Forty hours on a Romanian bus, or 80 days on a Roman road, Part 4: Romania

The road from Budapest to Timisoara

Victory Square in Timisoara. Photo by Mariusmiti via Wikimedia Commons.

The Saiz Tour bus left the rest area south of Budapest around 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, May 26, on the last leg to Romania, with night settling in. To rouse the crowd on board the bus for the final leg, the driver asked if anyone wanted to stick around for some goulash, which received a unanimous response of “Nu!”  In the back of my head, having drank only water since a long-since digested empanada de atun in Madrid, I kept thinking, though, “I’d like some goulash.”

At this point, my concern building about our early arrival, I started asking in broken Spanish about when we would arrive at Timisoara. The estimate was in three hours we’d reach the border, and then maybe an hour later, we’d get to the city. In Spanish (Romanian would have been hopeless), I was asked if there was anyone waiting for me there, to which I said no. I was asked if I had any baggage, to which I said yes, the big black bag below. Heads shook. I was asked if I had any place I had planned to stay, to which I answered that I had a hostel  that I set my sights upon.

The Wikitravel page on Timisoara warns potential travelers to the city about taxi drivers that would take passengers from the station in cities like Timisoara, but rather than deliver them to their destination, they would deliver them to a gang of thugs that would beat them into submission and steal everything from them (similar to a warning given about gypsy cabs in Baku, Azerbaijan). I would need to get out of the station area as quickly as possible, so getting into a proper radio taxi would be highly important. Through jeers from some of the female passengers about my lack of preparation (including one who suggested that I find a Romanian girlfriend for my own safety – an offer I turned down by showing my wedding ring), an older man who carried many packages of “Soviet Samsonite” luggage with him offered to direct me to a legitimate driver.

A little later than the passengers forecasted, the bus left the M43 motorway, the unfinished spur that extends east of Szeged. We were near the town of Mako around midnight and pressing onward to the border on a two-lane road. It passed without fanfare through the Hungarian side customs office at the edge of the village of Nagylak, and then passports and national ID cards were collected on the Romanian side station at Nadlac. All the Romanian cards were returned, but my passport was taken to be examined and stamped. Why a stamp was needed puzzled me as we were still in the Shengen Zone.  Shortly after my passport was returned, we were off again to the first stop at Arad.

The time on the clocks here read 2 a.m. – we had changed time zones. Perhaps a half hour later, the bus stopped near a mall in Arad where many people were waiting to take their friends and relatives home. About a half hour later, the bus cleared of most of the people on board, it returned to the road, heading southward into the Romanian night.

As rural settlements moved past, I dozed off, and was awoken by my guardian passenger, who said that we arrived in Timisoara. Outside the window, streetlamps shed light on the center of the city. When the bus came to a stop, it was after 3 a.m. I collected my things and almost as an afterthought, my guardian passenger suggested one man to drive me.

Earlier the older man had said that the trip should take no more than 3 Euros. After some navigational issues (the hostel was located on a side street that had changed names probably some 20 years ago, but which still appeared in his memory, apparently, by its pre-1989 name), the drive turned out to be quite short. I paid the predicted fare and gladly got out, spotting shortly after Hostel Costel, the place I planned to approach when it was again light outside.

Late on a Saturday night, the place was darkened, oddly enough. This obviously was no party hostel. In the darkness, it vaguely resembled the house on the cartoon show “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.” I stowed my bags under a nearby tree just across the street and settled in to wait until morning. The neighborhood, a very quiet residential area, likewise waited with me. Around an hour or two later, I started pacing and thinking through the future, maintaining optimistic thoughts of how events would unfold, how Albina, my daughter, would go to the Sorbonne, about how to get her there with only a handful of Euros and a handful of US dollars in my pocket. When you love someone and you are by yourself, this is probably a normal sort of earnest optimistic silliness that passes the time away.

