Two weeks into our family Eurail adventure, we had a big decision to make: should we stick with our original plan to take the train and Couchsurf through Romania and Bulgaria to get to our December destination in Istanbul? Or should we make a lightning fast trip to see Christmas markets in Austria and Germany and up to Scandinavia and then fly to Istanbul? It was tempting to make the most of our first class pass to use the sleek trains in Western Europe and see the postcard-worthy scenery in the Alps. We weren’t sure what they might be like to the east. But in the end, we decided we wanted to see some of the cultures of Eastern Europe that we had never experienced before, and even though we knew it was going to be a little less comfortable – physically and otherwise – in the end we were glad we did.
Our trip from Zagreb to Romania started well enough. We were up on time, our cab came on time, our train left on time, and we had the entire first class car to ourselves. We got into Budapest Deli station just a little late, and we rushed down to the Metro. We needed tickets. The ticket seller didn’t accept credit cards, and we had no forints. She motioned to another window and said “ten minutes.” Agh. I went around the corner and changed some Euros for forints and went back to buy the tickets. OK. Metro to Keleti station. Why oh why are there no escalators in the train stations? Or ramps, at least? And why isn’t the Metro station connected to the train station it is named for? When we finally get into the train station, we don’t see our train on the board. At all. We go to the information desk to see if we can get reservations for the sleeper. No – you need to do that at least 6 hours in advance. You must ask the conductor. OK. Where’s the train? She can’t help me – her computer is down. We think we spot a promising one on Track 11 – all the way on the other side of the station. We get there and they say, “Try Track 6. Or 1.” Both are ALL the way on the other side of this massive station that is beautiful but so poorly designed. We have to walk several hundred yards from one side to the other, our suitcases dragging behind us.
Finally, finally, after our third visit to the information desk, the woman there takes pity on us and calls someone to find out the track number for our train. We get on, and I go in search of the sleeper car. But the very polite porter straight from central casting tells us there is no room. And no room in the couchettes (although I strongly suspect that this less polite porter is just not willing to make up more beds, because it does not look anywhere near full. So we head back to the First Class car (thank you Eurail). We find an empty compartment with plenty of room for us to stretch out, and Magnolia figures out a way we can arrange ourselves for sleeping. BUT. The conductor comes in to tell us that this car will only be going as far as the border. Ugh. We figure we might as well set ourselves up in a Second Class car and try to make the best of it. We find several seats together in a quiet car and settle in. But just as the train pulls out of the station, a boisterous group gets on and argues loudly with the conductor. I can’t tell what the issue is, but these people do not seem pleasant at all. Sure enough, they talk loudly, without stopping. Once in a while one will leave, and the others will do something annoying, like the young couple making out across the seats just behind our girls. Yuck. After it becomes clear they are not going to shut up, we decide to move. We move to a car closer to the café car, which is the only place on the train where people can smoke, and it’s starting to get a little rowdy.
At around 1:30 am, as I looked at my miserable family around me – Calla coughing, Magno curled up like a pretzel on her seat, John sweating and twitching with bad dreams – I wondered what on earth I had been thinking. Well, I had thought we’d be in a sleeper car, but that was not to be. But why did I think we should go ahead and take this horrible overnight train without the sleeper berths? To add insult to injury, I happened to read an article while on this train about someone’s heavenly overnight train in Switzerland, with champagne and nice sheets and blah blah BLAH! I switched off the data connection on my iPhone and slumped back in my seat to try to sleep sitting up.
But then, we wake from a not-very-restful sleep at dawn to a totally new landscape in Romania. The rolling hills are just barely green on this misty November morning. The grays and browns of winter are taking over. We approach a red-roofed town that – aside from the electrical poles – looks like it could have been unchanged for centuries. Smoke pours from every chimney in the town of Agustin as the sun comes up. It’s all very charming and picturesque, until we come upon a splatter of plastic garbage tossed from a back garden towards a stream, as if the house vomited up the indigestible bits its owner had overconsumed.
We arrived in Brasov, and as we disembarked I saw someone trying to help Magnolia with her bag. We had been coaching the girls on how to say “No” firmly when someone tries to help them with their luggage, because it could turn out to be a scammer. In this case, though, the perpetrator was our Couchsurfing host, Zsolt, who was actually trying to help. He had a good sense of humor about it. We would come to find out that he had a great sense of humor about everything!
Zsolt drove us from Brasov to their home in Sfintu Gheorghe, where we met his wife Ildiko and their daughters Hongo (which means Heather – another flower girl) and Anna-Villo. We talked for a while, and then they offered us breakfast. And Zsolt offered us shots of Palinka – a plum brandy – to start it off. We were surprised, but we rolled with it. Zsolt offered me a less-strong version he had made with blueberries. We had sausages and bread and an amazing dish made of grilled eggplant and homemade mayonnaise that I can’t wait to try to make at home.
