The Chisinau to Bucharest Prietina Express: A classic railway journey
Classic Railway journeys are usually associated with breathtaking scenery, steam engines, white table clothes and uniformed stewards. When you ride the Prietina Express, you find nothing like this, yes it is a classic – you get to a vintage Soviet train, and sleep in compartments that have barely been altered since the 1950’s.
So, one of the things that enticed me to visit Moldova was riding this train. There had been reports that it may stop as most travellers fly (1 hour) or take the minibus (6-7 hours) or bus (7-8 hours) instead of going on a 13-hour night train journey. Also, as much as I would love the full-on train journey that is the Trans-Siberian Railway, most of us may not have the time or money, so this is a good “entry” into Eastern European long distance train travel.
Part of the once vast Soviet railway network, this overnight sleeper train, run by Moldovan Railways, is a relic from a time before cheap flights – a necessity, like in many places in Russian and Ukraine nowadays where sleeper trains are still very much the norm.
The geeky bit
The Chisinau-Bucharest overnight train is operated by the state owned Moldovan Railways (Calea din Ferata Modiva – CFM). Initially borad gauge, the tracks were converted to standard gauge in the 1920, only to be ververted after the Second World War, when Moldova was occupied and subsequently absorbed into the Soviet Union. Soviet Broad gauge remains to this day, meaning there is a break of gauge when you enter Romania. This explains in part the long stop at the border when the carriages have to be lifted onto standard gauge wheels.
The rolling stock is classic Soviet sleeper cars. They have not been refurbished much, so don’t expect luxury – however, as railway travel was very common in the Soviet Union, they are relatively spacious and actually comfortable, too. The Odessa line is currently operated with a refurbished Hungarian Diesel Multiple Unit and is much more modern. I think the train to Iasi might use these refurbished DMU’s too.
How to buy tickets
I took a minibus to Chisinau as I did not want two full days in Bucharest. So I took the train from Chisinau to Bucharest. In some ways it’s better: Gara Centrala in Chisinau is tiny and tidy and it’s a no-brainer to find the ticket office. Signs are bilingual Romanian and Russian. The train leaves Chisinau relatively early at 16.55. This means you get to the border around 20.00 and leave around 23.00. After this, no one will disturb you and you get to sleep. The other way round, you have to do border formalities around 2-3 am.
To buy tickets, you must go to Chisinau Station Ticket Office. They are usually open the usual office hours but they do a lengthy lunch break. To get to the Station, take Trolleybus N0.1 or 4 from Stefan cel Mare Boulevard. Riding the bus in Chisinau is extremely good – good route network, buses run until about midnight, the fare is a ridiculous 2 Lei, about 10 Eurocent. Just hop on the bus and the conductor will find you. No need to speak Russian or Romanian, just say hello, hand them the change or a small note and they issue the ticket. If you are unsure where to get off, someone on the bus usually speaks some English and will tell you when to get off. To the left of the station is a small convenience store selling everything you might need for the journey, if you forgot to stock up! Forget the Buffet Car – there isn’t one.
The Station is freshly renovated and pretty empty – unlike in Odessa, you won’t need to queue here. You see, there are about ten trains a day – mostly long distance trains into Russia. There is an early morning train to Odessa, and, of course the Bucharest train, as well as some services to Iasi in Romania. There is a Left Luggage Facility to the left. It was closed when I arrived there, but no probem – the Stationmaster window on the right of the picture will take care of you.
I made the mistake to arrive at the station well early, 45min before departure. There is absolutely no need, and neither are there facilities in the station other than ticket office and left luggage. About 30min before departure, our train pulled in.
And there wasn’t exactly a huge crowd waiting to storm the carriages. Before you enter the train, check your waggon number, then find the appropriate conductor and hand them ticket and passport. They will later collect and keep the ticket, so if you want your old fashioned ticket book back as a souvenir at the end of the journey, you got to ask the conductor to have it back.
Will I be safe? Will I be comfy?
And then, as I dragged my little case along the corridor, I felt like I had entered a railway museum. Smell included. This was full-on Eastern German Railways ca. 1983, but with more colourful textiles. Where do you now get satin curtains on a train? And they were really clean.
They’re so good, I give you a close-up view.
The conductor, though a bit monosyllabic and not really speaking anything but Russian and Romanian, is guarding the doors. He may not have been the friendliest, but when, 5min before departure, two males entered my compartment just when I was getting comfy and spreading myself over a 4-berth compartment, he swiftly replaced them with a young Moldovan woman. As a female travelling alone, I was much more comfortable to share a compartment with another female, rather than two guys, and I am glad the conductor rearranged the sleeping arrangements without prompting. Also, the Moldovan girl was great fun and a wonderful source of tips on where to go in Moldova.
