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Posts Tagged ‘train’

The Lake Shore Limited

I’ve seen a lot of train stations over the last few years, but although the Indian stations are easily the worst, Penn Station is near the bottom. First, there’s the difficulty of getting from the subway into the main part of the station, especially with a case. The case won’t easily fit through the barriers, and the elevators are hard to find. Then there’s the route march past a lot of places you don’t want, to find the Amtrak section. Then the whole place is gloomy and cavernous and the opposite of welcoming.

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Finally, I advise against arriving at the First Class lounge right before a Washington bound Acela is due to leave – it was mobbed. Even boarding the train, underground, is less than inspiring. So my roomette was a welcome surprise. I was riding the Lake Shore Limited out of New York, rather than the Capitol Limited out of Washington, because I wanted to try a Viewliner roomette, newer than the Superliner roomettes, and with a toilet and sink.

The roomette is supposed to be for two people, but while it’s cosy for one, I think it would be tough fitting in two people. I had room for my case, but you couldn’t fit two. I wasn’t much impressed with the small sink, but the toilet worked fine. I slept in the upper bunk, which had it’s own window, so I could leave stuff on the seats below, and found it comfortable enough, although I did worry about getting thrown out, despite the restraining straps.

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I enjoyed dinner, sharing a table with a father and daughter going to New Orleans. The salad and veggies were undistinguished, but my chicken was good, and more than I could eat, and the wine drinkable. I woke several times during the night, but quickly went back to sleep. When darkness had fallen we had been rolling through New England woodland, but I woke to see flat Indiana cornfields, decorated with immaculate red barns.

Breakfast was edible, but not up to the standard of dinner,although again I enjoyed talking with the couple sharing my table. More to the point the train, which had left on time, also arrived on time.

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No, this is not going to be a piece about how sorry I was to be heading for Hungary. I was actually rather pleased… Not that I regretted visiting the Balkans, which I had found always interesting and sometimes beautiful, but I was ready to rest up a bit.

Ottoman era house museum in Sarajevo

This would be the second time I had arrived in Hungary by train, the first being an unfortunate journey from from Zagreb to Budapest back in 2004. The fast train I had expected morphed into a slow train that stopped at every station. The old-style carriages with non-AC compartments, a hot day, and the hours we spent traversing the southern shore of Lake Balaton, a blue vision of coolness out the window, added up to misery.

My go-to site for all things train is seat61.com, and Mark Smith had nothing much to say about the Sarajevo-Budapest Intercity I would take to Pecs. No doubt all would have been well, except that that the railway workers in the Republika Srpska had gone on strike. Where’s that? That’s part of Bosnia. Actually, saying it’s part of Bosnia is shorthand as the country is properly known as Bosnia and Hercegovina, but almost half of it is the semi-autonomous Republika Srpska, the area ethnically cleansed by the Serbs during the war.

Thanks to the strike, my direct train journey involved three trains and one bus. When the train from Sarajevo reached the internal border with Republika Srpska, we got off the train and boarded a bus – only one was needed as there were less than twenty of us. A couple of hours later, at the international border with Croatia, we got off the bus at an isolated station, crossed the tracks and boarded a second train. At this point I figured I was set for the rest of the journey, but no. At the Hungarian border the remaining passengers, less than a dozen at this point, were kicked off the train again.

Turned out we had to wait for the southbound Budapest-Sarajevo train to arrive, and for its passengers to clear immigration, before we able to board the third train of the day. I believe that the people going through to Budapest had to change trains yet again in Pecs, but I was so glad to arrive I didn’t hang around to find out. I was too busy tracking down the (helpful) Tourist Information office.

Central Pecs

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To Sofia via Nis

I had ridden the bus from Belgrade to Novi Sad, and the train on to Subotica, in reasonable comfort, but I made the mistake of taking a local train back from Subotica. Knowing it had a four digit number had given me concern, but the timing was much better than the later three digit train. My bad, although it had airplane-type seating, it had no AC, and without AC you’re actually better off in the really old-fashioned compartment-style carriages, where you can get a cross-draft.

So I was pleased to settle into a modern coach for the long haul from Novi Sad to Nis, where I had decided to break the trek to Sofia. But no sooner had we reached the main highway than we had a flat tire. We limped to the nearest service station, where it took only the announced twenty minutes to put on the spare, and where the passengers had access to toilets, coffee, snacks and shade, but we were clearly traveling below normal speed, and were switched to a much older coach in Belgrade.

My seat-mate was a woman about my own age, who made a point of telling me that she was really Hungarian, rather than Serbian. The country south of Belgrade was much hillier than the flat plain to the north, with plenty of woodland, and I was in reasonably good shape when we finally reached Nis. But the bus station had no services to speak of, I didn’t have a map of the town, and eventually I took an expensive taxi to the Hotel DuoD.

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Situated in the heart of the cafe district, on a pedestrian-only cobbled street, above its eponymous restaurant, it was much quieter than I feared, but the under-floor AC was hopeless. It didn’t cut the humidity, it didn’t really cool the room in the afternoon, and it was very cold to walk on at night. I can’t imagine it works much better as a heating system in the winter, either. Still, I had a comfortable, if old-fashioned, room, where I slept well.

After I checked in I went off to investigate the fortress, where I found another very helpful T.I. before succumbing to a starvation attack. The fancy Hamam restaurant inside the fortress walls provided a tasty but very tough goulash, although it had more oil than broth. Then I followed the T.I. lady’s instructions and took a bus to the train station, where I bought a ticket for the mid-day train to Sofia (and Istanbul) as the buses either left in the middle of the night or arrived in Sofia after 10:00 pm. The train was supposed to get in around 6:00 pm….