As dawn arrived, the traffic started to pick up on the main streets. The tram started operating sometime after the streets became light, and a bicycle pulled in to the hostel, a young woman who obviously worked there getting to her shift early on a Sunday. An hour later, I knocked and no one answered, but then decided instead of making a racket to get attention, I’d just camp on the doorway. No sooner than I had, another young woman arrived – apparently the hostel owner or leader – and she checked me in.

Shower, of course, was the first order, then unpacking and reorganizing in the big room where the only other guest was a British female traveler (still asleep). Then I got online and sorted through hundreds of emails, finally responding to loved ones. After a few hours of that, I checked online for a map and finally made my way into town to sort out how I’d cross the border the next day.

That became something of a problem. The train station offered to take me to Budapest, but only at 22 Euros, probably just beyond what I had in my pocket after paying for the hostel. The bus station attendant insisted there was no way to get across at all. I’d have to take the train. After grabbing something quick to eat, something made of feta cheese and flatbread (my first food in two days), I made my way back to the hostel to consult the computer.

On returning, I found that my wife had contacted me. She had grown angry and worried in my absence, particularly hearing about my new predicament. It added stress, but at the moment, the bigger feeling was that she still loved me enough to be concerned. I knew then that even with all the pretty faces that had passed me as ghosts in my travels, this was the right person to have married. Now, the trick was to somehow get into a situation where she didn’t have to worry.

The road from Sirmium to Dacia

Statue of King Burebista of Dacia. Photo by Roamata via Wikimedia Commons.

There were three main Roman roads that passed into Dacia Traiana. The westernmost road left Viminacium (present Kostolac, Serbia), and crossed the Danube River at the military camp of Lederata. After crossing, the Roman military road continued northward to the towns of Argidara and Bersovia before arcing eastward toward the river crossing at Tibiscum. Another 80 miles further eastward, the road reached Ulpia Traiana, the Roman replacement of the former Dacian capital of Sarmizegetusa Regia (the latter having been left in ruins some 40 kilometers away on a high mountain).

The middle road into Dacia Traiana crossed the Danube River at the Pons Traiana, entering the city of Drobeta (present Drobeta-Turnu Severin, Romania). This was the main road into the Roman region, the gateway into Emperor Trajan’s pre-Parthian War conquest, and the location of one of the longest bridges in the Empire, situated just below the Iron Gates of the Danube. Indeed the bridge, built by architect Apollodorus of Damascus, took three years to construct, was built on 20 rock piers set into the depths of the Danuvius River holding 20 arches spanning the waterway, and at 1.2 kilometers length was considered perhaps the most daring engineering fete attempted by Rome.

From Drobeta, the road passed eastward, meeting the Roman highway running between Ulpia Traiana and the Moesian city of Oescus at the town of Amutria, just below where the mountain road rose up over the Montes Serrorum in its crossing into what is today known as Transylvania.

The third main road into Dacia Traiana passed northward from Oescus along a more easterly path than the road to Amutria, following up the Alutus River through the Serrorum Range to the town of Ponsvetus, where the road crossed over highlands along the old Roman camp of Cedoniae to reach the silver mines of Apulum. From this ancient center, the main Dacian mining road continued northward along the Marisia River, passing Bruda fortress and Marcodava before crossing over the Patarissa highlands to the gold mining region of Napoca (present Cluj, Romania).  Beyond this, the Roman road ended at Porolissum, the largest settlement of Dacia Porolenssensis, a barely controlled frontier beyond which were the Sarmatiae, a people displaced by the arrival of the Gothones from the present Vistula River country. On all sides of these military roads, a colossal wall network was built by Emperor Hadrian to protect Roman interests in this far-flung region.

