Last week I traveled to Belgrade, Serbia to visit my dear friend, Kathy from New York. I stayed with her when I got off the Appalachian Trail, so I owe her in ways I can never repay. I really needed to see a friendly face and she made my month! Here are some photos from the first day. Kathy had been on a group tour and Belgrade was her final city, so I was lucky that my school schedule allowed me to join her there.
I so enjoyed my stay. So much history. This is a city I will serious consider living in. I enjoyed trying to figure out the Cyrillic Letters.
July 2, 2015 Bucharest
I am checking out of my hostel today. First, another lonely (Spellcheck just changed that to “looney”) breakfast prepared by unseen hands. It’s kind of creepy. And it seems that they are losing out of money by not interacting with the guests. They clearly have tour services posted (though the placement of the information is poor) and I’d have gladly arranged something with them if I’d been informed. I needed to check out by 9:30a, so I ate my breakfast and moved out.
I’m currently in the park across from the train station as I’m typing this. Most of yesterday’s missive was pounded out at a street-side bar while drinking a beer. There are lots of bars, but most in this neighborhood are so seedy I’d have been afraid to have stepped inside. The only females were women-of-the-night, plying their trade. At least I hope they were professional women, since no one should dress like that unless they are advertising. Still, I’m surprised at the short skirts, and not just on the young girls. Have the styles changed again? I’m so out of touch with fashion. Or maybe I’m just used to Istanbul’s “cover everything” mode of dress.
The park is frequented by retired folks, visiting or reading on benches. You can see it was once a lovely park, but the bushes and trees have not been trimmed in a few years. The weedy grass hasn’t been mowed yet this year. Still, the shade is nice and my park bench supports my weight, though it might collapse if three Americans tried to sit down simultaneously.
I’m surprised at all the plants I recognize. I’m halfway around the world and you’d think the flora would look unusual to me. I don’t mean the ornamental butterfly bush and iris. I recognize the weeds: Lambs quarters, burdock and plantain. We brought it all with us to America.
My impression of Bucharest is that the city is improving. So far it is ready for tourists with money—those who can afford the best hotels and restaurants. The metro is fair, but doesn’t connect quite as well as it could. The streets are dirty. Most everything needs an upgrade and that’s in progress in several places. It’s coming along. But Bucharest has lost much of its Old World charm to war and dictators without quite setting foot into the modern era. Still, you can drink the water from the tap and that better than in Istanbul.
At the train station I buy water and snacks for the road. I purchase a bag of chips that are bacon flavored. They just barely taste of bacon, but there’s none in Istanbul (unless you count the pound and a half of bacon in the freezer).
(The trip home from Bucharest’s Gara de Nord to my apartment in Istanbul took from 12:50p to 9:00a. TWO two legs of the journey were by bus, decidedly faster than the trip out. Still, I was very tired and spent most of the day sleeping, waking only to eat and deal with laundry. Will investigate plane flights or buses for future trips. )
July 1, 2015 Bucharest
I slept for almost 12 hours. Yesterday’s 23 and a half hours of constant travel was exhausting. My hostel room has a daybed, but it’s comfortable enough for a couple nights. The cost is only $24.50 (paid in Romanian leu, cash) a night for a private room and bath, so I can’t complain. It is–naturally–on the top floor with no elevator. Nature seems to be conspiring to force me to walk a dozen flights of stairs a day. (Who needs to train for a hike next year? I just live my normal life!) The room is on the third floor–and that a European third floor, not U.S. The ground floor in Europe (and much of Asia) is floor 0.
I found a breakfast set out promptly at 9a (included in the price), but no host/hostess. The pancakes were warm, thick and flavorless, but there was butter and some apricot jam to spoon over them. I made some of the worst instant coffee I’ve ever seen. How can instant coffee have grounds in the bottom of the cup? Seriously. There were more grounds than I’d expect to see in Turkish coffee. But sugar and milk helped. But of course it WAS Turkish coffee—finely ground to resemble dust. You pour over hot water and left the grounds settle, forming a sludge at the bottom of the cup. There were also fresh peaches and some salty goat cheese. I was satisfied.
