Posts Tagged ‘Trains’

Our day started well enough. It was pretty late when we turned in last night so we ended up sleeping in a little bit this morning. We still made it downstairs in plenty of time for our free breakfast, though… and what a breakfast it was. A small glass of orange juice (glorified Tang), a cup of tea and 4 slices of white bread with salami and cheese. But it was free so no one’s complaining (at least not loudly).

After breakfast we finished packing up and went back downstairs to check out and store our packs for the day then headed out to explore Tsaravets Castle (more accurately Tsaravets citadel or acropolis) – I don’t know much of the history of this place other than it was built during the middle ages and is pretty huge. It’s situated (as is the case with most such fortifications) at the top of a hill with sheer cliffs on a couple of sides and must have been quite something in its day. Now all that’s left are the foundations of the inner buildings, some reconstructed buildings (not spectacularly accurately, I suspect) and sections of the fortress walls and towers. It cost us 6 Bulgarian lev (about $4.20 cdn) to get into the site and you can pretty much explore to your heart’s content so it’s good value. Unfortunately, all the signage is in Bulgarian or German so we didn’t get as much out of it as we might have liked but it was still worth a couple of hours.

After the fortress we hopped on a little tourist train (4 lev each for the adults but the “child” rode for free – Caitlin is still seething at being relegated to child status but Marie was happy to save the $2.80). The train was really nice (basically brand new) but the “tour” was pretty lame – basically the train acts as a shuttle bus for a parking lot at the bottom of the fortress… so you drive down to the parking lot and then you turn around and go back the way you came. There’s no commentary of any kind and not much to see so in all it was sort of disappointing. But we didn’t have anything else we needed to do so it was no loss.

After the train, we roamed around a bit checking out the souvenir shops – good prices, decent selection of things we haven’t seen before – the pottery was especially good value (like $14 for pots that would cost $50-60 back home) but we’re pretty limited in our space so bringing back a whole bunch of cheap Bulgarian pottery isn’t going to happen any time soon. After a bit of souvenir shopping we took a break at one of the cafes and grabbed something to eat and drink and played a couple of hands of hearts and then headed back out to do some more exploring and shopping. Marie and Caitlin found a few bargains while I popped into a hillside restaurant/bar to check out the scenery, work on the blog and have a cold grapefruit Radler…

Soon it was time to head back to the hotel to retrieve our packs. After picking up our packs we stopped at a pizza/pasta joint and ordered some food to go, then grabbed a taxi to the train station ($3.50 cdn and saved a half hour of walking at least). At the station we queued up with our fellow Istanbul-bound passengers and waited for the bus to arrive. It showed up more or less on time and we piled on to start our 13 hour epic bus and train journey to the fabled city of Istanbul… If only it had all turned out that way.

We had only been on the road for about 25 minutes when we turned off and stopped in Middleofnowheresgradski – as in one store with 16 bottles of beer and a can of Fanta in the fridge – we waited there for almost an hour for a mini-bus to show up with 3 people on it… The highlight was definitely the running of the goats down the main drag… Yup, a whole herd of goats comes trotting down the main street and then splits off into 3 smaller groups – each going its own way. Which explained the two guys sitting on a chair drinking beer with long wooden “switches” – as soon as “their” goats turned up, they finished off their beer and headed after their goats. It was quite comical… After what seemed like an eternity (but only because we hadn’t experienced a real eternity yet) we piled back on the bus and resumed our trip. I think we might have made a couple of quick stops after that but nothing noteworthy… But then came Dimitrovgrad… Somehow we ended up there about 2 hrs earlier than the schedule we were given said we’d get there… They needn’t have bothered with a schedule.

As soon as we pulled in our driver was like “it’s off the bus time to switch buses, wait here” and then, after throwing open the luggage compartments, was gone – never to be seen again… Which was probably a good thing because someone might have killed him as the evening progressed. We waited for about an hour until the anticipated bus (the one that was supposed to take us to Kapikule, Turkey) showed up… When it finally arrived it had 5 empty spaces… Only problem? There were about 30 of us looking to get to Istanbul tonight… It quickly became apparent that we weren’t all going to fit on the bus. With visions of Hunger Games dancing in our heads we queued up for a while at the front door of the bus until it became clear that it wasn’t going to work out.

So we waited (without any explanation from the bus company staff) for another hour and half until some genius decided to call for a second bus for the overflow passengers (or maybe he called earlier – we wouldn’t no because no one did any explaining). So we waited another half hour for the second bus to show up… Then we waited another half hour for the driver to show up… Finally – more than 2.5 hours later we were pulling out of Dimitrovgrad headed for Smilograd or Smaugville or some damn place… all we knew is that it most definitely was not the place we were scheduled to go to… Everybody dozed fitfully for a couple of hours until it became increasingly clear that the driver was completely lost… He was talking to someone on his cell phone while going the wrong way down one way streets for a while until we turned off onto a rutted gravel road that apparently led to the Smirnoff of Sackville or whatever it was called customs station… Where a guy in nothing even remotely resembling a uniform collected all our passports and went back into the station to do something with them (I think he was writing down the pertinent information on a sheet of paper but who knows). After about 45 minutes we were back on the road again heading for god-only-knows-where-grad but hey, we did pass some signs saying “Istanbul” so we must be on the right track… Alas it was not to last.