The three cities that were perhaps the most important to the Romans were Drobeta, Apulum, and Napoca. Drobeta was the site of not only the Pons Traian, but eventually an Eastern Roman (Byzantine) tower, from which its present name came from. The city remained occupied by Rome long past the withdrawal from the rest of Dacia, until the Huns sacked it in the mid-400s. The Byzantines, however, restored the city a century later, and retained it until the rise of the Bulgars. By the middle of the eleventh century, the Hungarians built a fortress on the site against the Bulgarians. In 1330, the Hungarians gave over the fortress to the Wallachians so that they could defend their state from the Turks, to whom the city fell in 1524. With some minor interruptions, the city remained a Turkish center at the southern edge of Wallachia until 1829, when that principality finally achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Apulum, set north of Ulpia Traiana on the ruins of the ancient Dacian city of Apulon, was the headquarters for the Legio XIII Gemina, which held the largest fortifications in Dacia Traiana. While the Romans held the city, it was the center of a silver producing region. After Dacia was ordered abandoned, the city fell to ruin until at long last, the Hungarians built Alba Iulia in its place, eventually naming the “white city” after a regent name Gyula. It became the capital of Transylvania, or Siebenburgen (the seven cities) in 1541, at the height of the municpality’s influence. It eventually became a lesser Hungarian city until it was given over t the Romanians after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the Great War.

Napoca also took its Roman name from its earlier Dacian name, and by the year 108, just three years after the completion of the Pons Traiana at Drobeta, the city appeared on the master list of Roman milestones. From Napoca, Dacia Porolenssensis was administered until 274, when the Romans gave up their hold on this gold mining region. When the Daco-Getae restored their control of the province, the city was destroyed and left a ruin. Its survivors eventually formed villages in the vicinity of the rubble, but the ruins remained unpopulated until the early 900s, when the Cluj or Kolosz monastery was established under the Hungarians shortly a century after the fall of the Avars to the Bulgarians.

Eventually called Koloszvar, the city name was Germanized to Klausenburg after Hungary was annexed into the early Holy Roman Empire and the city was stripped of control of the Voivode of Transylvania following an attempted rebellion from Vienna in 1405. When the Principality of Siebenburgen, or Transylvania, was created, the city became the cultural and religious seat of the new political entity. By 1699, however, the city was again given over to the Hapsburgs and removed from Transylvanian control, but only for a century; in 1790, the city became the capital of a new Grand Principality of Transylvania. The name was restored to Koloszvar in the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, and rendered to Cluj when the region was given over to Romania after the end of the Great War.

Escape from Timisoara

The city of Timisoara is typically quiet on a Sunday. Church bells ring, the railway station is nearly empty, and out by the river near the train station is the only sound of loud music, where at-risk kids play some old cassette recording of some strange folk-like music while huffing glue from a bag. Almost all stores are closed, while in the center of town, the main hotel advertises its gym for higher end travelers. August 23, 1989 remains a significant day in the history of the town, as it was from here that the revolution that brought down Nicolai Ceausescu started.

In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union, extending the Shengen Zone to the southwestern borders of the former Soviet Union.  Moldova remained clearly outside of Romanian control as the new iron curtain, one blocking former Soviet travelers from visiting at will, was raised between the two Romanian-speaking states. Still, the reason is hard to fathom as to why there is a border control imposed by the Hungarian authorities at their border, and why no low-budget transportation options exist for getting people out of Romania.

A review of travel options in Romanian showed that options did indeed exist for getting to the border. There were even occasional buses that crossed the border, about three times a week. But for the day I was crossing, Monday, May 28, the main advice seemed to be to try to hitchhike across.

The border is located at the city of Nadlac/Nagylak, a formerly unified settlement on a lake situated on the road and old railroad line between Arad and Szeged. The lake is something of a local resort. At one point, regular bus service went right to the border check point. Today, on the Romanian side, the closest that a traveler can get is to the commuter rail station across town from the border control station.

Beyond the border, regular bus service exists from Nagylak back to Szeged, or so the Internet read. It takes perhaps an hour for the bus to reach the city, described as a fairly safe place, a college town with many cultural landmarks, and of course many Western Unions from which to receive 300 Euros from.

Now having planned it out, all that was left was to carry through the crossing.

The history of the Daciae

The forebears of Dacia maintained a proud history, dating back to the second century B.C., when several tribes formed together under a king named Rubobostes a confederation against the menace of a Celtic Empire in the west. Although not particularly stable, the tribes were nonetheless organized well enough to garner praise from Greek historian Herodotus, who called them the “Getae,” and described them as the “noblest as well as most just of all the Thracian tribes.”

