We arrived in Budapest already impressed by the what we had seen from the ferry. With the hills on each side covered with grand impossibly ornate buildings we docked and disembarked. We walked in the heat through the city to the hostel, our bikes carrying the load. On the top floor of a block of apartments, it was one of the best hostels on our trip so far. We climbed the staircase up to the fourth floor passing beautiful decorative iron gates leading to balconies on each floor ringing a central courtyard. The room was huge and decorated with artistic flare with murals on the walls, two small red sofa chairs and an old mechanical typewriter. The room was clean and had an equipped kitchen, and amazingly was the same price as our rather substandard room in Estergom.
The slight spanner in the works of this part of the trip was that Jenn had just been accepted for British citizenship and had to appear in person at a ceremony at Islington town hall. So she had booked tickets to fly back to London from Budapest for a day. Meanwhile I would spend a night on my own in Budapest then the next day travel by train to Bucharest, Romania meanwhile she would get a flight from London and meet me in Romania. So after we checked in to our hostel I went off on the bike to the train station to buy my ticket to Romania. It was fun and exhilarating to be racing through a completely new city on a bike trying to figure out the rules of the road as I went (can you cycle in a Hungarian bus lane?). The train to Bucharest was overnight so I wanted a sleeper ticket. Unfortunately the ticket woman explained that there were no places left in the sleeping cars so reluctantly I got a seat instead. Oh well, I thought, it’s only 16 hours on the train.
After returning our bikes we had a little walk around town then ate at a very nice restaurant recommended by my friend Justine who had been to Bucharest the week before (she also recommended the hostel). We then went off for a long walk along the waterfront. By night the city is lit up, with delicate strings of lights on the bridges and spotlights highlighting the artistically sculpted architecture. We passed many big cruise ships docked for the evening on their way along the Danube to Vienna or the other way out to the Black Sea. It was a little odd to be back in a big tourist city after getting used to life in the much smaller hungarian towns.
The next day we woke late and went to a metro station to catch a tram which takes a scenic route by the river. The only ticket machine was broken and there were no ticket windows so we just got on the tram hoping to buy a ticket from the conductor. This was a mistake. There was no conductor so we sat down and I began to get that feeling of guilt and worry about whether we would get caught for fare dodging. Every time a new person got on the train I looked anxiously to see if it was an inspector. I tried to dispel my fears by thinking that we probably wouldn’t get caught in the few minutes our trip would take or that maybe there aren’t ticket inspectors on Sundays or that we could just say we were tourists and we didn’t understand the rules and we did try to buy a ticket, honestly… Just as I began to persuade myself it was OK a man with sunglasses and a stern face stepped up to us and asked to see our tickets. There followed a brief moment of stunned silence measured in seconds with me and Jenn both trying to think of a good excuse. Jenn spoke first offering to buy a ticket and I nodded hopefully. We were marched off the train at the next stop and told to pay a fine or he would call the police and we would be arrested and would have to pay a higher fine. We could have made a run for it but decided that we had little choice to pay the fine / bribe and move on feeling a little annoyed and stupid for our mistake.
While in Budapest we began thinking about a replacement for Jenn’s backpack as she was worried that lugging it around Asia would do further damage to her back. She needed a bag with wheels! She decided to try to find a solution when back in London but in the meantime we needed a temporary fix to get her and her stuff back to England. The answer came to us in the form of an old lady doing her shopping. What Jenn needed was a granny’s shopping bag, the type normally coming in an unfashionable design, featuring a metal framework and sturdy wheels.
We spent a long time hunting for luggage stores before finally stumbling on the pound shops of Budapest. Here we found a very fashionable grey and red model which was perfect. Jenn would stuff her backpack in it and hopefully make it to London.
After a meal of very bad sandwiches we headed of to the airport. I waved goodbye to Jenn feeling a little sad not to be going to the citizenship ceremony. I chose not to because the flight was quite expensive. Also, felt that I was on a journey going slowly eastwards experiencing the gradually changing culture, language, weather and landscape. Flying into London for a day would have suddenly taken me out of that, however I wasn’t so much looking forward to a 16 hour train journey through Romania.
The next morning I woke with big plans for my day. I would wake up early, go to the local internet cafe to update the blog, then I would go to the park spa and cool down in the outdoor pool then climb the hillside of Buda and visit the castle. Unfortunately, even though I got up early, I ended up spending about 5 hours working on the blog so didn’t have time for anything else. The blog is time-consuming but it’s worth it as it is also a record for us of our journey. I did have time for a little stroll around Budapest. I like the feel of the city, its lively atmosphere and grand buildings. The streets surprised me with hidden courtyards containing unusual shops and art spaces. It also surprised me when I saw a crowd gathering around an old guy with broad northern British accent singing a song about smiling, accompanying himself on a banjo. This felt a bit odd, but throughout the journey odd bits of Britain have been popping up here and there, from the voices of English tourists to the many British songs being played in cafes. It’s hard to get away completely.
