The following day we slept late and decided to head straight for Pendik, leave our luggage and explore that part of Istanbul before taking our train. The journey to Pendik involved 4 changes of metro and took about an hour and a half. Once we found the station, we stashed our luggage and headed into Pendik. There is nothing to see or do in Pendik apart from hang about the village square or go shopping. Seeing little delight in the latter we decided on the former and spent a few hours waiting for our train. The train to Ankara was very pleasant and uneventful, the scenery is pretty awesome and the sunset across the water on the way was something else. We reached Eskinder station in Anakara with only half an hour to spare before joining our sleeper train. For the first time in our journey a porter helped us to our cabin with luggage and there was a restaurant car that was not full of smoke. Our cabin beds were not made up, so we headed to the restaurant car for an evening meal freshly made to order by the chef and some drinks. We returned to our cabin to find that our porter had made up our very comfortable beds and turned down the lights. The fridge was stocked with water and snacks and we had adequate water and fresh towels for washing. We slept very well and in the morning headed to the restaurant car for Turkish breakfast. During the night half our train had been decoupled which meant we could stand at the window and watch the tracks disappearing behind us. The only downside was that I did not find the European toilet until we were about to disembark and learning to use a Turkish toilet on a moving train is not an easy feat to accomplish. We arrived in Izmir fairly fresh and took the dolmush to the Otogar for the Pamukkale bus to Kusadasi, arriving about 2 pm.
We woke to a lovely sunny day and decided to take the funicular to Kabatas and from there the ferry to Kadikoy for a short trip on the Bosphorus. We got a great seat on the top of the boat for the quick half hour journey, but were enjoying it so much that we decided to stay on and see where we ended up. Did I say that Istanbul is enormous! The sites from the water were fantastic and it was a great way to see the different city areas . 4 hours later we came to the end of the line and found ourselves in a small suburb that had very little apart from a Café Nero and a rather nice cake shop that sold Chai Tea, which we drank with delight as we waited the two hours for the boat that would take us back to the Kabatas. We were slightly dreading the 4 hour journey back but found out that it was a direct service with no stops and we were back to Kabatas for just after 5 p.m. The total trip cost us less than 8 lira. Fantastic value. Once back at the hotel we got changed before exploring the shops on Iskander Street before heading to the Hard Rock Café for dinner in celebration of our time in Istanbul.
Istanbul is huge, bustling with energy and goodwill and so pretty it is quite breath-taking. A city of contrast you are as likely to encounter a woman in full burka as you are to meet a man in a designer suit or young girl in skinny jeans and crop top. All just walking the streets and living their lives. Designer shops such as Mac where a lipstick costs 85 lira, were in stark contrast to the gypsys and beggers roaming the Taksim area begging lira from tourists and locals alike.
We set off on a mission on our first full day following breakfast. We started off at the Taksim metro to buy an Istanbul Kart and then headed to Sultanahmet to see the sites. It is very true that the main sites in Istanbul are to be seen around Sultanahmet and we spent the day exploring the Museum of Mosaics, the Blue Mosque, The Museum of Antiquities and Topkapi before heading for the peace of the Gulhane Park. The sites are all incredible and we spent many happy hours marvelling at the art and the architecture as well as the statues and well preserved artifacts. Topkapi Palace is huge and by the time we were a quarter through we were done with architecture. During our trip we have seen so many glorious buildings from Notre Dame, to the Paris Opera, St Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest and the Glockenspiel in Munich that by the time we got to the Topkapi we were very much at saturation point. The Gulane Gardens were a welcome relief, there is never too many fountains or flowers in life. We walked through the gardens and then headed for Sirkeci station to arrange onward travel to Izmir and ultimately to Kusadasi. At the station we were met by an incredulous teller who could not understand why we wanted to go by train, and recommended the aeroplane, however eventually explained that we could do it from Pendik to Ankara and then to Izmir and sold us tickets with an expression that plainly expressed that she thought we were idiots. We headed for the excellent Istanbul Metro and got back to the hotel in time to have an evening out in Taksim and dinner before falling exhausted into bed.
