Belgrade to Sofia

Wednesday 1st Novemeber – Thursday 2nd November

Half an hour later than expected the Belgrade Sofia express night train creaked its way out of the station in the pouring rain. Out of the window I could see signalmen in their signal boxes crowding round televisions to watch the football. To save a bit of cash I had opted for a six-person sleeping compartment (compartments tend to come in twos, threes or sixes, with privacy varying inversely proportionately to beds). As luck would have it however, I had the entire six-person compartment to myself. I took pleasure in using all the little kitsch features in my moving hotel room for the night: the little hooks, reading lights, built in radio and light switches everywhere. Bizarrely I had to ask the attendant for permission to change bed even though I was the only one in the cabin.

I awoke at 4am to bright headlights shining into my cabin from both sides. I had forgotten to close my curtains, and dazzled by the lights, I scrambled to close the curtains without compromising my modesty. Anticipating that we had arrived at the frontier I lay there for some time, maybe half an hour, waiting for the border guards to come into the cabin to check my passport. Being quite drowsy it took me a while to notice the dull metallic clicking sound coming from outside. Finally I got up to find out what was going on. It transpired that my carriage was in fact stopped midway across a level crossing – hence the lights shining in from both sides. The train had hit a car which I could now see shunted over to one side of the road. The clicking sound was the sound of the alarm to warn people that train was coming.

I was able to ascertain that the while hurt, the driver of the car had not been killed. It was a rather unsettling spectacle. My mobile hotel room had unexpectedly arrived in their high street. I felt like an invader; a morbid tourist. There was little else to do except go back to sleep.

When I woke again it was eight and we still hadn’t crossed the border. The train cut its way through steep-sided valleys and as we climbed the rain that been falling since we left Belgrade turned to sleet. We arrived at Dimitrovgrad, the last stop before the border, six hours later than expected. There was little to distinguish this station from a goods yard save for the fact that most of the passengers on board got off here. Shuffling along the ground between the high-sided goods trains, the alighting travellers struggled with heavy suitcases in the sleet, which was now turning to snow – the sinister side of this spectacle didn’t escape me.

With the border guards happy, the train left an hour later towards the frontier. On the road that followed the tracks, a traffic jam of lorries stretched for what must have been several kilometres leading up to the customs point. Sights such as this demonstrate just how much easier trade must be within the Schengen zone. Finally we left the mountains of Serbia and made headway into the brownish high plains of Bulgaria, the rhythm of the rattle of the train on the tracks have changed when we changed country.

Apart from the odd isolated village and an enormous open mine, there was little to see in that barren landscape until the train started to approach Sofia. I could see the city appear on the horizon. First there were tower blocks, but before we reached these, the train went past fields just filled with rubbish. These fields gave way to ramshackle houses typically made up of a solid core supporting lean-tos and tarpaulins. The sight was quite unlike anything else I have seen in Europe. We went past train sidings where carriages stood with trees growing out of them. The train slowed and on either side I could see people walking along the tracks in the direction of the train. Seven hours later than expected, I arrived in Sofia