It seemed like a great idea at the time. The idea was to take the first overnight train trip of my life deep in the Balkans. I was to travel by rail from Belgrade, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria, two ancient and prestigious capitals of Eastern European nations. The former, a city my homeland had dropped bombs on only twelve years before, the latter sporting a beautiful female name, which as I would discover was one of the few elegant things about Sofia. The trip was historic and not just for me. This route had once been part of the Simplon-Orient Express, which had started in Paris and ended in Istanbul. Along the way it had traversed Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia. The line had managed to run from 1919 through 1977, with a suspension of service during World War II. This was an alternate, more southerly route than the original Orient Express. Though it would begin service thirty-six years later than the original Orient Express, it soon became the most popular route. Agatha Christie’s famous novel, Murder on the Orient Express took place along this route with the murder committed in eastern Croatia. I had read the novel a few years prior to my journey. Like so many others I was fascinated with the exotic characters and mysterious intrigue of rail travel as depicted in the novel. To ride even a sliver of the old Orient Express route would be an exercise in nostalgic travel or so I imagined.
The Beginning of the End – Sobering Sofia, Belligerent Belgrade
Despite these romantic imaginings I was a bit apprehensive. My trip had actually started in the same city it would finish, Sofia. I had first stumbled on the Central Station as I went to catch a ride at the adjacent bus terminal. One look at the monstrosity of the Brutalist-style station had stripped away any illusions of romantic train travel that I had. It was the kind of place only a Communist Central Committee would inflict on its citizenry, a ghastly creation of concrete rigidity, positively Brezhnevian in its stolidity. It looked to be built less for rail transport and more as a loitering point for suspicious individuals who inhabit the very fringes of society. It would have made a great set for the next Fight Club film. I had visions of glue sniffers galore lurking in its bowels. And this was just from a cursory glance. I shuttered to think that I would arrive back here on a Sunday morning from Belgrade at the end of my trip. Since childhood I have equated Sunday mornings with the Gospel Singing Jubilee television show that penetrated the airwaves of the American South. I now imagined out of work secret police, low level Bulgarian mafia wannabes and seedy currency exchange con artists all descending on me at once. My trip really would come to an end here, but hopefully not my life. For the next two weeks I tried to put these thoughts out of my mind.
Exactly thirteen days later I stood on a platform at Belgrade Main railway station waiting to board a sleeper car for Sofia. Surrounding me were a host of other travelers on their way to Sofia as well. Belgrade’s main station was much better than Sofia’s, than again how could it not be. A neo-classical pile that was constructed in the late 19th century, it retained a bit of faded charm. The station’s condition also reflected the fact that communism in Yugoslavia under the dictator Josip Tito had been more prosperous than the hardline variety that had bent Bulgaria into backwardness. Nonetheless, this whiff of prosperity was of little solace as I waited to board the sleeper. The delay was ostensibly due to a cleaning of the sleeper car. One could spend a lifetime cleaning Serbian railway cars with little to show for the effort. They were old, rickety and lacking in comfort. At best they were serviceable. The delay was prolonged by an extremely drunk, prospective Serbian passenger who managed to make his way into the car. Despite protestations to the contrary by railway staff he flitted up and down the corridor causing a degree of chaos usually reserved for melees. When he was finally led off by a conductor, he tried in vain several times to reenter.
There were murmurs and nervous glances among my fellow passengers. Like me, they were wondering who would be unlucky enough to have this inebriated man disrupting slumber in their compartment. A couple who had stayed at the same accommodation in Belgrade as me, a Norwegian man and an ethnic Hungarian woman who hailed from Slovakia were chattering away about this unfortunate occurrence. The Hungarian, who spoke impeccable, yet heavily accented English with an exotic lisp said, “In Slovakia that man would never be allowed on the train. The railway authorities would call the police and have him arrested.” Her Norwegian partner, who had heretofore worn a perpetual smile, now looked strained and apprehensive. Since Slovakia was not exactly known as a bastion of law and order I began worry as well. From her comment I divined that this trip might end up memorable for the wrong reasons. The sleeper car, with its faded paint job and battered complexion, looked outdated. The railway platform was shrouded in darkness. The elegant blue and gold cars of the Orient Express seemed more distance than the dinosaurs. Instead of mystery I began to feel menace. I braced myself for war when we were finally allowed to enter the sleeper.
What Nightmares May Come
When it comes to overnight rail travel there are few more stressful moments than the initial meeting with ones fellow compartment mates. Will they be sober and kind-hearted or slovenly and mean spirited? Will they be generous with space or fight for every inch? Can they be trusted or will sleeping with one eye open be required? Entering the compartment I was heartened by the sight of a couple of friendly, youthful Bulgarians. I assumed they were a couple, but the male who spoke good English said they were just friends. I got the distinct feeling that the friendship brought him many benefits. The female, who went by the name of Bibi was stunningly attractive. She had the dark exotic looks of what was likely a co-Bulgarian/Turkish ancestry. She could not speak a word of English, but smiled profusely. They were returning from a budget excursion to Venice. We were soon joined by a silent stranger. The Bulgarians occupied the top bunks while the stranger and I took the bottom ones. As we settled in for the evening my nostrils were suddenly assaulted by an extremely foul odor. A toxic, noxious smell suddenly pervaded the cabin. I glanced up at the young Bulgarian man in the top bunk across the way. I noticed that he had just removed his shoes. He grinned sheepishly. The odor was impossible to ignore. It was so strong that I could almost feel it. There was no escape. This was a harbinger of the journey to come.