Romania 2009: Bucharest and home

On Friday, I went out again in the evening, down Calea Victoriei to see the tourist side of Bucharest (which is much better than the Gara de Nord area). I came across a little church stuck between the modern concrete stuff with some great frescoes in the porch and then I went down to the big park in front of the Palace of Parliament before walking back through the gardens where there was a folklore festival going on, and also old men with pipes playing chess which I didn’t realise happened in real life.

Yesterday I was planning to be a bit lazy and maybe wander a bit. I’d planned to go and find the angel statue, the Piata Charles de Gaulle and the Arcul de Triumf. I found the angel, which turned out to be Icarus and then I went on to the Piata Charles de Gaulle. I could see the Arcul from there but I thought I’d go straight on up and see what was up there before coming back. As I wandered down the road towards the next Piata I thought it looked very familiar. How on earth do you do a full circle of a piata yet think it’s only a half circle? Very stupid.

So back I went, and then straight onto the Arcul de Triumf. I decided I would go through the park, mostly because it was shady. I seemed to walk for miles. I came across the lake, which seemed like something from another world and across it I could see a pointy building. So I followed the lake round and then made my way out past an indoor market and a car park and another bit of park and found myself in Piata Presei Libere. I followed another road but it seemed like twenty yards up the road, the world stopped being interested. It was completely deserted and there was nothing except an abandoned and half-crumbled multistory car park. I did my journey in reverse, stopping at every single shady bench on the way back, which meant it took hours. I didn’t repeat the confusion between Piata Charles de Gaulle and Icarus and I did come across an antiterrorist squad van, which made me look around at what it was parked outside to realise that I was walking straight past the US Embassy. I get nervous around the Romanian police, and there were a few of them there.

I was awake very early this morning because I was a bit worried about getting to the airport. I’d figured out where to get the ticket but the bit with the bus was still a bit of a mystery and I didn’t know if I’d be able to get whoever was lurking in the kiosk to understand me. Should I be looking up the phrases in the back of the guidebook and writing them on a piece of paper? How long would it take? I’d decided to go early because I would prefer to hang around at the airport for hours than be stuck and panicking at the Gara de Nord.

Getting the ticket was no problem and I soon discovered that my bus did indeed stop right there. But when no one got on, I decided it wasn’t the right place and didn’t either. But as soon as it was gone, I wished I was on it. There might not be another bus for an hour and that was cutting it a bit fine for comfort. I asked a Romanian couple by the method of pointing at the bus number printed on the ticket and pointing to the floor and they nodded. I stepped back across the taxis into the shade and immediately another bus came along. I hurried back across the taxis and the Romanian couple were looking round for me and pointing to the bus, so regardless of the fact that no one else got on it, I did and validated my ticket this time.

The bus went off down the south side of the terminal and then stopped on Str. Afluentiulul. This concerned me a little bit but the driver eventually noticed me and with a mixture of English and smiling, he told me that the bus did go to the airport but it was stopping there for ten minutes. That was fine. The bus was going where I wanted it to and I was on it and I would rather sit on a bus on the side of the road for ten minutes than get off and end up lost and confused and worried again.

The bus went off – back to the station. I’d seen the stops it now stopped at but because they were on the other side of the road I’d assumed that couldn’t possibly be the right place, not realising that the bus comes back down there and then cuts across in front of the station and therefore it is going in the right direction after all.

I slightly got off at the wrong stop at the airport. When I arrived, I got on the bus, it went to another airport stop and then it went into Bucharest, so I assumed it would do the same journey in reverse, but it didn’t. I recognised where I got on the other day so I got off and as soon as the bus had gone it dawned on me that the door said “International Arrivals – Internal Departures”. I went to the Billa for drink and bread and chocolate and then luckily found that the two parts of the airport are connected. The international departures place was packed and my checkin wasn’t open so I went back and sat in the quiet bit that joins the two parts. I checked in, along with what seemed like an entire Scottish rugby team and enough cases for the entire population of Scotland and since there were no postcards of the city, I went straight through security, with no problems this time although they made me take my watch off before I went through the metal detector. I sat at the gate with the rugby players. They weren’t what I’d imagined at all. At least six of them sat with their DSs out, playing MarioKarts together and getting knocked off tracks or hit by rockets. They ate little Kinder chocolate bars and watched films on their laptops and phoned teammates stuck on the other side of security about how many bags they were allowed to check in.

The flight was uneventful. I enjoyed takeoff, I ate a bread roll and had a cup of apple juice, we were early so circled north London and then I enjoyed the landing. We sat outside the terminal for twenty minutes because another plane was still parked in our space and then we walked up the longest jetty in the world to get into the terminal.

The end, you might say. But I still had to get to Waterloo and because I was hungry and knew there was a Subway right at the door I stopped at Hammersmith. Then because I didn’t want to faff around changing trains, I got a bus straight to Waterloo. Unfortunately, the bus is slow and I finally arrived at Waterloo three hours after landing at Heathrow. I got on my bus and ate my picnic, glowering at the businessman with too many phones who sat next to me (having been awake for fourteen hours by now and still with a two hour train journey ahead, I quite liked the idea of having a double seat to myself to spread out).

Anyway, I managed Bucharest to Bournemouth with no problems. Bournemouth to Blandford was a bit harder. The main entrance to a station is the logical place to be met, in my opinion. It seems other people have other ideas…

Romania 2009: Predeal

I got to the station and mostly by sign language, managed to get a ticket back from Brasov to Bucharest, which was good because I meant I wouldn’t end up stranded in Transylvania.

