This is not a holiday, nor will it feel like one. In fact, I would strongly advise a vacation after going through this. For several years now, I have had this goal of travelling to as many countries as my age. I finally decided to take a week off and travel by train across Eastern Europe with two male friends. The luxury of travelling with men is that you can forgo luxury: we packed bare necessities and survived without showers or much sleep. This isn't the kind of travelling suitable for a lady, especially not a pregnant one such as my wife.
We had made few plans for the trip and even changed course several times, just because we could. We took the 3.30am Turkish Airlines flight from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul (US$354; Dh1,300) on Friday morning. We arrived in Istanbul five hours later and immediately took a connecting Tarom flight to Bucharest, Romania ($150; Dh550), a journey that would have taken us 16 hours by train, and arrived in less than an hour. The clock was ticking because we had only eight hours before we were to take an overnight train to our next destination.
We got off the tram from the airport to downtown Bucharest, looked at each other and started laughing. "Now what?" This was as far as we had planned. This was when the adventure began. The temperature in March across Eastern Europe dips below zero. It is clearly the off season, but I quickly realised how enjoyable it is to not be in the midst of thousands of tourists hopping from one sight to the next.
It started to snow as we roamed the streets and soaked in the feeling of history from the communist-era architecture. In the Muzee Si Case Memoriale were hundreds of artifacts that tell the history of Romania, including a 15th-century painting of Vlad Dracula, the real-life character who inspired the fictional Count Dracula in Bram Stoker's novel. From the museum we wandered through the quiet streets looking for a meal. It took only one meal to realise that customer service is not Eastern Europe's greatest strength, though there are plenty of other things to compensate.
Our next stop was Budapest, Hungary. We had purchased online five-country rail passes from www.eurail.com for ($408; Dh1,500) each which would allow us to travel "first class" between these countries. However, we decided to upgrade to sleeper cars, for which you have to pay extra and which have to be booked in advance at the station, especially when travelling in season. The direct overnight sleeper train to Budapest took 12 hours. Our cabin had a three-tiered bunk bed, a sink with running water, but little room to move.
Budapest's train station is no indicator of how magnificent the city is. And avoid money changers at the station, since they often overcharge. We checked in at the Nova Apartments, a 10-minute walk from the station and in the heart of the city ($75; Dh276 per night for doubles, www.novabudapest.com). With only a day to explore the city, we started walking. Budapest was created by merging the cities of Buda and Pest in 1873, and you can see the difference between the two as soon as you cross Danube River that runs between them. Buda is the hilly western part, which gives a magnificent view of the Hungarian Parliament on the Pest side.
Buda is also a perfect fusion of old and new in a way that seems natural. From there we crossed to the Pest side to dine at the Restaurant Fatal - an odd name for an eatery, but the meal was memorable. A meal at this restaurant in the basement of a building costs about $14 (Dh50). The next morning, we realised how close we were to Austria and decided to have schnitzel for lunch in Vienna, less than a two-hour train ride away. The train fare ($20; Dh75) was little more than the Dh50 cost of the meal at Wienerwald in Slamastrasse.
With only two hours to spare we had to sprint to the station for the train that would take us to Slovenia. Riding through the snow-covered mountains of Austria is enough to make you want to live there. We arrived in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, at around 10pm with no clue where we would spend the night. A poster at the train station advertised spending a night in prison. Celica Youth Hostel (www.hostelcelica.com, $27; Dh100 per person per night) is a renovated prison just minutes away from the station. From the outside it looked like a prison, but on the inside it looked like any normal hostel. A late-night walk around the deserted city offered no indication of how it would come alive in the morning. There is no better place to see the city than from the mountain top where Ljubljana Castle is situated.
From Ljubljana, we took the train to coastal Croatia, which took less than four hours to get us there by 6pm. The view of the Adriatic Sea from our room at the Hotel Opatija ($102; Dh375 per room, www.hotel-opatija.hr) was simply stunning. It was much cheaper for us to rent a standard vehicle the next day from Kompas Rent a Car (www.kompasrent.hr) for $74 (Dh270) than it was to take the bus around the area. The freedom to explore you get when driving is certainly worth the price. It is worth going to the quaint, historic and picturesque town of Moscenice on a hill just outside Opatija. It's a beautiful place to see Croatia's orange brick rooftops, the greenery and the Adriatic Sea in one picture.
The fine food at Roko Cafe provided enough energy for a long night (10 hours in a non-sleeper train) to Belgrade, Serbia. We didn't expect to change trains twice with a four-hour layover. We roamed through Belgrade's old town, Cika Ljubina, and then had to board a night train to Sofia, Bulgaria. Breakfast at Flocafe, a cultural tour of the Photography Museum, a walk through the parks, a stroll through the Open Market and we were ready to return to Istanbul to unwind.
Turkey is the only country in all of these travels that required us to pay for our visa, and it was a significant amount ($62; Dh228 for Canadian passport holders), though I advise checking into visa regulations for all these countries depending on the passport you are carrying as you could face some complications. The overnight train stopped in a remote border town in the middle of the night and you can only pay in cash despite the absence of an ATM machine. We ended up borrowing money from fellow passengers.
There is no better way to unwind after this week-long trip than at the 300-year-old Cagaloglu Hammam on the Asian side of Istanbul. Though it was a bit pricey at $40 (Dh147), the traditional Turkish bath by this point in our travels was a necessity and not a luxury. email@example.com