The Train to Transylvania

Part of the trip - Transylvania
6th December
Rating: (3 votes)

The trials and tribulations of public transport. But you can't beat it for a real travel experience.

We jumped off the bus and ran into the imposing Gara de Nord station in Bucharest. We were on our way to Transylvania and, if we were quick, we would be just in time to catch the next train to Brașov.
Originally we were going to stay in Bucharest for a few days before catching the train to Sofia. But, having posted a request on the old GoWander site for advice on what to do in Bucharest, I was persuaded by Julia69, Alan Taylor, and KDBR, to make the detour to Transylvania, a name which particularly captured the imagination of my three sons who were travelling with me. It would be a pity not to take the opportunity to visit the place since it was so near. And I'm glad we did – thanks Julia, Alan, and KDBR.

The cavernous interior of the Gara de Nord station was dark, scruffy and old-fashioned but a helpful lady on the bus, who told us where we had to get off, had also explained to us where the ticket hall was.
“Look out for a young person behind the ticket counter.” she advised. “Young people are more likely to be able to speak some English.”

I followed her advice and in double quick time I had managed to buy tickets for all six of us – me, my three sons, and two of their girlfriends.

Our tickets were for one of the international trains which trundled across Transylvania on its way to Hungary and Vienna each day. There were several classes of train on this line ranging from the very cheap and very slow trains which stopped at every station en route, right up to the more modern and fast intercity trains. Ours was somewhere in the middle of the range with tickets costing about £7 each for a 3½ hour journey. You can get information about timetables and fares from, although you can't buy tickets online. It's a tricky and temperamental website so you might need to use all your IT skills, as well as some perseverance, to get what you want from it.

We found the right platform quickly enough but couldn't work out from the board whether the train was cancelled, delayed, or had even left already. I joined the queue for the information kiosk to find out what the message on the board meant.

English wasn't very widely spoken here so I checked my Romanian phrasebook for “Do you speak English?” and, when my turn came at last, I asked the lady behind the counter “Vorbiţi engleza?” But she just waved me away, shaking her head. Another lady in the queue, although unable to answer my question in English, advised me to go down the hall to the “Office of Internal Affairs”, no less. Here I was assured that we hadn't missed our train and that the message on the board indicated that the train was delayed by half an hour. But I was also told that we couldn't use our tickets on any of the other trains to Brașov.

So we waited on the platform, like refugees with all our bags, watching the world go by – people, trains, and several stray dogs, which seemed to live in the station – while the displayed “delay time” rose from 30 minutes to 45 minutes, to 60 minutes, and then to 90 minutes. Our tickets were very cheap so we didn't mind the delay too much – and there were plenty of places to buy food and drink in the station.

At last our train arrived and we climbed on board looking for our seats which were indicated on the tickets. It was one of those old-fashioned trains with separate compartments opening off long narrow corridors. Fortunately we had a compartment all to ourselves, so we were able to just flop down and relax after our long day of travelling.

Much earlier that morning (although it seemed like a week ago!) we had caught a Wizzair flight from Luton Airport to the tiny and old-fashioned 1930's style Baneasa Airport in the suburbs of Bucharest. After a mad scrum for our luggage in a baggage reclaim hall which was literally the size of a large living room, we walked out through the airport doors and straight onto a major dual-carriageway.

The advantage of Baneasa Airport is that it is located well within the actual boundaries of the city of Bucharest, and the city centre is only a short bus ride away. We wanted to catch the bus to the Gara de Nord railway station – route no. 780 – which, we worked out, meant crossing over the dual carriageway to get to the bus stop on the other side. But there were no official crossing points for pedestrians – no lights, bridges, or underpasses – so we tagged along with some local people, who obviously knew the ropes, and darted across the road between the traffic. They showed us where to buy our tickets – from an old lady behind what looked like a hole in the wall near the bus stop. I always enjoy having a bash at the local language and I'd learnt a few Romanian words and phrases on the flight that morning, so I raised six fingers and said “saşe” (six) in my best Romanian followed by “Gara de Nord”. The old lady looked amused - she probably wasn't used to hearing Romanian spoken with an English accent - but she understood me and produced the tickets. “Mulţumesc” I said (Thank you), and we waited for our bus. But be warned, although there are lots of buses to the city centre, the no. 780 buses are few and far between. We waited for over an hour at the side of that dual carriageway, with one of the girls in a state of culture shock – she was used to being met at the airport by an English-speaking holiday rep. and whisked off to a holiday resort in an air-conditioned coach. Fortunately, when it finally arrived, the bus was at least smart, modern and comfortable – it was also very cheap.

