Barcelona To Bucharest By Bus
It sounds like a terrible idea, and perhaps, on reflection, it was. But the romance of overland travel clung firm to wherever such notions (half sentiment, half logic) reside. The journey would be interesting, I reasoned, even if it would last two days. Planes are terrible for the environment, marginally more expensive, and require a lot of waiting around in airports. I had travelled for days on a train before and enjoyed it despite the dull and enduring sense of imprisonment. A bus would not be so different.
This line of thinking was how I found myself at the Barcelona Nord bus station one sticky spring day, soliciting passage to Bucharest.
I had never been to Romania, but a recent read of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s posthumously published The Broken Road had convinced me of its worthiness as a destination in its own right. That, and lingering, romantic images evoked by Elizabeth Kostova’s cerebral, chilling novel The Historian. Each of these books — the former, the final tome in a trio of remarkable travel narratives, the latter, a spine-tingling reworking of the Dracula myth — roams from eastern Europe to Istanbul. Each offers richly atmospheric accounts of the Romanian capital.
Aside from these fleeting descriptions, my knowledge of Romania was limited to Vlad the Impaler and the horrific orphanages that flourished (or, I suppose, festered) under decidedly sinister dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s rule. These seemed unfair, simplistic, and obsolete associations to attach to what no doubt would prove to be an excellent country — one that, as Lucian Boia writes in Romania: Borderland of Europe, is rendered fascinating by its marginal, in-between status: sort of but not quite fitting into the Balkans, or Central Europe or Eastern Europe.
I was determined to love not only the bus, but Bucharest itself.
The lady at the bus station was not convinced. She was, in fact, incredulous. Bespectacled, curly haired, and speaking heavily accented English (no Spanish), she pondered my query with deep scepticism. Why? She wondered aloud. Why should I go to Bucharest? Would I go alone? Did I know people there? My answers confused her further. Why Bucharest? she pressed, proffering brochures of other, more appealing destinations. I should go to Sibiu, she decided, in Transylvania. There, it is very beautiful. In Bucharest? Pah! There is nothing. (Romania is essentially made up of three historical territories: Transylvania to the east, Moldavia to the east, and Wallachia — containing Bucharest — to the south.)
I insisted that Bucharest was my goal, and she eventually relented, cautioning that I must take great care. Satisfied that she had impressed upon me the dangers of her homeland, she gave me the particulars of the route. It would take about 48 hours, she told me, tracing the roads with a wooden ruler on a large wall-mounted map. France, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary. 48 hours! She nodded, gravely, but then brightened. Here! She said, stabbing the map somewhere in the north of Italy, Here is very nice restaurant. We stop. There is very good Romanian food! She looked immensely pleased.
We go through the rigmarole of the paper and ink ticket process (if I could have procured this ticket online, I would have. It seemed, however, a Sisyphean task), before realizing that cash is the only payment option and I have none. I would return the following day.
In the interim, I received three emails, each with a large tourism brochure (in slideshow format) attached. My new friend Lidia was still gently urging me to reconsider and wander into Transylvania — a Romanian region whose past status as a vassal state of the Habsburgs has meant enduring Austrian and German influence. “From Transylvania, With Love” one of the slideshows was called. This, for some reason, reminded me of Dracula — as it turns out, so will most things in Romania.
But I don’t know that yet, and would reject it if I did. I am hoping, after all, to transcend the stereotypes lodged in my brain. I have never had a strong desire to go to Romania, but I’m happy to be passing through. After all, my entire trip thus far had been an accident of geography — each stop conditioned not by prior planning, but by the fact that a certain town falls at a certain point on the map, which I must pass through in order to get to another one. From London, I had no destination except south (for warmth) and east (for Istanbul), and went about this trajectory very inefficiently, at right angles.
