabbed something to eat and drink. We picked a place called Ethno that turned out to be a stroke of very good luck. They had wifi. The food was excellent (we tried a couple of local potato dishes with boiled potatoes, a cream sauce and ham or sausages – kind of a heavier version of scalloped potatoes), the prices were very good and the service outstanding. And the beer was cold. Suitably restored and knowing the hotel was only 750 metres away we shouldered our packs and headed off into the growing darkness.

Editor’s Note: I have been informed that my description of the sketchy walk with the sketchy man is too, how shall we put it… sketchy. So Caitlin and Marie have told me to flesh it out… Let’s see. The train station itself is dusty, rundown and looks abandoned. So this guy says he’ll show us the right way – which involved crossing multiple sets of railroad tracks and entering a large, park-like area with a number of dirt roads running in all directions and some derelict buildings and assorted piles of garbage. In front of us, a guy is peeing in the bushes. Over to the right another guy is packing a hot water heater on his back. We walk briskly along a dirt road in the direction of some buildings in the distance but first we have to cross a slow-moving river filled with garbage… It’s at this point our guide leaves (because he ain’t getting any money) and we walk on… Under one of those highway pedestrian underpasses. This one is filled with graffiti and homeless peoples’ blankets and other evidence of prolonged camping. Then we walk the side of the highway for a bit before coming to another pedestrian underpass filled with even more garbage and graffiti… Then we emerge into a quite deserted looking residential area… Caitlin has mentioned several times the bad example set… Her “if we were a couple of women traveling alone imagine what could have happened” comment indicates a level of discomfort with our shortcut into town… In my defence, it wasn’t that sketchy…

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We found the hotel right where we expected it to be (gotta love google maps) and checked in without difficulty (although the front desk staff spoke no English) and were soon comfortably ensconced in our room for the night. This is our cheapest room of the trip (€36 or about $54 cdn) but turned out to be a great value – huge walk-in shower, a double bed (two singles pushed together but that’s not uncommon in Europe it seems) and a twin sofa bed for Caitlin. The room even had a small bar fridge and air conditioning and wifi… Score! Caitlin would like to point out that she entered the hotel in a stare of abject terror as a large frog had leaped out at her just before we got to the hotel… In reality it was probably a very small and cute frog who made the potentially life-threatening decision to move within 100′ of Caitlin…

A couple of random observations that didn’t make their way into earlier blogs:

1) The apartment building across the way from our apartment in Budapest was liberally scored with marks that looked suspiciously like bullet holes… Lots of bullet holes. Hmmmm

2) There were cockroaches in the entry way of the apartment when we came back from our day exploring… That’s not so unusual (although we haven’t seen many of them since our trip to Thailand a few years ago). What was most concerning was that they were dead – not squished bug dead – just dead… Which when you consider that cockroaches can endure nuclear fallout makes you wonder what kind of industrial waste they use to kill the things…

3) I said this in the blog for our last trip but will say it again… Radlers are amazing! They’re beer-based grapefruit or lemon or cherry (and sometimes other flavours) low alcohol (1.8% usually) drinks that are a great alternative to soft drinks (especially for those of us who don’t drink pop) and they’re amazingly refreshing… They sell them occasionally in the BC liquor stores but they’re not easy to find – which is a shame because they’re an amazing summer drink. They have a very mild beer taste (sometimes) and a refreshing fruit zing… And they’re usually ridiculously cheap.

4) We have seen a number of posters for “Hooters” restaurants in some of the cities we’ve visited. Now, Europeans don’t seem to have as much of a thing for silicone enhanced busts as Americans so their posters have featured women of more modest proportions… which prompted Caitlin at some point to remark “she could work at Hooters here!”

5) Since Romania, we have been taken for people from Britain… score. No one in this part of the world mistakes us for Americans… Apparently American accents are much harsher than ours… People are very impressed that we are from Canada… Although most only know of Toronto… Thank goodness our last name isn’t Ford…

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