08 July 2012

The rails to Bucharest

In 2003 my cousin Jessica and I had an adventure together in Eastern Europe. We started in Frankfurt and traveled to Vienna, Austria (not so Eastern I know), Prague, Czech Republic, Bratislava, Slovakia, Budapest, Hungary and Warsaw, Poland. At the time, it seemed like an adventure behind the former iron curtain into unfamiliar lands. The truth was that they were in the process of being westernized and If we were to repeat our trip today, the experience would be different - vastly different.

In 2003 we were constantly changing currencies (only Germany and Austria from that group) used the Euro. Also we were constantly stopping for passport control at the borders. We collected a number of unique stamps in our passports. Nowadays most of those borders are open and they simply wave at the train as it goes by.

To have an experience like the one Jessica and I had, one must travel even further east. That is exactly what I set out to do. I am writing this post at hour 24 of my journey from Regensburg, Germany to Bucharest, Romania. It is hour 24, but if we are not too badly delayed (and all I know is we are delayed), then this journey has only 1 remaining hour.

I started in Regensburg, boarding a German ICE (Inter City Express) train to Vienna. Because I am using a rail pass, and am over the age of 26, my rail pass is for first class travel.

In the ICE, the difference is that the seats in first class have bigger tables, a bit more space, an audio program and outlets. It was a comfortable albeit delayed journey. I arrived in Vienna (Westbahnhof) with plenty of time regardless (two hour lay-over so to speak). The train station is lovely - three leves with shopping, food and more. The best part? Free wifi! Oh yes and a beautiful view. I took advantage of the free wifi while sipping a Melange. The coffee in Vienna is amazing and expensive - no matter where one is.

Then it was time to board my train. The train to Bucharest had 6 wagons, only two of which were sleepers. That really surprised me, as this is an 18 hour journey. According to my reservation, I was in wagon 415, bed 12. I walked the entire length of the train. One sleeper car was wagon 413, then came 414, then came...the engine. That's right, wagon 415 was nonexistent! I talked to a conductor. He put me in wagon 414, bed 32. Apparently that's what my ticket really should have said (according to him).

Each cabin had a door into the narrow hallway of the train. The cabins were designed for two people and designated either for males or females. As far as sleeper trains go, this was a fairly nice one. The bed was comfortable, I had a real pillow and a real duvet. The cabin had a little table that opened up to be a sink. Above the sink was a cabinet and inside for each person was a little kit to freshen up: bottle of water, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, moist towelette, cloth, and a shoe shine cloth. There was a fair amount of storage places. They also take security very seriously.

The door had three locks and there was a security notice in four languages. Take a minute and read the English - then please help me assure my door and window that it's all safe! (ok I love to find signs like this that make me laugh because of the English usage. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the sign in German had some mistakes - but they were more grammatical than word choice errors.)

Train bathrooms vary in degrees from not bad to eeew I'd rather just hold it. The class of service and country of travel does not mean anything to the niceness of the bathroom. The one on this train fell into the "this stinks, but nature is calling" category. There was only one worrying fact....
The floor of the bathroom had a lot of give and felt very thin. Everytime I walked into the bathroom I had the horrid thought that I would fall through the floor and die in a gruesome train-bathroom hits tracks accident. But I have not fallen through (yet!)

One last thought to service on the train before I head to the journey itself. In the morning we were each given a sack breakfast.

Maybe I should really call it a snack rather than a breakfast. I didn't expect this, and thus once again was pleasantly surprised. As you can see from the photo it contained a mug and instant coffee. There was only one thing missing .... Hot water! We never got any hot water, so I could never have that coffee. Ah well, it's in my bag to be used at another time. Actually to be quite honest, I kept the pretzels and coffee and got rid of the rest! But still the gesture is appreciated!

The journey itself was beautiful. We began in Austria as the sun was setting.

We passed fields of yellow sunflowers, all turned to face the sun, exposing their yellow faces to us. We passed fields of wheat and corn, wind turbines, green grasses and more.
At some point we crossed into Hungary. I knew this, not because of a stop for passport control, but because the signs at the next station we stopped at were in Hungarian. Quite a difference from the last time I crossed the Austro-Hungarian border by train.
At that point, the sun went down and I went to sleep...until 2:30am. That's when we were awoken by a knock on the door: "passport check". The Hungarians were here to check our passports before we left the country. Thirty minutes later, 3:00am another knock: "passport check" and the Romanians checked us in. There was however a bit of excitement with this check, I saw a man and woman being escorted (with their suitcases) off the train. I will simply leave you to come up with reasons the Romanians would not allow them in their country. I honestly have no idea. And well since we are on the topic of passport checks on trains, I don't know exactly how they do it, but it seems that EVERY night train has one at 3:00AM.

The next morning I awoke to the beautiful landscape of Romania. Everything I saw was green and lovely. We would also pass small towns, more fields of sunflowers and flowing rivers.

Lest the reader of my blog thinks that everything here is idyllic, I feel I should point out some of the other things I saw:
Buildings in varying states of disrepair.
Towns that we passed through where the people looked as if life was hard.
Shantys made of corrugated metal and cardboard, and kids who lived there.
Abandoned old trains and old working trains that were clearly of a bygone era. In fact, I heard once that Romania is where old German trains go to die.

As I saw these old abandoned sleeper cars and people without any (or adequate) shelter, the thought crossed my head: why couldn't those trains be used for those people.

Finally about 1,5 hours late, my train arrived in Gara de Nord - Bucharest Station. My journey was over, but the adventure was just beginning.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:From Regensburg, Germany to Bucharest, Romania via train

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