Hungary got off to a rough start. I dislike arriving in a new country after dark. If I had stayed the night at the unfriendly hostel in Zagreb I would have arrived in Pecs early afternoon the next day. Instead I arrived at Pecs after 9 pm. The train station was a ghost town. No money changers or restaurants or anything at all was open. I had no idea the exchange rate or the direction to go for the hostel. I went to an ATM to withdrawal money. I went with 2000 forint and hoped that I was not withdrawing my life savings. Then I found a taxi.
I arrived after dark with no map of the city and no bearings. I had only the name of a hotel from my youth hostel guide. I probably could have walked – it would only have been about 30 minutes – but I did not know in what direction to go. So I took a taxi and was ripped off royally. The taxi ride, according to the hotel desk clerk, should have cost me only 600 forints, but the driver’s meter moved at a furious pace and it cost me 2000! I was so tired I just wanted to cry because it was all the money I had just taken out of the ATM and I was hungry but I had no money to buy food. The hotel was more expensive than I thought as there were no single rooms. However they were nice enough to let me pay the following day when I could get some money. The hotel was pretty nice and the staff was extremely kind.
The next day though I learned the exchange rate was quite in my favor making the 2000 forints only about US$7 and Pecs turned out to be a very pretty town. After two days I headed to Budapest.
I did not write much on Budapest. My time there was a lovely respite after the realities of the Balkans and the coming craziness of Romania. I took day trips to Szentendre and Eger, the latter where I had a glass of the famous local red wine with my Hungarian pizza lunch and then walked delightfully buzzed through the castle. (I rarely drink so one strong Hungarian red was quite the treat) I walked both hilly Buda and flat Pest, crossing the Danube multiple times. I soaked in the Turkish baths and sat languidly in parks overlooking the city. I even eschewed my usual alone time and hung out with several other backpackers from the hostel, most of whom were also taking breaks from the rigors of the road while in Budapest. I played billiards at the hostel and even made out with a fellow backpacker (ha! I bet you were beginning to think I was too prudish for such a thing.) Budapest seemed to be the place to let my hair down.
It was a good thing because Romania was about to test my traveler mettle.
Romania. So far it has been quite a test for me. I took an overnight train from Budapest. When I bought my ticket I picked up a handy flyer on how to stay safe on the train. One tip was not to sit in a train compartment alone. Unfortunately I was the only person in my compartment and there seemed only ten other people in the whole car. I thought other people might come in, but no one ever did. As a result I felt a bit uncomfortable sleeping. The pamphlet mentioned that many compartment doors, when closed, could not be opened from the outside. Not my compartment door. I had a bicycle chain with me to sometimes secure my backpack if I need to use the facilities. I could have chained it closed had there been anything to chain it to. So I made sandwiches I had made and packed and read a book.
I had fallen asleep when after 11 pm a conductor came to check my ticket. He informed me I was in the wrong car. I pointed to my ticket, which clearly showed car 454, the car I was in. He pulled out a book showing the train carriages—there were two cars with the same number! I was told to move to the next car because very soon the train would separate. At the station my passport was checked by border officials and I waited a while. I could feel the train being disconnected, but I was still alone in my compartment and unsure if I was in the right place. I went in search of someone to ask but there was no one else in my car or any of the other cars I checked! I looked outside of the train, in the pitch black of the Hungarian-Romanian border station, and saw no one. I began to panic. I was very tired. Finally, I saw a man with a flashlight and I asked him if I was on the train to Sighosoara. He said no and began to laugh. “Where?” I asked. He pointed off into the distance and with a sinking feeling I came to the conclusion I had been left behind. I lost my cool, kicked the train door, and could feel tears starting to form.
I gathered up my things and got off the train to look for someone. Picking my way along the train tracks in the dark I found some border officials who showed me my train – still there but on another track. Again, I was the only person in my compartment, but I spoke with the other six people in the car. Three were Romanians, one of which spoke English, the other three were Czech or Croatian, two of which spoke English. I tried to settle down to sleep, but this train was in much poorer condition than the Hungarian train. My previous compartment had been warm, the new was one was very cold. We stopped again at the Romanian side for some time for the border formalities.
