We are on the train from Belgrade to Ljubljana. It’s just gone 11 in the morning and the sun is shining on the city where it’s currently 23 degrees.
Bucharest, to go back a couple of days, was a mixed experience. It was a sometimes shocking mixture of busy hedonism and consumerism, sudden dilapidation and sights of poverty and finally the practice of Orthodox religion. On Saturday we caught the metro over to the Opera House and bought tickets for The Elixir of Love that night. The opera house is very grand and a certain slice of Bucharesters dressed up and turned up, with lots of photograph taking in front of the opera’s insignia. The production was middling with set design featuring brash red (often in the form of hearts), black and white, with some TV screens thrown in. However the music was good and much appreciated by the audience who gave the performance a standing ovation. Our tickets cost less than ten pounds and they were not the cheapest. The opera house would benefit from air conditioning. It was unbearably hot. Researching the opera in advance meant we got to see on YouTube, Pavarotti performing una furtiva lagrima from that opera which was incredibly moving. It was an eye opener to see the difference between world class and regional performance.
The Rembrandt hotel is one I would return to, if in Bucharest again (not a priority). It’s only down side was the incredibly soft mattresses. On night two we dragged the mattress cover onto the floor and got a much better sleep down there.
On Sunday we had the night train booked from Bucharest North to Timisoara, where the plan was to catch the connecting trains over the Serbian border to Belgrade. More about that later. The train was due to leave at 21.45 so there is a whole day free. The challenge was to avoid the wandering-around-all-day-waiting -for -the -train feeling. We had to brave an expedition into the shopping centre just south of the old part of the city where we were staying to buy an umbrella to replace the one that I left at the opera house probably along with hundreds of others. The whole thing was rather tiring. Interacting with the shop workers of Bucharest was mixed. A few were friendly and helpful but many were dour. We had started in the morning with a plan to visit all the churches marked on our map of the old part of town. It was a Sunday morning so there were many services going on. To start with we joined others sitting on benches outside but eventually got the courage to go inside and watch the service. We went to a large Orthodox Church and watched as people appeared to be writing prayer requests on provided sheets of paper and hand them to a waiting bearded priest along with sums of money. In the middle of this church was a crowd of, mostly, older women, around something that we couldn’t see but which looked like a collection of plastic water bottles. Eventually the priest came over and blessed the water and enjoyed sprinkling generous amounts on the closely pressed congregation. It felt good to feel the cool water on my head and consider the possibility of some kind of blessing.
Later, with the knowledge that we were welcome at services we returned to the small and incredibly beautiful church of Stavopoulos with its attached cloisters where nuns live. We arrived an hour too early so spent time sitting quietly while visitors came and went and while a film crew were noisily filming some Brazilian dance routine just outside. The church was very dimly lit and occasionally the woman on duty there turned the lights on.
Just before six o’clock a rather elegant nun came in and started to prepare the candles and prayer books for the service, then five more beautifully dressed nuns arrived in floor length black robes with short round black hats on their heads. One of them came over and asked me to move to the right hand side of the church as that was where men are meant to stand. A priest came in who drew the curtains into the special space behind a screen at the front where he conducted much of the service. The nuns stood around a tall revolving lectern and span it round as they took turns to sing or recite prayers and readings, all in Romanian. There was some liturgical interaction between the priest behind the screen and their singing. They sang beautifully mostly in unison but sometimes with one or two of them humming a single note that harmonised with their melodies. We stayed for an hour, deeply moved and wondering about the life of this place and what these six nuns did when they weren’t involved in liturgy. The time of our departure approached and we had a second meal in our favourite restaurant with a glass is some beautiful and cool rose. After that we picked up our bags from the hotel which is a little gem in the city and caught the tube up to the station.
Bucharesti Nord is a busy station and on the Sunday night of a public holiday weekend it seemed especially bustling. It’s also very dirty like most of the city, and unlit and unrepaired. Our train arrived. We had a friendly female guard who spoke virtually no English. Our sleeping cabin was probably the worst we have had to date, slightly grubby and this time no air conditioning just a loose handle that we had to wind to open the window slightly making it the noisiest journey so far.