As evening fell I headed to the station to catch my train. As well as me there were many others in my carriage trying to sit our way to Romania, all attempting to bed down in seats that seemed to be designed not to allow it. The seat forces you to sit bolt upright actually forcing your head forward, and they don’t recline. An attempt to turn and sit leaning against the window reveals a ledge running under the window that comes to a sharp point at just the place you want to lean. After much twisting and trying every possible sleeping position I eventually fell asleep out of pure tiredness at around 3am. At 4am I was woken at the border for a passport check by the Hungarian border police. Then woken again half an hour later a few miles down the track to have my passport checked again by the Romanian border police.
I woke up at 6am on the train somewhere in central Romania. It was an incredible sight. The sunrise pouring rose-coloured light across a hilly almost mountainous landscape. Mist was laying in the valleys creating an eery, mysterious world like a place from a past age with occasional small old farmhouses, haystacks and horses. I watched out of the window for a long time feeling lucky to see this beautiful sight hidden in rural Romania.
At 11am the train pulled into the capital Bucharest. We had decided to only make a brief appearance in Bucharest. Jenn would fly in today and we would catch the overnight train out this same evening. I was a little worried that I would not be able to get tickets at such short notice so I headed straight to the train ticket agency in the station to buy our tickets to Bulgaria. Unfortunately once again I could only get seats rather than sleeper places but I was just happy to get the tickets. So, looking forward to another night of sleeping on a train seat, I headed off into Bucharest having a few hours to kill before I would meet Jenn from her flight. It was the hottest day yet and walking became a constant hunt for shade. Bucharest is a very different city from Budapest. The streets are shabbier and much less ambitiously built. The old buildings are crumbling and the new buildings are of ugly concrete. Added to this, packs of wild dogs cruise the back streets hunting for scraps. It had a feeling of decay but within this a newer Bucharest seemed to be emerging. Some of the streets had a more positive vibe with smartly dressed people eating at boutique restaurants under the shade of leafy trees.
The interesting old town is a shambles of narrow dusty streets with the tables of the outdoor cafes often filling the road leaving only a narrow path to walk along. There is the beginnings of a mediterranean influence and slightly turkish feel. Another sight in the city is the Palace of Parliament, Ceausescu’s enormous 12 storey marble palace which, like the palaces of kings past, was designed purely as a monument to power.
I met up with Jenn at around 5pm and after a meal of very tasty mediterranean food we headed off to the train station.
I had splashed out on first class seats although they looked just the same as the 2nd class seats only in a different carriage. Happily they were slightly more conducive to sleeping on than the previous train and after only a few short hours of trying, we were gently rocked to sleep, only to be woken a little later by a now familiar voice, “Passports Please!”
As we continued our journey into Bulgaria we knew that we needed to get off at the town of Gorna Oryahovista at around 5am. It was very important we got off at the right stop as if we missed it we could end up miles away. Unfortunately we were travelling in the darkness and in Bulgaria the stations are not as well signed as in Britain. Back home I’m used to seeing many signs displaying the name of the station along the platform. In Bulgaria there is just one small sign on the station building and generally not lit up. So if you are at the back of the train like us you only get to see it fly past as you leave the station. So each stop I was leaning out the window struggling to work out if it was the one. As if it wasn’t hard enough they use the cyrillic alphabet in Bulgaria. It’s the same letters that are used in Russian although it was actually invented by the Bulgarians. So I was looking at the map then trying to compare the backwards Rs and funny stick men characters with the ones barely visible on the station to see if it was similar. In the end I finally got my iPhone GPS app to work by holding the phone out the train window. This was great when it was working as I could tell exactly where we were and when the station was coming up. It stores the whole of Europe offline in the phone down to street level and has been very handy on our travels. Finally we rolled into our station at 6.30am.
One thing I should mention is how slow the trains are in these parts. Our train ride to Bulgaria covered just 110 miles and it took 7 hours which I work out to be an average of about 16 mile per hour. This was mainly due to it stopping at the border for at least 2 hours plus just generally going slow. If fact we weren’t going much slower on our bikes! As we were walking from the platform to the station building, that’s when it hit me that this was a very different country and a good deal out of our comfort zone. It was a crumbling station, bare concrete with the odd sign here and there, all in cyrillic, and there was a bat in the station. Bulgaria might be hard I thought.