Hungary / Romania tour - 2010

This was a bit of ad hoc tour - had some challenges to book the summer vacations and suddenly I realized that I have one week and I felt like traveling somewhere (without taking lengthy international flights this time).

So I decided to book a short 'Interrail' - by flying to Budapest and the returning from Bucharest. I actually also booked a flight from Wizzair from Budapest to Tirgu Murges in Romania to save some time - the rest of the tour was to be done by bus / train.

I enjoyed both of the countries and managed to see a lot of different spots - anything from the European capitals to small mediveal villages from the Unesco wolrld heritage list. 

Check out the photo gallery.

Diary part 1 - Hungary

16.07.2010 Helsinki - Budapest
I have booked the flights by using my frequent flyer miles about one week ago. Unfortunately the miles are pretty much useless nowadays - I had to pay about 100 eur of 'taxes' for the return trip - you should get cheaper flights from the budget airlines by booking eraly enough... Anyway a good deal considering the short notice. Finnair flight is in schedule and there are no surprises. I have briefly visited Budapest airport on my way to Albania but this is the first time to visit the capital of this country.

Again it is the time to stay at EasyHotel - after the good experiences from Berlin. There is no airport train / subway in Budapest - instead they have some strange shared van type of concept. I use public transportation instead - after a 20 min bus journey I need to use two subway lines to reach the hotel. The hotel is located in the downtown area on a silent small street - the interior is pretty much the same as in Berlin! The surrounding area reminds me of Riga and Prague - lot of 19th century buildings there. I have some barbequed duck for dinner - unfortunately it is a bit cold so I guess they have been using a microwave oven? I go to bed early as I feel sleepy after the working week.

17.07.2010 Budapest
Today's agenda is to visit the castle and do some random sightseeing after that. As there is a Burger King nearby the breakfast plan is more than obvious. After the breakfast I start walking to downtown along one of the main streets. Budapest is such a beautiful place and there are so many picturesque places on my way! I cross the impressive bridge to the Buda side where the castle is located. You can take the stairs or a 'tram' to the top - I choose to walk. The castle area is impressive and reminds me a lot of the Prague castle. There are numerous museums in the area but I don't quite feel like a museum tour today. Even the churches seem to have admission fees - I decide to skip them as well.

Anyway there is one very interesting sight in the area - the Buda Labyrinth. Basically it is an undergroung maze of ancient corridors and rooms beneath the ground level. There is some kind of art exhibition in the underground labyrinth that presents various eras. First I thought it was some kind of historical thing but soon I realize that it is a kind of tongue on the cheek project - as the corridors themselves would have been quite boring someone has brought all kinds of crazy artwork there. At least when you see the fountains filled with fine and some 80s cassette recorders in plastic you realize what is the name of the game... In the end it is a fascinating experience and I really enjoyed taking the break from the heat in the chilly maze!

I continue my tour by foot on the narrow streets. I descend down to the modern parts of Buda and soon I realize to be a bit lost. Fortunately I Iocate a subway station and take a train to the Danube riverfront. I walk to Margaret Island that is in the middle of the river. It is a pleasant area with parks and trails - additionally there are some pools and spas there. After relaxing at a big fountain I make a visit to the big swimming pool complex - the place is huge with numerous pools and glides. I have really good time there enjoying the evening sunshine. As they close at around 8 pm I take the tram and return to the hotel.

18.07.2010 Budapest
More Budapest sightseeing today... My first destination is Memento Park that is an area where they have gathered old statues from the communist era. There is a regular tourist bus to the park from downtown Budapest. The monuments are not that impressive compared to the ones I have seen in Russia and Ukraine. There is an interesting film show that displays some authentic educational videos that were targeted for the local Stasi members in 60s and 70s - basically the videos teach the art of spying.

