Bratislava, Budapest, Bucharest (Days 47, 48, 49, 50)

7.07.2014

I left Vienna the next morning. I had seen a good deal of it, its baroque palaces and its cozy squares, its vast parks and its gorgeous statues—oh, those splendid sculptures—and though I hadn't come to know any of them by name, I felt I'd grown to know the city well. If Paris felt like home for its familiar surroundings, then Vienna felt like home for its familiar routine: wake, shower, walk, bike, eat, read, write, repeat. My wanders in search of writing spaces had yielded all sorts of wonders: flaktowers in parks, flaktowers with climbing walls, fantastical apartments and lively canals. I hadn't felt rushed, I hadn't drawn myself a neat checklist of things to do while in Vienna, and so I left the pleasant city with more than I'd bargained for, pages and pages of rambling journal, sure, but also a calm in my soul and a creative flame flickering in my urban spirit.

The rails followed the Danube River an hour west and I found myself on the east side of the old Iron Curtain an hour later, stepping out into Slovakian Bratislava with the great whirling wind turbines of Austria spinning just a sparrow's flight away. All that separated east from west was that calm, winding river, and though I was a mere sixty kilometers from modern Vienna, Bratislava felt a certain world apart.

Upon first impression, life on the other side of the Iron Curtain looked every bit as grim as the sorry stereotypes would have one suspect: slate sky, overgrown yet thirsty grass, heaps of concrete and wide railed roads that made the place feel cold, distant, inhuman. I had arrived at Bratislava's south station, and though I saw the bridge leading to the Old Town straight ahead, the city didn't feel built for humans, but soulless cars, and I worked dangerously to skirt across busy highways and scurry up steep slopes to narrow shoulders, and finally, feeling quite small and fragile, I crossed the azure Danube amidst the buzz of angry automobiles at my side, arriving in what turned out to be a very, very different side of little Bratislava.

The Old Town, as so many old towns are in the Old World, was a person-friendly affair with those familiar cobblestone streets and airy patios, beautiful spires jutting up from regal churches here and there. It felt warm, lively yet gentle, and just as south Bratislava was a world away from neighboring Vienna, so too was north Bratislava a world away from its newer neighborhoods on the other end of the river.

I ate outside. I had a beer. I read a book. With writing out of the way for the moment, I was enjoying the opportunity to just sit and read guiltlessly: I had devoured Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five the night before in one great gulp, and had just begun Nabokov's fascinating Lolita, two great classics that had escaped me in busier days. But busy was something I was not on that relaxing afternoon in Slovakia, so when my pint had emptied and my bill was paid, I hiked up to Bratislava's perched castle for a change of scenery, and there I sat, overlooking the city, its old town and its new town and its great UFO bridge connecting the two, until evening and a cold breeze shooed me away from my regal reading nook.

***

It had been nearly three weeks since I'd left Turkey with Abbilyn by my side; and though Joe Henry had pulled us to Amsterdam in the most welcome way, the unforgettable and unregrettable detour had left me, in Abby's wake, rather far from the great circle I'd hope to carve across the continent.

My route had been so clean, an understandable arc against the Mediterranean, but then there was Holland punctuating all that, and yet still more of Eastern Europe to see and a desire to enjoy it before scorching July heat made the southernmost bits a sweaty hell, so I had done my best, enjoying a few diversions en route, to hurry back toward the Bosporus once Abby had departed.

It had taken time, but I was almost there. I wouldn't be going as far as the Bosporus, of course, but Bulgaria would do; I'd hurry to that eastern edge on the Black Sea and work slowly north through Romania, then west from there. Yes, I was almost at the turning point, but the final leg to get there was a long one: a twenty-hour train ride from the Slovakian capital to the Romanian one.

I broke the travel up with a day's detour in Budapest, arriving there about noon and departing around seven. In between, I walked a great loop around the city, I ate a delicious vegan meal at a lovely vegan restaurant with a beautiful vegan owner, and then I climbed an old citadel for adventure and climbed to the top of Buda's Capitol Hill for superb views and, later, climbed the steps of the Keleti train station for a continuation of my trip. It had been a short tour, but not my last; as the gate to the East, I'd be working my way back through Budapest in due time. It had been great to catch a glimpse, though. I loved the feel of the place. It felt so well-lived in, like it had been around since the dawn of time, its buildings browned by the ages and its textured streets first laid by the first men. Beautiful baroque buildings, big bold bridges ... I'd be back.

But first: no sleep 'til Bucharest. Or rather, I'd hoped for sleep, yet didn't really expect it, which meant I wasn't terribly disappointed when it came only in short spurts through that long night. I tried, of course. Head against window. Head against window with thin scarf as pillow. Head against window with thin scarf tied around eyes to block out the light. Legs on floor, legs on opposite seat, legs on opposite and diagonal seat. Legs on adjacent sleep. Armrest up, armrest down—no, armrest definitely up. Head on seat with scarf as pillow. Head on seat with pack as pillow. Head on seat, butt on adjacent seat, legs on seat opposite butt. A great unsleeping L, bridging across the wide Danube of the traincar.

When sleep came, it was punctuated by officials on official business. How many officials could one train ride possibly necessitate? Between Hungary and neighboring Romania, I was woken to show my passport no less than thrice, and my interrail pass maybe twice as often. The train never stopped stopping: it stopped at eleven and midnight and 12:30 and one and 2:17, and also three and 3:03 and five and six, and with each stop came creaks and groans and lights and lurches, and loud passengers joining the car.

