The train from Budapest to Bucharest takes about 18 to 19 hours. We set out an hour late and picked up delays on the way. The train was everything you imagine a Budapest to Bucharest train would be like. There was no bistro carriage. I took a few snacks on the basis that if any train wasn’t going to have one, it would be this one. I was right. The ticket inspector spoke very little English, and he took our tickets and said we’d get them back later. Mark, a Dutchman, had been telling us stories of extortion. We were not in a good frame of mind for this occurrence. He had to give in his EU rail pass too.
I had booked a bed, which was more or less the top shelf in a small box of a cabin with five others, a shelf for each. With great fortune my fellow travellers were good people. As well as Mark, there was an English-New Zealand couple and two Swiss girls with dreadlocks and piercings. They had brought a ukulele with them. Sadly the two girls couldn’t speak too much English so there weren’t many ukulele renditions but we managed a little bit of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, ‘Soul Sister’ by Train, and a little bit of ‘Wonderwall’, of course. At one point one of the girls turned to me and said “I have something for you” and smiled. Suddenly, I was a little nervous. The others looked at me wondering what I had in store. She pulled something out of her bag, turned around and presented me with this big brown kind of dried peapod. A ‘rassel’ was the name she gave it, although I wonder whether this was just a way of saying a ‘rattle’ because simply put that is what it did. Now, she said, I no longer need to clap along with my hands. I can use the rassel. And I did.
As the train rumbled through the east of Hungary we got tired. We stayed awake for the two passport checks. I remember looking out of the window at a stop somewhere deep, deep into the countryside and you could see the warm glow of the tiny station and hear the crickets. The dreadlocked girls got more questioning from border guards than the rest of us.
It wasn’t easy to sleep on a train creaking through the west of Romania, occasionally juddering, occasionally stopping, lights coming in through the side of the curtains, a stale smell haunting the cabin. But I did manage some.
In the morning I got my first real look at Romania in the light, and the countryside was beautiful to see. The Carpathian mountains rise majestically and wild flowers speckle through aside the railway track. Leaning slightly out of the window you could smell a subtle fragrance, maybe lavender, maybe another flower. Although, it could have been the girls returning from the shower.
Mark needed to disembark sooner than the rest of us, and he began to panic about his rail pass and ticket. He prompted the inspector who didn’t seem to understand the urgency. He missed his stop. Shortly after he did eventually get his ticket back and managed to get off the train at the place. The rest of us eventually get our tickets back before we arrived at Bucharest. I cannot think why it takes 15 hours to stamp a ticket.
Arriving in Bucharest North station was like entering the Romania of popular western imagination. Concrete and litter everywhere. A bleak scene of a city that has been left behind; it was oppressively hot. The hostel however, a 20 minute walk away, was welcoming and was one of the best I’ve stayed in, and there will be more on this in part II.
I spent some time wandering around the streets, looking for the beautiful parts of the city, which are few and far apart. It is a cliché to talk of cities having contrasts but Bucharest consists of the biggest contrasts I have seen anywhere. There are a few beautiful buildings such as the Athenaeum and some pleasant parks but around these loom decrepit concrete medium rises, invading the city everywhere you look. Modern BMWs drive alongside rusting Dacia’s that may well be survivors of communism. The dress of the people too is a huge contrast. There are chic, elegant people and there are those who look like they could have been transported from Romania 500 years ago. Yet amongst the ‘ruins’ are some shoots of modernity, coffee shops that look like east London coffee shops complete with the ‘hipster’ aesthetic, people ‘working’ on laptops, coffee served in beautiful pastel-coloured cups.
I visited the Palace of the Parliament. Construction started under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu who planned to house all main Government aspects there, as well as live there. It is made from an incredible amount of marble that makes it the heaviest building in the world. It is large area wise too, being the second largest building in the world after The Pentagon. The Palace wasn’t finished by the time that Ceausescu’s life prematurely was. The revolution left a problematic building which, eventually, it was decided, should be finished. Perhaps this Palace, an iconic although divisive symbol of Bucharest and Romania as a whole, is the perfect unintentional representation of the differences that exist.
Perhaps the biggest contrast though is not the cafes, not the cars, not the dress-sense, but the very people themselves. The Romanian’s I have met have mostly been some of the kindest, friendly, and most helpful people I have ever met. Yet the contrasts are huge, remember. As nice as some people are, there are some bad people. The sort that fit the stereotype that the kindest amongst the Romanians wish didn’t exist and are working to combat. But yet it does exist sadly, and there will be more on this in part II to come when I get back on my unplanned return to the UK…