I’ve talked a lot about the time I got on the wrong train in Finland and went through the train wash. And I’ve talked about my Romanian train accident too but not recently.
In June 2009, I went to Bucharest. It was hot. It was chaotic. It was difficult to get train tickets out of the city but I managed to get tickets for the next day to Brașov, a beautiful city out in the Carpathians.
So I got on the train and off we went. The train takes between two and a half and three hours and if the trains are somewhat old-fashioned (even to the eyes of someone accustomed to good old British Rail), I’d read that they’re scrupulously punctual.
Now, in Romania you get assigned seating and I was in a carriage near the back. The trains are far longer than the stations they stop at and people like me had to climb down onto the grass and walk a quarter of a mile up to the platform before we could leave the station.
It was hot. I sat and read and looked out of the window and looked at my watch. My train was due in at about 1pm and as 1pm approached, the train didn’t stop. I got up, with my bag, and stood in the corridor looking out of the window. What was this about scrupulous punctuality?
At twenty-five past one, we came to a halt. I couldn’t see the station but I hadn’t seen any of the seven stations we’d stopped at so far. I knew the drill. I jumped down into the long grass and gravel – trains are much higher than you realise when you’re not disembarking onto a platform built at door-level – and walked up to the platform. As I approached, I began to see the name plate hanging up. It ended -al, I could see that between the supporting posts. Well, Brașov didn’t end with -al but then in Romanian, Bucharest isn’t called Bucharest, it’s called București. It didn’t mean anything that the place name was spelled differently in Romanian. Until I reached the platform and saw that it said Predeal. This was not Brașov at all. I’d got off the train in the wrong place.
Ok, first things first, can I get back to Bucharest? I was, as it turns out, more than ninety miles from Bucharest. Would the train stop there on the way back? Was I going to have to spend the night here? Was I going to have to get a taxi back to Bucharest? Did I have any money?
This was an easy problem to deal with. In a manner common to a lot of continental stations, it had a full timetable displayed on the platform and I could find the train I was supposed to be taking back from Brașov. I could rejoin it as scheduled and in the meantime, I might as well enjoy my day out of the city.
Predeal is a pleasant place, especially after somewhere as relentlessly urban as Bucharest. It’s apparently a fairly big and well-known ski resort but as far as I could see, in June, it was a quiet country village set in a narrow valley between mountains. I called in at the tourist information centre in the station car park. The girl behind the desk spoke very little English and I spoke no Romanian but we communicated somehow. She gave me a town map and drew arrows on it to show me places I could go.
I walked up and down the main road a bit. All the buildings have red roofs and there was a lovely church right opposite the station. I went inside. It had frescos, or something that looked like frescos. Were these what frescos looked like before five hundred years faded them? Were they that vivid when Michaelangelo originally painted the Sistine Chapel? Would this all fade and become sepia in half a millennium? It was pretty, anyway. A little further on I found a stall selling handicrafts. I bought a small jewellery box and a huge pencil and kept away from all the Dracula memorabilia. That’s the only thing this part of Romania is known for in the outside world and do they capitalise on it!
I began walking up the mountain road. I had no intention of actually reaching the peak, I don’t think, but it was nice to walk and to see the mountains rising up around the town as I went. I’d never really thought about what I expected Transylvania to look like – maybe dark, with huge forest of pine trees half a mile tall, blocking out the light, villages that haven’t changed since the fourteen century, graveyards, werewolves, that sort of thing. And it basically looks like the Austrian Alps I spent so many family holidays in. It’s all an especially pleasing shade of green on a sunny day.
Predeal in summer is not a resort town and there was precious little to do other than enjoy the scenery and I enjoyed it so much. If you’ve got Bucharest-fatigue, I absolutely recommend a day doing absolutely nothing in Predeal – it was by far the best day of my trip to Romania.
I got back to the station in plenty of time. Romanian trains clearly keep to their own timetable and although the train would probably be as late as it fancied, it was also possible it would turn up early. It didn’t. In fact, it turned up really late. By the time it finally arrived, I’d gone back to “do I need to stay here tonight? Can I afford a taxi back to Bucharest? What am I going to do?” I did get an odd look from the ticket collector, who had checked tickets from Brașov and not seen me there, despite holding a Brașov ticket but apparently he didn’t mind that I’d skipped the last twenty miles of the journey.
Had it been hot on the way out? Well, it was twice as hot on the way back. Not only was the heating on, it was stuck on and the windows in the compartment didn’t open. When I thought I was approaching the outskirts of Bucharest I got up and stuck my head out the window in the corridor and discovered after an hour and a half that we were nowhere near Bucharest yet. We got home so, so late. Or so, so much later than I’d expected. Not that it mattered – I had no plans except to have a shower. In the Chalet School books, the girls talk about how dirty you get on continental trains because of the “soft coal” that they use. This wasn’t a steam train but I did get filthy. I’m going to put that down to sticking my head out of the window, which I don’t do at home unless I’m on a steam train.