One of the best experiences I had in Romania on this visit was travelling around a substantial part of the country on the train over 3 nights and 4 days. Be aware that at least some of the images in this post were iPhone snaps taken from moving trains or through windows, so I apologise for sometimes less than ideal compositions.
Starting out in Iasi, I went to Cluj Napoca, followed by Sighisoara, Brasov and back to Iasi. I was with my brother in law, his daughter and my son Theo. I travelled light with all the stuff for Theo and I in my Lowe Alpine bag, which was nowhere near full.
Shortly after leaving Iasi at 0612 the sun came up as we "raced" along.
Old man at the back of the train
Travelling on trains in Romania is an interesting experience to westerners used to fast, safe and modern railway systems. What the Romanian railways lack in pace, technology and cleanliness, they make up for in masses of character and a window on the world you cannot get any other way. In short, train journeys are destinations in themselves. Suitable for fast business travel they are not....they are grindingly slow, dirty, hot and smelly, but they are people's trains, for use by ordinary people to get about in a land where many older and rural people do not have cars.
I worked out from the tickets that I had travelled 1132km on the train in 3 journeys and it took a total of nearly 23 hours. That is an impressively low average speed of around 30 miles per hour!
I have travelled on trains in Romania before on various journeys so i knew what to expect, although some of the oldest rolling stock I had been on before does seem to have been retired. However it all still looks pretty old, tatty and dirty with doors and latches that sometimes don't work or close properly. The locomotives are awesome machines, being built by Electroputere in Craiova during the 1970s and 80s. They are weathered and bear the scars of years of use and you have to respect these machines for reliably serving on often rough track, mountainous routes, and operating in snow, heat and dust, all year round.
This was the awesome, weathered loco that took us on the Cluj to Sighisoara leg of the trip. Its metal manufacturer's plate proclaims it was made in 1975.
Here is what I presume to be a shunting and freight loco, also at Cluj.
Perhaps the greatest surprise for anyone used to western railways is that there is effectively free access by foot all over the railways and platforms. In fact at many stations the only way to get from platform to platform is by walking over the tracks. Platforms often consist of old, uneven and low rows of concrete blocks and it is a steep climb up steps into the carriages, which is hard for older people.
What fascinates me is the amount of old rolling stock just abandoned at railway stations or in sidings near major junctions. Nothing ever seems to get scrapped, it just gets left to melt into the scenery. I love exploring and photographing abandoned vehicles and industry, so this place is a goldmine. At Cluj I just wandered about looking at the old rolling stock.
In one place I saw a row of carriages so old they had been completely consumed by undergrowth that had crept over the train, leaving only one end of the last carriage exposed.
At and in the area of some stations you see views that have changed little in 70 years, like this one at Iacobeni. The system is so old school that a traditional guard waits at every station to welcome the train and signal the driver when it is safe to go. Even where the train does not stop, a guard comes outside to see it past. Where leaves on the line and a variety of other maladies will stop services in a flash on western railways, it is routine for large plants to grow all over the railway. Some sections of track are very uneven and cause a lot of bouncing and lateral lurching, so the trains have to be tough.
There is a guard on every train. You may say he is perilously close to the door....I would say he is perilously close to the toilet!
I was fascinated by all the large and small stations the train called at, some little more than a hut near a tiny village.
The views of traditional Romania you get from the train are amazing, as is much of the scenery. here is the dramatic climb into the Carpathian mountains on the way to Cluj.
...and some traditional rural views of communities and farms, all seen from the train.
Back in 1991 I read an article in National geographic about a small town in Romania that was blighted by almost unbelievable pollution. A non ferrous metal smelter belched out hideous amounts of toxic metals while a carbosin plant smothered the valley in some 10 tons of carbon soot per day, creating a dark, monochrome world. I was so intrigued that I kept the magazine to this day and have always wanted to visit the place. It lies on the line between Cluj and Sighisoara and although I was not able to get off the train I did get a few minutes to look from the railway. The place is Copsa Mica. Now of course it at least looks clean, aside from carbon blackening some of the telegraph poles and similar things, but there are still pollutants present. The old smelter and carbosin plants are falling into disrepair and stand as a monument to the utter disregard of the environment and the people under the communist regime. I will have to go back and explore properly. What an interesting place. On one side of the tracks is a dead industrial monstrosity and on the other a village with an incredibly charming little church. Talk about contrasts.
