We were running out of time. With choices dwindling, we abandoned our visit to Sighisoara and took the night train from Budapest to Bucharest instead.
Our plan had a gray area that spilled over a couple of days between Budapest and Russia, and there was Romania, smack dab in the middle of it. We’d had a run-in with Romania before in the form of a cancelled trip, and I felt like we were losers all over again. I’d become enamored of the idea of spending a night in Sighisoara, which I hoped would be a stop on some sort of train from Budapest to Bucharest. I’d even booked a night’s stay in a 17th century residence, but then promptly left how we were going to get there up in the air. The schedules were complicated and there were other matters needing attention.
Then we spooked ourselves. Our German hosts had been opinionated about rural Hungary and Romania, and their opinions were not reassuring. Plus, the weather was worsening. We’d successfully avoided snow throughout Europe until this point, but Romania was getting dumped on. The train from Budapest to Bucharest didn’t appear to stop in Sighisoara except by roundabout, time-consuming route. I couldn’t wrap my head around the major difference in distance between the Hungarian border and Bucharest itself. There was a whole lot of ground to cover in Romania.
So, it looked like we’d fly into Targu Mures from Budapest, and then have to hire a car of some sort over about 50 km of mountain roads. It seemed kind of scary, to be honest, and our schedule was tightening. We decided to cancel the expensive reservation and spend the night on the train from Budapest to Bucharest. This would give us time to catch our breath before our flight to Russia.
If you’re holding a Eurail pass, you still need a reservation for an overnight train. Unfortunately, you can’t do this online. So we hiked over to Keleti Station. Keleti is undergoing extensive renovations; it’s a shabby, yet still beautiful, example of classical Belle Epoque architecture. The ticket office in Keleti was a throwback to Soviet efficiency. Meaning, there was none. Numbers were seemingly called out at random, certain windows only for certain things, and Magda, our customer service representative, was a total caricature: lurid polyester blouse, facial warts and frowny-face.
We were grateful to be done with the experience, only to discover Magda had put us on the 11PM train from Budapest to Bucharest instead of the 7PM we thought we’d requested. After a scolding, which she walked all the way across the office to deliver, we meekly accompanied her back to her window and gratefully accepted tickets for the correct train.
Later, when we’d checked out of our hotel and returned, Pete was happy to find Keleti had a Business Lounge, hidden behind an unassuming door. Inside, voila! Comfortable chairs, snacks and drinks, modern bathroom, tucked away for those in the know, and with the appropriate ticket. We almost hated to leave!
Boarding our train was a little more reassuring. One of the employees walked us to our car, hoisted my luggage aboard, and then followed us outside on the platform, window by window, pointing out the correct compartment. We quickly got settled in very tight quarters. Things were marginally clean, and definitely more than 30 years old. Wandering into the dining car, we met Sean, most recently from Libya, originally out of Ireland.
Sean, as many of his countrymen do, had a million stories, and he was dying to tell them. Deprived of English-speaking compatriots for the last several days, he bought us the first of what were to be more than a few glasses of wine. He and a Scandinavian family of three were our only companions in first class.
Train employees wear more than one hat on this route. We weren’t sure who to ask for what. The same man who punched our ticket served us drinks in the dining car, but another of his drinking buddies (yes, the employees were all hanging around drinking in the dining car) got up to get us refills. They all changed out of their uniforms into tracksuits at about 10PM, but still affably topped off our wineglasses until we stumbled into our compartments.
As we climbed in altitude, the train speed decreased to a crawl. There was a track change of some sorts, and we later learned the aging infrastructure can’t support higher speeds. Train speeds and quality had declined for us as we traveled eastward beginning in the Czech Republic, so this didn’t come as too big of a surprise. My questions about the timetable were now being answered. Any train from Bucharest to Budapest will take you at least 15 hours. It’s because you’re going s-l-o-w-l-y.
There’s a melancholy aspect layered over a time warp with overnight trains. You can almost imagine yourself part of a film noir full of pre-war spies. Or, you’re peering at a nanosecond’s glimpse of life in the world you’re passing by. I remembered a previous trip from Paris to Munich, gazing at village lights and signs rolling past: Metz, Nancy, Strasbourg, Ulm. This was different. After the border, when armed officials asked for our documents, there was little to be seen. I drifted off to light and fitful sleep. Above me, Pete was having his own problems in the upper bunk; unable to get comfortable, he spent most of the night awake.
At about 8AM, it was beginning to get light. I opened one eye and watched a dilapidated vignette out the window. Three or four stray dogs poked about a snowy path between hillside houses. Frozen laundry hung from clotheslines. Ramshackle chimneys sent smoke billowing into the frosty morning. All was slowly clickety-clacking in a regular fashion when I spotted a sign: Sighisoara. The neighborhood didn’t look so good.
The landscape was snowy and dismal. We began to see country folk out, bringing feed to the animals in horse-drawn carts piled high with hay, walking in groups toward jobs or school, farm hands and babushkas. In the distance might be a highway with a few headlights breaking through the dim, but for the most part this region lived solidly in the old ways. I googled these two images, which depict what we were seeing.
Emerging from our compartment and wandering into the dining car, I was graciously, if unintelligibly, asked if I would like some breakfast. My tracksuited friend stubbed out his cigarette when I affirmed I would, and seemingly out of nowhere, presented me with this lovely omelet. When we paid the bill, there was no change available. Instead, we received a chocolate bar from a secret under the counter stash.
We began to ascend again into the Carpathian mountain chain, which was punctuated with alpine-like vistas and holiday villages. This area was part of Hungary prior to WWI. Within these ranges live groups of Szeklers, who some say can trace their lineage back to Attila the Hun, and still speak Hungarian. Other villages were established in medieval times by Transylvanian Saxons, who are of German descent. Still other areas contain Gypsy majorities, or are so mixed that there is not one prominent ethnic group. This map gives you an idea.
Fortunately, I was having better luck with signage. Hungarian and Romanian are two entirely different languages. Hungarian is related to Finnish in language patterns; Romanian is Latin-based. The sign at this station brought a chuckle.
I found myself wondering about these beautiful old buildings. Were they lodges or grand country homes? Spas or hospitals?
As we approached Bucharest, villages and towns got larger and more populated. Buildings were newer and in better repair: