Snooze to Cluj

That’s more or less I did all day. Up at the crack to jump on an 8-hour coach ride to Cluj Napoca in north west Romania. I slept most of the way and walked from the drop-off point to my hostel in the warm evening sunshine.

The one thing that surprised me was the time zone change. I never thought I’d have to adjust my watch again until I returned to the UK, but Romania (and Bulgaria I’ve since discovered) are on GMT/UTC + 2. I’m still not sure exactly how long the coach ride was between the time change and my overall tiredness.

My welcome at the hostel was warm, to say the least. A little table brought in with tea and a bucket of biscuits on as I was checked in and shown all the sights on a map. Really sweet staff!

As darkness fell and it got moderately cool, I went for a walk and grabbed a burger from a place along the street. It was OK, but strange – I think it was the large amount of cabbage they put on it that gave it the taste. When in Romania… A session on the interner, a quick beer with some people from the hostel and bed followed. I’d save the sightseeing for daylight.

Hungry for Hungary

Early doors, I checked out and went to a bagel place for a filling and rather tasty breakfast. While I was sat there, a young French guy from the hostel came in and we got talking before hopping in a tram to the station. Just before we left, we had a giggle at a cute little baby in a pram who’s mother was being served. She was sat there, banging hear head and playing air drums to music on the radio – obviously her parents have good taste!

At the station, I bumped into a Finnish guy called Nikolas who was also heading to Budapest and we shared a carriage with a Hungarian guy on his way home from working in the UK for 6 months.

As we neared Budapest, some tourist information person knocked on the door. “Uh, oh”, I thought, “People here trying to fleece us.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once he ascertained that I already had a hostel (“It is good place, in good location”) he made sure I was loaded up with maps and directions on how to get there. Nikolas chose another hostel, one recommended elsewhere and which I had considered, and we agreed a time for me to walk down and catch him for a couple of beers.

Nikolas jumped in a free bus, while I chose to walk. Budapest struck me as “just a big city” as I hiked down one of the main roads and this is true for the majority of it. As I was to discover, there are some hidden gems but much of the city is fairly modern.

The hostel I picked (the Astoria) was pretty decent with nice staff. I made full use of the shower and internet before walking down to catch up with Nikolas. The kind staff at his place looked up the location of the only KFC in Budapest for us and we went there (via the station) for dinner. This was a huge treat for Nikolas as he loves the stuff but there aren’t any branches in Finland.

Now it was time to enjoy more eastern European beer! The first bar we found was typical of many in Budapest – down a flight of steps and very small, but crammed with atmosphere and friendly locals. We had a couple of large beers for what amounted to maybe 55p each while watching some of the U21s football on the telly. Time to move on and we scoured the streets for another watering hole, aiming for somewhere off the beaten track.

We located one and, again, descended the steps. As could be expected, the barmaid was beautiful (I mean beautiful) and the locals friendly, especially the chap we sat with who was in his 50s and had studied English for three months. He chatted to us and translated Nikolas’ flirtatious comments to the barmaid for several hours as we downed beer and just enjoyed ourselves.

As the bar neared closing time a bunch of backpackers came over and we made plans to meet them elsewhere. We walked off, dropped things at our hostel and found the place they had been talking about… only they didn’t show. It was late and the beer was really expensive, so we had one each and then walked back to our hostels. 3:30am on my first night in Budapest. And a promise that I’d catch Nikolas around 11:00 the next day.

One day in Bratislava

I woke up silly early – before Thomas had to rise for work – and let myself out to catch the 8:00am bus to Bratislava. This was a hugely busy bus, so if you’re going to make this trip ensure you book in advance. A lot of people do Bratislava as a day-trip from Vienna, so the first and last buses of the day are often full.

The guard who checked our passports at the border kindly stamped mine when I asked so I have another one for the collection. I disembarked at Novy Most (the new bridge, also called the UFO bridge because of the flying-saucer like structure on the top of it). I’m not sure if this was the stop I should have got off at, but the old area of Bratislava is small enough so I decided to explore a bit and try to find my hostel.

Wandering around, I discovered a nice little town on the whole. There’s a lot of history here and it’s very old-looking in a nice way. Cobbled streets, old well-maintained buildings, statues and so on. I passed by the St Martins Cathedral where numerous European kings were crowned for a few centuries and straight across the town centre before locating my hostel almost by chance.

This was their first day and they had literally just opened, so I dumped my stuff, grabbed a map, asked for some information and went on my merry way. I was informed that KFC didn’t have a branch (yay!) so I settled on McD’s for brunch (boo!) as it was actually one of the cheapest options in the area.

I found some of the main attractions such as the mayor’s office / town hall (with free wireless in the square outside) and the manhole man statue (complete with person dressed as the statue next to it accepting money) as I walked back to the bus station with the intention of catching a local coach to Devin castle. Only I found out there are no buses between 10:30 and 13:30. Beware therefore if you go there yourself and catch an early bus – you’ll likely get stranded until after lunch!

Instead, I walked up to the local castle up on the hill for a lovely view of… some flats. The nice stuff nearby isn’t easy to see from the top and instead you catch a sight of the newer parts of the city, which is a shame. The bridges over the Danube are nice, however. I’d like to point out, though, that the Danube certainly isn’t blue any more. Maybe it was when Mr Strauss penned his little ditty (the main music for the Elite game for all you geeks) but now it’s a rather murky brown colour.

Back at ground level, I returned to the bus station and waited for the Devin Castle bus. Which didn’t show. And there was no mention of it on the “arriving / departing soon” list. As such I stopped trusting the timetable and decided to skip the castle. A shame, but as it worked out it was a fortunate decision to make.

As I walked back into the town centre, I saw a bit of a gathering around what I think was the British embassy. A handful of consular cars with flags flying were outside and a gentleman in a suit collared me when he saw my Toon shirt. It turned out he was Brian Binley, the MP for Northampton South and he was there for some function or other. We talked for two minutes and I mentioned The Walk as I do. Without hesitation, he pulled a 1000 SKK note from his wallet and asked if that would help. It most certainly would! It’s roughly £20 or $40 and would pay for 6 months’ education for one of the Blue Dragon kids. I’ve already posted about this on the Walk page, but again I would like to publicly thank Brian for his generosity.

From there, on a bit of a high, I walked to the train station which is a bit of a hike. The heavens opened for a few minutes which was a relief from the heat to start with then far too much water to put up with within 5 minutes. It petered out and I reached the station in around twenty minutes where I enquired about my ticket for Budapest the next day. Note that the windows you see when you enter the station all have big “I” signs which will make you assume they provide information. They don’t. You have to go down a passage at the back to a specific office where they’ll print you off a timetable, but can’t give you prices. Then back to the front of the building to enquire on the money involved and purchase the tickets. What a palaver. Bizarrely, the quickest train was 40% of the price of the slower one so I picked that ticket.

At the hostel I repacked and showered then had a huge pizza and a Slovak beer (10% *hiccup*) for around £2.50. As it was cheap, I opted to walk the 30 minutes to a “nearby” cinema over the UFO bridge to see Zodiac which I thoroughly enjoyed. Even better, it was “bargain night” so even less than I was expecting. I also like the way you can reserve tickets online without paying for them, so no booking fee. Just turn up at least 30 mins before the performance. And Slovaks don’t talk in the theatre unlike the Brits.

The walk back was pleasant on almost empty streets with many of the buildings lit up. My dorm was full when I returned with a family from Brazil settling in. I said hello, goodnight and tucked myself in.