From Plymouth, I took an overnight ferry to Roscoff. Arriving in the early hours, I immediately consumed as much sugar and butter as I possibly could (in the form of chocolat chaud and two different cakes) before beginning the trek out of Brittany. My southwards march took me first to Nantes then to Bordeaux, before scuttling over the border into Spain. Breathing a sigh of relief that I could speak once more and could see the sun, I proceeded, nonsensically, to bounce back and forth between San Sebastian (Donostia) and Barcelona.
I knew invariably little about each of Nantes, Bordeaux and San Sebastian before I went (including, in the case of Nantes, its name) but came away knowing much more — chiefly about food. In Nantes, for instance, my divinely French host Lucie introduced me to lait ribot, a fermented milk product native to Brittany, and pointed out the finer details of a plethora of region-specific fromage. There is a large bronze tortoise statue in the middle of Bordeaux, which is not food related (although he is holding a bunch of grapes in his mouth, I believe) but is entirely adorable.
In San Sebastian, I discovered the heretofore-unimaginable delights of salmorejo (an unearthly ambrosia concocted from tomatoes, bread, oil, garlic and vinegar; an ingredients list does not do this stuff justice), and learned the only proper way to pour and imbibe Basque cider. I also stumbled across a specific early summer tomato varietal that has spoiled me for life, and ran (by chance) along a section of the Camino de Santiago, the Bay of Biscay shimmering below. I liked San Sebastian so much, I went twice.
Now, I was moving eastwards, expecting similar pleasant surprises. Perhaps this was an unrealistic attitude, going into a two-day bus trip, but it was one I staunchly maintained for at least two hours. I leapt aboard, certainly, with great zeal, despite the slightly foreboding language Lidia had used to see me off (“The bus will come. With this, will take you to The End. To Bucharest,” she intoned.) “I feel as if I have fallen in amongst a band of gypsies, and I mean this not at all in a bad way,” I recorded, gleefully if surreptitiously, in my notebook. “Light shifts over the page as I write. Onwards!”
After this initial enthusiasm (The open road, the dusty highway! … Travel, change, interest, excitement!), proceedings collapsed into farce; in memory, those 48 hours passed in a lurid nightmarish haze. The bus was warm — a fact I greeted happily, having suffered through hypothermia-inducing overnight bus environments before. But this I soon regretted, having realized that warm at night equalled stifling and sticky in the day: the thick, heavy air mingling with the pink, carnal smell of meat as my travel companions hacked ravenously into hams at impossibly early hours of the morning.
Everyone on the bus smoked, though thankfully not while in motion — rushing out, instead, at each featureless truck stop as we spluttered our way through Europe (with, it should be noted, an enormous trailer swinging behind; my bus company is also clearly Romania’s premier courier service). Nevertheless the stale, acrid tang of long-extinguished cigarettes soon mingled with the sweat and the pork and the feet to produce a fetid olfactory soup. Communication was conducted exclusively at a volume usually reserved for sports stadiums during particularly heated games. The sun burned relentlessly.
A man seated across the aisle trimmed his toenails happily, humming as he sent the slivers flying. A generous hunk of salami rolled in a desultory fashion past my feet. The woman in front of me — someone I initially thought of as a bewitching Esmeralda-esque creature, in polka-dotted headscarf, brightly patterned lilac skirt and gold hoop earrings — earnestly engaged in trying to take possession of my rings. Every time I produced a small item of food — nuts, say, or a juice — my furtive attempts at sustenance were interrupted by hands thrust beneath my chin, wordlessly demanding a share. That middle-aged, not apparently homeless, men would make such a bizarre gesture to a complete stranger baffled me. But then, very little made sense on The Bus.
