September 26th, 2010
We are on the homestretch now. Our path is very quickly taking us back to Canada for our due date of October 9th. This is no small task as there are still thousands of kilometres to cover overland. It’s a beeline with a few stops en-route to keep us sane, or make us go crazy — we’re not sure which yet.
Our next destination after Istanbul was Budapest. To get to Budapest we had to take a train. We had two options: via Bucharest or via Belgrade. Both were 32 hour journeys with a transfer and two nights sleeping on trains. Initially we had wanted to go via Bucharest and spend a day there, but we decided to change our plans and skip Bucharest so we could spend an extra day in Budapest. In the end we chose the route that went via Belgrade for the simple fact that it was cheaper. We stocked up on snacks and drinks and prepared ourselves for what was to be our longest train journey yet.
When the train pulled up at the station in Istanbul we were relieved to see that it was a modern, comfy-looking train. We had reserved seats in a 6-bed couchette and were keeping our fingers crossed that the train wasn’t full. Sure enough though, it was. We had four young Scottish lads join us in our cabin. To say that it was squishy is an understatement. Our bags had to go on the floor to set up our beds, which were arranged in two triple bunk-bed formations. Once we were all settled in though, ear buds and eye mask in place, we slept like babies. We slept like babies, that is, until we were woken up at 3:30 am to go through customs at the Turkey-Bulgaria border.
It was really nice to be back on a train after so many months without. Trains are definitely our preferred mode of transportation. The next the morning, we were informed that the train would be stopping in Sofia, Bulgaria, for eight hours because of some repair work taking place at the Bulgaria-Serbia border further ahead. The stop in Sofia was a really excellent surprise. It would only set us back a few hours and we’d get to see the city. We checked our bags at the train station and headed out to the Big Smoke.
It’s funny how our travel outlook and methods have changed compared to a year ago. This time last year we were in Amsterdam. We had maps on paper and on the iPhone, I had a guidebook and we had ideas as to what museums to go to and what restaurants to dine at. When we get to a city now, we do minimal research, if any — we just discover the city for ourselves and hope the best-of will reveal itself. We have no guidebook or map. We just start walking. It’s liberating. We know that there are going to be things we miss doing it this way, but since we have so little time these days, we just want to enjoy that time we have.
Something else that has changed and improved since this time last year is our geography. I don’t think I could have even told you where Sofia was or what countries even bordered Turkey. Now I know that Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. It’s leafy and beautiful. There are many impressive historical buildings. It’s not all gloss, however. There’s an intriguing mix of beauty and seediness.
Our first stop in Sofia was a lovely coffee shop on the corner of a narrow tree-lined street in a tucked-away residential area. We sat in cushy chairs and savoured cappuccinos for a few hours. We thoroughly enjoyed these cappuccinos. They were the best coffees we’d sipped since Ethiopian machiattos. Up until Sofia, the only coffee we could find was either Nescafé or some variation of strong, sediment-filled Arabian coffee.
The western world was presenting itself to us again, and we were starting to realize just how much we missed it! We were getting excited about our return to Europe. Our time in the East, Africa and Asia has really helped us to re-appreciate so many things. We are happy to be heading home. After some more walking around in Sofia, it was back to the train station for the next leg. We woke up in Belgrade, switched trains and arrived in Budapest the next day. One step closer.