I return to downtown at around 2pm. I check out the local metro museum - just because I wanted to compare it to the one in North Korea. As you might guess this one is not quite as big as the one in Pyongyang... I check out the city views from the rooftop terrace of a nearby church and continue by foot to the nearby Parliament House. The building is impressive and looks like a gothic church.

The cloudy weather in the morning has again changed to sunny so it is again the time for a spa. On my way I visit the 'House of Terror' that displays the cruel acts of former Soviet Union and the local 'Stasi'. The exhibition is more than artistic - visually stunning but it is a bit difficult to understand what actually happened.

I visit another outdoor spa (Szertzeniy) that is a beautiful complex with several pools and indoor baths. As it is sunny I stay mostly in the outdoor area. Many people seem to be playing chess in a hot pool! The spa closes early (at 7 pm) so I take the subway back to hotel area. I try to find a reasonably priced Hungarian restaurant but end up in some tex-mex place to have a burrito with nachos. I buy some Törley sparkling wine from the nearby grocery store.

19.07.2010 Budapest / Szentendre
I have one day for a day trip from Budapest. There are several possibilities and I choose Szentendre as my destination - it is somehow similar to making a day trip to Porvoo from Helsinki. It is about 20 km by train there - the local train is very slow and makes about 15 stops on the way there. The small town is really picturesque but there are not really any interesting sights apart from the area itself (just numerous small museums and art galleries - many of them seem to be closed today as it is Monday). Most of the local stores seem to be selling all kinds of souvenirs so tourism is obviously a big thing here. I spend some time watching river Danube and some locals fishing. I visit some museum displaying the works of a local ceramics artist - weird enough for my taste. In general I feel that Szentendre is not quite my cup of tea - would recommend it for the elderly travelers who are into fine arts...

I take the local train back to Buda. I really need to do some shopping as my old sandals are making my feet hurt (fake Nikes I bought from a street vendor from Vietnam). I finally found decent Timberland shoes from the West End shopping mall - after the shopping I go again to Margarit Island for some evening chill out. Later I visit a Thai-Hungarian restaurant near the hotel. I enjoy some goulash soup and other local specialties. It is an early wakeup tomorrow so I go to bed early.   

Diary part 2 - Romania

Main destinations in Romania (after Budapest and Szentendre):

  1. Tirgu (Targu) Mures
  2. Sighisoara
  3. Brasov
  4. Bucharest

20.07.2010 Budapest - Tirgu Murges - Sighisoara
It is the time to continue to Romania. I have booked a Wizzair flight to the small town of Tirgu Murges (aka Targu Murges) and my plan is to continue to Bucharest from there. Wizzair flies from Budapest terminal 1 - it is easy to get there by taking a local train. I really like the airport - it is a small but efficient terminal that has a nice 50s feeling - there is even an outdoor viewing platform where you can watch the planes.

Wizzair flight is in time - as expected the plane is more than fully booked. It takes about an hour to reach the Tirgu Murges 'international' airport - it is one of the smallest airports I have seen. Fortunately I changed some romanian lei already in Budapest - there are no ATMs to be seen! There is a minibus service to downtown - I manage to locate the bus terminal on the way. There should be frequent buses to Sighisoara but the bus terminal is a chaotic place that reminds me of Asia. There are no schedules to be seen - fortunately some lady speaks English and tells that there should be a bus in 20 minutes. It actually takes more than hour for the bus to arrive. The bus is actually going to Brasov and the driver tells me that they are not stopping in Sighisoara. The next bus there would be leaving after an hour so I decide to go to Brasov instead. As we leave Tirgu Murges it seems that the bus is making stops to drop off people still - I also manage to get off in Sighisoara (even though I paid for Brasov!).

I am a bit lost but manage to locate the old city. Sighisoara is one of Unesco world heritage sites - it is a very well preserved fortified medieval small village with cobble stone streets. I book a room from an excellent B&B place - I will be staying in a big room with kitchen and bathroom for 25 euros per night. The family that runs the place is very hospitable and really does everything to make sure that the guests enjoy their stays.

