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Published: June 27th 2019
My Mother and I always delighted in hearing the whistling of trains as they passed through our town and even more so when once the train brought the circus to town. My first train journey of any length was as a child when my Mother and I traveled by train from the southeastern United States to Canada. The overnight journey included meals in the dining car and sleeping in a Pullman car sleeping bunk that had been made up by a Pullman porter. The train whistles, and the clackity-clack sound of cars on the rails is still a sound I love, and traveling by train in Bulgaria recently brought back all of those warm memories.
The state operated rail system in Bulgaria is the BDZ and the BDZ train we boarded on Platform 1 of Sofia’s Central Train Station for our trip east to Plovdiv was unlike any train travel I’ve experienced before, and because it was a journey taken with my husband and VirtualTourist (VT) friends, it will hold a special place in my memory.
Leaving Sofia on a Thursday morning with a group of our friends also attending the VT Euromeet in Plovdiv, we divided into two
groups to take taxis to Sofia Central Train station hoping to catch the 13:20 train; however, our driver dropped us at the Central Bus station which could have caused us a time problem but thankfully it was only a short walk to where we needed to be. The current station built in 1974 in the Brutalist architectural style of the Communist era underwent a renovation which was completed in 2016. The very large, multi-story building is modern, has some nice architectural texture elements inside as well as added softening features such as industrial artwork and even greenery from lots of plants all thriving in the copious light coming through the floor to ceiling multitude of windows. I always love hearing train arrival and departure announcements in the echoing spaces of a train station, and announcements echoed in Sofia’s train station too with the only difference being that I could not understand what was being said.
A few in our group volunteered to stand in line to purchase tickets on the main level but there were already long queues and so we were a little afraid to miss the train we wished to take; we shouldn’t have worried as we
learned there were more ticket windows one level down, so down we went. Thankfully with a local person’s help, the woman at the ticket counter understood what we needed and so we received the hoped for “first class” tickets with reserved seats on the “Fast” train to Plovdiv for a sum just a bit over 10 lev (9,60 for the train, and another .50 lev for a reserved seat equaling just over US$6) for the 2+ hour journey to Plovdiv. Train tickets, almost in the form of cash register receipts, come with an official blue stamp and have all the information you will need printed on them; of course, the catch is that the receipt is printed in the Cyrillic alphabet in Bulgarian. It will show the date, your destination, your departure and arrival time, the platform number your train will arrive on, your seat number if reserved, the cost of the ticket and a bit more that I was not able to decipher.
While waiting for the tickets I saw a window display case in the Train Station which caught my eye – a large panorama photo of the original 1888 train station along with a vintage desk,
phone, and typewriter. Even more interesting were framed photos of old Bulgarian trains with their insignia (train numbers, nose art, etc.) mounted next to them. The Bulgarian train engines and cars I saw here seemed to be typical of the European style with blunt but rounded profiles with little detailing but these were older trains and perhaps the newer models look quite different.
Just before walking to the platform, most of us visited a little food shop on the lower level to buy foodstuffs for a “picnic” on the train as there is no dining car and no food and drink trolley on the Sofia to Plovdiv line. While some may not find it necessary to buy anything to eat, for most of us we felt that it would probably be about 8 hours until our next meal if we did not buy something to eat even if just a snack. In reality it would have been a good deal longer than 8 hours before our next meal if we had not bought something to have on the train.
Not actually understanding what items were in the pastry section (sweet or savory), I was able to convey that
I wanted a sweet pastry rather than a cheese, or cheese and chicken pastry but I was still not sure what I was buying. I should have bought two of these pastries (versus one) as it was delightful with apple and cinnamon filling. Along with a couple bottles of water, the total was less than 4 lev.
Outside on the long platform we had a only minute to take in our surroundings before a train arrived, and we determined that we needed to board one of the several cars which had been spray painted with colorful graffiti. Overhanging the platform was a clock and electronic board announcing the train. Hurrying to get on the train in the short time allotted, the “gap” from platform to train car being huge; help was needed to lift your luggage onto the train and then climb aboard through the narrow door quickly, and then in turn help the person behind you do the same.