I woke up around 6:10 am and began to prepare to disembark. The train was scheduled to arrive in Sighisoara at 6:35. The time came and went with no sign of my stop. I asked a woman in my car who told me we had passed the stop some time before. After a minute or two of despair, I decided to continue on to Brasov and just find a place to stay there. Luckily no train conductors came to check my ticket on the train or upon exiting the station in Brasov. I later learned that there had been a time change; Romania was one hour ahead. So when I woke at 6:10 it really had been 7:10.
The excitement of Romania did not end there. From Brasov I took a day trip to Sighisoara, the birth place of Vlad Tepes or Dracula. When I took a bus to the Brasov train station, I had a narrow escape from two overzealous ticket checkers.
I was pulled off the bus by two bus ticket collectors who demanded I show them my passport. I refused and they pulled out some licenses that appeared as if they had been made on a Fisher Price laminating machine and demanded my passport again. My offense was not validating the 20 cent bus ticket with a hole punch machine that looked more like a bottle opener. I refused again. I had after all bought a bus ticket and had given it to one of them. I refused again and tried to walk away. They grabbed my arms and I shook them off and yelled at them. They followed me five or ten minutes down the street threatening me with the police and fines of $1000, occasionally coming close and shoving me. I was nervous but grateful it was broad daylight and I tried my best to ignore them. Finally I turned around and poked my finger into the chest of one of the men, yelled for him to leave me alone, and then turned and bolted down the street, running as fast as I could toward the train station. They pursued for a block or two and then gave up. Whew. I figure they were probably not even legit bus people but had hoped I would be afraid enough to give them money or my passport, which they would then use to extort money for its return.
Despite the great bus ticket chase, I enjoyed my days in Brasov. I remember the amazing beauty of the old town; particularly people watching as I slowly dined in a sidewalk café on the town square. Day trips to the medieval town of Sighisoara and to Bran Castle, getting my Vlad Tepes fix, were in order. Sighisoara, with the exception of some modern conveniences, felt little changed since the days The Impaler took his baby steps in the town. I had lunch at Casa Dracul but kept to a light meal despite blood being on the menu. In keeping with apparent Romanian tradition to try to rip off foreigners the restaurant tried to pull a fast one by sneakily adding the “bread I didn’t order or eat” charge, but I was on to that one. At some ruins before Bran Castle, myself and two other backpackers were stalked by a ticket seller demanding a camera charge – for taking pictures of some low stone ruins on a hillside. I did not relent on that one either.
From Brasov I headed to Bucharest with a stop off to tour the more modern neo-Renaissance Peles Castle in Sinaia. I enjoyed the tour of the palace and the wooded walk back to the train station. A fellow US traveler joined me. He was heading north, while I south, but on the way to the train station he regaled me with a tale of his recent attack by dogs. I was fascinated, but would soon realize that his words were more than apocryphal.
I previously wrote about my own unfortunate incident with a dog attack in Bucharest and departure from Romania in my post A Blast from My Travel Past. It is unfortunate that my eight days in Romania are colored by so many attempts at minor extortion and bribery culminating in the dog attack. Even on departure day, an additional swindling attempt and a fake border official wrapped up my visit. I cannot say I was not glad to put Romania behind me.
I traveled five days in Bulgaria with an Aussie backpacker I met my last day in Bucharest, after returning from my dog confrontation. We stopped first at Veliko Tarnovo to visit the historic town and castle that served as Bulgaria’s medieval capital. Then we headed on to Sofia, the modern day capital. What I remember most about Sofia is unfortunately not any of the sites other than the gold-brick streets. I remember an old woman swathed in traditional garb and baggy stockings squatting right in the middle of the road to, uh, loosen her bowels. I remember contacting the US Embassy doctor to see about getting my rabies shots. He arranged to come to the hostel to give me the first shot (he called back later to suggest I wait until arrival in Macedonia as they had the international grade serum for the US troops stationed there, rather than the Bulgarian-made serum). I also remember meeting the US single mom traveling with her seven year old son; they were also staying in the hostel and interestingly enough I would meet them again, six months later, on the north shore of Bali. It’s funny what you remember.
On our last day the Aussie and I visited Rila Monastery. Then the following day we parted ways as I headed to Macedonia.