The success of Rubobostes in driving out the Celts from Dacia formed the basis of a lasting state. The next great Dacian king to arise was Oroles, who was the first to make violent contact with the Romans nearly a century before the advent of Christ. It was perhaps Oroles’ successor, Burebista, however, that ancient Dacia owed its greatest praise. Coming to power in 82 B.C., the new king ordered his people to cut their vines and give up the intoxication of wine in an attempt to raise the moral standards of his people. He also reorganized the army and over his nearly four decades of power extended the kingdom from the Greek settlement of Olbia (near present Mykolayiv in Ukraine) to the edges of the Hercynian Forest, the great northern frontier of the Roman Empire.

King Burebista, establishing his capital at Sarmizegetusa Regia at the top of a 1,200 meter mountain, a much more defensive city than the previous capital of Argedava, grew so powerful that Julius Caesar considered the need to suppress the Daciae. His assassination in 44 B.C. prevented a Roman-Dacian War, which might have been launched following the murder of Burebista in that same year  had the Emperor survived. Instead of conquest under Caesar, the Daciae merely suffered a succession crisis that split the kingdom into four parts.

Augustus Caesar, Julius’ successor, instead of embarking on his father’s war of conquest, sought alliance with its most powerful successor state, and went so far as betroth his own 5-year-old daughter to its king, Cotiso. Eventually, the Empire regarded it as a client state, although Dacian submission was far from a reality – every winter when the Danube froze over, the newly-annexed Roman province of Moesia in present northern Bulgaria and Serbia suffered raids for a little more than a century.

Finally, when Decebalus, who raised the traditional Dacian capital of Sarmizegetusa Regia to its greatest height and restored Dacia to a single kingdom, carried out the greatest of raids into the century-old Roman Province of Moesia in year 85, he caught the attention of Rome’s Emperor Domitan. His general Tettius Iullianus defeated Decebalus in the Battle of Tapae in year 88, but the Marcomanni Wars prevented the Romans from invading Dacia.

For a decade, Rome attempted to render Dacia into a friendly client state, but finally after the Dacian raid in the year 101, Emperor Trajan decided that enough was enough, and he attacked Decebalus. With Roman troops pressing toward his capital, the Dacian leader sought terms – a delaying tactic, as it turned out. When Decebalus again attacked Roman garrisons four years later, Trajan was not as merciful – after seizing his mountain stronghold, he razed Sarmizegetusa Regia and its six protective fortresses to the ground and built a new province on Dacia’s ashes before moving eastward.

However, changes were already afoot as shortly after the Trajan’s conquest, a new and much more aggressive tribe arrived into the area of present Ukraine from Poland, the Gothones. Nomads in search of a promised land called Oium, these people settled on the shores of the Black Sea, displacing the ancient Sarmatiae and Bastarnae, and taking on the name “Greuthungi” (from the pebbles found on the shores of the sea). Within a century of their arrival in what is today the steppes of southern Ukraine, a group of Gothones spread westward into the forests of the Carpathian Mountains under King Airmanareiks (Ermanaric). Their refusal to be subjugated by the Huns in their invasion of the Goths divided a once unified tribe into two: the Hun-subjugated Ostrogoths of the “rising sun,” and the free “Tervingi” Visigoths of the forests. The latter would join forces with the Carpathian Daciae (eventually creating a confusion of the Getae identity, as later historians began equating the Daco-Getae with the Goths) and invade Thrace, forcing Emperor Aurelian to withdraw from Dacia, removing the surviving Roman loyalists to Moesia by the year 274.

Over the next couple generations, the leading families of the Visigoths married into the leading families of the Daciae, and effectively the two peoples merged by the time that Constantine I invaded and restored Roman control over Dacia Traiana in the year 336. However, after his death, Rome again withdrew from Dacia, and the province remained from then on outside the Empire, particularly after the arrival of the Huns at the edge of the region in 380 began displacing many of the freedom-loving barbarian tribes that wanted nothing to do with this new westward-moving horde.