After checking in I do some sightseeing. First I walk to the train station and try to find a place where I can rent a car. There are not too many places around and it seems that there are no cars available. I return to the old city and visit all the possible sights - 1) local museum and bell tower 2) torture chamber 3) medieval arms exhibition. I also climb all the way to the highest spot in the village to enjoy some stunning views of the area. Later in the evening I try to locate 'Oak reserve' outside the old city area but end up in some suburb with angry stray dogs. I need to go back and enjoy a huge wiener schnitzel in some local restaurant. After that I spend some time with a crossword puzzle in some bar.  

21.07.2010 Sighisoara / Biertan
I decide spend another night in Sighisoara. As there are no cars available I decide to rent a bicycle instead - it proves to be a good option. My plan is to visit some of the nearby villages - main destination being the Unesco world heriatege site of Biertan some 30 km away. On the way there should be other villages - first destination after the highway being Seleusz. It is a really scenic ride there with green fields and wine yards. The buildings are anything from mansions to modest small houses. Horse and carriage seems to be a popular method for transportation!

I reach Seleusz after some hour of bicycling. I cannot quite follow the instructions from the tourist information - they told me to 'take the first left turn before the church' but I am not really sure about where to make that turn. I end up in someone's back yard and try to ask for directions from some local guy who speaks English. He tells me to go back and soon I end up on the highway that I have been trying to avoid. Anyway I will continue and after some 10 km of bicycling I reach the small town of Dumbraceni. There is pretty much nothing happening there so I make the final leg to Biertan - a very scenic journey in the middle of nowhere.

Biertan is a beautiful village where the time stands still. Apart from the old church there are not that many sights to be seen - anyway it is nice place that is definitely worth the challenging journey. I have a delicious tartar steak in the local medieval restaurant before continuing my journey by bike. It is yet another hot day so I decide to take the train from Dumbraceni. The train is almost one hour delayed but anyway it finally takes me back to Sighisoara. It feels like traveling on some freight carrier - not the fanciest train I have taken (but it costs only about one euro)...

Back in Sighisoara I have a pizza quattro stagioni for dinner - unfortunately the pizza is quite bad. I buy a bottle of local wine and return back to the apartment. The host brings me some sandwiches as I need to skip breakfast tomorrow (need to leave at around 6am).

22.07.2010 Sighisoara - Brasov - Bucharest
As the Sighisoara visit took two nights I have time for just a day visit to Brasov. So I take the 7 am train - this time it is a 'rapid' train that is a lot more convenient option compared to the slow train I took yesterday. Again the train is late - I reach Brasov about 30 minutes after the scheduled time. Anyway it was a scenic journey - there was a huge fog that made the scenery look like it was from the Lord of the Rings movie!

I leave my backpack at the Brasov train station left luggage and continue my tour. The main destination is Bran castle (aka 'Dracula castle') that is some 30 km outside the downtown area. It should be the place the inspired the Dracula book and movies - the actual 'real' Dracula possibly visited the place just once. It is an easy journey there and after 40 minutes I find myself in the middle of some souvenir market. The castle itself looks gloomy enough - at least from a distance. The place is a bit of disappointment - there are so many people and too many screaming kids. There are numerous rooms open for the public but the corridors are narrow so it is really crowded in there. So after an hour I take the bus back to Brasov.

The town is not too interesting - after seeing Szentendre and Sighisoara I am not that interested in churches and medieval buildings any more. There is a cable car ride to the top of a nearby hill - I take the ride there and see the funny Hollywood style Brasov sign. I enjoy a late lunch in the central square - unfortunately some beggars keep harassing me there. Then it is the time to return to the train station and catch the Bucharest train. Unfortunately the train is yet again delayed (for more than hour) - my actual arrival in Bucharest is delayed for about 3 hrs because of some construction work on the way.

