Saturday, March 7, 2009

(Almost) The Orient Express

The train from Prague’s Holesovice railway station wound its way back through the eastern part of Prague that we had just passed through to get to the station. We passed through the Klanovice forest and waved at Pavel in U Dasu (although he probably never saw us) before the train sped through Uvaly and out towards Moravia and on through Slovakia. The journey was quiet and comfortable, our only disturbance was the two Hungarian women that were having some sort of gossip-a-thon between Bratislava and the Hungarian border. At around 6:30pm we arrived in Budapest. It took us a fair while to walk to our hostel, predictably situated on almost the opposite side of Budapest from Keleti railway station. Soon enough though we arrived at the East Side hostel where we received a very friendly welcome.

We spent the next day wandering around Budapest. We followed a typical tourist route through the Parliament area, across the Danube and up to the castle district. Returning we headed out to the famous, opulent Szechenyi baths. Here we lolled about for the rest of the afternoon in the thermal pools, hot tubs and saunas.

The next day we took the train south to Szeged. We watched the previous train to Szeged depart as we sat waiting in the queue to buy tickets, which was very frustrating. Leaving Budapest we realised that rural Hungary is a very deserted place, there were hardly any farms or villages, just miles of flat land. The only other thing I learned about Hungary is that the drivers are very considerate, especially when compared to typical Czech drivers, who think they are all Nigel Mansell. Just before Szeged the clouds broke and we saw blue sky and sunshine for the first time since leaving England, this was the first sign for us that we were on our way to somewhere foreign. In Szeged we almost missed the small, one carriage, train that trundled its way across the Serbian border to Subotica. The journey of around 25 miles (or roughly Norwich to Great Yarmouth) took over two hours. During this short journey I really felt a wave of euphoria flooding over me. There was the smell in the air that I associate with the sort of countries that I enjoy, a mixture of cheap diesel, frying oil and burnt rubber, the smell of ‘making do’. People were going about their business in ways that seem bizarre, inefficient or just stupid, but you know there must be a reason behind it. The transport was slow and uncomfortable and there was no room for my backpack. I felt hot , sweaty and happy. At the border crossing the guard(ess) singled out only my passport for further inspection, no doubt due to that Pakistan visa that seems to raise eyebrows everywhere, and this just a day after the deplorable scenes in Lahore!

One of the inexplicable issues was that just as we arrived into Subotica the last train to Novi Sad until late evening pulled out of the adjacent platform. If they had just scheduled a five minute gap then there would not have been a dozen people all having to find a way onward out of Subotica. Our way out was to accept an offer of sharing a taxi with a Serbian woman. The taxi driver offered to take us the 100km to Novi Sad for the same price as the bus. Little did we know that bus is actually twice the price of the train, but nevertheless, it was a bargain. It was also fun chatting with both the driver and the teacher. As Serbian is part of the family of Slavic languages it became quite easy for us to understand, and they had no trouble understanding Monika.

For those of you who don’t know (shame on you!), Novi Sad is a sister city of Norwich. In practical terms this means that various groups from Norwich, e.g. fire brigade, can get local funding to visit Novi Sad on a jolly boys outing. However, it is also a very nice city with a clean and well presented centre and an impressive fortress on a hill across the river. The perfect place to break a journey.

The next morning we left Novi Sad on a train to Belgrade. Waiting for the train to leave we sat over a coffee in the canteen. Looking around we realized that of our fellow patrons, half of them were drinking beer, this was 8:30am, and all of them were smoking. I have had a few conversations recently about smoking in eastern Europe and all I will say is that the further east you go, the further they are from a smoking ban!

Arriving in Belgrade we felt like we had hit a brick wall. OK, its acceptable that there is just one train to Istanbul and it leaves early in the morning, and one to Sofia that leaves in the evening but I found it strange that there were no other trains headed even in the direction we were headed. Over a coffee we had to decide whether to wait for tomorrows train to Istanbul or to take the overnight to Sofia and try our luck from there. I went for the Sofia option as I thought we would save spending another night in a hostel and, having been in Sofia before, I knew the transport options were wider than in Belgrade! So we bought tickets for the night train to Sofia and set about wasting 8 hours in Belgrade.

Although fairly small and low-key for a capital city Belgrade is not as nice as Novi Sad. We took a picnic up to the fortress and wandered around there before returning to the main centre. The highlight of Belgrade for me was eating a cheese burek, which is a thick filo pastry pie filled with Balkan (like Feta) cheese.

The train journey was fairly typical, if uneventful. Guys in the corridor smoking and staring into the other compartments, people getting on and off in the middle of nowhere and a pair of women chatting loudly in the middle of the night and compulsively switching the light on and off.

Luckily for me, as it was my idea to go to Sofia, we were able to jump straight on a train to Plovdiv, Bulgarias second largest city, in the middle of Bulgaria from where we had to wait but three hours for a bus to Istanbul. We almost made it all the way by train but in the end convenience overcame the romantic ideal. Its hard to imagine that a town like Plovdiv, with legions of stray dogs and a gypsy woman on the corner sniffing some fumes from a paper bag, can be part of the same EU as somewhere like Luxembourg or Stockholm.

Finally we rolled into Istanbul, the first stop when leaving Europe via this route, no matter what your destination.

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