We pulled into a 24 hr kind of rest stop not far from where we cleared Bulgarian customs (presumably that was why they collected our passports) around 3:45am and were told we’d need to wait for about an hour for the Turkish bus to arrive and then it would take us to Istanbul… It’s now 5:40am and I’m sitting outside on a plastic chair typing this blog entry (I’m outside with the frogs and the mosquitos because with the doors closed and the engine turned off the interior of the bus heats to 6th level of hell temperatures in about 9 minutes). We left Veliko Tarnovo around 7:30pm… We’ve been on the road (metaphorically because much of the time has been spent waiting) for 10 hours and apparently we have 5 more hours of driving in front of us whenever we leave.

Highlights of the trip thus far:

1) The kids who pulled out a ukelele and headed to the nearest shop to buy beer as soon as it became apparent we were going to be in Dimitrovgrad for a while. Kudos to them for making the best of a bad situation… but please, please, for the love of all that is holy and good learn some decent music. Beyonce songs are not made for the ukelele nor should they ever be played on such…

2) The Bulgarian grandmother who clearly has a timetable to keep to… She speaks no English but has pestered every single person on the bus at least twice to confirm we’re going to Istanbul, to ask how long it will take (presumably because she keeps pointing at her imaginary watch) and who just finished railing at the driver (who, remember was pulled out of bed – or the bar – at 2am to drive) so vociferously that he gave up trying to sleep and is now out here with those of us who are braving the bugs and the frogs… She has, at one time or another, managed to disrupt almost everyone’s sleep on the bus by chewing out the bus driver. Her days may be numbered if this trip lasts any longer.

3) The spectacularly creepy dude who took way too much interest in Caitlin and Marie – fortunately he deciphered the cave man glare I gave him (assisted no doubt by some strategic body positioning to quite deliberately put myself between him and them) before anything more drastic had to be done… Kudos to Caitlin for picking up on his creepiness instantly. Her radar was obviously working overtime at 1am in the sketchy Bulgarian bus stop.

4) Nature pees… Caitlin and Marie heading off with a flashlight to let ‘er rip in the urban park (more accurately a strip of green space with a couple of trees sandwiched between the bus depot and the strip clubs and late night stores) where we waited incessantly for the bus – any bus to arrive. They weren’t the only ones doing it… There was a pretty steady stream (no pun intended) of people heading for the bushes while we waited.

5) Marie feeling okay for most of it… Of course the half bottle of Ginger Gravol she took over the course of the trip (okay it wasn’t half a bottle… it was only 8 tablets… out of 20 in a bottle…)

It’s now 6:04am and we’ve just finished piling onto an even more dilapidated bus (I wasn’t sure that was even possible given the state of disrepair of the ones we’ve ridden so far) and are pulling out of the parking lot. If I understand things this is going to go one of two ways from this point: either this bus is going to take us all the way to Istanbul or this bus is going to take us to Kapikule and we’ll need to get on another bus that will then take us to Istanbul.

We just cleared Bulgarian passport control (everybody disembarks from the bus and walks up to a window where your passport is scanned and stamped) then you pile back on the bus and drive across the border to Turkish passport control. There’s a line of maybe 4 buses ahead of us (most with a stream of passengers catching up to the bus with their duty free purchases). At the Turkish side of the border, they come aboard the bus and collect passports (not all but most – some countries must not need visas or scanning or something) and then disappear into officialdom with our passports and printed visas (you apply for and get them electronically before you leave Canada – at a cost of $60 USD for each!). We’re just sitting in the line idling and then it’s off to Kapikule to switch buses (again) for the final trip to Istanbul. In all, it took us just under an hour to clear the border and get to the Kapikule bus depot so it’s now about 8am…

At Kapikule, order and decent customer service took over. The Turkish side of the operation quickly got us off our beater bus (this thing was clearly pulled out of retirement for tonight’s shenanigans) and onto a smaller bus (perhaps a bit too small as there wasn’t enough luggage space for all our packs) that was in pretty decent shape. They showed everyone to the bathrooms (something most of the people on the bus hadn’t seen since just before 2am when we left Dimtrovgrad) and were friendly and communicative – a stark contrast to the Bulgarian side of the operation who never spoke, never smiled and couldn’t have cared less if anyone needed to use a toilet…

We pulled out of Kapikule and headed for Istanbul (about 3 hours away) in a much better frame of mind. The only downside to this part of the trip was the heat in the bus – in about 5 minutes it was literally a sauna in the bus – a bus, remember, with 22 (Marie counted) people who have not slept well and who have not showered in quite a few hours (some in quite a few days from the smell of them)… It got pretty ripe and extremely hot really fast – which just helped everyone get a bit more sleep. After 2 hours of driving we stopped at a rest area (with a variety of food options and bathrooms no less) for a quick 10 minute pee break and then piled in and made the last part of the trip…

There are a couple of jobs I would not do for love or money – a bus driver in Istanbul would be very near the top of that list. The traffic in this city is insane – think 3 lane highways made into 6 lane highways by people just driving wherever there’s a space. Think roundabouts with no lights and people cutting from the outside of the roundabouts to the inside at high speed. We entered Istanbul around 10:30 am and didn’t arrive at our destination (Silecek Train Station) until 11:30 (most of that last hour was stop and go bumper car traffic – no wonder the driver lit up a smoke (despite the no smoking signs all over the bus).

