March 14, 2015
As you travel east on the train through Europe, crossing over the geographical and political line once notoriously known as the Iron Curtain, are you thinking of stopping at Prague? Not so fast. If you’re already hitting Prague with your Eurail Pass, why not explore further east to Budapest, the “Paris of the East?” From Budapest, it’s just another night train away to Bucharest.
Romania’s capital is experiencing an interesting renaissance. First-time visitors who stroll the city’s once neglected, recently refurbished Old Town might have a hard time believing that the city survived not only Vlad the Impaler (otherwise known as Dracula), but over 40 years of Communism capped off by the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu.
When to Go
The May-September prime tourist season seems like the default option for this part of Europe, where the summers are warm and the winters verge on frigid. But don’t overlook the pleasures of Budapest and Bucharest during the off-season, from late autumn to early spring. A plethora of lovely cafes, spas, nightlife, historic sights, and museums offer indoor diversions to stave of the chill. And don’t forget that the prices––low compared to most of Europe––mean that a sit-down meal with wine in either city might cost as little as a takeaway sandwich in Zurich.
Winter travel expensive can rack up quickly in cold places simply because you tend to spend more time inside––unless you head to destinations where cinema tickets, museums, nightlife and cultural events are affordable. Yes, and even churches: it costs €10 to see the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s best known church. Budapest’s most famous church, St. Stephen’s Basilica, is free.
Arriving in Budapest from Prague
International trains from Prague hlavní nádraží depart just before midnight and arrive at Budapest Keleti around 8am. Keleti station connects easily to the rest of the city on Budapest’s excellent metro system.
The Night Train from Budapest to Bucharest
At Budapest Keleti, hop on the Euronight Ister train at 19:10; you’ll arrive at Bucharest Gara de Nord (North Station) at noon. Don’t skimp on sleeping arrangements: the seats make sleeping difficult, and there’s always a risk of being pick pocketed while you doze. Choose from comfy sleeping compartments in 1, 2 or 3 bed arrangements (with or without private shower and toilet) or 4 or 6-berth couchettes, which are the cheaper and more basic option. Sleepers are a fairly good deal on the Ister, with a 3-bed sleeper costing only marginally more than a 4-bed couchette. One tip: before you leave Budapest, bring some snacks and drinks for this 17 hour journey––you’ll usually, but not always, find a restaurant car on this route.
Do keep in mind that Romania is not yet a member of the Schengen area, which means that old-fashioned borders exists—although thankfully not old-fashioned in the way of the Iron Curtain. All this means is that you’ll likely be briefly woken up in your sleeping compartment and asked to show your passport. While the train sleeping compartments are comfy enough for a perfectly good night’s sleep, the Romanian border guards will likely knock at some point.
The Day Train
If you prefer to travel during the day, you can leave Budapest Keleti at the crack of dawn (7:10, to be exact) on an InterCity train that passes through Timișoara and arrives at Bucharest at 22:50. If that’s too long of a haul, consider an overnight stop in Timișoara, Romania’s most cosmopolitan city that’s sometimes called “Little Vienna.
”If you can spare the time, why not stop along the way? After sleeping your way across the Hungarian-Romanian border on the Ister, you’ll arrive in Sighişoara early in the morning. With a historic village center that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, it makes a worthwhile stop. After another hour, the train reaches Brașov. Nestled in the Carpathian mountains, the village attracts visitors for its atmospheric churches and historic charm––and for its proximity to Bran Castle, otherwise known as Dracula’s Castle. Bring your own garlic.
That Budapest survived the 20th century at all is a miracle: between the Nazi Occupation and the Holocaust, the Soviet Occupation, and Hungary’s own fascist era, the city has seen more than its fair share of strife. Yet while the city doesn’t compete with Prague or Vienna for sheer architectural wonder––decimated by bombing in the Second War, it also fell prey to some dubious Communist architectural schemes––Budapest somehow manages to radiate a kind of cosmopolitan elegance that is redolent of Paris.
Three words: spa, goulash, and cake—and preferably in that order. The city’s famous spas are wonderful places to retreat in chilly weather, and Hungarian food––savoury goulash and chicken paprikash, along with rich layer cakes served in the city’s elegant bakeshops––seem veritably designed to fight off winter malaise.
My favorite winter afternoon retreat? The opulent Lotz Terem Café, whose Renaissance-style frescoes adorn the second floor of the Alexandra Bookstore. Settle into a leather armchair and order a coffee and a piece of Hungarian Dobos tart from one of the formally attired waiters, who scurry about while a live pianist entertains. While the craze for Budapest’s ruin bars is best experienced in warmer months, some, like Ellátó and Instant, feature indoor spaces in winter. Széchenyi Baths are slightly more famous for their sprawling outdoor swimming areas, yet in winter I prefer the quiet splendour of the Gellért Baths indoor pool and spas. On the Buda side, it makes a perfect place to warm up after a stroll across the Chain Bridge and a climb up to Buda Castle: the views are stunning, especially after a snow.
As his totalitarian regime crumbled around him during the last days of his reign, Nicolae Ceaușescu was booed by a teeming crowd of thousands in Bucharest’s Palace Square. Since then, things have changed dramatically: Ceaușescu was charged with war crimes and publicly executed, and Palace Square has been transformed into Revolutionary Square.
Architecturally, Bucharest’s examples of Stalin-inspired Socialist Realism and ego-driven monstrosities ordered by Ceaușescu stand as grim historical testimony. Yet don’t dismiss the eclectic city as the old stomping grounds of one of the 20th century’s most repressive dictators: Baroque mansions and Art Deco treasures rank among the city’s more than 2400 historic monuments. The sheer fact that it’s not overrun by tourists like Prague means that it’s one of the most interesting places to witness the former Eastern Bloc’s cultural transition still in flux. Happily, the recent refurbishment of the Old Town into a proper pedestrian zone has made Bucharest easier to love.
Many of Bucharest’s hidden charms lie indoors—perfect during colder temperatures. At Piata Romana, hang out with international literary types at the café of Carturesti, an impressively massive bookshop. In the evening, cozy up to jazz at Art Jazz Club, Green Hours Jazz Café, or one of the other live music haunts that keep Bucharest buzzing at night. After strolling the Old Town ––also called Lipscani–– which dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, stay warm by ducking into one of the wine bars or grand cafés that line its winding streets. The many historic churches in this quarter are worth exploring: don’t miss the lovely frescoes at 18th century Stavropoleos Church.