A Cure For Romance – The Belgrade To Sofia Sleeper: Sunday Mourning (Part Three)

The allure of the Belgrade to Sofia overnight sleeper was not entirely based on the imagined romance of the Orient Express, it was also partly financial. I would save the cost of one night’s accommodation while also not wasting a day of travel getting to Sofia. I would arrive after a night of peaceful sleep, refreshed and ready to tour the city. There was only one problem with this idea. The Belgrade to Sofia sleeper was anything but restful. It turned out to be a hot box on rails. The train banged, clattered and clanged. Several times I could have sworn that it was bouncing up and down on the tracks. The train would accelerate and then suddenly brake causing me to slide across my sweat soaked bunk until my head was pressed firmly into the wall. At one point I fell asleep only to be awakened by an intense burning sensation. My feet were up against the heater, which was scalding to the touch. The compartment was the setting for a Serbian sauna. Sleep was nearly impossible.

Railroad line in Serbia

Into the dawn – railroad line in Serbia

Niš – A Three Letter Word For History & Misery
It was about this time that the train stopped for an extended period. I peered through the curtain at an empty station platform. We were stopped at a large place. I surmised that this must be Niš. My curiosity was piqued and my heart sank at the same time. I had really wanted to see Niš but was unable to manage it on this trip. Sitting at a platform siding was not enough for me to ever definitively say I had been to Niš. This little three letter place name meant more than a provincial city deep in southern Serbia to me. Historically it punched above its weight. Niš was the birthplace of none other than the Roman emperor Constantine, the man who turned the empire towards Christianity. After his rise to power, he kept a palace in the area. He spent a considerable time at it during his reign.

The ruins could still be visited on the outskirts of Niš. The city was also home to one of Europe’s ghastlier attractions, the Skull Tower. This is a tower made up largely of Serbian skulls. Constructed in 1809, by the order of a Turkish pasha who had put down an uprising in the area, this horrific creation consisted of 54 skulls of Serbians (originally there were 952) killed in the Battle of Čegar. Alas, none of this was on offer at the station. All I could see was an empty platform. Niš may have been a city teeming with history and humanity, but in the early hours of the morning none of this could be discerned. After a considerable delay the train started back down the tracks. The Bulgarian border could not be that far away.

Train at Sofia Central Station

Point of arrival – train at Sofia Central Station (Credit: Bahnfriend)

Smoke Screens – Toil, Toughness & Tiredness
While making an early morning run to the bathroom, I noticed the compartment attendant standing in the corridor. He was leaning against the window, the top half of which was open. While peering into the passing darkness, he took drags from a cigarette, smoking in a no smoking car. He had a useful ruse to circumvent this regulation. Each time he took a drag from his cigarette, he would hold it out the window. The smoke then blew back into the corridor. He did not so much as give me a glance as I walked by him and inhaled a lungful of smoke. If pressed on the matter, I am sure he would have said, “At least I am trying.” After the bathroom break I finally fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion.

Just a couple of hours later I awoke to the sound of “Passport Control.” The Serbian inspector stamped my passport without question. Usually I am nervous during passport check, but at this point I hardly cared. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian inspector took a bit more interest in my travel. He asked where I was going and why. I mumbled something about tourism and traveling around the Balkans. What I really wanted to say was “please, please drag me off to the nearest air conditioned dungeon.” I lacked the energy to offer any resistance. My will to resist had dissolved into puddles of sweat. After a minute he stamped my passport. I collapsed back into the soaked bed, but I barely slept. Outside, the pretty pastoral terrain of Bulgaria offered a picturesque setting. Bulgaria was the poorest country in the European Union, but the villages looked quaint and inviting. Rural poverty is deceptive. There are no cracked concrete apartment blocks, only squat houses with stucco roofs surrounded by small garden plots. The harshness of a quasi-subsistence lifestyle was hidden from view. To a westerner’s eyes these villages look bucolic. For a Bulgarian they are an eternal way of life marked by toil and toughness.

Interior of Sofia Central Station in all its emptiness

Interior of Sofia Central Station in all its emptiness (Credit: Jorge Lascar)

Anti-Climaxing – Sunday Morning In Sofia
Unable to sleep and nearing Sofia I took the attendant up on an offer of coffee. A black oozing substance was brought to me in a paper cup. My initial sip was startling, an eye popping eye opener. The coffee was so strong that it gave me instantaneous shakes. It tasted like coffee flavored gasoline with a thousand times the caffeine. There were grounds swimming in the bottom of the cup that looked like they had been scooped from the black earth of a peasant’s garden plot. Finishing the entire cup was an act of willpower. My stomach began to roil almost immediately. It was not long before I had a pounding headache. The train compartment rustled to life on the outskirts of Sofia. Bibi and her stinky footed friend packed their belongings. The American was as silent as ever. When the train pulled into the Central Station I bid them an abrupt farewell, knowing that none of us would ever meet again.  My first overnight train trip was at an end. The Simplon-Orient Express now meant nothing to me.  I did not want to repeat this hell on rails trip again anytime soon.

My fear of the Central Station had dissipated along the journey. Worn down by a lack of sleep I was irritable, on the verge of a short tempered explosion. At this point I was more a danger to any lowbrow criminal element that might get in my way, than they were to me. Half mad and eager for confrontation I stomped out of the cavernous station. There was hardly anyone around. I began the long slog on busted sidewalks to my hostel dragging an overloaded suitcase behind me. It was Sunday morning in Sofia and the city felt empty. The romance of travel was gone.

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