I get the impression that guests are ignored here at Vila 11. The website talks about how this “friendly Canadian family” helps guests, but that’s not my experience. When I first arrived it was clear that the young woman who answered the door felt quite inconvenienced by my stay. Last night, when I went up to my room, I said hello to one of the sons, but he just glanced over his shoulder, silently. This morning I saw no one at all. Last night, I had to give the internet passcode to one guest who couldn’t find the staff. Later, I gave the door code to another. I certainly hope the guests aren’t bothering the owners by staying here! LOL
I’m always interested by the folks who run hostels, particularly out of their homes. It takes a special person to invite unknown strangers on a budget to spend the night in a spare room. You usually end up with a fair share of young, hard partying men wearing backpacks, filthy shoes and a couple weeks from their last bath or laundry stop. Having stayed in many hiker hostels plus a few European “youth” hostels, I’ve had a chance to observe a few hostels up close. Almost all include a (slightly to extremely) run down shelter with odd collections of books, magazines, used furnishings and mismatched sheets. Things are piled in a mishmash and coated in a gentile layer of dust, as though they’ve been mislaid for a month or so.
Vila 11 is no exception. The horsehair couch is sagging with a perfect imprint of a derrière on the left side. Clearly an antique, it needs both refinishing and new upholstery. Books and knickknacks line any horizontal space that can pass as a shelf and most corners include a short stack of paperbacks. There’s no reception desk, just an old sewing machine table pulled up against the arm of the couch. The building is narrow and straight up, reminding me of the architecture in Vietnam—one room wide with a winding marble staircase up one side to the 2-4 floors above. The “front room” is really a wide hall, the sides of which are stacked with furniture. On the walls are various family photos and oils paintings. The photos are all prior to 1980, mostly shots of regrettable 60’s and 70’s clothing and hair styles. The paintings look like something you’d see at the last hour of a yard sale and buy for a dime, just to get the frame.
You can pass right through the front room to a backyard. I can make out the bones of an old garden, now overgrown trees and bushes. A couple of parakeets sing from a cage hanging from one limb. I expect to see a sign “future home of a junk yard” in the middle of it all.
Perhaps the word “future” is generous.
The host family seems to live either in the basement or somewhere past the open back door. The first floor has a kitchen and dining area. Climb 3 floors to the hostel, a series of small rooms. Most have 2-4 beds crammed in. “Maria” is my private room and bath. The wooden floor complains as I enter. It sinks almost an inch when I stand from the bed. There’s no air conditioning and I can’t see how it’s heated in the winter. Outside my window I get a glimpse of how badly the slate roof and stucco walls need repair. The window stays open since that’s the only ventilation on this summer day. In the morning, I found a few mosquito bites. The pigeons coo constantly, but that’s almost soothing. I’m grateful for the single electric plug-in on the wall. The room looks clean but this is in contrast to the notes of urine wafting from the bathroom. I’m guessing long term leakage based on the spongy floor. Also, about once an hour the toilet spontaneously flushes. I have to keep the bathroom door shut to deal with the stench. My sheets look freshly laundered, which is good since the pillow and the mattress are not of this century.
Usually the owners of these places are gregarious. Not so here. I barely saw anyone else in 2 days.
I had bought and read a Lonely Planet guidebook about Bucharest before I came, but I can’t say as I had a plan to explore the city. I knew I wanted to see the Palace of Parliament building and had a couple museums earmarked, but little else. Unfortunately, Lonely Planet is not my favorite guidebook. Safe to say I am not their target audience. By their standards I am ancient. The books are light on history but informative about beaches, nightlife and where to buy cheap beer. It was the only guidebook I could find in Istanbul and the maps and basic transportation information were helpful.
First I went to the bank and was able to change Turkish lira for Romanian Leu (though I usually saw the word “lei” on signs. Hummm. Current exchange rate: 4 Romanian Leu to $1 USD). Then I checked on an overnight train to Budapest. Despite the schedule on the Internet, the woman at the ticket window assured me there isn’t one. (Actually, there is. I later talked to people who had done it in both directions. Seems the woman didn’t want to be bothered with me. Or perhaps there was no train on the particular day I was interested.) I’d been told that the English versions of the train website were not always up to date. After consulting a calendar, I realized that I was both short on funds AND time. Budapest will have to be a future trip. <sigh>
I figured out how to buy a metro card for the underground train and made it to the old town section. Unfortunately there are two metro stops there with the same name and I didn’t realize it. I had gotten off at stop #1 and my map was for stop #2. I wasted over an hour wandering around trying to figure out why I couldn’t understand the map. It was noon before I found the Palace of Parliament, but they stopped giving tours at 11a.
