So, What’s Bucharest Like?

As we hastily packed our bags* in a dorm room in Budapest, a balding, middle aged man from the opposite bunk enquired where we were off to next.

‘Bucharest,’ I replied, trying to shove two backpacks worth of toiletries into the top of my rucksack.

He slowly sucked in his breath through his yellowing teeth and gave us a knowing look. He had some advice for us: ‘Be careful of the Romanians, watch your bags closely,’ he said, before adding in a brighter and more positive tone: ‘But they do have hookers. They are very cheap.’

Hard to know how to respond to such advice, but fortunately time was not on our side as we had a train to catch. So, it was with that newly formed preconception of Romania’s capital, that we boarded the sleeper train to Bucharest. The Lonely Planet’s description that travellers often ‘depart shell shocked’ was also less than encouraging, and the Romanian in our carriage did his best to convince us to go anywhere and everywhere in his home country… except Bucharest.

But nevertheless, 17 hours later, looking almost as dishevelled as the city itself, we stepped off the train – to be greeted by stray dogs and a ferocious looking ticket woman who begrudgingly booked us onto the next train to Istanbul. In the meantime, we had 24 hours to explore the city.

It felt a bit like seeing your elderly grandparents surrounded by pictures of their younger selves… you can see how good they once looked and you know they didn’t always need a walking stick – but somehow you can’t really imagine it. Bucharest is exactly that. Beautiful, grand old buildings are now chipped and crumbling while once-glinting domed roofs are brown and rusty. Scattered among such shabby chic architecture stand the bland, concrete towers of the Soviet era.

image

image

image

The city is a picture of faded grandeur but just when you think you’re beginning to suss it out, Bucharest throws a curveball at you. Like the moment we turned a corner to discover a huge, tree lined boulevard that is six metres longer than Paris’s very fine Champs Elysees, with a huge, imposing palace-like building at the far end.

image

The Mongoose and I look onto the huge Palace of Parliament, the brain child of Comunist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, which was never finished.

And then just 20 minutes later we found ourselves on the cobbled, continental streets of the old town, where tables line the pavements and hundreds of people spend afternoons and evenings wining and dining into the early hours.

Irish pubs, Italian restaurants and bars that would not be out of place in Ibiza are hustling and buslting, as if waiting for European stag dos to discover them. One Glazweigan pub even displayed a banner claiming, ‘We proudly welcome heavy drinkers’.

image

image

Oddities at every corner

But just when we started warming to this strange city, which often seems completely at odds with itself, I saw that man in the hostel again… grinning and rubbing his thighs. Because sex tourism is clearly a well-cornered market here after all.

image

The 'information' stand in our hotel's reception largely contained exotic massage material.

image

image

So when my good friend rang me just after we had bid farewell to the city and asked, ‘So what is Bucharest like?’ I found myself stumbling over my words, unsure of exactly how to define the city… or what I thought of it. Is the architecture stunning or tragic? Is the vibe upbeat or desperate? Are the people happy or sad? Is it stuck in the past or looking to the future? I certainly didn’t leave shell shocked but I did depart feeling somewhat mystified by a city that still seems to be working out its own identity.

*We might have been packing our bags hastily because I may have developed an unfortunate habit of making up train times, which are actually completely wrong and only realised about half an hour before the actual time. This might have happened on more than one occasion.

A Dummies Guide to Surving Sleeper Trains across Europe

Chugging along rolling countryside, watching green fields turn into slums, and slums grow into cities – there is hardly a more pleasant way to travel. So far, just six days into the big trip, we have already spent about 72 hours on trains.

We’ve sampled everything from posh trains with fancy buffet cars to rickety, smoke-choked carriages where even conductors are puffing away beneath the ‘No Smoking’ signs. We’ve sat, cooped up with strangers in couchettes, swigging wine from the bottle watching the world go by in Hungary, while rationing our last bottle of water meanly travelling through Bulgaria in the baking sun – and we’ve encountered many an unsmiling passport officer at borders, where the trains seemingly sit for hours on end.

