Roughly two months ago now, Dominic “BFF” Parsons and I begin an InterRail adventure. There was a lot of dead time on trains. Me being me, a lot of it was filled feverishly writing stuff down. Here’re the results: one part diary to two parts travel guide (and hopefully semi-useful to anyone ever considering a trip themselves).
is pretty much defined by its central turf war, between two factions: noisy cars, and stray dogs. Areas of the city are given to one, or the other, almost exclusively: the five-lane roads take what should be the centre as their territory and push the dogs out. The dogs regroup on outskirts, around abandoned buildings and patches of wasteland – of which there are a lot. Bucharest isn’t a conventionally pretty place, mostly appearing to be halfway through being built, or torn down. Apparent derelicts and squats will, on closer inspection, turn out to be totally open bars and shops.
For us, this meant a lot of confused wandering, searching for where, exactly, the actual city was. The semi-incomprehensible road system pushes everything into a tiny space. This makes Bucharest a difficult city to experience (especially if, like us, you’re staying nearly a mile south of everything). But crack open that tough exterior, and there’s a veritable bounty on offer. (That was a coconut gag; good, eh?)
The endless Soviet concrete is balanced out with fat green swathes of park. If you can actually find the centre, there’s a good selection of bars. Based on our experiences at the Tiki Bar (Intrarea Nicolae Şelari), the cocktail bars are of a good quality, too, if a little expensive. (Budget Eastern Europe Holidaying Lesson #1: Don’t drink spirits. Spirits are the devil, as far as your wallet’s concerned.)
Food, on the other hand? Food is incredibly cheap. We ate at reliable Romanian chain restaurant La Mama (Episcopiei 8, one of a dozen locations) and, more spectacularly, outside of the Palatul Cercului Militar Naţional (Strada Constantin Mille, off of Calle Victorei), a nice patio outside a building that, on a visit to the toilet, was revealed to be the gilded hall of a stately home.
Romanian cuisine? Hearty is the word that leaps, like a spring-loaded cliché, to mind. The best example I can think of is caşcaval pane: a mild, cheddarish cheese, battered and deep fried. It’s food designed to accompany beer. Tasty, satisfying and deeply, deeply bad for you.
Train 1: Bucharest – Sofia
Our first train, our first overnight journey and our first terrifying encounter: being chased through the carriage by a bearded man shouting at us in Russian, who’d ripped our tickets out of our hands. Tired and suspicious, we snatched them right back. This chase was followed by some mild wrestling before a kind Dutch couple pointed out that, as far as they could tell, he seemed to be the conductor. Oh. Sorry!
Travel guides all seem to fall back on phrases like “diamond in the rough” or “unpolished gem” to describe Sofia. You can see why: the odd facet shines bright, but it’s a matter of finding them, of excavating the places and moments it has to offer. And the truth is: we ran out of time. We managed to find the odd unexpected spot – an underpass that hid a makeshift bar, where the low bass of the generic techno bounced perfectly off the tinkling water feature it sat alongside – but our dig went unfinished. The memories left were buildings halfway to being knocked down, peeling graffitied plaster and endless masses of concrete. We managed to squeeze in a visit to Happy’s Bar & Grill (ul. Georgi S. Rakovski 145B) before departure though, with its slightly awkward meeting of neon-brite miniskirts and grilled meat skewers.
Train 2: Sofia – Belgrade
Tree, tree, mountain, tree, tunnel, tree. For ten hours.
Was I ashamed of how happily I realised Belgrade was not the tufts-of-weeds wasteland I’d expected, but something sleekly modern, something familiar, something – and I say this with blushing cheeks – Westernised?
Of course. A little. Yes. Did it give me a second’s respite? Not one.
It just made it that little bit easier to fall in love with Belgrade. Okay, the Cyrillic signs started to melt away, more people spoke English, but mostly: the road system makes sense; the centre is compact, with promising spots dotted all over; finding the good stuff isn’t just possible, but simple.
The most prominent example of that good stuff being Kalemegdan Fortress. And oh my, what a place to have a beer. The vast space between its crumbling walls has been turned into a park, complete with giant plastic watermelons to sit on, and bars. We chose first an expensive (relatively speaking) cocktail bar, then a more humble set of umbrellas on the other side, both offering completely different, but equally handsome, views across the Sava and Danube rivers. It’s a sign of how much of an English townmouse I am that a proper river – with ragged, forested edges – feels like the Amazon or something.
After a quick trip to the (impressively non-depressing) zoo, we decided to follow the Sava, our only view of Belgrade’s less attractive side – the pale, chicken-skin undercarriage of the semi-abandoned boatyard – as we got heavily lost. It only took a couple of cheap cocktails – as easily found as ever – and a friendly waiter, though, to wash that all away and remind us that we were definitely pro-Serbia.