It is about 11pm when I am finally at the Bucharest train station. I have booked a 3-star hotel from Hostelworld. As it is late and dark already I decide to take the taxi to the hotel (they should be cheap here). The taxis in Romania are metered and should have price tags per kilometer displayed -  I just take the first one from the taxi stand outside the station. It seems that the price per kilometer is about three times higher than in Brasov (3.5 lei in Bucharest). I have printed out a map of the location and give it to the driver. Soon I realize that the meter is moving way too fast and that we are in the middle of nowhere. So it is obvious that 1) the map is incorrect 2) the meter is tweaked somehow. Fortunately the driver manages to find the correct location of the hotel and I do not run out of cash before reaching the hotel. Anyway I end up paying 46 lei (about 10 eur) for a ride that should have been 15 lei.

The hotel is very nice and good value for money but interestingly the reception says that the room has been paid already - according to Hostelworld policies they should only charge 10% in advance and then the rest on arrival. Later I find out that some travel agency has actually charged my credit card on the day of arrival...

23.07.2010 Bucharest - Helsinki
Just one week is obviously a too short period for this kind of tour. I have just one day for Bucharest sightseeing - anyway the list of potentially interesting sights is not that long. The comments from various travel forums are not too promising - Bucharest seems to be not the easiest capital for even an experienced traveler.

The breakfast buffet is excellent and plentiful. I check out after the meal and start walking to downtown. The city seems to be a chaotic place - plenty of traffic and the streets are in bad condition. There are plenty of beautiful old buildings that would require a fresh layer of paint - additionally there are numerous ugly concrete blocks from the communist era. My first destination is the main attraction in the city - Parliament house aka Ceausescu's palace. There is a huge boulevard that seems a bit rundown - there is plenty of empty space for rent along the way. I guess the intention was to build something that would rival Paris? The palace is there at the end of the boulevard - the size of the building is just amazing. It is a breathtaking sight - just the architecture is unbelievable. It is a mixture of all possible styles - anything from ancient Greece to Rome.

There are guided tours and of course I want to take one. There seems to be different tours - from a 45-minute standard to special tour that lasts for 2 hours. I think that standard tour is enough for me. I need to wait for an hour for the tour to start - I do some random sightseeing in the surrounding area. After Budapest the city does not really impress me and there is too much heavy traffic and pollution. The tour starts with a security check and I need to leave my Leatherman tool for the security officers.

There is a separate photography charge (never understood that Eastern European practice) - I really want to get some decent photos so I pay the extra 5 euros. The guide is a beauty called Raluca. She leads the group to numerous huge rooms that are unbelievably bug and full of gold and other expensive materials. You really need to be a madman to build a place like that! All the rooms seem to be basically empty and there are no people to be seen. I wonder where the members of the parliament are?

The tour is a really puzzling experience. I exit the building and walk for 20 minutes to the other side where there should be a museum of modern art recommended by Lonely Planet. It turns out to be a major disappointment - only one of the four floors is open and there is just weird videos to be seen. There is a huge wasteland next to the museum - I wonder what kind of garden (?) was planned to be built there.,, I return to the downtown area and make a subway ride just to see what kind of system they have here. The line I take seems to be quite modern, not the typical Soviet era design as in Moscow or Kiev.

I cannot think of any more sights I want to see so I head back to the hotel. My guidebook says that traffic jams can be really bad in Bucharest so I leave early for the airport. This time I get an honest taxi driver and the ride costs 26 lei. There are no traffic jams so I end up being at the airport 3 hours before the takeoff. The airport is quite small (about 10 gates) and there is pretty much nothing to do. The flight is operated by FinnComm (that is currently having some financial problems) - anyway the flight is uneventful and there are not that many passengers. I wonder that for how long they will operate this route?

In general the 1-week tour was very nice but the schedule was quite tight - should have had at least 10 days. And some beach life would have been nice as the temperature was so hot!   

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