We arrived at the airport in Bucharest with no issues and went to check in. The check in girl was young and inexperienced and asked us to wait until her supervisor came. We thought that with Megan’s Ukulele that there was an issue with carry on luggage as there usually is with instruments. However the supervisor pointed out that we did not have a valid Turkey Visa as the Visa did not start until the next day and referred me to border control. The border guard was a real dour person and basically said, go ahead, I don’t care, good luck trying to get in to Turkey. Now feck off I have my own problems. Or he would have if he could speak English. So there we were in no man’s land, out of the EU, 30 minutes to board, relying on vodafone data and smartphones to sort out our visas. We found a coffee shop, ordered two cappuccinos and got to work. It became quickly obvious that my texting skills were not up to the task, so Megan went to work and I passed her the various documents required. In short order she ordered up two new visas, but to save them to smart phone had to then download adobe acrobat. The slowest download ever, but with minutes to spare we had visas saved on the phone, and the ability to enter Turkey legally. The moral of this story… if you must change your travel plans, check everything again.
It is a short flight to Istanbul from Bucharest, and we stepped outside the airport for the Havatas bus. An hour later we were in our hotel in Taksim, arguing with the receptionist who was pissed off that we had added a room using hotels.com rather than pay him directly. He tried to get us to pay for an “upgrade” which was basically a room with one double bed and a sofa-bed instead of 3 singles and explained that breakfast was served at his cousin’s restaurant around the corner. We had arrived in Turkey and it felt very very good. We quickly got showered and changed and headed out to explore Taksim. It is a busy area with lots going on and hordes of people walking, shopping and eating street food. A bit like Kusadasi Centrum on speed.
Our hotel in Bucharest was a real little oasis in a desert of concrete. There was an abundance of flowers and the setting was delightful with perky geraniums and bright begonias surrounding the pool and courtyard. We had been warned about the unofficial taxis and managed to argue our way through the touts at the station to find an official taxi with the price displayed and the metre set to one. What is it about taxis and train stations? The welcome however was a little frosty from the teenage girl that seemed to be in charge of checking in guests and why is there so many forms to fill in? We headed into Bucharest centre via the metro, which was full off very tired looking people. In the centre of town we looked for a restaurant that would suit but most seemed to be full of smoking middle aged business men. We eventually settled on an Italian restaurant that had a few families. Just catching the attention of the waiter was an issue and it seemed that we were to be served between fag breaks. The food when it came was barely adequate, my squid salad was oily and rubbery and Megan’s pizza as she eloquently described it was crispy and salty as a teenage boys sheets. We gave up and headed back to the hotel hungry and thirsty. The following morning we headed out to see the sites, the weather was lovely and we decided to head for Herastrau park as all the main attractions of Budapest seem to be contained within it or close to it. We decided to hire bikes and approached the bike stall, cash in hand to purchase a few hours. We were curtly informed that bike hire was free and we only needed ID. I produced my driving license, which they wanted me to leave with them, however they also wanted ID for Megan and I was not happy about leaving our passports with strangers, so no bikes for us today. Instead we hired a row boat and used this to get around before spending a few pleasant hours in and around the park, we did want to visit the village museum but it was closed. I also visited the train station to book our tickets to Istanbul only to be informed that there are no trains over 3 legs of the journey and there were replacement buses only. However the regular service bus takes just 10 hours and we thought to book this only to find out it is a smoking bus, with no segregation. The thought of 10 hours on a smoke filled bus had me booking a flight next day to Istanbul with Pegasus. That night we ate in the hotel, an adequate but unexciting spag bol and chicken schnitzel, I accompanied it with a bottle of merlot, and the following day headed for the airport in the filthiest taxi ever. It cost less than £5 for the taxi to the out of town airport, my bottle of wine about £4 and our meals about £6 each. Very cheap place to be, but full of miserable people who in spite of shaking off communism and achieving independence still have a culture that involves form filling, sticking to the rules and maintaining a very dour exterior. I was very happy when I reached the airport.
