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So it is in keeping with our long-standing commitment to focus on unconventional tourism as and when we can that we decided to visit - for no apparent reason - every metro station on the Bucharest system. In one go. As quickly as possible. We named it the Bucharest Metro Challenge.
Like the very idea of underground railways, that of visiting every station on a metro system as quickly as possible comes from London. Known there as the Tube Challenge, the idea has been around since the early 1960s, and the current record holder is Mark Gawley, who visited all 270 London Underground stations in 16 hours and 29 minutes.
The rules of a tube or metro challenge are relatively simple. The clock starts the moment the doors close on the first train taken. To `visit' a station, you must arrive and/or depart by an underground train in normal public service. It is only necessary for a train to stop at the station for the visit to count: you do not need to get out. Stations served by more than one line only need to be visited once. Other forms of public transport (except taxis) can be used to transfer between lines if needs be.
Now, while visiting every station on the Bucharest metro (when we did it there were 43, there are now 45) is a far less arduous task than doing the same thing in London, it still requires a fair bit of planning: where to begin and what route to follow probably being the most important things to consider. So it was after much consultation of timetables and route maps (not all of which are reliable) that we decided our Bucharest Metro Challenge would start at Pantelimon, that eastern outpost of the Bucharest metro served only by a shuttle to and from Republica.
Pantelimon station’s very existence is testament to the purpose for which the metro was originally constructed: for getting workers from the housing estates of Titan, Militari and the like to the huge industrial platforms on the outskirts of the city. Ironically, Pantelimon was opened in January 1990, just three weeks after the revolution which was to ultimately bring about the collapse of industrial Bucharest. Indeed, a tour of the Bucharest metro is a sad reminder of the decline and fall of Romanian industry over the past two decades.
So instead of thousands of industrial workers, the only support we had as we set off on the Bucharest Metro Challenge was a small herd of cows, grazing gently in the field next to Pantelimon station. An obligatory stray dog was also taking something of an interest. While we weren’t expecting fanfares and a personal appearance from the mayor, kicking the whole thing off on our own with a farmyard of animals was a little inauspicious.
Sandwiches, juice and a plan of attack painstakingly logging every leg of trip in hand, we set off on the 11:21 shuttle from Pantelimon - Republica. Not the busiest part of the Bucharest metro, there were three passengers on board; including us. And a dog. (If you ride the Bucharest metro often enough you will see more than the odd stray hitching a lift, usually asleep under a seat). From there we headed to Anghel Saligny, one of the newest parts of the system, and highly impressive it is too, most notably in its excellent signage: we have a list of problems the Bucharest metro needs to solve, and poor signage is one of them. It’s therefore nice to report that in the newer stations at least, things are improving.
A few others things we noticed on our way around: The Bucharest metro is slow. Far too slow. Trains crawl along much of the system. Does old track need replacing? Or are old signalling systems to blame? Either way the system is clearly starved of funds.
Then there is the graffiti, or urban art. (Or vandalism; delete according to your preferences/prejudices). It covers almost all of the older style rolling stock: the newer trains are (so far) graffiti free. If it’s genuine artwork we can almost live with it. Much of it alas is simply tagging: little more than talentless territorial pissing.
The language used in anything written by Metrorex - the company that operates the metro - remains comically antiquated, real legacies of the age of limba de lemn. A sign presenting the types of tickets you can use on the metro refers not to simple ‘bilete si abonamente’ but instead to ‘titluri de calatorie.’ Yet at the same time, the newer rolling stock on lines M1 and M3 has display boards inside the carriages that tell you the name of the next stop, and which side the platform will be on: and the information comes in Romanian and in English. How modern is that?
Photographers are not welcome on the metro. We got asked to stop taking photos three times while taking the Bucharest Metro Challenge, always replying with the standard stupid tourist thing: we shrugged our shoulders, pretended we didn’t understand and carried on taking pictures. In all honesty, we felt like telling these security guards who object so strongly to photographers that we had every right to take photos. We were making history! Why couldn’t they understand that?
And history is what we most certainly did make. After 67 kilometres, 43 stations and almost three and half hours (three hours, 28 minutes and 24 seconds to be precise) we arrived at our final stop, Berceni. We’d done it. We’d visited every station on the Bucharest Metro, and we were the first people ever to do it in one go. It might not guarantee us anything other than a footnote on Wikipedia, but we were chuffed to bits all the same.
So on the platform at Berceni, in the absence of a welcoming committee made up of dancing girls and dignitaries handing out medals we simply got back on the train for journey home. We talked about how we would have to do it all again soon - and we will, for not only have two new stations have opened since then, but first a local photographer, Cosmin Iftode, broke Bucharest In Your Pocket’s record by eight minutes, even with the added burden of two new stations. He did it in three hours, 20 minutes and seven seconds.
Most recently, a team from Vice Romania did it even quicker: three hours, 12 minutes and 47 seconds. A new record? Maybe not. Max Turp-Balazs (who was part of the original Bucharest IYP team which did the challenge first) claims to have done it with a friend, Toma Sacuiu, five seconds faster.
Read the original text of this article (in Romanian) at Decat o Revista.