Overnight Adventure on the Dacia Express Train to Bucharest, Romania

Carpathian mountain range still snow-capped in May seen from the train to Bucharest.
Carpathian mountain range still snow-capped in May.

Across Europe by train to Bucharest for a Danube River cruise.

For most people, getting to Bucharest, Romania for a Danube river cruise is easy.  Fly to Bucharest, collect your luggage and you’re there.  Done. But because I don’t fly, the Dacia Express overnight train from Vienna to Bucharest was my only option.

My 24-day Danube cruise aboard Uniworld’s River Duchess would begin in Rousse, Romania, but Bucharest was our meeting point.  I was aboard the MSC Splendida on a seven-night Mediterranean cruise but left the ship one day early in Marseille, in order to reach Bucharest in only two nights.  There was no time to spare and no margin for error.

Reality check.

1. Three-hour train from Marseille to Paris.
2. Taxi from Paris Gare de Lyon to Paris Est.
3. Overnight train from Paris Est to Munich. 11 hours.
4. Four-hour train from Munich to Vienna.  Wait five hours.
5. Board the Dacia Express overnight from Vienna to Bucharest. 25 hours.

My sleeping car. Waiting for the engine.
My sleeping car. Waiting for the engine.

Time to board the train.

As a glaring headlight signaled the approach of the Dacia Express, my excitement grew at the thought of yet another train adventure.  A small electric cart driven by an even smaller woman wearing a drab blue uniform, parked in front of my coach car.  Here were our clean linens, neatly folded.  She unloaded the cart and carried the wrapped bundles onto the train.

Sleeping compartment for solo passenger. This room can accommodate up to three people.
Sleeping compartment set for a solo passenger. This room can accommodate up to three people.

Once underway, she introduced herself as the conductor of our car.  I was sternly advised to stay in my room with all three door locks engaged and not to open the door without first using the peep-hole.  Without a dining car or even a club car, I wasn’t planning to go anywhere.

Our welcome aboard bag; water, washcloth and bar of soap.
Our welcome aboard bag; water, washcloth and bar of soap.

Here is my two minute video tour of the sleeping car aboard the Dacia Express:

It was going to be a long night.

With the exception of a few quick visits to the bathroom at the other end of the car, I wouldn’t leave my room for the next 25 hours.  There was no dining car, despite the online photo of happy people having a meal.  Luckily, I brought a couple liters of water, cheese, bread and chocolate. I learned on my 11-hour train from Paris to Munich – despite enticing photos, don’t expect dining cars on overnight trains.  Doors bolted, I snuggled under my duvet and watched movies on my ipod.  Sometime around 1am I fell asleep.

Without warning, train came to a jarring halt.  Men were pounding on doors, yelling, “Passport photos, show passport photos. Open doors now!” Startled but not totally panicked, I remembered rumors about unexpected passport checks at the border into Romania and Hungary.

Cautiously I opened my door and saw a pistol-packing, quasi-uniformed guard.  “Passport photo, you have passport photo?” I immediately handed over my passport.  Then he requested my train ticket, which I surrendered.  Several minutes passed, and as he handed back my documents, added, “Have a nice trip.”

Here we go again.

Once again under the thin duvet, I fell back to sleep only to be awakened minutes later when the train again abruptly stopped.  And once again men were shouting in the corridor and pounding even louder on the doors.  Since I thought we had already met the Romanian police, who were these men?

With marked hesitation, I opened the door.  “Show passport!” he demanded.  I handed him my documents.  This man was dressed similarly to the last inspector; dark clothes, pistol in its holster.

Laboring over every page of my passport, he asked, “Where are you going?”  I replied, “to Bucharest.”  He wanted to know why I was going there, for how long, where I’d stay, where I was from and my occupation.  I complied with his questioning and hoped he’d pivot and leave. Note to self: next time, don’t say “journalist” for occupation.

Still shaking, I extended my free hand and accepted my newly stamped passport.  He didn’t leave.  Instead, he stepped into my compartment.  He looked under the small wooden platform bed.  Standing on tiptoe, he peered into the overhead storage area. Finding no one and nothing of interest, he said, “Have a nice trip.”

If the conductor had told me that both the Hungarian and Romanian police would board the train in the middle of the night, this incredibly frightening experience could have been avoided. Chalk it up to experience.

Where is everyone?

On my morning jaunt to the bathroom, almost every compartment door was open with no one inside.  Quite a contrast from the previous night when there wasn’t a single door open, with voices heard from within.  Now the coach was eerily empty.

Station master gives us the go-ahead with his signal sign for our train to Bucharest
Station master gives us the go-ahead with his signal sign.

Our train rumbled past the distant snowcapped Carpathian mountains, springtime’s newly plowed fields, and small-town station masters who held simple red or green signal signs.  These were the highlights of my trip.

The Dacia Express passes villages, cities and towns along the mountain range.
The Dacia Express passes cities and towns along the edge of the mountain range.

At 10:30am, about an hour late, we pulled into Bucharest Gara de Nord station.

Bucharest train station at mid-morning.
Our mid-morning arrival at the Bucharest train station.

I had arranged for a driver to meet me on the platform and luckily he was there.  Within minutes we were in his car heading to the Radisson Blu Hotel for a two-night stay before our river cruise.

No, it's not Paris. It's the 1936 Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest.
No, it’s not Paris. It’s the 1936 Arcul de Triumf in Bucharest. There’s a observation terrace at the top.

Looking back.

It’s an incredible train ride and I’m amazed I did it.  While terrifying and unnerving, the romance of following the path of the historic Orient Express was just too alluring and mysterious to resist. And my only way to get to Bucharest. Next time, though, it won’t be on the Dacia Express.  

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