Posts Tagged ‘Romania’

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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Marie woke up in the middle of the night feeling pretty unwell so both her and I were feeling kind of punky this morning (although I definitely felt better than I had for most of yesterday). Caitlin of course was feeling fine… I blame that Cafe Aleebee place (or whatever it was called) where Marie and I had some kind of chicken pita sandwiches with hummus. It didn’t really matter how we were feeling because there’s not a lot of room for error in this trip plan (we could change things if we really needed to but it’s a pretty fixed schedule) so there’s no lollygagging about…

We made it downstairs by 9am to grab our free breakfasts (Marie took her BLT to go as she wasn’t feeling at all hungry) and then headed back to up to the room to finish packing. We headed back down, settled up our account with Tatiana (the hostess/breakfast cook/front desk staff/cleaner) had a brief chat with a woman (and her father) from California who is currently living in northern Iraq (she’s a professor at a university there) – she swears it’s perfectly safe and much different from the southern part which is where all the violence is (her father was not convinced). It’s probably a good thing we had to leave to catch our train or she would have had Marie planning our next trip to Iraq!

We retraced our steps from earlier in the week and found the train station (everything looked a lot more charming than it had when we arrived – maybe because we’d had more sleep and it wasn’t raining). Unfortunately, we also found out that our train would be delayed by 80 minutes… So we chatted a bit with some fellow travellers from Vancouver, played some cards (Marie made a valiant attempt at beating me at crib but ultimately fell short) and kind of hung around doing not much of anything… Welcome to the zen of travelling.

Once the 80 minutes had passed, we headed outside to wait for the train (surely it would be coming soon) but we ended up waiting another 20 minutes or so outside. Plenty of time to witness a quite comical interchange between the conductor of a small passenger train and one of the station staff… We imagine it went something like this:

Hey stupid… Why is your train parked on track number 3? Didn’t you get the memo that said you’re supposed to be on track #1?? 

No way… this is where I alway park my train. What the hell’s the matter with you. Why would I want to park my train on track #1 when I can make everybody walk all that extra distance by parking it on track #3… Go bug someone else or something… 

Dude, it’s your call but there’s a really big train coming on track #3 soon and we’d kind of like to not kill everyone on it and we’d really rather not shmuck those nice people standing and waiting for their train (which is very very late now by the way)… So why don’t you just back your train back the way you came and go find where the switch is and get on track #1 like you’re supposed to… There’s a good fellow. 

Every since you got that little flag they give the station people you’ve been a little uppity you know… Fine. I’ll move my train but only ’cause I’m getting a bit hot out here in the sun and it’s nice and shady over there on track #1… but you know where you can shove your big train… right??

Shortly after, our train arrived (on Track #2 where it was supposed to be) and we piled on… Apparently they were trying to make up time because the door smacked Marie right on the butt as she was climbing in (those doors are heavy) and it was pulling out of the station before everyone was seated. Finding seats wasn’t a problem because it was a pretty empty train… Marie and I walked the length of it at one point and it couldn’t have been more than 10% full.

We watched a couple of movies, read some books, etc. to pass the time and looked at the scenery passing by… This is a very pretty country – rolling hills, farmland, cute little alpiney villages, mountains, the whole package… But there also seems to be a lot of poverty and some of the places we passed through were pretty sad looking. The train itself was an older diesel type – things were a bit worn but serviceable.

Somehow, the train made up a whole lot of time along the way and we arrived in Bucharest only 40 or so minutes late. There must have been a time warp along the way or something. Bucuresti Nord train station is a bit rundown and chaotic with some sketchy looking characters (quite a few of them actually). We’d make arrangements to have someone pick us up and drive us our apartment (there’s no reception or anything because it’s an apartment so it was just easier to have one of their staff pick us up)… Only problem, they weren’t there to pick us up. Fortunately my iPhone hadn’t quite died yet so we were able to call the number we had for the company and were told someone would be there shortly…

While we waited for our ride to arrive, I went to the international tickets office to buy our tickets for the next two legs of our journey – Bucharest to Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria and Veliko Tarnovo to Istanbul, Turkey… Our plan was to make the 6 hr train trip to Veliko, spend a night there (at the Lucky Hotel no less) and then take the overnight train to Istanbul on Sunday… One small problem… There is no night train to Istanbul anymore… Because of work on the lines, it now goes something like this: Train to Gorna (8km from Veliko) – Bus to Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria – Another bus from Dimitrovgrad to Kapikule, Turkey – Train from Kapikule to Çerkezköy (where the Orient Express was once snowed in for days – an event that gave rise to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express) and finally another bus from Çerkezköy to Istanbul… We decided to spend the night thinking about it…

As I walked back my phone rang – it was our driver – we had one of those comical moments when we realized we were looking at each other from 15′ away while talking to one another on the phone… We piled our stuff into his battered Land Rover and headed for our apartment… Marie – for some reason – passed on sitting in the front (she never passes up a chance to sit in the front). I think it was a premonition… Somehow she knew that driving in Bucharest is really, really scary and wanted me to have a front row seat for it. I really can’t describe the driving conditions… We drove about 3 km and our driver narrowly missed two buses, about a dozen pedestrians, sixteen other cars and displayed aggressive driving tendencies that would make a demolition derby driver wince. I’m truly stunned we made it to our apartment in one piece.

We had to stop and pick up the check-in person who accompanied us to the apartment (which required much double parking, honking of horns and general mayhem). Finally we pulled up in a rather seedy area and we piled out and followed the check in lady (she had a name but none of us can remember it) around to the front of the building. She gave us a brief rundown of the area (metro stop that way, old town that way, grocery store over there just past the sex shop… kind of gives a good idea of the neighbourhood to note that there are at least 6 sex shops in the same block as the apartment). Then we headed inside. To say that we were worried is an understatement – you read all kinds of reviews of these apartment rental setups where the apartment looks nothing at all like the website and you’re paying 45 euros for a hovel… This was looking like it was going to be a hovel… The elevator could only carry two people. The stair case had few, if any, working lights. There are bars on most of the doors and everybody has deadbolts and substantial doors… Fortunately, when she opened the door to our unit we were met with a very bright, very clean and well-equipped one bedroom apartment… Definitely the best room we’ve stayed in thus far and one of the best we’ve ever stayed in… It’s too bad getting to it feels like you’re actually risking life and limb.

After we dumped our packs and paid our money and went through the house rules (we particularly liked the one about being quiet in the stairwell because there are “funny people” in the building who like to quarrel…) and changed, we headed out for something to eat. We basically took the first restaurant we came to (no one was really feeling all that hungry or much like exploring), ate dinner then headed back… Stopping first to grab some yogurt and water for breakfast the next day.

Our first impressions of Bucharest – not at all helped by the double deadbolt, extra heavy duty door and multiple warnings to watch your belongings, be safe, etc. in the written materials left by the landlord – is that the negative reviews might be more accurate than the positive… But for now we’ll keep an open mind.

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