Matty, the Mongoose and I will often glance up from our reading, journal writing or travel planning activities to exclaim excitement over the change in landscape, prompting all three of us to rush to the open windows and hang our heads out like panting dogs in a hot car. The phrase ‘travel is about the journey not the destination’ must have been coined by a train enthusiast.

And perhaps the best bit, for me at least, is snuggling down in my little train bed in one country, falling alseep to the reassuring chug of the train, and waking up in another country altogether.

image

Matty showing you how it's done on our Budapest to Bucharest sleeper train

But, there are you things you need to know before embarking on such trips. So, without further ado here are my handy tips for inter-railing across Europe on sleeper trains.

1) Shop, shop, shop! Buy all your provisions for the journey before you get to the station – you can never be guaranteed of a buffet car… as was the case on our 17 hour journey to Istanbul from Bucharest. Upon boarding a two-carriage train with just a small picnic for lunch, we realised the only facilities on the train consisted of a man in a white vest selling flat, warm fizzy water. In desperation this saw me buy Bulgarian Levs from a stranger and Matty and Donagh leg it across a random Bulgarian station mid-journey, with just five minutes to spare to get provisions.

20130430-172316.jpg

They returned with this. And let me tell you Flirt Vodka will liven up any journey.

image

Matty and the Mongoose train feasting at a previous, better planned picnic

2) If you spy any rich-looking westerners, struggling with their over-sized suitcases, offer to help them. They will probably tip you, which will help buy those much needed drinks in the buffet car.

image

In fact, the tip was big enough for three large Weiss biers on our Munich to Salzburg train. True story.

3) Take lots of photos…

image

Train photos are cool. Here’s some of me and the Mongoose taken by Matty…

image

image

And a few more snaps…

image

20130430-170438.jpg

image

4) When you go into the sleeper car, space is tight and you’re often sharing it with six people. Get everything you need for the night out of your rucksack before putting it into the luggage shelves above the top bunks – once it’s up, it ain’t coming down. Wash bag, towel, PJs etc…

5) Once the bags are up, sit down on the lower couchette with your roomies for the night- ask if you can push the middle couchette up to avoid having to hunch. You never know, they may just give you the best tips for your next destination… and at least it will avoid the whole carraige bunking down for bed at 8pm.

6) TAKE EAR PLUGS. TAKE EAR PLUGS. TAKE EAR PLUGS. Did I mention, pack some ear plugs? The snoring can be phenomenal… personally I think snoring tests should be carried out before tickets are issued and the snorers should be made to sleep together in a tiny little couchette where they can snore in harmony like a six-piece nasal band, making the kind of music nobody else wants to hear.

8) Open your eyes and enjoy… the train will take you through communites and parts of countries you would never otherwise come across. It’s magical.

Why you should visit Budapest…

Every now and then you visit a place that you don’t just love, you adore. You walk through the streets but really you want to skip, you pause somewhere and you want time to stop, you go for coffee and imagine returning every Saturday morning with a paper… when you live there.

It doesn’t happen to me very often but when it does it hits me hard. Melbourne, Beirut, Lisbon, Brighton and Bristol. I could live in any of them. And now I have a new one for the list.. Budapest.

The last (and first) time I visited Budapest was 10 years ago and I was at university, travelling for the first time with a group of eight friends. But when I returned this time I felt like I was seeing it for the very first time. I’m not sure if the city has changed, if my memory is terrible or I just saw the city with a youthful naivety all those years ago… but wow, Budapest is ace.

image

The skyline is exactly how I remember it. The fabulous Danube River swims between Buda and Pest, with each side boasting impressive architectural delights.

