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Three Countries, 24 Hours

Sofia, Bulgaria


I had to get up early to catch my train, which left the central station in Belgrade at 7am. My train map, which I have carried with me everywhere so far for easy reference, highlights interesting and scenic parts of routes in green. Most journeys have some, and my journey from Bar to Belgrade was nearly all highlighted. I was about to embark on a 24.5 hour journey, none of which was highlighted in green - I would have to amuse myself in other ways.

I had found out the day before that instead of a single train, I would have to change at Sofia in Bulgaria, which would give me an opportunity to stretch my legs at least. The first part of the journey therefore, was on a normal European train, in a six seat carriage. For the first five hours I was in a carriage with three Serbian students who were travelling home to spend the holiday with their families. In the intense heat and without air conditioning, the carriage was quickly heating up, and as I tried to draw my curtain to at least shield myself from the sun, it got stuck. At this point one of the students swore loudly in English on my behalf, and we all starting laughing. From that point on, we talked the whole way to their hometown about everything from Shakespeare to Communism, and History to Music. As drama students, they knew English history and literature, and it was fascinating being able to draw comparisons with them. The one downside was that they were convinced I looked identical to Jamie Oliver; how Jamie Oliver has even found his way into the Serbian consciousness is beyond me.

By the time they got off I had had no access to food or water all morning. (We had been told there was a cafe - instead there was just one man making Serbian coffee on a stove in a neighbouring carriage.) They kindly got me some water and food on the station and passed it in through the window, so I was at least hydrated for the rest of the journey. Some hours later, we passed through Bulgarian border control and eventually reached Sofia. I had originally intended to stop here, but after extending my stay in Belgrade decided not to; seeing the littered fields, the slums and the miserable communist architecture, I was instantly pleased I wasn't spending the night. Whilst I'm sure the centre of the city has its fair share of sights, the outskirts were by far the most horrific of any place I have seen in Europe, and I couldn't believe I was within the EU, so great was the ubiquitous poverty.

At the station, I had huge difficulty finding the correct ticket sales office, as it is laid out like an airport and all the signs are of course in cyrillic. Thanks to the help of another tourist who apparently spoke both English and Bulgarian, I found it eventually ... to be told that there were no seats left on the train and the next one was not until the next day. I begged, I pleaded, and eventually I was offered a bed on the train but it would cost more. It did not matter; I was getting out of here at the first opportunity. In my remaining hour at the station I managed to locate a piece of bread, the only vegetarian food available, and my first and only meal of the day. Finally able to board the train, I was shown my carriage by a strange old man, who, after rubbing his fingers together and repeatedly saying 'very nice', I realised was after a tip - for what?! For walking my down to a carriage I could have found perfectly well on my own? I had even carried my own bag. Unfortunately I had a couple of Bulgarian bills hanging out of my pocket, but as I knew I wouldn't be needing them again I passed them over. He then had the audacity to ask for Euros, so I told him in no uncertain terms that he was wasting his time. I am still not sure if he even worked at the station or whether he was just a random local who thought he could make some easy money.

The journey was uncomfortable, due to a lack of storage space that meant I had to share a single bed with both my bags. However, the train itself was nice, and if you discount the toilet, the experience was not too bad. We were woken up several times throughout the night at the Turkish border, had to buy visas in USD or Euros after standing in the cold for nearly 2 hours - some people nearly ended up having to stay at the borderline because they didn't have the correct currencies - and eventually I woke up in the early morning somewhere outside of Istanbul.

permalink written by  BenWH on April 17, 2009 from Sofia, Bulgaria
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Turkey, Serbia and Bulgaria

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