In all, our trip from Veliko Tarnovo ended up taking 16 hours and 4 separate buses… But we made it. There were a few moments where we weren’t entirely sure they weren’t just going to dump us off the bus and leave us but in the end they got us all here in one piece (more or less).

Once in Istanbul we found a bank machine and stocked up on Turkish currency, then hit a tourist information booth for a map and some instructions about using the tram system to get to our apartment/hotel… We figured it all out, shouldered our packs and climbed aboard the first tram heading in the right direction. Four stops later we piled off (right at the historic Grand Bazaar no less) and then made a quick right and started walking down a pretty impressive hill towards the water… Near the bottom of the hill we hooked another right and within 5 minutes found Ajans Pi House. They were awesome! Grabbed us a seat. Offered us some tea or coffee while we waited for the manager (Muharrem) who quickly showed us the room and then walked us to his restaurant around the corner a bit where he gave us some information about Istanbul, talked a bit about the food we were eating (which was delicious – although a bit higher priced than some of the more touristy restaurants in the area) and then left us to our well-deserved (and much needed) afternoon power nap. He was a breath of fresh air after all the lousy and indifferent service we’ve had on this trip. We’re hoping to touch base with him a couple more times during our stay…

Our room here in Istanbul is small but comfortable. It’s suffered a bit of wear and tear but is clean and they provide daily room cleaning (something we haven’t had much of at all this trip) and they provide free bottled water and soda water (a nice touch in a place where even the locals drink bottled water) and tea for breakfast.

After a couple of hours we roused ourselves long enough to do a quick turn around the neighbourhood (we’re staying in the Kumkapi area near the sea with lots of fish markets and restaurants) and then headed back to one of the touristy places near the tram stop and had a light dinner (this area is lile the Plaka in Athens – every restaurant has people outside trying to convince you to eat their place… we choice ours because the guy called Marie “calm and kind” – she was hooked! After dinner, it was off to a market to stock up on breakfast foods (yogurt, cereal, juice and fruit) because the room includes a bar fridge (score!) and now we’re just finishing up blogs, checking emails and reading the news before turning out the lights and calling it a day… Or more accurately two days I guess.

It’s been an adventure getting here and Istanbul – a city of 15 million people – defies description but we’re super excited to be here and have a pretty full list of places we want to see and things we want to do so it’s off to bed now…

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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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Well that was interesting… Our little sleeper compartment was quite comfortable – especially if you compare it to our only other sleeper car experience (Pitsanluk to Bangkok in 2011). That time all we got was a sleeping berth in a car where the berths were arranged parallel to the long axis of the car and stacked two on top of each other… Basically you had a little horizontal berth in amongst a whole whack load of other sleeping berths. Marie and Caitlin hated it. This sleeping compartment was positively civilized in comparison. We had our own little room with three berths stacked on top of one another with a little “closet”, a sink and some racks for luggage. Each berth had its own light and there was a nice bright overhead light for the whole compartment. There was even a window that opened. The bunks were comfy(ish) and it all felt reasonably safe and comfortable… It was all pretty old but clean and well-maintained and cozy. So why did we all have such crappy sleeps.

Let’s see. We needed to keep the window closed because the rain poured in and soaked everything. Which left the compartment at a temperature level approaching that of the planet Mercury… but a lot more humid. Then shortly after we all turned in for the evening we were woken up by someone pounding on our door. It was the Hungarian border police checking our passports. So on came the lights. Out came the passports. He scanned them in this portable device that looked like it was stolen from the set department of a Soviet war movie, thumped a visa stamp on our passports (the downside to the EU is you don’t get as many visa stamps in your passport as countries you visit so getting a stamp is actually kind of cool… Marie might have even said “yay” out loud when he stamped her passport) and grunted “bye” and left us to go back to sleep. A short while later (but long enough that we’d all fallen asleep) we were awakened again by thumping on the compartment door. This time it was the Romanian border police checking our passports… This guy looked about as rumpled as we felt with his two-sizes-too-large uniform shirt and his visa stamp tucked into his pants… No fancy Soviet era scanner for him… He just looked at our passports, glanced at the occupants of the compartment and then wrote down the relevant details on a slip of paper. Then he thumped a visa stamp on each of our passports and grunted “bye” and left us to go to sleep…

But that was when the lightning started… I commented earlier that we were going to a town where famous for the house where Vlad the Impaler’s (the source of the Dracula legend) dad lived for a few years and that we were staying in an old house in an old citadel town and that it was just like a Scooby Doo episode… Well now we were riding a rickety old train to Transylvania in a thunderstorm… How much more Scooby Doo could you get?