Two of us had this 4-berth compartment. My new companion told me the upper berths rarely get used as the train never really fills up. There is lights including a reading light, space under the berth for your luggage, and these practical little nets for your glasses and water bottles. There are some electricity outlets in the corridor. For such an ancient train built decades before we all got mobiles and tablets that’s actually pretty good! You can lock the compartment from the inside if you wish – only the conductor has a key and can open it for border formalities.
They supply pillows, woolly blankets and some sheets and towels. All were very clean. Those benches/beds are narrow but surprisingly comfy! Also, if you really wanted to, you could use a mattress pad from the upper berth to make your bed a bit softer.
What do you think of the colour scheme? Burgundy-Apricot is a winner, in my eyes – gives you the cosy feel, and has stood the test of time!
More matching satin… I love the attention they give to these compartments. They may be old, but they are far from knackered. The only thing disliked was that the windows are sealed shut whereas some windows in the corridor would open.
And because I am totally honest and show you everything, I will not spare you the toilets. They look worse than they actually were. There was water, soap and toilet paper right until we arrived in Bucharest, which cannot be said about many train journeys in Western Europe. But it is an old-fashioned one. It has no chemical tank and all waste is deposited on the tracks as you flush it. You know what this means? Once you arrive at the border, the toilet will be shut for 2-3 hours as border controls take place (sanitary control, passport control on the Moldovan side, Customs, Romanian Passport Control) while the carriage is lifted 3 metres in the air and putt on standard gauge wheels. They don’t always tell you this before but if someone comes into your compartment and mentions toilet, its best to use it pre-emptively.
As the journey went on, a lot of people stood in the corridor, so if you feel social and want to practice your language skills, join in! Bring your own beer and vodka, as there is nothing on sale in the train.
So, the train left Chisinau very punctually at 18.56. Until 20.00 or so, we rolled quite slowly through slightly hilly, green and unexciting landscape.
This is pretty much the same landscape I have seen in all my short travels through Moldova – somewhat flatter in the South, but always very green and agricultural. Pleasant and unexciting. The tracks were quite good, ensuring a smooth ride. In other words, your water bottles would not fall off the table.
At 20.44, the train is scheduled to depart Ungheni City, and will arrive in Iasi around 22.43. Two hours for five kilometres? Oh yes, because in between is the border and a gauge break. While we chatted and viewed the contraption that lifts each carriage onto the new wheels, we were visited by sanitary control. That is a Moldovan Institution that I have failed to fully understand. My new companion just explained “well, they come and ask if we feel okay and I guess that’s it”. But what oif we don’t feel okay, are there any consequences? She laughed and shook her head. And although I might have been feeling a bit ropey on that journey due to the carb and oil-heavy diet in the first half followed by pretty much fruit and salad only in the second half, probably with some bugs I was unfamiliar with, I smiled at the lady and said I feel fine wonderful, in fact. While dying to run to the currently inaccessible toilet.
Another dry cracker or two later, Moldovan Border Police swiftly followed, taking the passports for a few minutes and stamping the Moldovan exit stamp into our passports. I was still mesmerised by the slow wheel-changing spectacle, which temporarily distracted my from my rumbling guts.
With new sets of wheels, we rolled a few hundred metres, and finally Customs would inspect us. “You have alcohol? You have cigarettes? No? Okay, good trip”. I admit, every border crossing, be it Romania, Moldova, Transnistria or Ukraine, was swift and hassle free on this trip. Yes, even Transnistria. When finally, Romanian Immigration entered the carriage, came as a shock to find they spoke English and not Russian! Although Romanian does remind me of Italian a lot, one might get away with Italian…
After that, we decided to lock our door and sleep… we may have noticed how the train stopped in Iasi, but generally very few people appeared to board the train, and I didn’t rally notice any of the other stops. I think the conductors made sure that anyone joining the train would be led into an empty compartment rather than one with people sleeping in it as there was pretty much no noise overnight.
Arriving in Bucharest
Around 05.30, there was a knock on the door, indicating we would soon arrive in Bucharest. It was so dark in September! At first, I did not like getting off that nice cosy train. I did like the dimly lit platform and although I felt a little rough, I liked the early morning platform vibe.