Despite this, Romanization of the cities that remained in Dacia took hold. Indeed, a generation before the final return of the Empire to Dacia, a Roman Emperor of Dacian ancestry named Galerian emerged and in his own peculiar eccentricity he sought to change the name of the Roman Empire into the Dacian Empire. This didn’t go very far, and by 311, he was dead, but perhaps this Dacian imperial fantasy could explain why the language of modern Romania did not depart very far from its Latinization, even with the arrival of the Magyars and Slavs in the 900s.

The road from Timisoara to Szeged

The author crossing from Romania to Hungary, by foot. Self-photo by Ben Angel.

The people at Hostel Costel remarked that I mostly slept during my stay there. Sometime during Sunday afternoon, a Japanese traveler joined the British traveler and myself in the main dormitory. None of us really talked much.

At 7:30 on Monday morning, I was again awake. I finalized my travel plans and then after a last shower, I got back out onto the road. At around 11 a.m., after leaving behind on the wall the hostel’s only foreign currency note from South America (I had a spare Argentinean 5 peso note to donate), I lugged my baggage onto the tram out to the train station. Leaving there for the bus terminal, I passed a branch of the Banca Transilvania. With 38 US dollars still in my pocket (I found 16 I had stashed away shortly after paying 131 US dollars for an “airport visa” going into Argentina a couple years earlier), I chose this “auspiciously-named” bank to change 16 of those for Romanian Lei to cover the cost of getting to the border. I would try to change the rest on the Hungarian side.

I finally got to the bus terminal at 12:45 p.m., and asking one last time, I sought out a ticket to the border. It was like the line described on the Internet never existed. However, I could purchase a ticket to Arad, departing at 2 p.m. I spent an hour watching the clouds go by before the bus pulled up and loaded.

The Internet entry on the run to Arad read that it normally takes 45 minutes for the bus to reach that city. I suppose that meant after the bus cleared all the city traffic in Timisoara. I would clearly end up missing the connecting run into Nadlac, even though that run left an hour after the bus I was on departed the Timisoara terminal.

I contemplated how to deal with this as towns in the Banat drifted by the window. Meanwhile, the plains did not look nearly as foreboding in the daylight. Arad seemed like any other eastern European city on approach. The bus passed the train station and the shopping mall in front of which the Saiz Tour run from Spain had let out most of its passengers a couple nights ago, just before we pulled into the city terminal. As suspected, though, the run to Nadlac had already left a half-hour earlier; it was 3:30.

The next run to the border would be at 6 p.m., and would arrive fairly close to sundown. There was no chance of reaching a Western Union on the Hungarian side before they all closed on Monday. And I really didn’t want to spend another night in Romania. I needed to get at least to Szeged.

Then I thought, the train station was just up the street. I’d see what options were available there, maybe even one that put me at Szeged before nightfall. No such luck getting beyond the border, but there was a commuter train that went to Nadlac, the Romanian equivalent of an elektrichka. With 10 minutes to spare, I bought the ticket, and got out to the platform, grabbing a sandwich and some popcorn before I boarded.

Sitting on my bags near the back of a car, I savored this first substantial meal as the train pulled away from Arad. I remembered from the 1986 military exercise in Korea how not eating for a couple of days could make anything, even an MRE cracker, taste like heaven. I was enjoying my moment of heaven as town after town went by on the way to the frontier.

After the moment passed, I watched as my thoughts shifted gears, listening to a mental rendition of Kino’s song “Elektrichka,” thinking back to one ride on such a train that didn’t turn out so well in Kiev that left me in a hospital for a week. We were still well before sundown, but I clearly didn’t want to be on this train when the sun set. I drifted from this unpleasant thought to an impromptu engineering review of the idea of putting a cell phone antenna on a grain silo, having spotted one in the distance. After a couple seconds, I decided that such a placement wasn’t such a good idea – grain dust and sparks from a lightning bolt make a bad combination.