And then the stops started. And people banging and clanging stuff as they got on or off the train. And the conductor speaking (yelling) at people. And the high speed corners. And the worry that we were going to miss our stop and wake up in Bucharest or something… In all, not the world’s best sleep.

But with a bit of practice, some earplugs and a small portable fan, overnight train travel could be very comfortable. It’s safe. It’s kind of exciting and adventurous… But we were pretty tired by the time it was all over.

Not wanting to be fumbling around packing our packs as the train pulled into the station, we (mostly me) agreed to get up about 45 minutes before we were supposed to arrive (that would be at 6:15am so we were up and stirring at 5:30am). That would have been bad enough but the train was 40 minutes late (or there was a time change or something – we still haven’t really figured all that out yet)… The she beasts were not amused.

But eventually, we were pulling into the Sighisoara train station in a light drizzle… to discover that we had absolutely no idea where the citadel (and our pension) was in relation to the train station… You’d think that a small fortified village at the top of a hill would stand out a bit… Not so apparently. We headed in a promising direction (basically away from the train station which is not at all what I was expecting of a village billed as one of the cutest, quaintest places in all of Romania) and then asked the first person we came to which direction to the town square (stupid me, I’d forgotten we were looking for a citadela not a piaza)… Eventually we saw a sign to the citadela and followed it to the top of the hill. Where we discovered that we didn’t take note of where the pension was in relation to the citadel (which was basically a medieval maze of little streets, dead ends, etc). So we wandered a bit and consulted our booking.com paperwork (which included a handy-dandy 1.5″ square map… that covered an area of 200 square kilometres). Then we asked one of the helpful looking street vendors who was setting up her cart… She had no idea where Stradela Citalti was but her boyfriend (?) did – he pointed in the direction we’d just come from (the one direction I absolutely knew was the wrong way to go) and said go straight that way… So we popped our heads into another pension and asked… Turns out our pension was about 75′ from the street vendor’s stall… In the complete opposite direction he’d pointed us. Needless to say we did not look at his souvenirs! Eventually we found our pension (Pensiune Citadela Sighisoara) and all was good. Our room wasn’t ready yet (we weren’t expecting it to be) but we could store our bags and they’d have it ready for us by 1pm.

So we headed to one of the little restaurants in the main square of the citadel. Along the way we took note of the fact that this place is really, really cool. First impressions of the train station and the desultory little town around it notwithstanding, this place looks like a historical movie come to life. There’s lots of tacky-tourist stuff (there always is) but the buildings are definitely old, the colours are exactly as one writer described it (like someone painted the town with a box of melted Crayola crayons) and the people seemed friendly. We settled at a table in one of the little places to grab something to eat… only to find that they too don’t have their full menu (this is becoming a pattern)… So no muesli and yoghurt for us… But the muffins were excellent. The tea was hot. And their wifi worked. So we killed a bit of time there then went exploring. We discovered an old church (like really, really old – 1400s or maybe older), a 19th century cemetery on the side of a hill, a couple of old school houses (the oldest built in 1619!,  a covered walkway from one level to the other that opened in 1649 and a whole bunch of old fortifications, buildings, walls etc.

Then we headed back to the pension, settled into our room (super-cute) and promptly passed out for a 4hr power nap. Then it was up and out for a bit more exploring and a nice leisurely dinner. At ridiculously cheap prices. We had three entrees, 2 liqueurs, 1 (500 ml no less!) bottle of beer, an espresso, a dessert, and a 7-Up – for $40 including tip! Marie was in seventh-heaven. The portions weren’t large but they were very tasty and the service was excellent. We all voted Sighisoara our favourite spot so far (we all like the smaller towns a lot more than the cities and the prices are better, the service is better and… it’s much, much cooler here… still hot but I’m not melting!)

After dinner we wandered around for a bit before heading back to the pension to finish a movie we’d started on the train and relax for a bit before calling it a night.

Oh yeah… Marie wants to give a shoutout to our friend Donna – who suggested that Marie have her hair chemically straightened (basically a reverse perm) to save time on the trip… Marie would like Donna to know that she spent the whole day exploring in Budapest, slept (if you can call it that) all night on a hot and humid train, wandered around in a light drizzle for a couple of hours, power napped for 4 hours and then went out for dinner… And her hair looked fantastic the whole time and she never did anything with it! Best travel tip ever!

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Today we needed to be up and out of our apartment by 10am so we reluctantly roused she-beast junior around 8:30 and set about packing and tidying up for our reluctant departure. We left the apartment at exactly 10am and headed a couple of blocks away to a building where the landlord had said we could store our bags in the doorman’s office… The old dude shamelessly extorted us… Our landlord had said that the arrangement was 1000 HUF (about $5) for any number of bags for any amount of time… The old porter wasn’t having any of that. It was going to be 3000 HUF (1000 for each bag) or we could go elsewhere. Not wanting to hump our backpacks around all day we paid the increased fee… Even at $15 it was a pretty good deal – the office was secure, the place was centrally located to things we wanted to do and to the subway station we’d be using later in the day to get to the train station. But it rankled to part with the extra $$ – Marie grumbled about it for blocks.