But the city has an underbelly that passed me by on my last visit… Dozens of old ruinous buildings, once home to a vibrant Jewish community before WWII, have been transformed into weird and wonderful underground bars and restaurants. The kind where No Smoking signs are made from lace and people sit in bath tubs while sipping G&T’s.

image

Matty and Donagh in Szimpla Kerta - the 'daddy' of the ruinous bars

image

Yes that's right, she is sitting in a bath tub

image

image

And if youre not sure what to order, try the Palinka hanging from the ceiling in a dispenser.

Even public transport is a little something out of the ordinary. The eclectic, electric street cars are like something out of a novel and the metro is so retro that it’s back in fashion.

image

On one of the city's many fabulous bridges

image

image

Funky blue seats line the platform

image

image

The city has a great big whopping list of ‘cool things to see’ including a palace that looks like a parliament and a parliament that looks like a palace, as well as a museum devoted to the history of communism ‘terror’. But when the sightseeing all gets too much and you just want to, I don’t know, sit back in a 40 degrees (Celsius) ancient bath, then fret not because Budapest has already run it and put in the bubbles for you.

image

Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce the Gellert Baths. The ornate complex, which dates back to the early 20th century, has an outdoor pool (surrounded by deck chairs), an indoor pool and about five mosaic-decorated thermal baths with water at various temperatures from about 35 to 40 degrees Celsius. For those that are feeling brave there is, what can only be described as, the most painfully hot steam room I have ever come across… followed by a plunge pool so icy cold that it leaves your skin pink and tingling as if repeatedly slapped by a pair of particularly brutal plump, bare hands.

image

image

And so it was, with tingling skin and slight hangovers we boarded the fabulous metro system for the last time to catch the sleeper train to Bucharest and continue our journey east.

But as we did so, I made a silent promise to return, wondering how long it would take me to master the Hungarian language and which coffee shop would become my local. Budapest, we have some unfinished business to tend to…

Where to stay in Budapest?

We stayed at the Wombats Hostel, which I can heartily recommend… it’s on the right side of town, in the heart of the ruinous bars and funky nightlife – but the hostel is also wonderfully clean and spacious. Our six-bed dorm cost just €10 per night, including breakfast amd free wifi. They even give you lockers for your valuables in the dorm.

image

Home for the night

image

Our dorm bathroom... I'm sure they were never this swanky last timeI travelled.

World In Pictures: Paris, Munich and Salzburg in 48 hours

For me travel is about immersing yourself into another world, exploring new cultures and embracing different ways of thinking. But right now we’re not really doing that… We’re just a-hoppin’, skippin’ and runnin’ across Europe before starting a four month journey across the Silk Road from Turkey to China.

So, since leaving the UK on Tuesday we’ve travelled from London to Paris, to Munich and Salzburg – and tonight we shall be dining in Budapest. Of course I say that in the loosest sense of the word as we have rediscovered our old travelling ways and have been frequenting curry shacks and markets for ‘supper’. I even refused to use the loo at Munich Station because it cost a €1 – I don’t mind spending a penny… But a Euro?! Outraged.

Anyway, in keeping with our fleeting pace across Europe I thought a ‘World in Pictures’ post would be most appropriate (where I write less and let the pictures give an overview). We can’t pretend to have got under the skin of these cities but my, we’ve had great fun surfing the surface.

20130425-232631.jpg
Our time in Paris totalled just 3 hours… We decided to spend it on the Montmartre, picnicking outside the Sancrecerre. This guy turned up with a football.

20130425-232724.jpg
He was impressive.

20130425-232802.jpg
So was the picnic. Matty wore stripes especially for the occasion.

20130425-232842.jpg
Then it was off to Munich on this sexy sleeper train.

20130425-232934.jpg
We threw ourselves right in the deep end with this wonderful lederhosen-adorned tour guide.

20130425-233027.jpg
And concluded dat bratwurst ist gut.

20130425-233115.jpg
The handsome Feldherrnnhalle in the Odeonsplatz square, Munich.

20130425-233157.jpg
Lovely old state building with huge glass extensions, Munich.