One night, I awoke at around 3 a.m. to the pitiful sounds of a man in distress. A slender gentleman from the back of the vehicle was being ruthlessly beaten by the toenail-cutter (who also happened to be the chief food-stealer). The victim, clearly suffering from some form of psychiatric disorder, had spent the journey storming up the bus’s aisle at fairly regular intervals, emitting odd moaning noises and occasioning a bizarre, en-masse rugby tackle response from the bus’s male occupants. At some point he fled to the bathroom, where he engaged in startlingly realistic dog howling for twenty minutes as we careered through the green Slovenian hills. Far from showing any concern for this man, the inmates of The Bus simply grew irritated with him: lashing out at him with feet and hands when he was on his way forwards, mocking him when he beat a retreat.
Unable to intervene in the perverse behavior, I impotently sent withering glances at the perpetrators for the rest of the journey. They didn’t seem to notice. Many hours, several truck stops, very little sleep and an unpleasant interaction (involving uninvited physical contact, a rebuke, and a decidedly unapologetic response) later, we had arrived in Bucharest, and I felt I had failed as a traveler.
Not because I hadn’t succeeded in traveling quite a long distance — I had, although through no effort of my own — but because I emerged from the bus hating everyone on it, and by extension everyone in Bucharest, and by further extension, myself. It was a bitter moment. War correspondent and reluctant travel writer Martha Gellhorn once wrote “nothing is better for self-esteem than survival,” yet my trial had been minor and my spirit had been crushed. If travel is, in some ways, a quest for understanding, for empathy, for cultural exchange and a sense of wonder (or at least, curiosity), then The Bus had ruthlessly squeezed the traveler out of me.
But even Gellhorn admitted to having traveled to places she didn’t like enough to stay (among them, implausibly, India and French Guiana); she speaks authoritatively on “the traveler’s deep dark night of the soul.” Besides, my trip had been punctuated by the odd transcendent moment, little fleeting shafts of light that dispelled the futile vexation. All travelers, I suppose, experience these moments; for me they always take on a heightened degree of clarity when I am alone, in somewhat inaccessible locales: leaping from a bus in Turkish Kurdistan, for instance, or looking out at mist-shrouded ridges of the Western Ghats. They are flickers, I guess, of a radical kind of freedom.
Gellhorn, in Travels With Myself And Another, the same volume that produced the previous quotes, eloquently expressed the sensation. “My heart rose like a bird at once,” she writes, as she sets off to scout for German submarines in the Caribbean. “It always did, incurably, except in rain, as soon as I felt I had fallen off the map.” Later she speaks of the sudden happiness again, striking like “the sensation of being airborne.” In the brilliant book Journey to Kars, Philip Glazebrook makes his way alone to Turkey’s far east, and ruminates on what I think is an element of the same sensation — the “awareness that no-one in the world knows where you are, save you yourself, and delight in the sufficiency of that awareness.”
Transylvania is on the map (certifiably, since checking Google Maps was the only way I knew I was there; no other denizens of The Bus spoke enough English to keep me apprised of our progress), but my heart nevertheless did some acrobatics of its own when I stared across the region’s green fields in dewy early morning sunlight. DRACULA, I thought (the stirring vista having clearly not dispersed my preconceived notions of the country). The same name danced in my brain later, as we slunk into the brown crags of the Carpathians, past an immense roadside necropolis. And, later still, when I arrived at my Bucharest lodgings to be greeted by a cheerful young Romanian called Dragoș — pronounced, ideally in a mellow, mildly sinister Romanian baritone, Drragosh.
(The latter connection was entirely unfairly, I now realize, since Dragoș means “precious peace” while Dracul means “devil” or “dragon.” And the persistent stereotype particularly rankled, since several years previously I had seen a Romanian contemporary art exhibition in Istanbul that specifically attempted to deconstruct the homogenous, pernicious image of the country as Dracula’s lair.)
But the nightmarish introduction of The Bus lingered throughout my stay, rendering me almost unrelentingly bad-tempered, and convinced that Romanians were an unredeemingly rude and unsolicitous people — which, to be frank, some young English-speaking Romanians seemed to sort of almost agree with. Having engaged in passionate debate with an expressionless woman selling tram tickets, I cast around for assistance, almost in tears from frustration. “Why must it be like this?” I enquired pathetically from the nearest stranger — possibly the closest thing to a Romanian hipster that I encountered. He shrugged with evident sympathy. “That’s how it is in this stupid country,” said he, through gritted teeth. “We know. We live here.”