After dumping our bags off with the extorter-porter we headed for the Grand Synagogue… And promptly walked right past the intersection we needed to find (that’s what happens when you use one of those crappy tourist bus route maps to navigate by). We figured it out fairly quickly (namely because we ended up back at a place we’d been before and there was no synagogue there) and doubled back to find it with no trouble the second time around. Once there we paid the extortionate entry fee and kind of wandered around a bit… Highlights were the Tree of Life (a very innovative and effective Holocaust memorial that is a metal weeping willow tree with each “leaf” inscribed with the family name of Holocaust victims) and the synagogue itself (2nd largest in the world).

After the synagogue we made our way to the Hungarian Parliament buildings (with much cursing of the crappy bus route map we were using and a few double backs and dead ends along the way). Eventually we found the parliament buildings (Budapest held a contest to design the parliament buildings and the 1st place design became the parliament while the 2nd and 3rd place designs got built across the square as government offices) and kind of wandered around a bit. We thought of doing a tour but the next one wasn’t until 4pm and we needed to be getting gone by that point… So we hopped on one of the historic trams and made our way along the waterfront to the Central Market Hall (we never did find out how or where you were supposed to buy tickets for these trams – we know you needed them because there were posters all over the cars warning of the $80 fine for being caught without a ticket – but we never figured the system out).

We made it to the Central Market Hall without getting pinched by the transit police and made our way into what can best be described as the first level of Hell if you don’t like crowds. The first floor is all food – lots of produce and a wide, wide variety of animal parts (as in some you didn’t know you could buy) and sausages and what have you… It was pretty cool. Would be a cook’s dream if you lived here. The second level is all tourist schlock… And super crowded. The highlight for us had to be the woman who lost a sale because she wouldn’t put her sandwich down… Marie wanted to leave the money (the exact change no less) on the counter and just take the object (a Budapest mug if I remember correctly) because it was stupid busy… but the woman was having none of it… So Caitlin bought a t-shirt instead… We fought through the crowds for a bit but it became apparent that most of what was for sale was the usual tourist crap we’ve seen in markets from Siem Reap to Bangkok to Rome… There must be one factory in China that does nothing but churn out identical mugs and bags and mirrors and keychains, etc. with the names of  all the major cities of the world inscribed on them.

After the market we headed back to the building where we’d left our backpacks… Along the way we stopped at Cafe Alibi… Source of some of the most humour we’ve seen on this trip so far… First there was the waiter who said “we don’t have that” to almost everything we ordered off the menu… Sort of made you wonder why they put it on the menu in the first place but… The real humour, though, came at Marie’s expense. If you’ve ever traveled to places where there’s not a lot of English on signs you may have experienced this – that point where signs in English don’t make any sense ’cause your brain tries to see it as a foreign word… I remember looking at a sign for Cafe Nostress in Vienna trying for the longest time to figure out what the heck that could be in German… Anyways, Marie said to Caitlin at some point that Cafe A-lee-bee (note the phonetic spelling) wasn’t that bad – they were out of a lot but the food they did have was pretty tasty… Well Caitlin cracked up (you see it’s Cafe Alibi – as in what’s your alibi for last night). Caitlin and Marie continued to laugh about Cafe A-lee-bee for a full city block and it still cracks Caitlin up… Guess you had to be there.

When we got to the building where our bags were being stored. the old dude recognized us right away (of course he recognized us… he probably took his girlfriend out for a nice lunch with our extra money…) and we grabbed our bags and headed for the subway stop. Along the way we realized that our subway stop was right by a pub that was offering a free glass of beer (another coupon in our hop-on bus tour booklet!) so we stopped and had a couple of cold beers before hopping on the subway for the train station.

When we arrived at the station we realized 1) we were more than an hour earlier than we needed to be and 2) the English translation system on the departure boards was kaputski… We’d read (on http://www.seat61.com) that the train would leave from platform 7 but we’d been burned by bad information from the “man in seat 61) in Vienna so we hunted down someone who could tell us… Like all the trains we’ve taken thus far, the platform wouldn’t be revealed until about 20 minutes before the departures so Marie and Caitlin hunkered down while I went out foraging for food for dinner… I ended up grabbing some drinks and snacks (a couple of chocolate bars and a cheese baguette) from a Spar store (they’re everywhere) and some chicken from KFC (don’t judge – you should see the size of the drumsticks they sell in Budapest… our only hope was they weren’t goose legs they were so big)… While I was rummaging for food, I thought – once again – how sad it is that train stations are always in a sketchy part of town and frequented by a host of scam artists and other low rent sorts of people… It used to be such an elegant way to travel and is still – all things considered – my favourite way to travel, but there’s no doubting that many of the main train stations we’ve arrived at have been less than savoury places… It’s a shame. In any case, when I got back Marie went foraging for some pastries (after spending the whole day talking about how she was completely pastried out and didn’t want any for the trip so we bypassed at least 30 bakeries through the day) but came back with just one lonely croissant… Apparently there had been a whole bunch of fluffy delicious looking pastries there just a few minutes earlier but someone beat her to them… We’ll be working on Marie’s foraging skills as the trip progresses.