We thought how nice it would be to have a glass of wine now but we went to bed instead and actually went straight to sleep being a bit more used to sleeping on trains by now. During the night I felt some unusual jolts and in the morning after we got up and dressed at six ready for the seven o’clock change to the two trains that would take us from Timisoara to Belgrade, our guard came along and wrote ‘9.30’ on the margins of her Soduko book and explained that in the night the engine had broken down, was repaired but that we would arrive two and a half hours late, so would miss our connection at Timisoara. There are only two trains a day to Belgrade (via the border town of Vrasc), so we emerged from the station, which we noticed was in a whole better state than Bucharest, and decided how to spend this unexpected day in this city before catching the train at 4.30.
Timisoara, so our guide book, the in your pocket guide, tells us, was where the revolution against Ciaucescu started with some mass gatherings in the town squares. This is a rather beautiful city with lots of green spaces and fountains, where travellers like us can sit, and there are obvious and constant signs of care, maintenance and renewal such as the 91 billion Lei renovation (supported by the EU to the tune of more than half) of one large town square where an orthodox and a catholic cathedral face each other. From a blog we found the recommendation for local lemonade which we sipped (one with mint) before another picnic in a park on the way back to the station for our train. I really liked this city. It was a much more pleasant environment that Bucharest and different too from Brasov.
The train journey from Timisoara was interesting. The train was reassuringly modern and spacious though it travelled very slowly. At the border we stopped while the police took away all the passports went into their building and returned about twenty minutes later with them stamped. The train continued to wait for another half an hour before moving off at a crawl down a single track to Vrasc. The state of the often derelict buildings that passed for stations was shocking. The odd one was vaguely in good order but one or two had every single window broken. There was a huge amount of dereliction on either side of the track and it seemed astonishing that people actually got off and disappeared into these incredibly broken and uninhabited places. Vrasc was an interesting place, it’s in Serbia and the clocks go back one hour. A dozen or so people sat around in the evening sunshine waiting for the train we got off to return to Romania and the other train, a reassuringly modern looking commuter train to go on to Belgrade. Once on our way we noticed the landscape completely change. In place of widespread dereliction we noticed well organised farms and modern industrial buildings. Also the train was moving at Western European speed. The passengers were taller. But it was turning into a long and tiring journey nearly four hours and we came to realise that we might want to revise our plan of walking the one and a half miles to our B and B, the Garden B and B, in Lomia, get local currency and find a restaurant. Belgrade Dinav (Danube) station is basically a little cabin with not an ATM or other facility in sight.
Outside was a line of taxis, it was dark by now. The woman at the wheel of the first said she would take Euros so we squeezed into the back seat with all our luggage (no helpful opening of the boot here) and sped at enormous speed with lots of lane changing through a surprisingly big and busy city to our accommodation in about ten minutes, hugely relieved not to be walking off into a dark city where despite our neat google map I think we were bound to get lost and fed up. It cost us four Euros. It was one of the great pleasures of the trip to finally reach this accommodation and shower after such a protracted journey. Once there we found an ATM round the corner, bought some cider at a small grocery with a smiley guy selling, found take away pizza and a fruit tart over the road and returned to eat in the courtyard of the B and B. We slept soundly. This B and B, was about half the price of the hotels we have stayed in. It is down to earth which is fine though the breakfast, a platter of sliced ham and cheese covered in cling film was not very appetising.
We could not help making favourable comparisons between Serbia and Romania and between the two capital cities in particular. Although we only saw a very slim slice of Belgrade it felt like a much more thriving city than Bucharest, the kind of place you might want to return to.
Now we are currently about half an hour into Croatia, waiting at a station where they have added some carriages, on our way to Ljubljana via Zagreb. We started off well with a combination of speed and air conditioning but gradually succumbed to an intermittent crawling pace and rising heat and humidity. The two lots of border guards came on at the border, this time with the stamping machine in hand. Now just a brief six hours and twenty minutes to go.