Balkan Crossing to Bucharest

A local train at 1741h took me on the two hour journey from Venice to Trieste Central where I had to ask for help in finding the bus station, an extremely un-prepossessing group of buildings which smelled so strongly of old cigarettes I could almost be back in the Balkans already. The lounges and bars were all locked up for the night and so I had to stand outside in the cold trying to keep as much distance as possible between myself and the other passengers who were clearly intent on getting through as many smokes as they could before boarding the 2100h to Belgrade. At least when we were all finally seated I had a double place to myself and, as a special treat, the on-board toilet was not only working but was even clean.

We were woken twice for border controls, upon entering Slovenia or Croatia (I was too tired to distinguish the flags) sometime before midnight and again when we left one of those countries some five hours later. We pulled into Belgrade Bus Station at 0600h and that degree of punctuality may have been the only thing that saved me from sinking into a total pit of despair. On my two previous visits this fabled stop along the route of the Orient Express continued to offer at least some rudimentary rail services but it seems that nothing leaves Belgrade Central these days except hope. Taxi drivers hang around in wait for hapless visitors and, all the bus information kiosks being closed at that hour, I had no choice but to accept the help being offered. An only mildly over-priced taxi ride took me to Belgrade Propkov, a station where I could pick up a suburban rail service which would at least take me fairly close to the Romanian border.

It was my great good fortune to make it in time for the 0714h to Vrsac after I had had the distinctly “interesting” experience of leaving the city via some of the dank, Soviet Era tunnels which must once have housed a thriving metro system. The countryside on this (North East) side of the capital was no less dispiriting than any I’ve seen elsewhere in the country. I’m very sorry to say that it looks even more like a filthy, post-apocalyptic wasteland, with the occasional washing line, a few raggedy dogs, and the ubiquitous satellite dishes being the only testament to human habitation. Vrsac proved to be the end of the line both physically and metaphorically but here again a Serbian taxi driver came to my assistance.

This chap phoned an English-speaking friend for translation so that I could establish I was not being tricked when he told me there were no buses at all that would take me onwards in my journey. “We used to have trains to Bucharest and buses over the border but everything has stopped now. He can take you to Timisoara where you can get a Romanian train and you can pay him in Euros”. E50 didn’t seem too excessive to get me out of this almost impossible predicament in the middle of nowhere so we went to a petrol station for supplies (I had a raging thirst by this time) and set off towards the border with a good chance of making the 1400h express train to Bucharest.

When I pointed to the bleak landscape of tumbledown buildings and charred fields my driver said “Gypsies!” Well, I was certainly in no position to hold a debate but I’ve seen this godforsaken country from end to end and, even if they were responsible (which I highly doubt), there aren’t enough Roma people in the whole of Europe to shoulder the blame for so much squalor. I had some jolly japes at the border when the chap at the Romanian passport control booth looked at my British passport and exclaimed “Theresa May!”. They even discussed calling Diplomatic Services but I think they were probably just taking the piss. If indeed the Lady has not already stood down as prime Minister of the UK, then surely she would be fleeing out of the EU and not into it? A red, yellow and blue flag has never looked so welcoming; I had made it across Serbia in under eight hours and a lucky convergence of scheduling would get me all the way from Venice to Bucharest in just 29 hours.

Romanian trains are comfortable and the staff are efficient but they certainly aren’t fast. I got into Bucharest Nord just before midnight and found my way around a corner to the nearby Friend’s Hostel where for E18 (approximately £15) I was given an upper floor, three-bed room to myself. OK, so the sloping roof meant that I hit the ceiling if I stood up too quickly but I was as comfortable as could be and decided to book in for a second night so as to give myself plenty of time to see the city which has sometimes been nicknamed “Little Paris” before heading on down to the Black Sea Coast.

Of course, even one full day’s walking tour wasn’t going to be enough for such a big city (especially as the great, wide boulevards mean that everything is so much further spaced apart) but I quickly realised that such an attractive and welcoming place was bound to have me coming back again before too long and that I could therefore put away the list and just relax and enjoy myself. The streets were made extra colourful by a profusion of large red, yellow and blue posters proclaiming “Patrioti in Europa. Romania Merita Mai Mult!” (Patriots in Europe. Romania merits more) in celebration of the country’s 2019 EU Presidency*. Almost the whole of the immense, sprawling “Palace of Parliament” has been taken over by various government departments and the few slots allocated for visits by members of the public had all been booked up long before.

This multiple record-breaking piece of totalitarian kitsch was constructed between 1984 and 1997 at the instigation of Communist Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu but why work continued for so long after his overthrow and death (1989) I am none too sure. No doubt the guided tour will tell me everything when I eventually make it back here. After all, I have seen rather a lot of heavily gilded palaces on this trip already and I don’t want to risk getting them all muddled up in my memory. I walked the whole of the considerable distance around this monstrosity in a vain search for the Folk Costume Museum (another one to come back for later) but was more than delighted to find myself face to face with the cloud-piercing wonder that will be the People’s Salvation Cathedral.

Begun in 2010, it was hastily consecrated in 2018 and, as for when it will be completed, well, even the custodian staff (it is not yet open to the public) understood my comparisons with the Sagreda Familia in Barcelona. This E500 million project will stand 135 meters high and has attracted an enormous amount of controversy; being referred to variously as a “God Mall”, “parasitical and immoral” or “a Pharonic project” but has already secured a special place in at least one Englishwoman’s heart. It will be the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the World and, as such, gets me off the hook from never having stayed in Belgrade long enough to visit St Sava, an earlier contender for the title.

Even with a couple of floors closed for renovation, The National Museum needs at least half a day. A huge wing is dedicated to a set of plaster casts representing the entirety of Trajan’s Column. The original of which, completed in AD113, may still stand in a Roman Forum but is only really visible if viewed in dismantled sections as it is set out here. Not knowing an enormous amount about the 2nd Century Dacian Campaigns, I found it more interesting to view the work as a piece of cleverly constructed propaganda; Trajan himself, tall and manly, consistently to the forefront of events, the highly disciplined Roman soldiers turning their skills to every imaginable type of fortification or siege engine but at the same time being completely ruthless when it came to spearing their enemies and severing their heads. Propaganda it may have been but the results of this conquest are felt to this day in the Latinisation of Romania’s language, culture and even its very name.

The historical section of the museum takes you through a complex series of alliances and conquests that had the medieval kingdoms of Moldova, Wallachia and Transylvania change hands and allegiances so many times that the map scarcely looked the same from century to century, Valiant attempts were made to repel the Ottomans by such colourfully named 16th Century characters as Peter the Cripple and Stephen the Deaf but it all gets a bit much to take in after a while. Fortunately for me there were some gems on hand because the Treasury contains some diamond encrusted regalia and a jaw-dropping collection of bronze-age gold. Definitely worth another visit.

* There have been one or two juicy corruption scandals, of course, I think there may have been a minister caught feeling across the border with a suitcase of money?

Categories: Europe

Leave a Reply