About an hour later, the train pulled to a stop at the last station. The line the elektrichka was on did not go any further. Outside the station for a half kilometer, the road was clearly designed to not encourage hitchhiking, so I dragged my bags through town toward the border, realizing that the time change worked in my favor, if only I could get an immediate ride. A Western Union awaited in Nagylak, and it might be open through 5 or 6 p.m.

Alas, optimism wasn’t going to get me anywhere as quickly as my feet were. I ended up dragging my baggage passed the center of town and onto the final stretch toward the border. As I reached the line of trucks waiting to get through, I was met by a guy on a bicycle who made several offers to get me through to the other side. A second bicyclist also tried, and when I refused to accept his services of taking my too heavy baggage to the frontier, he begged for a Euro coin. I said I didn’t have any and continued on, mindful and increasingly nervous about the descending sun.

The first bicycle guy followed me to the last petroleum station before the frontier checkpoint. I spent the last of my Romanian money on food and drink, and then tried to reach a proper hitching point. My would-be helper tried to direct me into a taxi at this point, but I refused, remembering my first experience in Ukraine, where my things were rifled through once on the other side. I’d try for a Hungarian plated vehicle, I decided.

Then a guy asked me in English where I was going, and I said I was trying to get to Szeged. He told me that I should just walk up to the checkpoint because as soon as the sun went down, getting through on foot wouldn’t be possible. No one else was walking up to the border, and indeed, the Internet noted that you couldn’t walk across. Despite the naysayers that weren’t here at the actual border, I decided to try.

Naturally I was approached by a guard on the Romanian side, puzzled that I was trying to walk through. He asked to see my papers. Apparently holding onto a U.S. passport was enough to allow me to do what everyone said was impossible. I continued on to the Hungarian side, who again wanted to see my papers. They insisted on stamping my passport (this was the first time I had seen a border official backstamp a passport – the Hungarians weren’t interested in stamping me on the way out during the Saiz Tour trip, however, the border people would be sure that there was a stamp for May 26 before I went back in). Once through, I was on my way by foot into Nagylak.

I continued my optimistic planning about my daughter’s future that I started outside the Hostel Costel the night before as idled away the last daylight while thumbing a ride outside the Lukoil station on the far edge of the tiny village. Before sundown, a panel van with a Romanian plate stopped. I decided against the ride, and continued hitching. Finally a couple stopped as the skies were getting dark, again Romanian plates, but the older female aboard made me feel a little better about the ride. They were heading to Vienna, where the driver was going back to work as a security guard. They would take me as far as Szeged.

Hungarian towns, such as Mako, passed as my thoughts went to where to find a place to change money. I had dollars and a handful of Lei, but no Forints. I’d have to try to change the dollars at the train station, I decided.

However, when I was let out at Szeged, I was clear across town from this destination. I spent the next couple hours trying to drag my increasingly heavy luggage to the station, passing cultural monument after cultural monument. Indeed, the town appeared perfectly safe – I and my baggage were the most dangerous things on the street. Finally, I reached the station just after midnight – which meant just after closing. The night guard was just locking the door. No Forints, no money until morning, and another night on the street. This was getting old.

The road from Sirmium to Aquincum, after the fall of Romanian Dacia

Aerial view of the archeological excavations of the Roman camp at Aquincum in present Budapest (the site of the Aquincum Museum). Photo by Civertan via Wikimedia Commons.

After the gold and silver mines of Dacia fell to the Daco-Getae and Goth alliance, the Danuvius River stood as the frontier of the Roman Empire and the barbarian tribal territories beyond. The frontier of Pannonia Secunda Province was perhaps the most built up – it had to be as it was defending the capital of the Diocese. The cities of Colonia Aurelia Cibalae (present Vinkovci, Croatia) and Mursa (present Osijek) watched over the northern part of the Roman road that ran along the province’s imperial frontier.

