“I left Munich at 8.35pm on 1st May, arriving in Vienna early next morning… Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets...’ So begins the journal of Jonathan Harker as he starts his infamous journey from London to Romania in Bram Stocker’s Dracula. Harker goes on to describe Transylvania as “leaving the West and entering the East… one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe.” One hundred years on and outside of fiction the experience of train travel between London and Romania remains remarkably similar.
Romania is a step away from the twenty-first century– it is a country of bright green mountains, thick forests, and wild strawberries. The summers are warm, the east coast backs on to the Black Sea, and there are wonderful old towns and tiny farming villages. It is also relatively undiscovered by the tourist trail so perfect for those looking to escape the beaten track.
On the flip side, the poverty does remain quite severe, and as tourists are a relatively new factor travelers can be subject to interest and an amount of pestering. However, Romania has some of Europe’s friendliest population, and particularly outside the bigger cities most interest comes from curiosity rather than hostility.
As Jonathan Harker discovered, the main train route to Romania is via Paris, Munich, and Budapest to the Romanian border where the trains proceed over the Carpathian Mountains towards the capital Bucharest, or to Brasov – the home of Dracula.
The trip takes two days. Day one sees an afternoon Eurostar to Paris then the City Night Line train ‘Cassiopeia’ to Munich. Day two is the Austrian ‘RailJet’ to Budapest and the overnight EuroNight Sleeper ‘Ister’ that reaches Brasov at 8.19am on day three and Bucharest at a civilized 11am. Both these options are quite gentle: the trains are air conditioned and complete with restaurant cars (although the Ister restaurant sometimes isn’t attached so emergency provisions are recommended). They all offer a range of accommodation on board, from basic seats, to 4 and 6 bed couchettes and luxury ensuit sleeper cars.
For the more adventurous, there are unorthodox routes, which although harder on the body takes in more of the country’s variety and expose the less traveled side of Romania. Those wishing to break away like this can visit the small town of Sibiu on the edge of the Transylvania mountains and from there head out into the countryside for a bit of wild camping.
Sibiu sits on the edge of Transylvania, just across the hills from Brasov. The area around the station is somewhat rough and ragged, but up the hill is an achingly beautiful old town of creams and yellows, green trees, sparrows and twisting chimney pots. European Capital of Culture 2007, Sibiu has not gone unrecognized and boasts a number of hotels as well as a fresh and friendly youth hostel on one of the smaller squares. Beyond Sibiu, small local trains wind their way into the mountains, stopping at a scattered range of tiny mountain villages. Wild camping in Romania is still legal, and a number of the villages have accepted camping areas on their edges.
Sibiu can be reached from Budapest in 13 hours, either on a straight through train or via Medias – another picturesque Romanian town. Tickets are available from www.raileurope.co.uk from £114 return. Alternatively, for those wishing to have a more intense dose of the country, there is a slower route. Day trains run across Hungary to the Romanian city of Arad and cost around £30. Large, imposing and heavily industrial, Arad is an example of the tougher side to Romania. Trains towards Transylvania leave Arad at midnight and the route to Sibiu costs around £10. There are no sleepers on the train, but the carriages are divided into compartments giving travelers some privacy from the interest of other passengers.
At 3.15 there is a change, at a small station called Vintu de Jos. Even in the middle of the night, the station is bustling and there is usually a guard on duty. There is an hour’s stopover, a chance to soak up the stillness while long trains carrying timber pass by and nightingales sing in the trees. A local train leaves for Sibiu at 4am, taking in sunrise over the Transylvanian mountains, passing deep gullies of trees and small white castles high on the hilltops.
Those wishing to camp should catch a local train out of Sibiu heading towards Brasov. Two possible camping stops are Sebesolt and (if you miss this – it is easy to do) Halta Racovita. Both stops put travelers on the road to Sebesu de Sos – a small farming village about two miles from the railway. The walk isn’t heavy, and the locals so friendly that a lift is almost always offered –although this can be in anything from a beaten up old car to a horse and cart. Ten minutes walk beyond Sebesu is a gentle valley where camping is accepted. The village itself has a pay phone, a small shop and three pubs selling cold bottles of Burgan Beer. Cooking has to be done over a fire and the walk into the village to buy beer, bread and watermelons becomes a prominent excursion.
Regardless of the route taken, Romania has a lot to offer travelers. Beautiful, peaceful and, on the whole friendly, it is well worth making the time to see before modernity inevitably hits.