Our slow travel series explores how you can take more mindful journeys by train, boat, bus or bike – with tips on how to reach your no-fly destination, and what to see and do along the way. In the latest installment, Monisha Rajesh (author of Around the World in 80 Trains) documents her rail journey from Vienna to Bucharest.
It’s not often that I board a train with trepidation.
But that morning, I’d had a chat with an attendant on the Austrian Nightjet service from Paris to Vienna, who had winced with disapproval when I revealed I was continuing to Bucharest by train. “On the Dacia?” she’d asked. “That’s a terrible train – it’s so long. And it’s a Romanian train. Watch out for your things, yes?”
Since the only theft I’ve ever suffered was in a first-class carriage on a train to Dorset, it was easy to dismiss such casual stereotyping. Yet I was still a bit wary as the blue, brightly lit Dacia – pronounced “dat-sya” – hummed into Wien Hauptbahnhof just before 8pm. As my carriage sailed by, I jogged down the platform and showed my ticket to an attendant, who was promptly accosted by an American retiree wanting to buy a ticket on the spot.
It’s easy to book tickets for this popular train on Romania railways’ website and in person at the station – and advisable to do so as far in advance as possible, both for cheaper fares and to guarantee a berth for the 19-hour journey (especially in the busy summer months). Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance. I’d bought mine a month prior to my journey for €110 – though seats start from as little as €42, if you can bear sitting upright for almost a day.
Sisterhood and sausages
Stepping around the retiree and attendant, who were discussing seating options, I hopped up the steps – and my unease vanished at the sight of newly fitted carpets, couchettes as soft as velvet and only two out of a potential five fellow riders in my compartment. In truth, the train was far superior to the Nightjet, with its tired interiors. As I’d been allocated a women-only compartment, I felt an immediate sense of sisterhood as I and my compartment-mates helped each other click berths into place, steadying ladders while others tucked in sheets and shoved away bags. Both Romanian, Inga and Elena were traveling to Mediaș in Transylvania’s Sibiu County. They set about adjusting the temperature, offering up biscuits and chips and taking turns charging their phones in the compartment’s single socket.
What makes a sleeper train great is the dining car, so I was disappointed that there wasn’t one attached to this train as we departed. Everyone I knew who’d traveled on the Dacia had told me stories of the clamor and camaraderie of the Bar Bistro carriage – and especially of its infamous mixed grill: a platter of chips, salad and pork cutlets, with deep-red sausages straddling the pile. Alas, the carriage had been discontinued at the end of last year with no indication as to whether or not it might make a reappearance.
So we’d all come prepared with picnics and Tupperware – and the smell of homemade stew and dumplings filled the corridor as the train began to move. Partial to a bit of wurst, I’d traipsed to Albertinaplatz in search of the infamous Bitzinger sausage stand and filled up on the spicy version before making my way to the station, where I also stopped off at the Ströck bakery to stockpile pastries and muffins for the morning.
Middle of the night border checks
As the orange flicker of lampposts strobed through the carriage, I edged up to the window and watched Vienna embrace the evening. As apartment blocks rolled by, I spotted children’s bunk beds strung with lights, ledges lined with toys and people at sinks glancing up as we flashed by. Far from a party train, this was a journey for turning to books, knitting and retiring early; most passengers were already in their bunks, ear buds in and eye masks on.
Given that both Austria and Hungary are part of the Schengen Area, we zoomed across the first border with no stops. Still, I fished out my passport and tucked it into my pocket in preparation for the 2am check at Lőkösháza, just inside the Hungarian border with Romania. The lights off and curtain drawn across the door, our compartment was soon silent but for the steady thump of the train rocking southeast toward Budapest.
A bang on the door woke me from an unusually deep sleep. I handed over my passport, aware of the strong smell of cigarettes coming through the heating vent, before burying my face in the sheets and nodding off again until 4am for the second check over the Romanian border at Curtici – where a mirror was swung into the compartment and above my head. Feeling grateful that this was a long ride with no urgency to surface at dawn, I turned over, falling into a sound sleep once the train resumed moving.
A bar carriage with ham sandwiches and whiskey
I woke to the train drawing through Dumbraveni, the heart of Transylvania. A blizzard was enveloping the carriage, powder rushing past the windows, the scalps of mountains barely visible through the haze. It was a black-and-white scene that continued unwinding over the morning, as smoke unfurled from shacks and rivers glinted around the snow. Occasionally, pastel-painted houses popped from the landscape amid needle-point spires and churches – but otherwise the land was flat and frozen, devoid of life and color. Following the river Olt, the train rolled for hours as it squeezed through tunnels hidden by forests of trees heavy with powder and trimmed with sparkling ice.
If the Transylvanian winter was a mood, it was somber and thoughtful.
Lulled by the drum of the wheels, I munched through my pastries and swayed down the train to the bar carriage – which had been coupled to the train overnight – where a handful of passengers were perched on stools sipping coffee and staring into the distance. Selling little more than ham and salad sandwiches – and stronger stuff like Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker and Jameson – the car was a shadow of what I’d heard about.
I found a seat by the American retiree who had opted to sit upright all night despite a berth being available. “Oh, there were going to be other people in there, and you don’t know who might walk into that compartment and sleep above you,” he declared, to my amusement. For me, the joy of night trains is the uncertainty, the thrill of not knowing who is going to walk into your story and leave by the morning, fleeting friendships coalescing on the move.
Back in my overheated compartment, I sat watching the spruce-covered Carpathian Mountains loom into view as the Prahova River wound alongside. From time to time, great piles of snow fell from branches into its green and bubbling waters, getting swept along at speed. On the outskirts of Bucharest, the clouds evaporated, blue peeked through and the sun blazed overhead, lifting the scene from its gloom. As lakes shimmered into view and fields flashed by, the Dacia came into a life of its own, galloping towards the end of the 685-mile (1100km) journey. As the signs of arrival emerged – graffiti on the walls, overhead wires, multiple tracks alongside – I gathered my bags and came out of my meditation.
And with a clear mind and a full heart – not to mention an empty stomach – I stepped onto the platform and made my way into the din of the city.
How to make it happen
Dacia tickets can be purchased up to 90 days in advance from Romanian Railways’ official website. One-way tickets start at €42 for a seat in coach. A place in a six-person couchette starts at €52, and in a four-person one at €59. A private en-suite cabin starts at €159.
There is currently no bistro car on board the Dacia, so it’s advisable to bring with you enough food and drink for the first night. A dining car gets attached overnight, with hot and cold drinks and sandwiches available from about 8am. Credit and debit cards are not accepted on board, so be sure to carry small-denomination euros or Romanian leu.