The fact that Bucharest was probably as fascinating and complex a metropolis as any other city I had visited — more so than many, no doubt, given its tumultuous history — was, if not obscured, then rendered immaterial in the face of my simmering, low-grade wrath. I looked and looked, and all I could see, for some reason, was my own irrational discontent. In one, ludicrous episode during my stay, I purchased “almonds” which turned out — after I had scoffed maybe three handfuls — to actually be apricot kernels. Realizing I had veered awkwardly close to an unhealthy dose of cyanide, I spent the next half hour throwing the bastards back up. Feel free to take that as an eloquent allegory of my time in Bucharest, if you’re so inclined.
None of us, I guess, is immune from the sudden onset of a grotesquely inspired vision; the kind of self-inflicted poisoning I experienced in Bucharest. Travel-writing legend Jan Morris took a vehement dislike to Istanbul in her essay on the city for Rolling Stone, and her prose crackles with a deliciously transformational animosity. “The favorite epithet in Istanbul seems to be yok [no, nothing, there’s not],” she writes, detecting an “underlying sense of menace” in this “traumatic kind of city.” Istanbul, as she saw it, was “like a man with a squint.” To her jaundiced eye, the old houses beneath the much-photographed historic district of Sultanahmet become “like a maggot heap under a stone.”
“You define your own horror journey,” Martha Gellhorn wrote, having traipsed with undisguised distaste through the hippie traveler encampments of Israel, and I suppose that this is true. My dream journey is one in which I get to a place where I can transcend my petty, solipsistic ruminations and really engage, for a moment, with a small patch of the world. In Romania, I seemed unable to do so — and the shame of failure lingers. Because, after all, the “horror” is generally in your head.
And even so, writing weeks later, I look back on Bucharest with a perverse kind of fondness. I think of the fiery țuică, a sweet-strong Romanian liquor often made with plums, which I had never heard of before and now crave a sip of. I think of the slightly bitter ironic humor of the young Romanians I met, the city’s simplistic, angry graffiti, and the hushed quiet of its gold-glinting Orthodox churches. The brutalist communist architecture, the falling-down paint-peeled Ottoman-esque row-houses, the surreal, bedraggled white peacocks caged in a park, the ludicrously gargantuan presidential palace — all occasion some retrospective pleasure. Even the purgatory of The Bus has mellowed with time, retreating back into an absurd charade of colorful characters. (Which, I suppose, was maybe all it was.)
These are what Gellhorn calls “edited memories” in her withering critique of the modern tourism industry that closes Travels With Myself, in which she castigates and satirizes the misguided belief that motivates most travel: that it will be fun.
But I am under no such illusions. I don’t ask for my journeys to be a constant cavalcade of pleasure — I’d rather stick to inveterate voyager Dervla Murphy’s dictum: “You never want your traveling to be too easy.” I am not a hedonistic tourist (“Be charitable, call us travelers,” yet another wonderful travel writer, Sybille Bedford, implored in her first published book). I leave home hoping only to encounter places and things and people I have never encountered before. I want, to borrow E.M. Forster’s words, “to wander aimlessly about.” It is hard, with this simple goal, to return home disappointed. Harder still, perhaps, to return home at all.
I’m glad I floundered my way into Bucharest, even if my journey to and through the city was not executed in as dashing a manner as I might have hoped (I am at least now able to distinguish apricot kernels from almonds). The miseries of travel are, as Jan Morris noted, “the salt that gives them flavor.” But I’m gladder still to have pushed on, to Morris’s “maggot heap” — the glittering, clattering, construction-ridden, minaret-spiked chaos of Istanbul.