Eventually the departures board confirmed that our train was indeed leaving from platform 7 so we set about looking for the specific car – 422. We found signs on every car but one so we figured (logically of course) that must be ours so we showed our ticket to the first guy in uniform who confirmed that yes indeed the unnumbered car was in fact 422 and our sleeping compartment would be waiting for us.

We piled on the train and started looking for our numbers – 56 54 52… Turns out they were the first sleeping compartment on the train (good planning Dad) and we piled inside… One at a time and very carefully because while there was a whole lot more room than we had on our overnight ferry from Split to Italy on our last trip, it was still pretty crowded. We stowed our bags, laid out our meagre food for the journey, Caitlin practiced some Cirque de Soleil contortionist moves to get into the top bunk, Marie commandeered the one “seat” (the covered sink) and we settled in for the 12 hr or so trip to Sighisoara, Romania.

I’ll describe the journey itself in tomorrow’s post so that’s it for now. We’re sad to be leaving Budapest – it’s a crazy busy, party-central, hectic kind of place but it’s got a lot of charm, the architecture is beautiful, the scenery is beautiful and the prices are pretty reasonable- we’d all come back in a heartbeat!

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Marie and Caitlin were still sleeping when I woke up at 6am and the wifi in the room wasn’t working that well so I snuck downstairs to the Gumpendorfer Cafe next door to our hotel to see if I could get an internet connection to update the blog. While I was there I figured I might as well try a Viennese “breakfast” – a cup of melange (half coffee, half foamed milk) and a roll with butter. Along with a sparkling water and a small tip, the bill was €6 ($9 cdn). The roll (basically a dinner bun) was very tasty, the coffee was simultaneously a bit weak and a bit bitter – explains why the guy sitting beside me emptied his sugar container and a fair portion of mine into his cup!

I made my way back up to the room around 8 and timidly woke the sleeping beasts so we could pack and have enough time to grab a proper breakfast before heading for the train station for our 12:02 train to Budapest. On the recommendation of the front desk clerk we decided to grab breakfast at the Cafe Jelinek just around the corner from the hotel. Although there were plenty of seats outside we decided to sit inside to soak up the ambience – slightly tattered but exactly what you’d imagine a 100+ year old Viennese cafe to look like – lots of old pictures on the walls, velvet upholstery – very cool. The food was good and the portions reasonably large but the service was a bit indifferent.

After breakfast, we headed back to the hotel to grab our backs and then set out for Westbahnhof train station (about 15 minutes’ walk from our hotel) to catch our train. Good thing we got there early. Looking at the departure board we noticed our train was conspicuously absent… that would be because we were at the wrong train station. Working from information on http://www.seat61.com, a usually rock solid and ultra-reliable source for information about train travel anywhere in the world, I thought the train would be leaving from Westbahnhof… It was actually leaving from Meidling (the same station we’d arrived at earlier) and it was now 11:20… Fortunately, Vienna has a very effective subway system and we were able to grab a U6 train heading for Meidling which got us there with plenty of time to spare. A good reminder to always, always check your train ticket before you arrive at the station. Now all we had to do was decipher the tickets to see what seat were assigned… Eventually we were able to figure out that “fenster” meant window and “gang” meant aisle and those were probably our seat numbers.

We loaded the train without incident (albeit with the usual mass confusion that seems to go along with mass boardings of trains – everyone trying to stuff their luggage in the overhead racks, people confused about their seats, etc). We found our seats with no trouble and didn’t have to kick anyone out so it seemed we’d deciphered our tickets correctly. We settled in for the 2.5hr trip. This was one of the new “bullet” style Railjet train so it wasn’t quite as spacious as the older style train we’d taken from Prague to Vienna but was still pretty swanky.

At one of the stops in Hungary (I can’t remember exactly which one) we took on a bunch more passengers than there were seats so people were sitting in the aisles, in the connections between train cars, etc. It was quite comical. And really crowded. Most of the additional passengers seemed pretty accustomed to the whole thing so it must be a pretty usual practice on busy routes.

Arriving in Budapest exactly on time, we piled off the train and went looking for a bank machine (none to be found) and tickets for the subway. Turns out their ticket machines were down so we needed to go to the central ticket office and take a number and wait… Eventually, our turn came and we bought our tickets from the very helpful staff (all of whom spoke excellent English) and made our way to the red line – buried deep beneath the city – we must have descended more than 100′ on a very impressive (and steep) escalator. From there it was just a couple of stops to Deak Ferenc – our stop – where we piled off the train and made the trek (helped by more escalators) back into the sunlight. Emerging into the sunlight and crowds, we asked the first person we saw for directions to “Regiposta Utca” and were met with a complete blank stare… Fortunately her co-worker was able to help and pointed us (literally) in the direction we needed to go. Our apartment in Budapest is next door to the McDonald’s and above a store called “Reserve” so it was pretty easy to find once we were in the right area.

