On our first trip to Romania in 1983, we booked our reservations with an agency who knew what they were doing—Thomas Cook, I believe it was. We took the Orient Express from Paris to Bucharest. This time we bought our Eurail passes online and booked our reservations as we went along. Being well into middle age, we bought the First Class Saver passes (for groups of two or more people) good for 15 consecutive days of travel, which we planned for the first two weeks of January.
Our first mistake was buying the passes from eurail.com, which offers no help with reservations after the sale. Other rail pass vendors, like railpass.com or eurail-pass.com or raileurope.com, will book reservations for people who bought passes from them. Commercial travel agents are not very interested in Eurail pass bookings for just a fraction of the small reservation fee; and national railway systems, even within the EU, may work well with their immediate neighbors, but not with national systems farther down the line.
Romania is pretty far down the line from France. A helpful agent of the SNCF in Strasbourg booked us to Vienna (via Stuttgart and Munich), and gave us the timetable of an overnight train from Vienna to Bucharest, but could not reserve us a sleeping car. (The current Orient Express only runs between Strasbourg and Vienna.) The DB office in Munich had no problem booking us through to Bucharest. The DB certainly impressed us as the gold standard for train travel on both sides of the Atlantic, while Lufthansa similarly impressed us as the gold standard for air travel across the Atlantic, especially after they upgraded us to business class for our Xmas Day flight from Boston to Frankfurt (for no good reason, unless we looked like Herr Santa und Frau Klaus).
On the 1983 Orient Express, we stayed in the same Wagon-Lit compartment both nights (between France and Germany and between Hungary and Romania), but we noticed a degradation in quality at each change of dining car. We enjoyed an excellent German breakfast in a spotless dining car as we passed through Bavaria the first morning. That evening we enjoyed a pleasant dinner in a clean Hungarian dining car as we headed for Budapest. The dingy Romanian dining car at breakfast was full of smokers drinking ersatzkaffee and plum brandy.
Crossing the Hungarian border at Hegyeshalom around sunset the night before was memorable, but not nearly as traumatic as our wee-hour awakening at Curtici on the Romanian border, where we were asked to open our luggage and tell the officials if we had any bibles, dynamite, or typewriters—a dangerously subversive trinity. The only bright spot was that it was my first real chance to use Romanian since finishing Army language school in 1970.
This year our trauma—and long-awaited dormant language revival—began much earlier, as we tried to find car 419 in the train awaiting us across the platform when we arrived at Wien Westbahnhof. We found car 420, then backtracked to 418, then 417, then forward again, then even farther back to—lo and behold—car 419. This was but the first indication that our train was not the Orient Express, but the Dacia Express (D 345). The second, third, and fourth indications were that the car attendant spoke Romanian, that he had to evict a hopeful squatter from our 2-berth compartment, and that the car was labeled vagon de dormit as well as wagon-lit and carrozza letto.
When I went looking for a dining car after the train got underway, I noticed that several of the outside doors were chained shut, and that chains also hung at the ready from doors separating first and second class. I quickly retreated to our compartment, where the car attendant soon stopped by to explain that we should use the extra deadbolt lock to keep out the regular midnight burglars that plagued the border area between Hungary and Romania, and that we were to make sure that anyone who knocked on the door was a real border control official before opening up. Fortunately, the door had a peephole, and we had enough snacks and drinking water to last until our arrival.
The Romanian border crossing was far more pleasant this time around, though still at an ungodly hour. When I responded in Romanian, the customs official asked where I learned it. I said I learned it in the US Army the first time around, then revived it later during a year a the University of Bucharest. He suggested that perhaps I had been a democracy activist. I protested that I had never done anything very useful with the language.
In the early hours before dawn we could see the highway from our train window. We saw a good bit of truck traffic and well-lit gas stations at regular intervals—quite a change from the Romania we remembered—but the Transylvanian countryside looked a lot bleaker after sunrise, with poorly built, poorly heated houses in silent, sleepy, snow-covered towns with many abandoned factories between the occasional clusters of plants newly built by foreign investors and fed by much more robust powerlines than we saw in the rest of the countryside. (Further observations about changes we noticed will have to wait for another blogpost.)
For our return trip from Bucharest to Vienna on Saturday, we boarded the same overnight train (D 346) after stocking up on food and drink at a grocery store in the station. And we got the same lecture about securing our compartment door overnight, this time from a new car attendant with a new trick that employed a coat hanger. He also explained that the teams of burglars only infested the train between Curtici, where it stopped for Romanian customs, and Békéscsaba, the first station on the Hungarian side of the border.
We survived the border crossing unmolested, but also unmoved. We arrived about 2 a.m. and spent most of 3 hours at a standstill, far more than the time required for the Romanian and Hungarian passport control. We finally got underway about the time we should have been arriving at Budapest Keleti, where we had missed the train that was supposed to pull our cars to Vienna. Instead of pulling in to the platform, we spent two hours waiting at a siding, periodically trundling to and fro in front of Budapest’s new Arena Plaza.
Our car attendant hibernated while the Keleti station loudspeaker blared forth long announcements, only in Hungarian, to otherwise empty platforms. I couldn’t find a Hungarian speaker among the Romanian passengers to translate. So I finally walked up the tracks to the engine and asked the driver if he spoke Romanian, German, or English. He spoke just enough German to tell me that we would not be leaving until after 9 a.m., about the time we had been scheduled to arrive at Vienna and make our connection back to Strasbourg. The engine had had some kind of trouble.
We finally made it into Wien Westbahnhof around noon on a sleepy Sunday. When we informed the solitary, unsympathetic clerk at the ÖBB travel desk that our train from Bucharest had missed its connection, she was not at all surprised. She said we would have to contact the DB, which sold us the reservations, to get any refund, and she gave us the choice of spending the next 20 hours changing trains and waiting in various German stations at ungodly hours, or boarding the real Orient Express for another overnight trip into Strasbourg. We chose the latter.
How many people would resent having to spend 8 hours in Vienna on a Sunday? Well, we did. Almost every shop and restaurant on Mariahilfer Straße was closed. We wanted to treat ourselves to a nice long lunch, but nothing was open. The Russian Vladimir restaurant was closed until five, but we finally found a Greek restaurant, Mythos, run by an Egyptian couple with a cute 2-year-old boy who came around to our table to play with his retractable tape measure, whose housing functioned as a self-propelled vehicle. Thank goodness, once again, for the Mediterranean work ethic in Northern climes.
The rest of the way back was uneventful. Service on the Orient Express was excellent, door locks were unnecessary, and our couchette mate was an Algerian man who spoke no German, but decent English and much better French than I did. It was nice to get back to Strasbourg, even though we had a rather long wait in Karlsruhe, to be unhooked from the cars headed for Amsterdam, and again in Kehl, to be hauled across the Rhine from Germany to France.
I would love to make another trip to Romania, but not by overnight train.