The views were redeeming. There came a point in the early morning where eyes open actually seemed better than eyes closed, regardless of whether those lidded eyes were moving rapidly or not underneath, that excellent scenery better than any much-needed sleep. Romania was gorgeous! I can't say I'd seen anything quite like it, spare quieter bits of Sichuan. We crawled slowly across Eastern Europe's Great Plain, and I marveled at the sheer greenery of it all, lush hills of jade grasses and lone trees rolling along the countryside, and every so often a village with its houses colored lilac and dandelion sprouting like lilac and dandelion from the fields of lilac and dandelion, a great garden of simple shelters, shingled shacks and battered barns.

There were no stores. The villages just were, they appeared as pastoral paradises in pristine pastures—not pristine as we misunderstand the word (spotless, clean, manicured) but as pristine truly is (untouched, natural, organic). There were no billboards, no advertisements, no McDonalds wrappers blowing in the wind or tourist traps waiting to grab at you, just modest authentic living. Real farmers tending real herds on real farms. People walking. People sitting. People riding through the grasses in tiny wooden chariots. Up on the hills, Romanian shepherds walking Romanian sheep. It was a way of life I admired and I envied and I wanted so badly to explore—to hop off at the very next stop and double back to see up close—but a way of life I daren't disturb, for I knew that along with my curiosity I'd bring my gadgets and my very un-simple ways of living, relatively speaking, and nothing could be more toxic to such simplicity than outside intrusion. So instead, I stared in wonder from a safe distance, and some time later the busy towers of Bucharest came rumbling toward the train.

I'd made it a habit of walking from train stations to city centers. Sometimes this was easy; the station was in (often underneath) the city center. But other times the trains ended on the outskirts of town, four or five kilometers from the action, and I enjoyed the long walk these outposts offered, a chance to see a cross-section of the city less explored. Often, these walks yielded great finds. Not so in Bucharest. It was a long, boring, hot walk. I arrived at my hostel an hour later, sweaty and uninspired, and without any particular desire to rush back out and explore the city at that sunny hour, I relaxed and wrote inside instead.

I was joined in the common area by a fellow from Belgium. We struck up a conversation, and he asked me if I cared to join him for a free walking tour at six. I hadn't actually been on a walking tour in Europe—the clueless packs of tourists I'd seen clogging the sidewalks and pivoting around with cameras a-snapping with fury elsewhere in Europe had kept me from joining one—but I had no other plans for the night, and there was always the option of hopping off the tour if it became too much, so I agreed.

The tour was good. There were cameras clicking indiscriminately, but the tour guide was a kind Bucharestian native who supplemented his trivia of the sights we saw with candor, with his personal views and recollections of Romania's disastrous communist era, and that was appreciated. We learned a lot about Traian Basescu, Romania's president for much of the era, about how his visits to China and North Korea corrupted his populist ideals and inspired his ego, about how he razed a great strip of Bucharest to build a boulevard to outrival Paris's Champs-Elysees by six meters, and how he starved the people with meager rations in order to finance the construction of Romania's parliament building, the second largest building in the world (right behind the Pentagon).

He wanted Romania to be great state, Bucharest a cultural capital, but he went about it all wrong. Indeed, it's a very ugly place, all mish-mashed and mixed up, art-deco disasters and baroque beauties squished side-by-side like someone melted Miami and dripped it all over Vienna. Cars reigned and the people didn't seem to mind—later that night, a girl crossing the street outside the hostel was hit and killed by a speeding cabbie, and the hostel staff shook their head and said with a sigh, "that's why you have to be careful when crossing the street," as though it were somehow her fault.

There was a cute pedestrian center, and I thought about maybe grabbing a drink after the tour, but I was tired from the long train ride the night before, so instead I turned in early, read a little, and then I Bucha-rested 'til morning.

***

I had planned to stay in Bucharest three days. I reduced that to two by the end of the first night, figuring I'd just continue on the following evening, but waking to heavy rain that next morning and caring neither for it nor the wet city, I hustled to the station and left before noon. I didn't regret going to Bucharest; I never regret going anywhere, for if I hadn't gone, I'd always wonder what I'd been missing. Besides, with Serbia excluded from my rail pass and Belgrade thus out of the question, Bucharest was directly on the only route I had southward to Bulgaria, so it ended up being far more of a pleasant pit stop than a disappointing detour.

Bulgaria promised sun. I wanted sun. After a busy few days of travel, I wanted relaxation too. And for that, Bulgaria promised beaches. So as I entered Bulgaria via Ruse, I turned east and hopped a transfer train to the edge of the Black Sea, out to a little place called Varna. The trains in Bulgaria were slow, but the views on par with those of gorgeous rural Romania. Bulgaria's geology was perhaps a tad more subdued, gentler hills and wider plains and houses with palettes that reminded more of California than China, but it was all beautiful nonetheless, expansive, uninterrupted. And then, as we neared the coast, it all changed.

Not the beauty—it was still gorgeous. But the terrain itself began to lift, the rolling plains stopped rolling and started rising, and our train carried us through the rises into what eventually grew to resemble a wide canyon, grassy ridges on either side towering above our tiny train. Up on those ridges grew ruins. The hills wore citadels like crowns. And they stretched: they mimicked the train tracks and followed us east, or I suppose we followed them, and at times they crumbled and at other times they stood tall, and meanwhile the hills sharpened, they defined themselves as proud cliffs with rocky outside corners, a white rocky strip interrupting all that vast green. Here, nature had built a citadel of its own, a weathered wall that stood as strong as any man could create, and as we moved, man and nature took turns keeping this fortification going, fortress, cliff, wall, ridge, stones, rocks.

I watched in wonder; my trainmates didn't seem so impressed. Perhaps they were just used to it, or maybe they too were headed to the beach and had more of an eye for simple sands. Either way, I knew I needed to see more. The train drew to a halt nearby in a small town called Ponrovia; I jotted the name down and stashed it away for later. But first, I had to see about a beach in Varna.

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