The sleeper to Bucharest was our first real culture change as we moved from the West to East Europe. The first thing you notice is the stand-offish service and how people do not return your smiles and look at you with suspicion and a strict adherence to rules. I left a door open between carriages and was given a real dressing down by the guard. The next thing I noticed was how the rights of smokers go before those of non-smokers. The restaurant car was full of smokers and Megan was told that the restaurant car was for smoking, cards and drinking. We retreated to our very comfortable sleeper cabin. The guard arrived with a hospitality pack of a paper towel, toothpaste, face-wipe and toothbrush. I ventured through the haze of smoke to order some dinner and the Romanian cook said he would bring it to us, our choices were chicken or pork with potatoes. I also ordered a glass of wine. An hour and a half later the waiter delivered the food and a bottle of wine and two glasses. The food was ….. food. The wine was delicious. A visit to the toilets however nearly did for us, if you ever do this journey I recommend pack loo roll, sanitiser, nose plugs and antiseptic wipes. We settled in to read and relax and enjoy the scenery and peace prevailed until we hit the Romanian border. I was outside the cabin taking back our used dinner plates when border control came on board and demanded my passport, I said in my cabin and he said bring it to me. So off I went to get my passport and return to the border guard, who by then was physically man-handling a man and woman off the train. I just waited patiently showed my passport and decided it was PJ time and a good job it was a bottle of wine after all. So there was Megan and I, she on the top bunk and me on the bottom. It was hot, we were both in bed in pretty much only our pants, we were settled for the night when there was a knock on the cabin door and another border check. Megan grabbed her duvet and I pulled on a t-shirt as the guard was shouting “border controls”, so as I get up to get the passports out of my back the fairly young guard bursts into the room and gets a full view of myself in nothing much. He hurriedly closed the door so I grabbed a duvet to cover myself with, and re-opened the door. The guard then said thank you Laura after looking at my passport then turned to Megan who had dozed off, she woke up rather suddenly and ended up flashing the guard, who turned a delicate shade of pink, and said “Megan?” She simply said “yep”, pulled the sheet over and fell fast asleep. It takes a lot to faze my girl! The rest of the journey passed quietly, great scenery as we passed through the mountains and Brasov, breakfast was a packet of biscuits and a bottle of water with some pastries we picked up at the station, and we arrived safely in Bucharest at 12 o’ clock.
We got up early and packed up and headed for the Keleti station where we stashed our luggage in the locker so we could make the most of our final day in Budapest. We headed for the hop on hop off bus and the top open deck in glorious sunshine. Gorgeous fantastic city we hopped on and off at many of the places we had previously visited on foot and then the rain started. Ponchos on and looking like a cross between giant condoms and the grand knight of the Klu Klux Klan we continued our tour then decided to take a boat trip up the Danube. The scenery and atmosphere of Budapest is something else, a new favourite city, so much to see and do and the people have real spirit and are very hospitable. It was a sad moment when we picked up our luggage and towards the sleeper train.
We started the day with a late breakfast and leisurely swim at our hotel, we decided not to visit any of the spa pools that Budapest is famous for as we were already thermal pool spoilt out and instead headed for downtown Budapest to find an escape game. We decided on the Mindgame which basically meant we were thieves, locked in a room and had to transfer £10 million into our bank account before the police arrived. This was great fun and we nearly did it, only going 3 minutes 16 over the allocated 1 hr. It’s a pretty new thing to do, but highly recommended. Following the escape we headed into Bucharest centrum and wandered aimlessly, stopping for drinks and snacks, and browsing vintage shops as we went. As evening approached we headed for the Jewish quarter and the ruin pubs, which are basically pubs that have been set up in the ruined courtyards and made cool and artistic with assorted junk. It’s a bit like a pub flea market and we spent a good couple of hours In Szimpla soaking up the atmosphere and kicking back before heading back to our hotel for a night cap.