Since this was obviously was a very old train car judging by the rusted exterior, I was hoping we might find even a bit of faded elegance in the car – wood trim, etched interior windows, vintage lighting
or bits of brass – there were some wooden features but the car was quite utilitarian. In this train car there were sectioned, cabin-like seating compartments with three numbered seats on each side of the compartment, each seat covered in a cranberry-colored upholstery and only a small ledge at the window instead of a table. Above each set of seats was a metal rack to hold small luggage or parcels. Large pieces of luggage were placed in the corridor. All of this was absolutely fine but as we were about to find out on this hot day, sadly there was no air-conditioning and our compartment's window would not latch in the open position. With 6 of us in the compartment, the heat continued to build throughout the ride until it was almost unbearable. Needless to say, the bottled water I purchased came in very handy and we could have used more.
I should mention that when we first boarded there was an elderly gentleman and a middle-aged woman in the compartment each sitting next to the window and I assumed they were together. Soon a younger woman came to fetch the gentleman but the seated woman remained where she
was. A bit later a lady conductor came to check and punch each person’s ticket and we gathered from the interaction between the conductor and the other woman in our compartment that her ticket was for a second-class seat. The conductor would have none of the woman’s pleading to stay seated where she was so the woman reluctantly moved out of our compartment. No doubt she was unhappy she was being displaced, and by foreigners at that.
We occasionally wandered out to the corridor passage to stand at the open window to get fresh air, to get a different view, and to take photos. Passing lots of agricultural fields, and once or twice another train, it was nice to see the countryside and look out beyond the fields to see a somewhat faint outline of mountains in the distance. To the west of us we would pass the Rila Mountains as well as come closer to the larger range of the Rhodopes as we neared Plovdiv. Snow could be seen on some of the taller peaks.
As we passed the green fields of agricultural crops rather than rose fields, a few houses or farm buildings dotted the fields,
but most houses other buildings which I could see were clustered around the train stations for the most part until we got very close to Plovdiv. People leaving our train carried off packages or bags with them rather than luggage so I assumed that they were purchases most likely bought in Sofia.
Our 13:20 train to Plovdiv was labeled as the “Fast” train, however, rather than referring to actual speed we would find that that actually meant this train made fewer stops than other trains going in the same direction. During our journey the train stopped probably 4 times which I didn’t mind (in spite of the heat), though by the end of the trip I did feel exhausted by the heat.
At least one station we stopped at had a solid, Communist-era style building while others looked older and not in too good repair. We saw very interesting older train cars and engines on sidings and other remnants of the railroad’s past which appealed to my imagination about what life was like here especially during Communist times. Our stop at Vakarel Station, which at 837 meters is one of the highest stations in Bulgaria, came early on
but we also made stops at Stations Belovo, Septembri, and Stamboliyski on the Maritsa River before reaching Plovdiv. The town of Stamboliyski itself was founded about 1873 primarily because of the Istanbul- Belovo rail line being built. The name Stamboliyski was given to it in honor of a former Bulgarian Prime Minister and a proponent of the Agrarian Peasant Movement.
Just like in a documentary on trains across Europe including Bulgaria which we had seen years earlier, some if not all these stations had a stationmaster holding a round paddle signaling the train engineer the ‘all aboard’ and ready to proceed status, and perhaps Bulgarian uniforms today weren’t as complete and sharp as those I remember seeing in the documentary, it was enough for me to marvel at my good fortune to experience Bulgarian train travel in 2019!
Since arriving home from Bulgaria I have researched more about train #8601 and learned that in July, 2014, it suffered a major derailment on track No 4 passing through Kaloyanovets Station in the Stara Zagora district, about 117 miles east of Sofia, killing the locomotive engineer and injuring at least 7 other passengers – a very sad incident to be
sure. However, this information would lead to another very interesting fact -- Kaloyanovets is home to a train graveyard full of ancient and rusting steam locomotives, wooden box cars and 20th
-century electric engines and rail cars. It’s unfortunate that rail history is being lost as these decay. Like the abandoned Communist monument of Buzludzha, this railroad graveyard is one of several places I’d still like to visit in Bulgaria!
Our Fast Train #8601 was scheduled to arrive in Plovdiv at 15:50 before departing to continue its journey eastward crossing the country and ending in Burgas on the Black Sea. Arriving in Plovdiv was the beginning of yet other excellent adventures in Bulgaria. However, it wouldn't be long before we would again ride the BDZ -- only 4 short days -- next time on train #8613 from Plovdiv back to Sofia.
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