6 trains, 4 flights, 4 bus rides, 4 taxis, 4 trams, 2 shuttle vans, 2 subway rides, 1 ferry, and a lot of my own feet. That’s what it took to get me around Southeastern Europe over the last week and a half. In 10 days, I visited Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro (all for the first time) before returning to Turkey, hiking up rugged but beautiful mountains, clambering over ancient fortifications, examining the works in museums of all types, and talking with locals and other travellers from around the world. Despite my months of preparation, I was usually hungry and poorly rested, I usually felt like a tourist with my inability to communicate and overreliance on the map, and I spent far too much of my time staring at one rundown rural town after another from the windows of some form of transportation. Still, almost all of the dozen cities, villages, and parks I visited lived up to or exceeded my expectations, and while busy, I definitely do not regret the itinerary I chose, because I discovered so many fascinating parts of Europe. Because of the enormous scale of my experiences over that time, this post will cover just the first half in Romania and Hungary, while Croatia and Montenegro will come later this week in a subsequent posting.
The choice of Bucharest as a starting point for a European travel is undoubtedly unorthodox (I still have never visited France, Germany, Spain, or Italy), but as someone who hates the crowds of “touristy” sites and loves nature and exotic places, Romania, home of some of the most unspoiled mountains and forests in Europe, cheap, culturally rich, and rarely visited by foreigners was a perfect choice (my abortive attempt to learn Romanian after 8th grade, while of only limited use while in the country, undoubtedly influenced my selection as well). A delayed flight cut into my already limited time in Bucharest, forcing me to limit my activities to a nighttime walking tour of the central city, meeting up with my friends Sam and Dylan, who came in slightly after me, and an early morning visit to the amazing Village Museum, a collection of transported and reconstructed homes, churches, and workshops from rural villages across the country, preserving a life that was terribly disrupted by communism and modernization. Despite the prevailing opinion of Bucharest as a collection of ugly Communist structures, downtown Bucharest at least is remarkably pleasant, offering large parks, wide boulevards, numerous museums, and well-preserved historical buildings, most of which I was unable to visit, since the next day it was off to my next destination.
Stavropolos Church, Bucharest
Museum of Romanian History
Romanian Parliament Building (2nd largest office building in the world)
Herastrau Park, Bucharest
Lake, Herastrau Park, and Danube Delta house, Village Museum
Church, Village Museum
Dylan and I headed north to Transylvania, flat fields transitioning into steep gorges and distant mountains as we headed up to the Piatra Craiului National Park for some hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, travelling through the rural town of Zarneşti as we backpacked to the park boundary. Problems hit early on, as the visitor center, where we expected to find maps and water refills, was closed, and the first part of our journey had us travelling on the same path as a marathon that was also taking place. But once we turned off toward the mountain cabin we were intending to stay at that the going got really rough. Piatra Craiului is famous for its massive limestone ridge, the largest in Europe, and to get our destination we had to, in essence, climb over it through a gorge that had about a constant 60 degree slope along a trail made up of lose gravel and piled boulders for multiple miles. Having neither backpacked nor done such intense climbing, I was not at all in physical condition for such a hike, yet I managed to pull myself up the hill, with the solitude of the path, the great feeling of the fall weather, and the views across the region the reward for my exertion. Exhausted from the hike in, we spent the evening in the cabin playing cards with other Romanian hikers and eating the home-cooked meals offered there. I’ve missed camping, so odd as it sounds, I enjoyed having to use an outhouse and bundle up in my jacket for the night as I watched the sunset over more distant peaks. We took the same trail back down, which while not as physically demanding was even more treacherous, as I fell multiple times during the descent. Finally, we made it back into town and took the train back to the town of Raşnov, where Dylan and I split up, him back to Bucharest and Bulgaria, and me to explore the nearby castles of Raşnov and Bran.