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I decided not to trek to the other side of town to see the remains of the gruesome Tower of Skulls, a relic of the Turkish victory at the battle of Cegar in 1809. I did admire a couple of statues, and once again appreciated the parks and trees that seem to be a feature of Serbian towns. Dinner, which I ate in my hotel’s restaurant (there wasn’t much to choose between the ones lining Kopitareva), featured good chicken and fries, but veggies that managed to be undercooked and burnt at the same time! I consoled myself with a reasonably cheap glass of Cointreau.

I needed consolation rather more the next afternoon, as the international train to Istanbul put me forcibly in mind of the train ride I had suffered through from Istanbul to Sofia back in 1974, when the Turkish-Greek war over Cyprus closed Istanbul airport, and the tourists were crowded into carriages added to the back of the Orient Express – fifteen hours sitting up with no restaurant car and abysmal toilets.

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I would not have been surprised to find that the two carriages headed for Sofia dated from 1974, although this time I only had to share a compartment with two people – a couple of Swedish backpackers. At the Serbian border the engine disappeared, leaving us sitting in the sun for what felt like hours. After we finally crossed into Bulgaria it was to embark on another long wait, for no apparent reason, as checking passports took very little time, and the ineffectual search for contraband not much longer. (There actually was contraband, we had watched it being hidden, and later watched it being retrieved, but it wasn’t where the guards were making a big show of looking.)

All that sitting around, steaming in the heat, meant that I arried in Sofia in darkness after all. The Swedes had been told they would be moved to a different train, with better carriages (they had paid for couchettes) in Sofia, and with the other Istanbul passengers disappeared in a rush. I trekked upstairs to the main hall where I found a functioning ATM and not much else besides a series of taxi touts. I had intended to take a tram to my hotel, but after one of the touts pointed out the route to the trams – down a dark underpass – and I recalled warnings about the station district after dark, I took the helpful tout’s taxi instead.

It was the next morning, when I discovered I was too late for breakfast, before I realized that we had arrived even later than I had thought, as there was an hour’s time change between Serbia and Bulgaria. I spent one night in the Hotel Niky, thinking the tour hotel too expensive, and my room was really only acceptable for one night. The hotel restaurant, on the other hand, with a stream running through the middle and plenty of happy-looking locals, was fine. I appreciated my first taste of Bulgarian wine, too.

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Harassed in Hama

October 14, 2009: In the morning the same driver collected me from the Mirage Palace, took me to the station, and helped me deal with the intricacies of buying a train ticket. This time we started at the second window, and were sent to yet a third, where my passport details were laboriously written down in Arabic. Now duly  ticketed, I found a place to sit under the chandeliers in the main hall, and chatted with a young, fully-veiled woman with a two-month old baby while we waited for the train. She had been visiting her family in Aleppo and was traveling to rejoin her husband in Damascus. Although she held a masters degree she had been unable to find a job.

Given the small extra cost, I had opted for first-class. The open carriage had 2-1 seating, and my reserved seat turned out to be a single on the shady side of the train. (I always opt for the shady side when possible, but this was just luck.) Free papers and cartons of juice were handed out, and although music played, it wasn’t too loud. The countryside between Aleppo and Hama was very flat, and stony, except where irrigation created patches of green.

The Four Norias of Bechriyyat

Very few people got off the train in Hama, which might explain why only two taxis waited outside the station, which was 2km from the center of town. I shared the second taxi with a Swiss couple toting big backpacks who were just stopping briefly on the way to Palmyra. The driver didn’t recognize the name of my hotel (www.noria-hotel.com), but thanks to the Lonely Planet map I got him to drop me close by. It took me a couple of passes to find the building with the right hotel sign, and then an elevator in an arcade which took me up to the fourth floor reception desk. The staff were friendly, and my room had a big bed, but no daylight, sheets that were too small for the mattress, and insufficient power to charge my n800.

Finding the new town a bit noisy and grimy, I walked through the old town to visit the Azem Palace. I would later visit another Azem Palace in Damascus, built by the same governor, Assad Pasha Al Azem, after his promotion. The Hama palace, while smaller, had a second story with a second courtyard to catch any available breeze. Both the courtyards and the interior rooms were elaborately decorated, with red, white and black banding on the exterior walls.

Azem Palace, Hama

My search for lunch took longer. The first two places I looked for had gone out of business, and the third was either closing or about to be renovated. The T.I., amazingly, claimed to have no-one who spoke English. I finally found a place on the river, Al Atlal, that provided kebabs, fries and salad, and a good view. Hama is known for its “norias”, huge wooden water wheels. After lunch I followed the river towards the “Four Norias of Bechriyyat”, but restaurants blocked access all the way. I finally walked through an apparently closed restaurant to the river bank, but at a busier time this wouldn’t have been possible.

Closer look at a noria

I had been thinking that after a month on the road I could use a Turkish bath, and when my hotel was unable to find the hamam’s phone number I set off to check on the “women’s hours” in person. I found the hamam deserted, and walked on into the old town down an almost empty street. Just one young, overweight boy, perhaps 11 or 12, walking towards me. Nothing to worry about, you would think, but, as I passed him, he suddenly reached for me! He seemed to be aiming for my breasts, but I struck his arm aside and as I yelled at him he ran away.

I could hardly believe what had happened. While I don’t look my age, especially in countries where women age fast, I certainly don’t look young, and although I wasn’t wearing a headscarf, I was modestly dressed and had not made eye contact. But I unquestionably looked western. Once I recovered from the shock, I started to wonder about the education and upbringing that could produce such behavior.

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