The train pulled out of the station through the suburbs of Bucharest, and out into the countryside across the plains of Wallachia. After an hour or so we could see mountains in the distance – the Transylvanian Alps (part of the Carpathian Mountain range). We wound our way through the foothills and then up through the mountains themselves with steeply forested slopes on either side, where wild bears and wolves lived. The beauty of this pristine wilderness was occasionally spoiled by an out-of-place derelict industrial complex, or deserted factory, with broken windows and rusting machinery.

It wasn't a particularly modern train but it was a comfortable one. At least each carriage had a toilet, although a man was charging his mobile phone from the shaving point inside ours. It took most of the journey but, as he was standing outside, he wasn't stopping anyone from using the toilet, although you couldn't shut the door properly because of the trailing cable. This didn't bother the boys, but the girls had to go traipsing down the train to find another toilet. There was no restaurant car but, luckily, the train stopped at the occasional dilapidated station allowing food-sellers to board, sell their stuff, and get off at the next station.

We noticed that virtually none of the stations we passed had any signs to say where they were. It suddenly struck us: “How will we know when we get to Brașov if none of the stations have signs?” We decided that, since Brașov looked like quite a big place on the map, and since we knew from the timetable how long the journey should take, that we would hopefully be able to work out when we had got to Brașov station.

The train continued slowly on its way meandering through the mountain passes between rocky peaks, and alongside fast-flowing rivers, while I kept one eye on my watch and the other eye peeled for approaching signs of Brașov. be continued.

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  • 7th December by Julia69

    Glad you enjoyed it and delighted to get a mention!

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  • 8th December by Alan Taylor

    Buna dimineata, dumneavoastra, Steve
    I share Julia's delight. People ask questions and if we think we have something to contribute we get on and fire it off - its good news (and very comforting) to know you liked these places too. And very interesting to read about your experiences with trains - although we drove a fair distance, we only used trains under the expert guidance of an Explore guide.

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  • 8th December by DavidRoss

    I'm always interested in postings about Romania. They bring back memories of my time there during my East European rail odyssey of 1990. I visited 5 former Warsaw Pact countries and Romania was by far the most, er, challenging. The train journeys to and from Bucharest were an ordeal. It doesn't sound as if things have changed all that much. See my Experience "The World Through The Wall - Part 4 - Romania" if you want to know more. I remember the stations being very poorly signposted, so I'm guessing you missed Brasov and ended up deeper in Transylvania. I await the next instalment with interest.

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  • 9th December by Angela R

    Looking forward to part 2.

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  • 11th December by steve48

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.
    Looking back to my original forum posting about Bucharest in 2009, I followed most of your advice, Julia (in addition to the detour to Brasov) - when we returned to Bucharest we visited the “not to miss” Ceaucescu palace, and my lads and their girlfriends liked the evening “vibe” in the city, although we didn't find KDBR's “little Irish pub”.

    Bună ziua, Alan. Vorbiţi româneşte? Vă plac România?
    I never got to the museum of old rural buildings in Bucharest which you recommended, Alan, but it sounds just my sort of thing. (I've been to similar museums in Lvov and Reykjavik) Brasov was great though.

    Your idea about missing Brasov alltogether, David, would have made a great story (although we did actually manage to get off at Brasov station) - I would definitely like to see more of Transylvania though. I hope you and Angela will like part two when I get round to finishing it..

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  • 28th December by Alan Taylor

    Sorry, Steve. I didn't pick up your multilingual response till now.
    Yes I like Romania, but I don't really speak the language. I began to learn it in 1969 with a view to doing postgrad research in Transylvania. The regime seemed quite unconcerned about my wandering around but drew the line at my taking a young woman with me. So I stayed at home and married her instead - 40 years ago next week! Bring on the parties!

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  • 28th March by Alan Taylor

    Not a wild goose chase - I found the goose eventually, and saw some good things along the way.  But thank you for commenting.  And as I said in another thread recently, perhaps I should return to Romania!

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