Our landlord had sent detailed instructions as to how to get into the apartment… unfortunately they weren’t entirely accurate (ie. there was no intercom button for “porter” so we had to push a few random buttons hoping someone would let us in… eventually someone did) but once we were in, everything was ready for us and the apartment was perfect – 1 bedroom, queen bed and a futon for Caitlin, small kitchenette, washing machine (no dryer but it’s hot enough that everything will dry) – the only downside is that sour sewer smell we’ve encountered in a number of apartments we’ve rented in Europe. It must have something to do with being used on an intermittent basis… In any case, it’s more of an annoyance (it’s a pretty funky smell) than a deal breaker.

After dumping our packs, we kind of hung around the apartment for a bit trying to figure out what we wanted to do. Eventually we settled on going out to get something to eat, just wandering around for a bit and then taking the night bus tour of Budapest. We grabbed some goulash soup (looks and smells like vegetable beef soup but tastes fantastic) and drinks at a pub just down the street from our apartment (cheaper than Vienna but still expensive – we’ll be eating off the main tourist strip while we’re here that’s for sure. It’s nice to be part of the action and close to everything but you pay for the privilege!

Heading over to the pickup point for the night tour (Erzsébet Square) we passed by a number of high-end hotels and saw a pretty big crowd queuing up outside one of them… There seemed to some celebrity in the hotel and people were pretty excited… We found out later that everyone was hoping to get a glimpse of the Formula 1 drivers (there is a Formula 1 race just outside Budapest on Saturday). I guess that explains the Lamborghini’s and Ferrari’s we’d seen thundering down the street a few minutes earlier (couldn’t figure out why someone was driving a car that could go that fast on a tiny side street where they couldn’t take it out of first gear).

By this point, we were also realizing that Friday night in Budapest is definitely party night. The square was literally packed with people picnicking (translation: getting loaded while sitting on a blanket in the public square), the party buses and cycle-bars were full and the crowds were pretty huge in the touristy areas. Budapest seems to live up to its reputation as a major party destination.

The night tour was excellent. It took a fair bit of time just to get out of the tourist area because of traffic (at 9 o’clock at night!) but after that we took in some of the main sites and important streets on the Pest side of the Danube (the side we’re staying on) then crossed over to the Buda side and took in some of the main sites over there. The tour also stopped at the Citadel overlooking Budapest to give people time to take some pictures then headed back to Pest and dropped us off where we started. It was now 11 o’clock and the square was even more packed and the streets back to our apartment even more jammed with people but it was bedtime for us so we headed back to the apartment, strategically placed the two working fans (unfortunately the nice big one was missing the fan blades… and the other used the wrong type of plug…) to provide some relief from the heat, put in a load of laundry and sacked out for the night. We might also have stopped at McDonald’s for some chicken nuggets before heading back to the apartment but don’t tell anyone 🙂

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I’m supposed to tell everyone that I deprived my beloved family of a half hour of sleep this morning (I thought we’d agreed to get up at 7am… apparently we’d agreed on 7:30… that would explain why the alarm on my phone didn’t go off…)

In any case, we packed our stuff, said goodbye to our hosts and headed for our new favourite food place – Bageterie Boulevard for a ham and egg breakfast sandwich (delicious!) and to grab some ham and cheese croissants for lunch (also delicious) and then made our way to the train station (about a 15 minute walk from our pension). Finding the station was a piece of cake (walk to the end of Wenceslas Square, turn left at the giant museum and walk a couple of hundred metres to what could only be a train station – the clock tower and the rundown now but harbouring vestiges of its past glory building are dead giveaways.

The Prague train station is definitely a “don’t judge a book by its cover” structure. On the surface, it’s an old building and in quite poor shape… You can tell it was really quite spectacular back in the day but time hasn’t been kind (they’re doing a lot of work on it though and I imagine it will be quite beautiful when they’re all done). You enter through a side door and it’s pretty bleak and rundown inside… No ticket offices, no services, nothing. Just some beleaguered travellers and a few rundown train platforms… Then you take an escalator down one level and you’re in this super-modern, bustling transportation hub with multiple levels of bus and train platforms and shops and restaurants of all descriptions…

We were plenty early (don’t get Marie started on being at the station 1.5hrs before our departure – she’s been giving me the gears all day) so we staked out a spot to dump our packs, designated one person as bag watcher (me) while the others went exploring and looking for ways to spend the last 400 Czech korunas we had left… We managed to spend some of it on food and beer for the trip (6 cans of beer, 3 yogurts, a bottle of orange juice, a bottle of sparkling mineral water, a box of cookies, 2 chocolate filled donuts and a banana used up 233 of them – about $12cdn!) In the end we left with about $150 koruna (about $7 can) so we did pretty well!