Piatra Craiului Massif
Piatra Craiului Mountains
Evening, Piatra Craiului
Cabana Curmatura, PIatra Craiului
Evening, Piatra Craiului
View from the top of the trail, Piatra Craiului
Looking down the trail
Unfortunately, Raşnov Castle must have been closed for repairs, something I was uncertain of until reaching the crest of the hill it was built on. To compound the disappointment, the bus station, from which I intended to travel to Bran, was far from both the castle and train station, and after exhausting my limited Romanian trying to find it for over an hour, I found out buses did not run there on Sundays. Thus, I traveled back to Braşov, the main city of the region, assuming Bran Castle would be inaccessible this voyage. So you can imagine my surprise when the cabbie at the Braşov train station asked if I wanted to be driven to Bran. I responded honestly before thinking, and was soon off – in a cab that charged me a base fee of 20 euros and then 3.3 euros per kilometer. Luckily, it did not take me long to realize the scam, and managed to get the driver to turn off the meter and charge me a flat fee for the return, which I later managed to bargain down as well. I had to pay what amounts to about $80, but that beat the over $300 that I would have had to pay if I had not noticed, and I did get to see the castle (famous as Dracula’s castle, though he likely spent only a week there, it was small and overcrowded, hardly worth even a legitimate taxi fare), and get back to Braşov in time to explore the old city, which was interesting enough to almost make up for the tribulations of the preceding hours, an old Saxon fortified town with a massive Black Church, medieval storefronts, and a large central square nestled between the mountains. From Braşov I took an overnight train to Budapest, and since Eastern Europe does not have fast trains, and Hungary had decided to take this week to repair the line I would be travelling on, this was to be an 18-hour ordeal. Still, being able to sleep (or try to sleep) the majority of the ride made it more bearable, though being woken at 4:00 in the morning for passport checks at the border was unpleasant.
Courtyard, Bran Castle
Brasov Main Square
View over Brasov from the White Tower (Black Church prominent)
Save for the train rides, my experience in Hungary was just of Budapest, which given what I saw of the rest of the country was perfectly fine with me. Like with Bucharest, I did not have enough time in Budapest even before the train rescheduling, so being limited to around 7 hours in town forced me to walk fast and waste no time visiting the key sites, the Parliament Building, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Castle Hill, and the monuments in the main city park. Because almost all museums were closed on Monday (one of several things I should have figured out beforehand), I did not have an excess of choices to pick between, luckily, and I managed to get everywhere I wanted (and have a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant where I was the only patron) before heading to bed so that I would be able to wake up at 4:45 AM for my train out to Zagreb. Budapest is a fascinating city, cosmopolitan and full of monuments historic and cultural significance despite the ravages of WWII, communism, and recession. Some of the monuments I was disappointed by (Fishermen’s Bastion), others were surprisingly interesting (Vajdahunyad Castle). Still, in my light-speed highlight tour, I certainly did not get a full picture of what Budapest has to offer. Hungarians had the best knowledge of English of anywhere I visited, luckily, since their language looks terrifying, and I don’t fault the Croats for rebelling against having to learn it. Traveling out of Hungary allowed me glimpses of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s resort area, but ended up in another delayed nightmare as we transitioned from the train to three buses, waited for an hour at the border post as a group of Indians had problems with their visas, yet like with my other delayed transportation I did make it to Zagreb on the day I had planned, if not the hour. But Zagreb and beyond (which, while not less busy, were still much more relaxing) merit another post, since this is long enough already.
Sunrise on the plains of Hungary
Interior, Budapest Parliament
Main Hall, Budapest Parliament
Old House of Lords, Budapest Parliament
Castle Hill, Budapest
St. Stephen’s Basilica
Inside, St. Stephen’s
Royal Palace, Budapest
Fishermen’s Bastion, Budapest
Parliament from Castle Hill
Matthias Church, Castle Hill
Chain Bridge and St. Stephen’s
Chain Bridge in the evening
Heroes’ Square, Budapest
Vajdahunyad Castle, Budapest City Park
Gate to Vajdahunyad Castle
Interior, Vajdahunyad Castle