20130425-233250.jpg
The Englischer Garten, in the heart of Munich is the biggest public garden in Europe. People also sunbathe naked. I went there to gaze at the colourful fauna. Obviously.

20130425-233339.jpg
When in Rome… We drank beer in Munich. We finished beer in Munich. Here’s me through Matty’s beer goggles.

20130425-233426.jpg
And we’re in Salzburg! No, I don’t really get this either.

20130425-233508.jpg
Donagh looking pretty with the flowers in Salzburg.

20130425-233541.jpg
Salzburg Cathedral is a baroque beauty.

20130425-233630.jpg
Inside the cathedral…

20130425-233717.jpg
The beef goulash with dumpling was mighty fine indeed.

20130425-233800.jpg
A view of Salzburg from the impenetrable fortress of Hohensalzburg Castle, Salzburg.

I am still coming to terms with the fact I have visited Salzburg without doing the Sound of Music tour… Tragic combination of travelling with two boys and having only an afternoon in the city. Somebody pass me a schnaps.

An Ode to My Friends: I Miss You Already

It’s finally happened. After weeks of meticulous planning, months of hard saving and years of dreaming we would be on the road again, the time Is here. Yesterday we bid farewell to our little home in Nottingham, with its freshly painted walls and sparkling clean surfaces, carrying only our rucksacks on our backs. (And, if I’m honest, quite a lot of Asda carrier bags containing all those precious bits and bobs that we had forgotten about – to give to my mum at St Pancras.) So we kind of looked like overloaded turtles/bag ladies as we waddled out the house for the last time. (Matty was especially working the bag lady look).

Make no mistake, our backpacks are ram packed. I have a year’s supply of asthma inhalers, contact lenses, trekking gear and a minute amount of clothes. But sadly, the one thing I wanted to take most of all – the one thing I that’s been hardest to leaving behind – does not fit in my bag.

My friends and family. The people that have made the last six years the truly fabulous years they have been. Painting over the graffiti wall on our landing (pictured above), which was full of messages from our loved ones, was definitely the hardest part of getting the house ready to let. So before I fill this blog with the world… in words, I want to just say thank you to the people who have made my world what it is today.

Here’s a few snaps from our very lovely leaving dos:

20130424-092411.jpg

20130424-092606.jpg

20130424-092712.jpg

20130424-092828.jpg

20130424-093027.jpg

20130424-092931.jpg

20130424-093157.jpg

20130424-093302.jpg

20130424-093435.jpg

20130424-093559.jpg

20130424-093733.jpg

As my mother recently wrote on a friend’s Facebook post: “She will miss her friends so much.” And I will… More than even my hardest goodbye hugs could convey.

Keep in touch, much love xx

Everything Must Go! Selling your world to travel the world.

It was when I started blowing the ‘raving horn’ at a recent car boot sale and screaming: “Everything must go – 50p – everything must go,” that I realised I had reached a new level of desperation.

20130417-092841.jpg

With just half an hour to go, I declared that everything could go for 50p – nothing was sacred.

My mother looked slightly incredulous. “Even these?” she asked, pointing at my collection of unopened Clinique miniatures – the last remaining evidence of all the ‘second skin care items’ I have purchased in a bid to get the all-so-necessary free gift.

“Especially those,” I glowered.

A lady came over (who had already bought one of Matt’s jackets for £2.50 after making me try it on to convince herself it was actually quite feminine) and picked up my bottle of fancy-pants tinted, shimmery SPF 15 sun cream.

“I’ll give you 30p for this,” she offered. I grabbed her pennies gladly. I’d loved that cream but alas, the lid had long since gone and it would be sure to turn everything in my rucksack into a brown, shimmery mess if it came with me. It had to go. Like all my other half used, much loved lotions and potions.

20130417-095523.jpg

That’s me with my good friend Carly. She works in sales and was responsible for about 80% of our sales that day… Watching her sell Love Actually as a porn film to a middle aged man was a personal highlight.

