Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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So after an interesting (and surprisingly relaxing) fourteen hour train ride we arrived today in the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia. Having a private sleeping car makes riding the rails quite pleasant! It was sort of a strange coincidence that the first time we have experienced rain and sub 70-degree temperatures this entire trip would be the day we arrived here. It reinforced the stereotype I grew up with of the "Communist Bloc City", cold, wet, and grey with Cyrillic writing all over the place. However, the shopping malls, friendly people, and KFC restaurants everywhere were a bit incongruous with my earlier vision. The rain prevented us from walking around too much but we were able to see the landmark of the city, the Aleksander Nevksi Church. It was built in honor of the over 200,000 people who died fighting invasions of the Ottomans. Also managed to see the high stepping, boot stomping changing of the guard in front of the Presidential Building (Nicknamed the "Ministry of Silly Walks") before ducking back to our hotel to wait out the rain
Tomorrow we are heading east to Plovdiv for a few days, which our guidebook and friends all recommend as one of Bulgaria most appealing cities. Hopefully the weather will cooperate a bit more but regardless I'm sure we'll have some great experiences to report within a few days.
Oh, by the way, МAКДОHAЛДС is how McDonalds is spelled in Bulgarian Cyrillic!
So, I'm sure you are all dying for a night train review. Again, interesting concept, but if you are looking for luxury, it's not hiding on a Bulgarian train (trust me, I looked). As promised, we had a private sleeper cabin with two bunks and a little sink (see pic). It had a solid door that locked (so it was private and safe) and a window to the outside. Each train car had a shared toilet, and one whiff of it was enough to make you want to hold it and not drink any liquid for the entire 14 hours. But, just so I'm not unfair to Bulgarian trains, I should mention that we have seen much worse since our trip started a month ago
The décor in the car was exactly what you would picture for a 1960's style with communist/industrial flair. Formica counter, plastic wood-patterned paneling, lots of metal and things with sharp edges sticking out that we kept bumping into and scratching ourselves. Let's just say it wouldn't be "parent approved" in the US. The beds were surprisingly comfy (it's all relative), and somehow I managed to get about 9 hours of sleep (and without the aid of Tylenol PM).
The interesting thing is how passport control was handled since it was an international train ride. We left Istanbul at 10pm, and arrived a few miles from the border of Bulgaria just before 3am. All passengers had to get off the train, climb down into the train track well, and cross several sets of tracks to make our way to a concrete slab office to get our passports stamped out of Turkey. This whole process took about 1.5 hrs because there was only one guy working (or hardly working). Around 4:30am, the train started moving again and we both fell asleep.
About 30 minutes later, Bulgarian passport control representatives boarded the train and knocked on individual cabin doors to get our passports, while customs officials inspected each cabin. Now, this seemed kind of strange to me because I was dead sleep just moments before and had kind of forgotten where we were. On top of that, I had my glasses on (I am practically blind without my contacts) so I couldn't really see, and the customs official had a huge flashlight shining in our faces. Add that to the fact that I was lying down in a bunk in my pj's (clearly I wasn't expecting visitors)
Anyway, it all worked out, and our passports were returned with fresh Bulgarian stamps and the train pulled across the border at sunrise at 6 am. And in the distance we could hear roosters and the call to prayer from a near by mosque. All in all, a very unique experience since we had absolutely no idea what to expect.
Our train finally arrived in Sofia at 1:30 - just 13.5 short hours after departure. This afternoon, we braved the rain a bit to see some of the main sights in Sofia, including the changing of the feather-capped guards (see video). We are looking forward to spending some time in a few of the quaint Bulgarian towns over the next few days.