One weird thing about the Prague train station is that the platform for your train isn’t announced until about 20 minutes before the departure time so you stand around waiting, waiting, waiting and then move like mad to find your train… There’s people running and bags flying… it’s all quite fun. We made our way to the allotted platform and saw our train down near the end. Once we got to the train there was no way to tell which car was ours (our ticket showed it but there were no markings on the train itself – turns out the train composition is mapped on a handout they provide on the train… hmmmm…) In any case, a helpful (I’m exaggerating) train employee pointed us (literally) towards the right car (we assumed) and we boarded. As we approached our reserved seats, we saw a young couple getting comfy in our seats and politely asked if they had reserved 65, 66 and 67 as well… Poor things, they hadn’t reserved a seat and quite promptly left us to ours and then spent the next 10 minutes wandering up and down the aisles looking for a place to sit… I’m not sure where they ended up. I knew that you could choose not to reserve a seat and take your chances but wasn’t sure how the system actually worked (ie. how do you know that a seat is reserved or not)… Turns out they put a little tag of paper above the reserved seats… Ingenious.

Watching people stow their bags and navigate the somewhat narrow aisles of the train I was reminded, again, of how inappropriate big suitcases are for train travel… The Japanese couple across from us were hysterical – they were traveling with king-size suitcases and arrived on the train at the last minute so no overhead bins for them… They ended up stowing one on another car and cramming the other in between their seats and the ones in front and spent the next five hours folded like pretzels with their knees pulled up to their chests… Backpacks man… Backpacks…

We left precisely on time and settled in for our 5 hr trip. Marie and Caitlin started a movie about 9 minutes after the train pulled out. I watched the scenery for about 20 minutes (quite BC-like but very flat.. lots of farmland… looked a lot like the Fraser valley) and then fell sound asleep… I have the worst time falling asleep on an airplane but put me on a train and it’s lullaby time! The trip went by very comfortably – only a couple of stops along the way, comfortable seats, we’d brought lots of food and things to do… I said it the last time we travelled to Europe but I’ll say it again, trains are the way to go! I would happily take twice as long to travel by train than plane (more space, you’re not breathing that awful recycled air, you’re not 39,000 feet in the air!, scenery to look at)… I wish we could make rail travel more affordable in Canada.

As we crossed into Austria, the scenery changed a bit (more rolling hills, quaint little almost feudal-like hamlets) and the rain started. Soon we were pulling into Wien Meidling station and piling off the train into a pouring rain storm… We hustled our way to the underground concourse, found a ticket machine to redeem the online tickets we purchased for our trip to Budapest in 3 days (worked like a charm) and set about figuring out how to get to our hotel… Fortunately, we knew that our hotel was near the Westbahnhoff station and turns out the street it’s on (Gumdpendorfferstrasse) is a stop on one of the train lines… So we navigated their ticket purchase system (quite easy actually) and bought a train ticket from Meidling to Westbahnhoff… We just had to figure out where to catch the train… So we found an info kiosk (outside in the pouring rain) and asked the helpful guy where to find our train… Turns out 1E on the ticket doesn’t mean the platform… It means 1 Adult… Who knew… He pointed out that we needed to take the U6 train (that much we’d figured out on our own) and helpfully pointed out that it was underground… But not where said train was accessed in the station… So far we’d managed to get instructions on what train to take… Now we needed to know which direction we needed to take that train in (we’ve learned our lesson on that one in the past). Floridishciiengielangfalneehmelm – at least that’s what it sounded like to me… When I politely asked him to spell it, he muttered something about it being in German and how you couldn’t spell it in English (I didn’t point out to him that German and English share the same basic alphabet and yes, yes you can spell it…) but he did find a map and circle the station we should travel towards… We were on our way!

We navigated our way through the system following the signs for the U6, hopped on the train traveling towards Floridishciiengielangfalneehmelm or whatever it was and waited for our stop. We piled out at the appointed stop, trundled ourselves out into the thankfully much diminished rain and headed for our hotel… Caitlin’s eagle eyes spotted the street name right away and off we went… It was only 7 blocks but they were long blocks… Thank goodness for backpacks (have I mentioned how I think they’re the only way to go – although our shoulders were a bit sore this morning…). We found our hotel without incident. Checked-in. Spent a bit of time relaxing and then headed out to a cute little Irish pub (appropriately named Dublin) we’d passed on our way for a beer and a snack. While there adherence to the Irish theme was a bit spotty (Lagavulin was the drink special of the day) their own Dublin lager was the best beer I’ve had yet on this trip (a very light, very cold lager), their french fries were awesome and I whipped Caitlin and Marie (the rummy Queen and Crown Princess) at rummy!

Feeling somewhat fortified, we headed to Mariahilfer street – Vienna’s answer to Robson Street or the Champs Elysees… Most of the shops were closing (they close at 7) or were well out of our price range but Caitlin managed… After a bit of actual shopping and some window shopping, we grabbed a proper dinner at nice little Italian place off the main strip ($23 euros for a couple of pastas, bowl of soup and a couple of drinks) and then headed back to our hotel and called it a night.