As the morning drew to a close I ran off to collect more charity bags from the car boot organiser to avoid returning home with the loveless goods. We filled up about 6 bin liners with all my wise little purchases from years gone by, ignoring the slightly racist man opposite selling bird tables who was muttering something about Bob Geldof ripping off charities and how, if it wasn’t for immigrants, he wouldn’t be selling bird tables at a car boot sale.

Truth be told, I’d have given even more to charity if I’d been permitted but the charity shop at the end of the road sort of asked me to stay away earlier this week.

My recent giveaways on Facebook have been more successful – friends have gladly taken my old Tupperware, spices and condiments – although I’ve had less interest in an assortment of coat hangers I kindly advertised to my loved ones last night.

And perhaps slightly more worrying than that, is the lack of interest we’ve had in the house so far. Ah yes, that little thing. The small matter of covering the mortgage while we swan around deepest darkest centra Asia.

Almost three years ago exactly we bought our lovely little three-bed terraced house in Hyson Green, Nottingham… eating pizza with our hands and supping bubbles to celebrate picking up the keys. For three years we loved, cherished and thoroughly enjoyed our little home – but now it’s time for someone else to live on the door step of the best curries that Nottingham has to offer.

Yes, I have written this blog to try and convince you to rent our house. So without further ado (putting on my best Lloyd Grossman accent), ‘who lives in a house like this…?’

20130417-065528.jpg
My, what a LOVELY door… And great bins.

20130417-065634.jpg
And with a courtyard perfect for the looming summer’s evenings.

20130417-064209.jpg
Through the keyhole and into the lounge… (The rug is still up for grabs for first available collector etc).

20130417-063848.jpg
A nice, spacious kitchen/diner. Are you sold yet?

20130417-063714.jpg
Crikey, look at the fitted wardrobe on that. Just like a scene out of Clueless. Quite.

20130417-063751.jpg
“Darling, we simply must live here,” I hear you cry.

20130417-065606.jpg
Top floor bedroom.

20130417-063959.jpg
Best loo north of the River Trent. Fact.

20130417-063548.jpg
And a room for little Joey.

By the time you’ve reached this point, I’m sure the agent’s line will already be busy – you should have called after reading the first line. Those of you that are now considering emigrating from Oz and elsewhere to Nottingham, I can assure you that you will not miss the beach life. The Old Market Square is transformed into a beach (fully equipped with deck chairs and a bar) every summer. You will be very happy here.

Meanwhile, we are now a mere six days from beginning our big journey from Nottingham to ‘nam across the Silk Road. We have spent weeks selling everything we own for just a few pennies, cleaning out a house that we love but has no tenants yet and wondering what to do with the Rover 25 that should never, ever be combined with a moustache in any circumstances.

20130417-063352.jpg

Yes, you too could look this good. Just over 100,000 miles on the clock, 4 months MOT and guaranteed sex appeal. I’ll even throw in the car for free. All yours for just £400.

In sum, giving everything up to travel the world at an age when you own more than a few bags of clothes and a wok (circa 2006) is tricky… Truth be told my mother is having kittens. There are, of course, risks, worries and concerns but then again we wouldn’t be doing any of this if we wanted an easy life.

Instead we are choosing to travel a corner of the world where hotel televisions sometimes double up as CCTV cameras and visa rules are harder to follow than camel tracks in the scorching desert sand. It’s not meant to be an easy ride… But something tells me it will be a little bit more memorable than a bottle of fancy-pants, shimmery suntan cream.

Bring on the adventure x

Getting cosy Under the Stairs, Edinburgh

Sometimes you just have to eat somewhere that has a fish tank built into its fireplace.

20130401-134313.jpg

It was a cold, sorry – I mean a BITTERLY cold day in Edinburgh – when I found myself desperately googling ‘warmest pub in Edinburgh’ and ‘warmest place to eat in Edinburgh ever’ and ‘make me warm in Edinburgh NOW’, when I realised I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore and Google hadn’t provided. So I did what we used to do a few years back and looked around frantically for somewhere to hibernate.