The family is of Seckeler Hungarian descent, and the area is a majority-Hungarian-speaking area within the larger Transylvania region of Romania. They taught us quite a bit about their heritage, and we went to several museums about this culture during our stay.
Zsolt, a biology teacher, showed us around his school in the town. They had very nice facilities, especially his biology lab. The place was astounding! Filled with more stuffed animals than most museums, and several human skeleton models. Great old diagrams and charts. Who wouldn’t want to be a biologist with this classroom, and this teacher? We then went to meet Zsolt’s class. The students crowded around the girls, and they did a great job of answering and asking questions.
We really enjoyed our first Couchsurfing experience as a family, and just couldn’t get over the hospitality of our hosts.
The next leg of the trip was to Sofia, Bulgaria, a place we knew nothing about before arriving. We had made reservations for a four-person sleeper car on the train from Bucharest to Sofia. Our train from Brasov to Bucharest was fine, but we dreaded the three hour stopover in Bucharest. We had heard nothing good about this train station. We read about pickpockets, drug addicts, stray dogs and the like, with no waiting area to speak of. We found it to be not so bad in reality, but we did resort to sitting at the McDonalds to wait instead of the grim fluorescent-lit waiting room.
When we boarded the train, we discovered that it was coming from Moscow, where it had left 36 hours prior. The reservation we made 30 hours prior, then, didn’t really carry much weight. The two Russian ladies in charge of the sleeper cars took a look at our tickets and then pocketed them and pointed us to two separate compartments with other passengers. Sigh.
Our compartment-mates were nice enough, though neither they nor the porters mentioned that the bedding we were offered did not include sheets. We made the best of it and actually managed to get a pretty good night’s sleep. Maybe we were getting the hang of it.
The next morning, we arrived in Sofia to a very very grim station. It was a massive communist building that should have inspired but now sat crumbling and dark. We booked our tickets for the next night’s train and bus to Istanbul and parked our baggage at the station with a friendly handler, who was the first indication that Sofia might be nicer than this station made it out to be. We found the brand new (3 months old) Metro nearby, which whisked us to the center. We were late for the Free Sofia Tour, which our Couchsurfing host had recommended, but managed to find it 30 minutes into the tour. It was a great tour – very informative, with an enthusiastic and friendly guide. (We enjoyed it so much, we went back the next day to catch the beginning of the tour.) We were surprised to find out that most large cities in Europe now offer these free tours, that it’s something of a movement. I wish we had known about them earlier in our European travels, but we’ll pass along the information in case you can use it.
The city is very very old, but none of the buildings are. There are Roman ruins everywhere – the discovery of which delayed the building of the Metro, in some parts. There are mineral springs, with public fountains where people bring their water jugs to fill regularly, but no baths. Seems like a missed opportunity to me!
There were little hidden gems and surprises everywhere in Sofia, like Lavanda, an incredibly charming restaurant where we had one of the best lunches of our trip. I still don’t know how John sniffed that out. He had remarked on it the day before when we walked by, But when we tried to go back for lunch we found only a bar. The girl there pointed up and around toward the back of the building. We went around the building but didn’t see an entrance. We saw someone else go in a door that looked like it led to apartments, so we followed. (Always follow the locals!) We still weren’t sure, but we went up the stairs and found Lavanda, a place that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or New York. Fantastic meal.
Another surprise was the huge number of super-flashy new gun shops in the city. There seemed to be one on every block. Not sure what that was about. But we wandered around the city and found interesting little scenes all around that piqued our interest and made us think that we might want to come back and spend some more time one day.
For our final train in Europe, we booked a four-person sleeper car on the train to Istanbul. This time, for the first time, we actually got what we were after: just the four of us in a compartment. Of course, this train was only going to the border of Turkey, which we would reach at 2 am. Next year, the train line (and the Eurail pass) is due to be extended all the way to Istanbul, but for now, you must switch to a bus after going through the passport check at the border. The trip was comfortable, and because we knew the routine, we went right to sleep as soon as we boarded the train. The border crossing was painless, and the bus to Istanbul was comfortable. And I will never forget pulling into Istanbul, under the aqueduct, at the break of dawn.
And so our Eurail adventure draws to a close. We had some incredibly wonderful times on the trains, and in our travels across Europe. We had frustrations and some uncomfortable moments, too, but above all we had an adventure on Eurail with our kids, and we have some great memories that will last us a lifetime. And our kids have learned how to navigate not just the train stations but the metros and buses across Europe like the backpackers they may emulate one day. It’s been a great journey, Eurail, and we thank you for it.