Phil and I left Budapest around 3pm and boarded an overnight train bound for Bucharest. We weren’t sure what to expect on the 15-hour train ride as we had read several different accounts of other people’s journeys. Basically we knew to bring our own food, water, and toilet paper as there would be little to none of the above on the train. Phil booked the tickets online several weeks before our trip. A four person coach was the only option available online.
It was an incredibly budget-friendly travel option as the $100 we spent covered both our transportation to Bucharest and our lodging for the night. That is a helluva deal. So much so that we tried to splurge with an upgrade to a private coach when we arrived at the train station but there were none available. Phil even tried to purchase two additional tickets (so we could have an entire 4-person to ourselves) but with the language barrier, that didn’t happen either. So we sucked it up, boarded the train and hoped for the best, knowing that regardless of what happened, it would be an adventure.
We found our cabin, stored the luggage (luckily there was ample storage), and waited to see who might be joining us. The coach had two large couch-style benches that doubled as beds with a top bunk above each. It was certainly no-frills traveling but Phil and I aren’t overly frilly people. Don’t get me wrong, we love a good frill but we are fairly low maintenance and we entered into this adventure expecting a bit of inconvenience.
After a few minutes, a fellow joined us in our coach named George. George had been in Budapest for a music festival and was traveling to Bucharest to visit his family. A Romainian, he attended school in London and has been living and working as an architect there for the past twelve years. As the train slowly left the station, it appeared it would only be the three of us in the coach (score!). The train employee who came to check our tickets informed George, in Romainian, that at the moment, it was just the three of us in the coach but someone could buy a ticket at one of the other stops and join us. We crossed our fingers that that would not happen.
It was a very sunny and hot day and the train was very hot as well. One of two windows in our coach opened (the other one was stuck shut), which did allow for a slight breeze once we got going. When the train stopped, however, it was almost unbearable. Having spent the summer in places that averaged 90-100 degrees, we’d gotten used to sweating. After chatting a bit, and once the train was really going, I decided to head up to the upper bunk and take a nap. Heat rises and the breeze didn’t really but I was tired and had fifteen hours to kill and figured if I just laid still I wouldn’t be too hot. I half slept for a couple of hours as the upper bunk was just long enough for me; the top of my head millimeters away from grazing the wall and my feet touching at the other end. Eventually I re-joined Phil and George “downstairs”.
We ate some snacks and drank some water and eventually rolled through the border check points of both Hungary and Romania (just a few minutes apart) around 7pm. Afterwards, we sat and talked with George. We talked about history, politics, and travel. He gave us some great recommendations of places to eat and things to do around Bucharest. One pro-tip he passed along was when we went to tour the Palace of the Parliment, we needed to take our passports with us. He’d taken friends there multiple times and if they didn’t have their passports, they were refused entry. I do not like to walk around with our passports so this was a very good piece of information.
Before we knew it, it was nearly midnight. We got ready for bed and I headed to the top bunk. Luckily the night and travel through the mountains brought cooler temperatures. We even made use of the heavy duvets provided in the coach. I slept surprisingly well, only tossing and turning a bit. I thought about sleeping with my headphones in but then decided I liked hearing the sound of the train rolling on the tracks. A little after 7am, the train employee came to wake us up and let us know we would be arriving in Bucharest shortly.
We got up and ready and gathered our things. As the train pulled into Bucharest, we bid adieu to George and headed out into the day. It was very early and we could not check into our rental for several hours. Our plan was to find a restaurant or coffee shop to stop at and spend some time. We walked around the train station and decided just to stop in a restaurant attached to it as we didn’t want to schlep our bags around the streets of Bucharest, half asleep.
We ordered a couple of omelets and coffees. Over the course of the three hours we spent there, we each had four cups of coffee. I was a little surprised to see that everyone else in the restaurant was drinking either beer or wine at 9am but hey, it was the weekend and this is a judgement free zone. Heck, I might have joined them if I didn’t think it would have left me snoozing in our booth after one glass.
The owner of our rental was nice enough to let us stop in and drop off our bags an hour and a half before our check in time. We gratefully took advantage of her offer and then headed out to do some luggage-free exploring.
Very near to our rental was the Romanian Athenaeum, a theater and concert hall built in 1888. The outside was beautiful and we discovered it was open to tour. The main lobby is something to behold with four, grand, spiraling staircases leading to the concert hall in addition to the main staircase. The hall itself felt quite intimate and set up in a way that any seat was a good seat.
After the concert hall, we headed down Victory Street, a long main thoroughfare that leads to Victory Square. Geroge had informed us that on Sundays, the street is closed to vehicles and pedestrians and cyclists can enjoy the street, car free and care free.
We snapped photos and stopped in a church along the way. Bucharest may be the city that I have taken the most photos of buildings in. There are so many cool buildings and the juxtaposition of old world european architecture with communist era eastern bloc architecture is very interesting to see.
After our walk we returned to our rental and took much needed showers after our sweaty train adventure and walking around the city. We had the cutest little apartment with a nice balcony and a pretty great view.
The next day we had lunch in the old town at a restaurant our train companion,, George, had recommended. Caru’ cu bere (the beer cart) has been making traditional Romanian food and brewing beer since 1879. Located in a beautiful building with a dark wood interior, they offered a special lunch menu (a menu del dia of sorts) with four choices of starter, salad, entree, and dessert. I had a starter of polenta with fried eggs, covered in cheese, which was delicious and Phil had a tasty vegetable soup. For our salads, Phil had a Greek-style salad with tomatoes, cucumber, and oregano and I had a cabbage salad which tasted like an oil and vinigar coleslaw with a nice addition of fresh dill. For our entrees, we ordered the meatballs (which tasted kind of like burgers with onion soup mix in them cooked on the grill) with polenta and a chicken thigh seasoned with cumin along with raosted potatoes. It was all delicious and for dessert we had flan and a raspberry cheesecake. The cheesecake was not your typical cheesecake and had the consistency of a dense cake with a strong (similar to a gorgonzola) cheese baked into it. It was really good.
After lunch, we walked along the River to Cismigiu Park. Obviously a once grand park, Cismigiu Park has fallen into disrepair, at least a large part of the park has. The grass was dry and browning and the many, once lovely benches had been visited by pigeons a few too many times. There was even an area on the map of the park that showed a manmade lake with paddle boats and a restaurant. Now it is just a dry, cement and dirt pool, the restaurant deserted.
We came across the building below on the edge of Cismigiu Park. The Kretzulescu Palace was built in 1902 by Romanian architect Petre Antonescu. It was initially the residence of Princess Elena Kretzulescu. In 1927 it was purchased by the Romanian government and served a variety of purposes including housing the Museum of Religious Art. From 1972-2011, it served as the office for UNCESCO’s European Center for Higher Education. It now does not [appear to] serve any function and seems to be falling into disrepair. It is such a cool building. I’m sure people, myself included, would pay just to walk through it.
George had told us on the train that “Bucharest is not the most beautiful city” and while that is literally true (it is not THE most beautiful city), it still has a certain charm and a good vibe that I liked. Phil and I agreed that with a bit of TLC, it could be a really beautiful city and more of a major tourist destination. If the bad graffiti was painted over (even with just good graffiti), the streets and buildings were power washed, the cigarette buts picked up, a few more trash cans added around the city, and some of the really cool buildings refurbished, it would be so lovely. I realize that revitalizing a city isn’t as simple as paint and power washers; it’s economics and politics and I don’t know anything about either in Romania. I just know I liked Bucharest and I think it has the potential to be more than it is currently.
Next up: we head to the swanky part of Bucharest, and have more adventures!