What can you do in Bucharest Gara de Nord at 6am? Well, if you haven’t booked somewhere, it might be best to hang around in the station for a bit. McDonalds has a large outlet inside the station that is warm, well lit and has bathrooms, free WiFi and electricity sockets. It was a slight struggle to find a vegetarian breakfast, but it has hot coffee and french fries. There are plenty other places too, but usually you’s be sitting outside. There is really not much around Gara de Nord. I ended up buying a pass for the metro and heading one stop to Plata Victoriei (essentially a huge traffic crossing) where I hopped on a sightseeing bus because I was tired and lazy. My flight to Berlin would leave Otopeni around 21.45, so I set off to explore Bucharest in twelve hours.
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To buy train tickets in Chisinau, just turn up at the Gara Centrala at a reasonable time. I think the ticket counter opens early, around 6am, but they hold some short tea breaks (they are called “technical breaks” here) and a break for lunch, before closing around 19.00. When I bought the ticket, the seller spoke good English. International credit cards are accepted, but there is also an ATM in the Station Hall. It is perfectly reasonable to pitch up 15min before the train leaves – unlike when you travel to Odessa, there is no Customs Control in Chisinau for the Bucharest journey. The price is just over 20 EURO for a second-class berth.
You can check train times now on Deutsche Bahn Enquiries online. There have been changes in teh service, in that ot had been suspended in recent years, or just ran every other day. When I travelled in September 2018 it ran every day. You may also be able to buy a ticket using an agent, but in my eyes, it’s not worth the hassle. The girl I met on the train travels this route frequently and says the tickets never sell out.
You can buy the ticket well in advance – I doubt the train will sell out but you will absolutely not get on the train without a ticket.
Most people may travel from Bucharest Gara de Nord to Chisinau, as Bucharest definitely has a lot more cheap flights than Chisinau. I think you can buy your ticket well in advance. Get it from the “Casa de Bilete” – not far from to McDonalds. That McDonalds, by the way, is a godsend when you arrive from Chisinau at 6am with nowhere to go, as it was clean toilets, free internet, and coffee! There are left luggage lockers (you need correct change) and also a 24h Left Luggage Office (cheaper) in Gara de Nord. I did not get any hassle or offers of “help” for money while there and found the station clean and modern.
Check if you need a Visa for Moldova – if you have a passport from Europe or the Americas you will be unlikely to need one. You can change cash into Moldovan Lei at the border, but unless you arrive in the middle of the night, you will usually find some money exchange open at way better rates in Chisinau. EUROs generally work best but US Dollars will be accepted too as well as Russian roubles. Also, change all your Moldovan Lei back before leaving the country, as you’ll be unable to exchange them anywhere else except perhaps in Transnistria.
Where to stay
For a country with such an underdeveloped tourist infrastructure, there are a decent number of hotels and even more serviced apartments in Chisinau. I highly recommend staying in the centre somewhere along or off Stefan cel Mare Boulevard. Not only is it safe, well lit and easy for orientation, it is central and offers transport any time of the day. I did not have trouble finding something the night before I wanted to stay, and every coffee shop/ restaurant has WiFi, so booking even at short notice is not a problem.
I stayed in three places:
The Chisinau Hotel* is, though extremely cheap, clean, safe, and right next to a bus stop yet easy to walk to both train station and city centre. It is also really old school, so if you want a taste to Soviet style travel, I would recommend this one.
Continuing with the faded Soviet theme, my night at the concrete beauty Cosmos Hotel* was somewhat less restful, and unless you’re deeply into concrete and viewing from outside isn’t enough, stay here. I found bed comfort and WiFi less satisfactory, but at least you get your own balcony and the staff was extremely friendly here.
After getting a bit tired with endless rounds of pies and bread, I opted for an apartment for the last two nights so that I could prepare food (i.e. salads and loads of fresh fruit) myself . This was also the cheapest, and I loved it. Not only was it 2 min from the Central Market (great for transport and fresh produce) , it was beautiful, clean, and very professionally managed. The listing can be found on AirBnB.
The good news: Most places of interest can be visited easily by public transport. The bad news: you really should, because organised tours are few and can be very expensive. 80 EUROs for a tour of Cricova? 100 EUROs to Orhei Vechi? That’s the reality of visiting a country with little touristic infrastructure. They only recently opened a Tourist Information Office in Chisinau (it is quite useful and on Stefan cel Mare Boulevard near the Organ Hall). So, I have no tours or tour operators to recommend, but refer to an extensive network of public minibus and bus services at autogara.md. You will be able to visit Cricova, Orhei Vechi, Milestii Mici, Castel Mimi and Bender and Tiraspol in Transnistria in day trips from Chisinau.