2011 – Budapest to Bucharest to Chisinau to Odessa to Sevastopol to Lviv to Kiev.
This trip featured four overnight journeys, my longest ever single train journey, an overnight bus trip from hell, my greatest ever museum, a bus trip to a rogue Communist state and enough comical moments to fill at least a couple of Mr Bean episodes. Here is an abridged account of what we packed in.
Hamish and I jetted into the Hungarian capital on a lovely sunny September day. We had been to Buda & Pest before together in ’92 and had then experienced a number of laughable encounters with romanies, dogs, football touts & transport police.
This time we just had a peaceful few hours to kill before our evening train to Bucharest, which we did with a stroll around the cathedral and parliament areas and an al fresco lunch washed down with dark beers.
All very pleasant, as was our first overnighter of this particular independent tour. We had rocked up around midday and booked our berths for a fraction of what it would have cost to pre-book in the UK. We were hardy independent travellers who don’t waste time and money doing that sort of (sensible) thing after all!
This was to come back to bite us in an unpleasant way when we reached the Crimea…….
For now all was well. Our couchette was comfortable, the beer and crisp feast delightful and the juvenile train games a great laugh. We arrived fresh and bang on time into the Romanian capital, but had to hang around the train station for an hour until the international ticket office opened to enable us to buy our next overnight train to Moldova the next evening.
After queuing for a further thirty minutes, we decided to go crazy by booking first class tickets, with absolutely no idea what that got you on a Moldovan train.
All freshness was lost after we took the metro ‘near’ to our hotel. We had a long walk underground changing lines to then find that our metro stop was in fact by a huge park that took 20 minutes to cross in the unseasonably hot midday sun.
Hamish and I are notoriously rubbish at map reading and after two wrong turns we eventually arrived nearly an hour after surfacing from below. We were now hot, sweaty and irritated and this wouldn’t be the last time we would be in that state this trip either.
The rest of our time in the city was fun, visiting the immense Ceaușescu folly that is the Palace of the Parliament building (only the Pentagon is bigger), taking some leisurely walks, viewing free music concerts and discovering the wonderful Silva dark beer, four of which we purchased for our train journey.We arrived back at the train station in great anticipation at what first class would bring. The answer was that hilariously it bought you a small plastic tree and hideous net curtain combination for decoration, a couple of wall mirrors, a single sheet and pillow and a hard seat to sleep on. A visit to the loo however confirmed what a wise investment it had been as I passed standard class, overcrowded carriages with upright discomfort.
Despite our ‘up-market’ accommodation we slept badly and arrived tired and disorientated. Our monster locomotive had however got us there on time – 7 am!I had booked Svetlana’s flat, as it was rather plainly advertised, for 3 nights. After giving up on public transport, we took a taxi to a shabby suburb strewn with debris, wrecked cars and trash.
Initially going to the wrong flat and then finding that the right one was horrid, we dived back into our taxi and booked into a central hotel instead.
Svetlana had been prepaid, but our snap decision to go elsewhere was unanimous.
We loved our time in Moldova visiting a huge countryside winery, a remote monastery and generally enjoying the throwback nature of the capital of the poorest nation in Europe.
We also did a day bus trip to intriguing Tiraspol, the capital of self-proclaimed independent Transdniester. The rogue ‘state’ is apparently officially at war with Moldova who refuse to recognise its independence. Russia does support this independence notion, allegedly providing funds, arms and expertise.
Our short trip went without incident with accounts we had read about border hassle and demands for cash to let you in/out proving unfounded.
After 3 nights we took an early morning train to Odessa on the Black Sea. Our enjoyment of the city was blighted somewhat with our discovery that there were no available train seats for that night’s train to Sevastopol.
A shocking overnight bus journey it would have to be.
Odessa was great for strolling. We descended and ascended the famous Potemkin Steps, lingered in the main port area, ate ice-cream and a seafood platter out in the warm open, all before a pretty awful twelve hours.
First up a very uncomfortable tram journey to the bus station as I describe in my book:
“To say we were wedged in was an understatement. Incredibly more people got on at subsequent stops so we were now packed so tightly that we resembled one huge creature with dozens of heads & limbs!
For the entire journey I was dreading the moment that it was time to alight. Through the mass of shoulders, backs and heads packed around me, I somehow managed to spot our stop.
