Two uniformed police officers slouch at the other end of an empty first-class carriage, diligently tapping screens and half-listening to four Hungarian ticket officers telling stories of ticket-touts and stowaways. They all laugh politely at yet another joke told by a mildly overweight ageing male inspector, his glasses propped on the end of his nose as if waiting for the green-light to jump. Everything is calm. Five hours into a twenty-hour journey on the CFR operated train running overnight from Vienna to Bucharest, this is the Romanian Red Eye.
The NunBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D800e / 500 f4
Time to scare away the bad. A nun walks the circumference of one of the many painted monasteries in Transylvania. As she goes, she beats a wooden stick to the rhythmic chants of bible verses pouring through loudspeakers secured under the eaves.
The PotterBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D800e / 35 f1.4
An overpowering smell of drying clay permeates the small outhouse conjoining a textile workshop with a road-side cafe. We stop briefly for a bite to eat, to stretch our weary legs from a week of traversing the Transylvanian highlands, and to leave the rest stop, apparently, with more than we’d arrived. Two hand-thrown glazed dinning dishes and a rather large hand-spun Romanian carpet now protrude from the boot of the rental car, partially obscuring the rear view mirror as we continue our journey south.
With twenty hours to go, we board the overnight train from Vienna to Bucharest, except the Austrian operated OEBB train has broken down somewhere up the line. Instead, Romanian operated CFR step in and send up one of their iconic specimens from the 1980s, but the sleeper carriage hasn’t arrived and a fight ensues on the platform between irate ticket guard and angry grandma. I place a bet on Grandma and duly find a seat in the first-class carriage. Upgrades are all well and good, but I’d have preferred a bed.
The SmithBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D800e / 70 - 200 f2.8
His hammer obliterates the small shard of metal, literally removing the composite from existence. Smiling with a purpose, he picks up a long thin piece laying by his side and starts repeatedly beating one of the ends, his eyes now clouded over with a Jovian frenzy. As he pulverises the metal it begins to emanate an orange glow. Over and over he pounds the malleable material, turning and twisting until orange turns to red, red to white. Lifting the smouldering filament, he flips a cigarette from hand to mouth and proceeds to puff away using his hard-earned lighter. A gimmick that I’d easily watch all day long.
Twenty hours sitting stationary in an air-conditioned first-class carriage sounds fairly nice when it’s hitting the mid-thirties outside, but we’re dressed for a hot night in an economy sleeper, and within thirty minutes start shaking from the icy air permeating the ruby-red interior of the empty carriage.
The TracksBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D800e / 70 - 200 f2.8
The painted egg museum didn’t really keep me entertained, in fact it was more of a walk-in walk-out affair if I’m honest. Catherine was still inside ogling the Faberge collection whilst listening to the monotonous audio guide. She has a patience I’ll never possess. I instead walk the length of a live railway line laying adjacent to the museum. The sturdy tracks are bracketed either side with ornate blue-green carriages, evidently parked there since the 1940s. They lay in the still air, derelict and forgotten, yet there’s movement inside, a curtain flutters and a loud gruff voice echoes from somewhere within. I discover the carriages have become living quarters for the less privileged and their animals, a zoo of those whom are no longer welcome anywhere else. The tracks outside are peaceful, the sun is hot so I sit on a derelict platform edge and people watch for an hour or so. This place is idyllic beyond words.
Midnight passes and our carriage, having stopped at Budapest to take on a small contingent of misfits looking to head east, now resembles a no-mans-land of strewn bodies trying to make the best of a missing sleeper. To find the toilet is to play pick-a-stick with lifeless limbs as you tiptoe across a zombie wasteland. The occasional snore causes a monumental shift in limb positions, requiring toilet-goers to find a different route each time. We go easy on the water.
The TouristsBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D800e / 70 - 200 f2.8
Stopping briefly at the base, we look back and take in the past few miles of sweeping down-land. We’ve already climbed a thousand feet or so, the small forest-lined winding roads chocked with running water, fallen trees, and flocks of sheep. Now tittering above the forest line, the grand vista of the lowlands takes our breath away as mountain grass turns to mottled forest to yellow field land to the blue beyond. Yet looking ahead we see promises of a twisted and steep ascent to our final goal; the glacial mirror of lake Bâlea. A gently flowing alpine stream gurgles and cuts the narrow valley in half, lush green carpet curving up either side to steep rocky walls peppered with brown bushes and the occasional mountain goat. Two cyclists pass us on the flats, they shout and wave, double down, and continue waging their own battle up Romania’s infamous Transfagarasan pass.
1am approaches and a man sits down behind me, he must have gotten on at the border. His face reflects in the black mirror of our shared window, the forlorn and slightly deranged stare out into oblivion silently betraying his acute drunkenness.
PelesBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D800e / 14 - 24 f2.8
The guy in front looks like he’s about to explode with anger, yet the security guards somehow manage to extract the camera-toting tourist with minimal hassle. Impressive, they must have done it before. In order to shoot any type of film in Peles castle, one must pay the 3 pounds for a permit. 3 pounds. In Borneo the thieves wanted 300 pounds to shoot in an Orangutan sanctuary. I paid the 3 pounds. It would appear, however, there are more chancers in life than I expected, as I soon see more tourists quietly attempting to shoot a selfie before being spotted. They don’t make it, either. It’s almost more interesting watching people attempt, unsuccessfully, to beat the system. But the interior design of some of the stately rooms takes my breath away, so I shoot to my hearts content, much to the envy of the lurkers.
As the night deepens a new sense of panic resonates through the trundling three-carriage train; mobile devices have started to run out of juice, but there’s only one carriage with electricity. Bags of dead devices are soon being smuggled in from other carriages in a time-tested movement of ‘lost people looking for the toilet’. Once plugged in the devices diligently alert the general public that they have indeed been plugged in and are thankful for the top-up. The charging points are temperamental with cut-outs every few minutes, the phones, however, are keen to reiterate their thanks as the power returns. It’s an endless, sleepless night.
On A Bear HuntBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D800e / 14 - 24 f2.8
The clearing in the forest ahead is a perfect ambush spot for a brown bear, or so we’re told as we climb towards the national park plateau an hour south-west of Brasov. The going is easy at first, long dwindling national park routes funnelling tourists past bird watching spots and large colourful maps. But then we take a steep right turn and begin to climb up towards the dark forests nestling below the plateau grasslands, and beyond to the ice-capped peaks of the Carpathian ridge. Hours pass as we traverse the depths of the forest, occasionally spotting large claw marks raked deep in to tree trunks, some old, many new. We reach the ambush clearing and take a well earned breather, drinking cold elder-flower cordial as we sit on the earthy buttress roots of a tree only last night upended by the mother of all bears. Worms and insects still squirm in the loose soil. We set off again on our trek through the forest, the tree line eventually thinning out to sparser woodland, and at last, the plateau. Emerald-green belts of alpine grassland lay strapped to the rounded hillside, dotted with lily-white flowers, perfect grazing ground for the nomadic alpine cattle and the occasional Carpathian brown bear.
As 3am chimes, a woman staggers through from second class, no bag of dead devices this time. She momentarily becomes the focus of the entire carriage as the sliding doors clatter closed, waking everyone up from their awkward slumber. Covered in a heavy layer of sweat, shirt saturated, hair strands pasted across her face, she poses under an a/c unit shaking her hair in a subtly sultry manner, evidently cooling down from the lack of a/c elsewhere on the train. The scene briefly looks like a cheap beer commercial from time past, just without the beer. Chuckling, I return to staring at my reflection in the window, contemplating cold beer and comfy beds.