On Taking a Train into the Heart of Eastern Europe

I began this post as part of my narrative about Romania, but I soon realized I had more than a little to say. Our train trip from Budapest to Brașov really was the perfect introduction to what we would find in that town, but it was also an experience unto itself.

If you happened to be in Bucharest, you could take a couple hour train ride through the mountains to Brașov, which is how we departed. But flights to Bucharest are not common and therefore not cheap, and besides which, we wanted to experience the night train from Budapest.

The train ride takes 16 hours, which seems unbelievable when you look at the distance on the map, but the train moves slowly and makes a lot of stops. We departed at 2:00 pm and arrived around 7:00 am, having gained an hour. Our waking hours went quickly, though, despite having no wifi. We read and did some coding and blogging to pass the time.

We paid for our own sleeper compartment, which was about 5 x 10 foot space with a table that flipped up to reveal a sink, a couch that turned into a single bed, and another single bed that pulled down from the wall above it. Despite the fact that everything appeared to have been built in the 1980s, we found it very comfortable during the daytime - it was more than enough room for 2 people, so you can sprawl out.

sleeper compartment

In contrast, the bathroom at the end of the car was quite a bit worse for the wear, and the toilet opened up directly onto the moving tracks below.

The sleeper compartments are all served by an attendant who interfaces with the conductor for you, pulls out your beds, wakes you up, and brings you breakfast in the morning (coffee and a croissant). Our guy was awesome - incredibly friendly, and spoke quite good English. He accidentally woke us up 2 hours early thinking we were getting off at a different stop and was just mortified. But more about sleeping (or not) in a second.

We made a couple trips down to the other end of the train to the cafe car to get coffee and dinner. It was an interesting walk down as each car seemed to have its own character. We took this video to capture it (apologies for the shakiness):

The train was largely empty, as we've found with almost every other train we've taken in Europe. (The only exception that comes to mind was the train coming back from Versailles).

We somehow were the only people taking advantage of the cafe car, which is a pity because the food was quite good. I had chicken goulash with spaetzle for lunch, and it was really delicious.

Goulash on the train

The flip side of the cafe's wonderful food, though, was that their credit card machine did not work (and apparently never does) despite the fact that they have the Visa/Mastercard sign up. Not realizing this until we were done eating dinner, and not having enough cash on us, we ended up having to pay them after we arrived in Brașov.

At the Hungarian-Romanian border, we had to stop twice - once on each side for each country's respective border control to check and stamp our passports - but this went quite smoothly. The guards boarded the train and came by each cabin, and they stamped our passports without question.

Around midnight we decided it was time to try to sleep. Unfortunately, the train had other ideas. It was blazingly hot, and the only way to cool it down was to open our window, letting in the racket the train made. The route suddenly seemed full of tight turns, steep hills, and rough tracks. For Brendan, add to this the fact that his bed was inches away from the ceiling. I may have gotten a couple hours sleep, while Brendan gave up and took his laptop to another car to do some work and wait for the morning.

We were very happy to see our Airbnb host waiting for us at the train station in the early morning light. He lent us some cash to pay back the cafe car attendant (the ATM situation is its own story - see the next post!), and drove us to our apartment. After a few hours of sleep, a hot shower, and fresh clothes, we were back on our feet again, and ready to explore Brașov.

Brașov's train station
Brasov train station

Over all, since just 7 hours out of our 16 hour ride were spent trying to sleep, I'd say it was a good experience. I might even consider doing it again some day, but I might not pay the extra for a sleeper car.