I was unable to get any where near a call button, but thankfully someone else requested the stop and I made my move, shoving all out of the way as I yanked my bag up and embraced it in my arms. Hamish preferred the dragging it behind him method, but the result was the same with bodies unceremoniously bashed out of the way. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I kept repeating with no idea whether anyone understood or believed me.
After what seemed a panicky age, we were at the top of the open door, just two metal steps between our goal and us.
Impatient new passengers were already clambering up those steps, but if we didn’t get off now, we would be whisked to the next stop. There was nothing else for it but to dive for the exit. I virtually catapulted out to the pavement below, taking one of the ascenders with me, but miraculously somehow managing to stay on my feet.
Suddenly Hamish popped out behind me like he had just ‘apparated’ using some of Harry Potter’s ‘floo’ powder.
The startled passenger that I had taken with me gave Hamish the full force of his ire, much to my amusement as I recovered my composure. Hamish was a few seconds behind me in the composure recovery stakes and he simply went from red to redder in the face of the Ukrainian tirade, made worse by the fact that the tram doors had closed and left the commuter behind.
Hamish apologised on my behalf as I attempted to hide my mirth.”
This was followed by eight pretty sleepless hours sat upright on the overnight bus, a bus full of 6 foot Ukrainian guys drinking beer, talking non-stop and demanding a cigarette break every hour.
Overnight Bus journeys really are the beelzebub of travel!
Exhausted due to lack of decent shuteye, we then had to wait 3 hours at Sevastopol Station to secure a train north to Lviv three days hence. I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say notorious Communist style bureaucracy was alive and well in Crimea in 2011.Despite our inauspicious first impressions we had a wonderful time in Sevastopol, at that time indisputably part of Ukraine, albeit also home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet by way of a lease ‘agreement’. Our two night stay was absolutely brilliant. We visited an amazing disused nuclear submarine base that is now an incredible museum at Balaclava and took a train to nearby Bakhchisaray to take in an Islamic (Tartar) khan, a monastery and an ancient cave settlement.
We also went into the amazing maritime museum giving the history of Sevastopol through the Crimean and World Wars.
It was then time for our marathon train journey of 25 hours to Lviv via Simferopol.Our bed was in an open carriage, but comfortable. We were the only foreigners on the train, but managed to strike up some conversations along the way. I admit that the last few hours did drag a little, however all in all it was a marvellous experience as we watched Ukraine roll by, sharing food, reading, listening to music and making tea with the carriage water boiler.
You can read about an amusing (hilarious for me!) incident concerning a missing pillow towards the end of our journey, by clicking pillowgate.
We were extremely pleased to finally pull into Lviv in north west Ukraine close to the Polish border. What a beautiful city Lviv was too, well worthy of its UNESCO status. Cobbled streets, countless fine churches, ornate Baroque & Gothic buildings, a clock tower affording splendid views, cafe lined squares and a wonderful chilled vibe all round.The city was gearing up for Euro 2012 by making itself even more appealing. This meant a lot of improvement works, but it did not detract from our enjoyment. Lviv even had a mighty fine brewery, which we visited for a few Lvivske dark beers.
Our final train journey of the trip was an overnighter to the capital. We were thrown together with a retired railway engineer and a young female cellist and had some great conversations before finally retiring for the night.
We arrived early morning and took a taxi to our hotel. Cue a comical moment as the taxi driver borrowed Hamish’s glasses to locate our hotel on a map. We just hoped his distance sight was OK!
Kiev was also a brilliant destination. Many striking gold domed cathedrals, a vast monastery complex, the harrowing Chernobyl museum to name a few. We visited the Opera House to see Sleeping Beauty and I will always remember the steepest escalator I have ever ridden, on the Kiev underground.For me the highlight of Kiev is the amazing Monastery of the Caves or Pechersk Lavra to give it is proper name.
This is a huge area of 230,000 square metres, which houses the unusual monastery, plus several majestic domed churches, a striking bell tower and a museum. All this set high up above the Dnieper River within landscaped tree-lined gardens.The whole trip was fantastic. Some frustrations for sure, but overall a sense that we had been to places and witnessed cultures very different to our home country – what travelling is all about really.
I have condensed the trip into a few paragraphs and if you would like to read more about the wonderful things we saw, the interesting characters we met and the bewildering scrapes we got into, you can download my book chronicling over 15,000 km of train travel in the region via this blog by clicking on the image of my book cover top right.