Excuse the quality of these iPhone snaps from the train but hopefully they give an idea of the derelict industrial area. The huge smelter stack dominates the area.
These were taken at the station looking back toward the plants and upon leaving.
In all honesty, anyone who still thinks that Communism is a good idea, really needs to visit Copsa Mica and another city called Onesti, where outdated heavy industry (now also dead) and ugly buildings abound. I can only imagine what the quality of life was like for people in those places when they were working at full capacity so Ceausescu could build his palace! The regime is widely acknowledged to have been among the worst and most oppressive of a bad bunch.
During the trip I visited Sighisoara, one of the best preserved medieval cities and a world heritage site. Aside from the dirtiest, hottest and smelliest taxis I encountered, there really are some gems here within the old walled city. Perhaps my favourite part is this old tower of the city wall.
The old clock tower is impressive too and the old houses have a nice mix of colours. Taking images without including lots of Dracula tat outside souvenir shops and too many people is quite tricky in the summer.
This old passage into the old city that leads under the clock tower, is very atmospheric.
A view from the clock tower, which you can climb up and visit the museum inside.
Sighisoara railway station is pretty run down in appearance but has bags of character.
Sighisoara is well worth a visit as it is in an unusual state of preservation and has some lovely old architecture. They would do well to totally eliminate traffic from the old walled city and regulate some of the souvenir shops, but those are relatively minor ills.
Brasov has got much busier since I last visited. Inevitably it gets a lot of tourists and there are lots of eating and drinking outlets, plus souvenir shops around. Explore the alleyways, back streets and main square and it is a nice place to visit, as you will find gems like this little tower of the old city wall.
Interestingly, in respect of my previous rant on road safety, maybe somebody is interested. A travelling exhibition is making its way around showing people case studies of serious/fatal car collisions, by displaying the seat and belt of the occupant, along with a description of what happened. It was in Brasov when I visited. Take heed people! You know it makes sense.
Sadly, as with many busy places (e.g Luton airport!), the taxi drivers at the Brasov rail station will try to rip you off by charging 3x what they should, if you are unaware of what to expect. If they are not running their meters, don't feed the greed....walk away and call a reputable company. Taxis are usually a cheap and easily accessible way of getting around at about 2-3 Lei per km and you will get details off a business card, poster or by asking a local.
On the last leg of the trip from Brasov back to Iasi a lady sat in our compartment who was clearly of traditional orthodox religion. She was very kind and blessed a little framed picture of a Madonna, which she gave to my son, then she blessed him. He was very intrigued of course!
During this journey we stopped at a station called Adjud, where the Locomotive had to swap ends. it was here that I took one of my favourite images of the trip. It was roasting hot and my brother in law went to grab us a beer from the station shop (I use the term loosely). I gave the can to Theo and took some images on the platform.
While travelling by train is in many ways charming there are some things you need to be aware of.
Journeys can be long...8 or 9 or even 12 hours. Rarely is much or any food available on the train. Occasionally you get a buffet car with a limited stock of snacks but more often a man comes through the carriage selling stuff from a basket, so take some food and drink. It will be hot in summer and stuffy in winter. At worst there is no aircon at all and even if it does work you will still be hot, as it just takes the edge off the Summer heat.
Finally the sanitation is pretty awful. When you enter a toilet you simply do not want to touch anything! Pack the hand gel and wet wipes. Some of them smell so bad it spreads along most of the carriage. One of the best quotes of the trip from Theo was , "Daddy, is that real pooh!?" "Yep, afraid so!" On the positive side there was running water and soap. This was a pretty dirty one, but not the smelliest. Nice eh!? Taking kids in there is not fun.
It was a tiring few days but what a great experience. It has made me want to get off at the places I had to pass by. Maybe another time.