Mursa, an Illyrian settlement since time immemorial, was raised to the status of a Roman colony in the year 131. It served as a strategic point in several of the region’s civil wars during the later years of the Western Roman Empire before the Hun invasion and the rise of the Ostrogoth kingdoms removed it from Roman control. Eventually, the city was settled by Croats (who despite the colorfulness of their culture seem to this day to regard pre-Croat history as somehow a threat to their national identity).

Beyond Mursa was Pannonia Valeria, the reach of the Empire that contains most of what is today central Hungary. The eastern part, the Banat plains beyond the Danube, was never taken by the Romans. The province, formed by Emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century, was administered from Sopiana in southern Hungary.

Sopiana was the center of several wine-producing colonies located within the present boundaries of the Hungarian city of Pecs. It had originally been a Celtic city, but was transformed under the Romans into a viticultural center in the early second century. Before the arrival of the Ostrogoths to the region, the city had become an important Christian center in the Empire in the 300s, following Constantine’s Edict of Milan. As with other cities in the region, it fell to the Huns in 452, then to the Ostrogoths after Attila’s defeat in the west, and then the Lombards after the 6th century Gothic Wars. Eventually, the Avars took the city as their own until the advent of Charlemagne, who eventually incorporated the religious center into his empire. The Magyars took the region with the consent of the Franks, with the Arpad family eventually taking residence briefly in nearby Baranya Castle near the end of their people’s nomadic phase.

The road passed Sopiana and Gorsium-Herculia (present Tac, Hungary) on its way to Aquincum (the site of which is in present Budapest). This was the farthest frontier of Pannonia Valeria, the northeastern-most point of the Empire after Dacia fell to the westward fleeing Goths, advancing ahead of the Huns, in the fourth century.

Originally founded by the Celts, the Romans took the city in their northward advance, renaming it Aquincum (from some unknown Celtic name) for the hot springs that the ancient city enjoyed. Baths and houses with heated floors rendered a resort sort of atmosphere to this settlement, protected by the Roman Army from frequent attempts to take it.

The view from ground level at the Aquincum Museum in Budapest. Photo by Mihály László Farkas

Budapest’s Aquincum Museum, which contains artifacts and the archeological excavation of the administrative facility of the Roman settlement, indicates that this provincial capital city was in fact the site of a bridge that crossed first the channel between the right bank of the Danube (the “Buda” side of Budapest) and Margrit Island, and then a longer bridge that connected that island to the left bank of the Danube (the “Pest” side), from which the barbarians would occasionally appear. The town hosted a fort called in museum maps “Transaquincum”.

In 452, the Huns seized the city during the tail end of Attila’s invasion of the Western Empire. It remained under his control until the Ostrogoths took it from the remnants of his Empire after his retreat from Gaul. The Ostrogoths retained the region until the Lombard invasion. Finally, the Magyars, led by the Arpad family, seized the city and built their great castle, naming both municipality and fortress Buda, at the end of the 800s.

A century later, the Hungarian kingdom was legitimized on the banks of the Danube. After the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, the city became the capital after it was rebuilt in 1361. Another 180 years later, the Ottoman Empire would seize the city and hold it for 140 years before the Hapsburgs could again restore it to the Holy Roman Empire. By 1718, Greater Hungary was again liberated from the Turks.

In the century following Napoleon, the Hungarians struggled for independence from the Hapsburgs, achieving a version of their sovereignty within the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the latter a compromise that maintained Hapsburg control of Hungary in return for shared administration of the former Holy Roman Empire). The post-Great War Treaty of Trianon, which created the present boundaries between Hungary, Romania, present Slovakia, and the former Yugoslav states of Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia, still smarts in the minds of some Hungarians, if T-shirts available at Budapest’s Nepliget bus terminal are any indication.

Today, Hungary is firmly a member of the European Union, albeit one that remains outside the Euro zone (many economic reforms are still required of the state before it can tie its economy with those of the continent’s wealthier states, should it choose to do so).