We arrived in Budapest Keleti station at 9 a.m. after a comfortable night in the sleeper, and found out we had 17 stops to reach our hotel. We had been warned about the taxi scams so decided to risk the bus. It was really easy and after a short 5 minute walk we arrived at our hotel only 5 hours before check in time. We asked if we could leave our luggage and the receptionist just smiled, checked us in and handed us a room key. Within 15 minutes we had unpacked and were in the thermal pools and Jacuzzi. Our room at the Danubius Health Spa Helia was fantastic and the staff could not be friendlier or more helpful. It was good to be 4 star and have our own bathroom, cue getting our undies and socks washed through and making the rather lush hotel bathroom look like wishy washy’s laundry. But us girls do need clean undies. Fully refreshed we had lunch at the hotel before heading down to Margaret Island. We walked along the Danube and then crossed to the island by the Margaret Bridge. Just inside the island we hired bikes and although it has been a while, used these to tour the island. I found myself wondering why I don’t use a bike at home and then remembered, rain, wind, hills…… But in Budapest, great way to get around but a wee bit sore on the buttocks. We did get a bit competitive and as my bell did not work I nearly did for a few pedestrians, but it was worth it to get around the island with minimal exertion and maximum speed. Margaret Island is fantastic, there are lots of different areas with cafes, fountains and architecture. It is a great place for joggers as there is a low impact path stretching right round the island and they were getting well used. The wildflower garden smells wonderful and there was music everywhere. At the far end of the island there is a musical fountain and in the centre amphitheatre there was a techno festival. The best however was the 7 piece band that played at the pub in the centre of the island, the clarinet player was awesome and although I did not understand the words or recognise the Hungarian tunes, the competence of the artists had us listening for a good hour whilst having an early evening burger. We happily cycled round for several more hours with pit-stops to take in the local culture, beer and views of both Buda and Pest. We did feel that we needed to grow some emergency moustaches, do we suit blue?
We arrived in Munich after 9 at night and headed from the station to our hostel accommodation. The area we walked through was all strip clubs with half naked girls smoking in the street and adjusting their knee high socks. No idea why, it just seemed to be a thing. The streets were full of young men roaming in gangs and the first impressions were of a sleazy, slightly manic city. We were checked into our hostel by an aging hippy and on first impressions weren’t expecting much. However the room was huge and clean with comfy beds. Sharing a bathroom was not ideal but accommodation is so expensive in Munich. We were really hungry so ventured out amongst the crowds and stopped at the only place that was open and not full of middle aged men, which was a small Turkish café. We had a quick bite to eat before heading back to the hostel and bed. Not terribly impressed but willing to try again the following day. The following day proved to be bright and sunny and we jumped on the train to Dachau Concentration camp and memorial. It is difficult to describe how sobering this place is, and how easily things got out of hand not least because people were impoverished and there was a great economic inequality that gave the Nazis the toe-hold they needed to create an evil regime. I thought I was educated about the holocaust, however there was a lot I didn’t know.
In the afternoon, we headed to Marien Platz to see the Glockenspiel, the Virtual Market and other sites then headed towards the beer garden in the English Garden for a stein of their finest beer. The English Garden is lovely with a huge lake and lots of places to stop and have a drink and admire the views. We spent a good hour or two just walking around enjoying the sun. Megan had a stein of lager and lemonade but was noticeably tipsy when she finished it, perhaps a long walk in the sun and only a bratwurst for lunch was not a good idea before her first legal drink of beer in a pub. The giggling and silliness lasted a good while, before we then decided food was in order so headed for the Augustiner Beerhaus which is huge and full of tourists and very busy waiters carrying their body weight in beer. After a considerable wait, we ordered another stein each as well as ravioli for me and ribs for Megan. 20 minutes later I was given a pork knuckle with sauerkraut which Megan and I ate immediately, as neither of us had received our meal and were feeling starved. Another half hour passed and then Megan was given her congealed, stone cold ribs. Atmosphere great, beer great, but we should have picked somewhere else to eat. We went to our hotel, picked up our luggage and headed for the sleeper train to Budapest. Munich did prove to have the friendliest people and they went out of their way to make us feel welcome. It is also a very beautiful city, full of characters and once you get used to the abruptness and sense of humour, very cool.