Then I had nearly an hour to kill before my train. I sat in the little park opposite the station, wandered around the station and finally got on the train. I found a compartment of my own and was joined by some Americans or Canadians. They were glad I didn’t mind English-speakers because they would be talking all the way. Then a Romanian came in and showed us that we have an assigned seat and that while the conductors don’t care if you’re even in the right wagon, you may have a fight with someone if you’re in their seat, so we all moved.

In my correct seat, I did what everyone else was doing and read a book. But the train soon began to empty and I looked out the window. I soon realised that Romanian trains are nearly three times the length of the platform, so if you’re in, for example, wagon 14 of 14, you don’t get to see what station you’re at until you’ve gone past it, and often there are no signs to tell you where you are anyway.

I was under the impression that whatever else is wrong with them, the trains are pretty much on time. It said on my ticket that I was arriving at 12.49, so I was waiting by the door and when we stopped at 12.54, I stuck my head out to make sure it was a station and other people were getting out and not just a place where we had to stop and wait for a signal or another train. It was a station. I jumped down (the bottom step being about four feet off the ground) into long grass and stones and walked two thirds of the length of the train to the platform, praying that the thing wouldn’t start moving until I was well out the way. As I walked, I saw a sign and between the posts, I could see the last three letters were EAL. Even I with my nonexistant Romanian knew that wasn’t the way to spell Brasov. I had got off at least two stops early at a place in the middle of nowhere called Predeal.

Once I’d reassured myself that the train back would be stopping here and I wouldn’t be either stranded or have to waste the day trying to get either to Brasov or Bucharest, I found the tourist information centre right by the station and they gave me some maps and suggested a couple of walks up into the mountains, three hours each. That would take me right up to my train arriving, so I thought I’d just wander up to the foothills of the mountain.

I followed my map and gradually became suspicious that the map didn’t match what I was seeing. Eventually – and I’ve never ever done this before in my life – I discovered I was following the map upside-down.

I went back into town and sat on a shady bench on the hillside before going down to look at the little craft stalls where I bought an enormous chair-leg-style pencil, a wooden box and a green carved flute. I wandered up and down the town, climbed halfway up a mountain and sat by the road looking at the view and being amazed that I was actually there, by myself, up a Transylvanian mountain.

I came back down and went in the Orthodox church, assured by a Romanian at the door that I really was allowed in. It was amazing inside. It was covered floor to ceiling in paintings, like I’ve seen many times before but these were so bright and bold they looked like cartoons.

I was at the station early so as not to miss my train. The train however had other ideas. When it was ten minutes late I started getting twitchy and when it was half an hour late I was wondering what I was going to do for the night, because the 65 lei I had wasn’t going to be enough for a broom cupboard in Dracula’s castle.

Another Romanian, this one with no English, tried chatting and got me to understand that late trains were nothing to worry about. But that still left me bored and hot on a platform. When it arrived 64 minutes late, I discovered I was in wagon 13, seat 56 and I laughed at the sky for it.

The heaters were stuck on in the compartment and with the sun coming in low straight through the window, it was insanely hot. After two hours, I thought we must be coming up to Bucharest so I went out into the corridor and stuck my head out the window. In fact, we were nowhere near Bucharest and I travelled like that for nearly an hour before the train that was supposed to arrive just after seven finally got in at quarter to nine.

I have never ever been so filthy in my life. This is what happens when you stick your head out of a Romanian train window for a few hundred miles.

Romania 2009: Bucharest

This is my second full day in Bucharest and it’s really really hot.

I didn’t particularly like Bucharest when I first arrived and I still don’t like it now very much. It’s too hot, it’s absolute chaos and getting out of the city is almost impossible.

I’ve spent two mornings wandering around. I’ve been to the Piata Romana and seen the wolf statue, I’ve wandered endless streets and squares (and squares here are like massive roundabouts only they have nothing in the centre and there are no rules. Crossing the roads is lethal. I read that there were stray dogs but I wasn’t expecting so many of them. Everywhere you go, there’s dogs wandering around the pavement, sleeping in the shade, howling all night. Any other time I might almost be tempted to talk to them, here I cross the road to avoid them. They’re not vicious, they don’t really even look at people, but they make me nervous.

Romanian language isn’t so bad. I can’t understand a word spoken but reading it is just about manageable. It’s a bit like if French, Spanish, Italian and Catalan all had a baby and then tried to teach it German. I couldn’t read a book in Romanian, but I can recognise signs like “station” and “ticket hall” and various other tourism basics.

I was in a room on the top floor of the hotel the first night but the women’s bathroom was being renovated, so they decided to move me down to the fourth floor where it wasn’t. On the fifth floor I had a small shared balcony, a view over the road out the front, roottops, buildings and a lot of sunshine during the day.

On the fourth floor, I have a higher ceiling and a functioning bathroom but I have no balcony and my view is of ruins although I can also see a now very appealing Ibis hotel and probably the Gara de Nord.

A lot of Bucharest is ruins. In the 70s and/or 80s, a lot of the city was pulled down to build a modern metropolis but I gather the dictator who was doing it got exiled or killed before it was even nearly finished. That’s how the dogs ended up on the streets, owners whose houses got bulldozed for this project had to throw out their dogs and they ended up multiplying and becoming pests.
Anyway, a lot of Bucharest seems to have been interrupted mid-destruction and the majority of the rebuilding never got done.

I have a ticket tomorrow to Brasov, which is in southern Transylvania. I don’t yet have a return ticket, but if I end up spending the night somewhere other than here, that’s not exactly a tragedy.

I have no plans yet for Sunday, but my Monday plans are to go straight to the airport and maybe do some shopping there before coming