For those of you in Northern Europe who are currently suffering a similar fate – how are you coping and what survival strategies are you employing? For those of you elsewhere or reading this in the future I am writing during the period of time that I am sure will be known as The Great Easter Freeze of 2013… I mean, let’s be honest there is no way Jesus would have risen 2013 years ago if the weather had been like this.

Anyhow, I digress. So with numb fingers and a distant memory of feeling my toes, I headed down Merchant Street in Edinburgh (just behind the lovely statue of Bobby, the bonniest dog of Scotland who sat on his master’s grave for 14 years after he died…. Ahhhh!) And it was down that little road that I spied some railings with a sign reading ‘Under the Stairs’ and in the window below, a big comfy looking chair.

I shuffled my frozen feet down the stairs and tentatively pushed open the door. Immediately I was greeted by array of retro sink-into-me armchairs and the fire place/fish tank feature. I knew I had struck gold.

Glancing around, I realised this was one of those rare places that doesn’t really have a ‘bad table’ in the house. Table picking can be a tough gig. Too often when walking into a restaurant you immediately spy the two good tables – perhaps by the fire, with the comfiest seats etc – which are always taken, leaving you with the remainder of the room and its cold, drafts tables packed too closely together, by the door – the loo – the mad woman muttering to herself.

Under the Stairs offered no such predicament. The large cosy room, with its thick and battered wooden floor boards, offered a plethora of mismatched, cobbled together tables and chairs – each as lovely as the next.

The man behind the bar greeted me in a warm, Scottish drawl and told me to sit wherever. I immediately wanted to try out a few tables before settling on one – they all looked so good.

20130401-140711.jpg

In the end I settled for one that boasted both a fabulous old armchair (they just don’t make them like they used to, do they?), and an old lampshade that gave off a warm, orange glow. Feeling very pleased with myself I perused the menu.

20130401-145052.jpg

This is where Under the Stairs gains a few more brownie points. It has a fabulous selection of sharing plates… Anti pasti, cheese boards, breads and dipping oils etc that can be ordered until midnight. I am constantly seeking establishments that will cater to both my food and wine needs at all hours, if only I lived a little closer.

The rest of the menu also appealed – from the imaginative twist on a veggie burger (black bean, spring onion an mushroom burger), to the venison casserole and salmon and cous cous fish cakes, I was torn.

With most dishes costing about £8.95 it’s definitely a cheap lunch option in Edinburgh.

But it was this sign that caught my attention:

20130401-142157.jpg

And this one:

20130401-142311.jpg

Two things. One, they had my sandwich and soup and I needed them back and two, red wine must always be pondered.

So I pondered and I ordered and I sat in my Grandad’s chair, listening to David Bowie, plotting how to steal the Scottish Crown Jewels over a large glass of Rioja. I’m joking, I’m joking… I was drinking Cabernet Sauvignon.

The food arrived and I decided it was definitely the best use of £5.95 that I have put the pound to for some time. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce you to my soup and sandwich.

20130401-143018.jpg

Aren’t they lovely? Divine? As soon as we were ‘reunited’ I realised I had unknowingly missed them my whole life.

The soup, a spicy parsnip and puy lentil number, was delightfully coarse and rich with a heart-warming chilli kick to it. Meanwhile, the sandwich was door stopping – huge slices of granary bread were filled with Cajun marinaded chunks of chicken breast, accompanied by a sweet, caramelised onion garnish and garlic mayonnaise. There was no corner cutting.

As I finished my lunch, the tank cleaning man came in to tend to the fish. As I watched him remove water, add water, and do his thing, I couldn’t help but feel they definitely have the best spot in town. If I was a fish I would want to be by the fire, swimming around Under the Stairs.

Food Facts

My soup, sarnie, and large glass of Rioja came to £12.80.

If you want to get involved you’ll find Under the Stairs at 3a Merchant Street. Bell them on 0131 466 8550.