I did, however find one of the double-decker tour buses and hoped on for a mere 25 leu. Pretty cheap! And it really was. Worst tour I’ve ever been on. The English audio guide barely gave any information and so many sites were under construction or refurbishing that it hardly mattered. The Arch de Triumph is covered over for at least 2 years. The Old Princely Court (now a museum) is closed for the foreseeable future (though you can still see the statue of Vlad the Impaler out front). Almost none of the various (mostly tiny) churches were even mentioned by the audio guide. Later, when I visited a few of them, it was extremely difficult to even find their names. Lovely parks, but the fountains were mostly dry (they did appear to be getting a thorough cleaning and refurbishing, though) and many trees and buses were being replanted. While it’s nice to know that work is being done, it isn’t much fun to arrive before it’s finished. According to my guidebook, it is just past high tourist season, so perhaps that explains some of it.
Timing is everything.
Still, there was a lot to see if you knew what you were looking at. I didn’t. This is just one of a thousand times I’ve been traveling and wished my dear fried David H. was with me. I hope to attain half the knowledge he has forgotten about history, art and world affairs. I read everything in my guidebook, such as it was. Visited the Museum of the Romanian Peasant and a Bucharest City History museum. Little English signage, so I didn’t get much out of it. I did learn a bit about their horrible dictator, deposed and shot in 1989, but that’s history I frankly lived through and should have been more aware of. I hate feeling so stupid. I’d saved a stroll through the Old Town for last as it’s listed as a highlight. But it’s only a special place for those who like expensive restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Not my kinda place.
Glad I came, but this has not been my most interesting trip.
June 30, 2015 Bucharest
Yesterday I started a trip to Bucharest (which I got to) and Budapest (which I didn’t). I had decided that because of the romance of it (and the low price tag) I’d take the train west, following the old route of the Orient Express.
The glamor of train travel has tarnished, completely. In short, it was a grueling ride to Bucharest–few toilets, no water, no snacks. It was an older, slow train, to put it diplomatically And it wasn’t even a train from Istanbul to the border.
Was not sure what I was facing on this trip–no one on the internet seemed to have updated information. Glad I stopped at our little neighborhood store and picked up a couple bottles of water, some peanuts and dates. That’s all I had from 6:30p when I left the apartment until 6:30p when I arrived in Bucharest (only one hour late!). That’s one metro bus and a tram to Sirkeci Train station in Istanbul. Then another bus to the boarder of Turkey that finally left at 10pm. That right, it’s a BUS from the train station! It takes you from Istanbul to the train station at Edirne, on the edge of the Bulgarian boarder. After a security check, we were harangued by some seedy looking characters trying to get the passengers to smuggle cigarettes for them (obviously with the tacit consent of the folks who operated the train). No one would, though they tried to strong arm one older couple before the train operators finally shooed them away.
We finally boarded a train in Edirne that crossed the Turkish border and took us through Bulgaria (though the back cars split off to Sopia). This was an older model train and “slow” does not begin to describe it. I can’t imagine why the bathroom smelled so strongly since there is no holding tank for the urine. If you look down into the toilet bowl, you see the tracks speeding past below. The sink had a sign warning that it was not potable, but there was no water anyway. Changed trains in the-middle-of-nowhere, Bulgaria. Then when we finally crossed the Danube we were finally in Romania. The train arrived an hour late.
If I wanted more stamps in my passport, I was in luck. There’s a passport check at each side of the border. My ticket was checked at least a half dozen times too. Despite the information from the Internet, there wasn’t a single sleeper car at all, nor a dining car. And since I had no Bulgarian currency, I couldn’t buy anything from the one stop that had a cafe.
Met a lovely Australian group on the train–older group, very funny, well traveled. One had been raised in China and another had lived in India for a time. They assured me this flea bitten train was luxury compared to travel in those countries. Without the Aussie’s sense of humor and a couple audiobooks, the ride would have been unbearable. I am not looking forward to the return trip.
But when I got to Gara de Nord train station in Romania, I found both my credit cards were blocked (even though I put in travel notifications for both). I could get no cash at the ATM and the hostel had changed their policy and did not take cards (I’d booked over the Internet). Had some U.S. Currency that I could exchange for local (running quite low on this commodity, BTW) but no one would exchange Turkish lira. Maybe a bank tomorrow? May have to come home early since my funds are limited by no credit. If I can’t fix the issue with the money tomorrow, will skip Budapest. Am OK and can afford to get back, but not all trips go well. We will see. My first impression of Bucharest is pretty grim, however.
Currently raining, but I got in before it started. Exhausted. A shower, a walk around the neighborhood to find the Metro and a bank (not open) and I’m down for the night.