The road from Szeged to Budapest

Modern Budapest tram in front of Nyugati train terminal. End of the line from Szeged. By Uzo19 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the morning, the terminal opened on time. The night had been spent under camera in the relative safety of Szeged watching tram drivers in training drive by on practice runs, and then finally a final test just before the regular day started. The terminal had no exchange counter, and the teller was not equipped to take US dollars to pay for the ticket to Budapest. So, as the sun rose outside, I grabbed my bags and made one more foot journey across the city to the bus terminal.

The same story awaited there. No exchange points, no dollars for tickets. I went into the neighborhood in search of the first bank I could find. They would exchange dollars, I was sure.

An OTP bank waited not far from the bus terminal, and I decided to camp out there until opening time. When it did finally open, a couple hours later, the place was very bureaucratic, with a ticket required for every transaction, even the simple selling of dollars. After finally completing my transaction (they wouldn’t accept my final 4 Lei of Romanian currency, even being so close to the border), I went to the bus station, and sought out a ticket to Budapest. Not until the afternoon, the teller seemed to say.

While eating breakfast, a Hungarian version of a Mexican hamburger, I decided that if I was going to be in town so long, I might as well try for the Western Union at the main post office. The tram took me there just in time for the 11 a.m. lunch break. The transaction could be carried out only at 1 p.m.

At this point, I decided I’d be taking the train instead of a bus. I brought my things to the station, parked them in a left luggage locker, and then returned to the area of the post office. After a quick cold drink and a few moments on email, I returned to the Western Union office, whose tellers had apparently hoped I would disappear during lunch. About 15 minutes later, like extracting teeth, I extracted my nearly 85,000 Forints which I was to use to get things going on the selling of that farm in the western part of the country. That would be a whole other adventure.

This adventure that I was already on, however, continued though back at the train station. As storm clouds built overhead, the train finally arrived at the station, and after picking out what seemed a safe enough second class booth, I settled in for the afternoon train ride to the city. Snoozing, I awoke shortly afterwards when a group of students joined me in my booth. Young and attractive females are almost always pleasant company for an older man, even one that is no longer available, and I tried to listen if there was anything that I could understand of their conversation. I understood very little, much less than even Spanish, my bane of the past couple years in Chile.

A few stations later, the students got off and a shadier couple started prowling the car. The guy was obviously a gang member, apparently trying to impress a girlfriend. Near to Budapest, they asked to join me. I decided it was better not to refuse. They offered to share a salami with me, but I pointed out that I had already eaten. Again, my Hungarian isn’t all that good, but my imagination was telling me that his girlfriend was trying to talk him out of attacking me. As the train passed the Budapest airport station, I decided to make my exit from the compartment.

Once at the safety of Nyugati (or Western) Station, an Austro-Hungarian Empire era metal and glass colossus built by the Eiffel Company in 1877, the type you’d see in a film noir movie, I made my way to the subway and sought out the one hostel I had memorized the location to, the Black Sheep Hostel. This was the far side of the Western Roman Empire for me. After settling in with my computer and the wifi code for the hostel in the bed I had rented for two nights, I decided my arrival here came not a moment too soon.

I want to express my thanks first to Justin Swanstrom of Denver, Colorado, a fellow volunteer curator on Geni whose knowledge of the Roman Empire and Latin place names proved extremely valuable in the prevention of me making a fool of myself. It’s always good to have friends that will keep you from doing that.

Secondly, I’d like to express my heart-felt appreciation to Mihály László Farkas, another fellow Geni curator from Budapest, Hungary, who took the time last Friday to show me Buda Castle, the top of Hármashatárhegy (or Three Border Mountain, the boundary between the cities of Buda, Obuda, and Pesthidegkut before the cities merged in the 1800s, according to English Wikipedia) – he even bought lunch at the Udvarház or Yard House restaurant in an unexpected gesture of traditional Hungarian hospitality -, and to the Aquincum Museum, where the final pieces of my exploration into the Roman roads within ancient Pannonia came together.

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One Response to Forty hours on a Romanian bus, or 80 days on a Roman road, Part 4: Romania

  1. Pingback: Empty-handed on the Amber Road: Leaving Balaton | BenStuff

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