The Habit Of Premature Punctuality – Sofia To Veliko Tarnovo By Bus (Travels In Eastern Europe #10)

Many years ago when I first began contemplating long distance traveling I seriously considered going across the United States by bus. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, an art history professor at the local community college. He was always interested in adventurous ideas, especially ones that involved travel.  When I told him my initial plan, the expression on his face immediately turned to one of bemusement. He pondered the idea for a moment then said “You might want to take a short bus trip first.” I asked why. “Because those buses stop constantly and it takes forever to get anywhere. Riding a bus can be exhausting.” Right then and there the great American Greyhound bus trip came to an end. My idea had not survived first contact with a contrary opinion.

Sofia Central Bus Station

Sofia Central Bus Station (Credit: Nikola Gruev)

Bulgaria By Bus – Getting There The Hard Way
It would be over twenty years later before I would embark on a bus trip that was not part of a guided tour. This would be a trip from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, the medieval capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire located in the mountainous Balkan Range. I would have preferred to take a train, but there was no direct connection between the two cities and I wanted to lose as little time as possible. My goal was to see Veliko Tarnovo in a day and a half, then move on. Nevertheless, I dreaded the bus trip. Most of my anxiety was related to fears that came in the form of questions. Would we be stopping at every little village along the way? What would my fellow passengers be like? Would the roads be in decent condition or a minefield of potholes? Several days prior to departure, I began to have doubts about taking the bus.

I thought about going to Plovdiv instead, just because I could take a direct train there from Sofia. Trains are comfortable, spacious and relaxing. Buses are jarring, cramped and nerve wracking. The last time I had endured bus travel was on a two week trip around Turkey. This was on a guided tour with a reputable company. It soon turned into a series of hours long, exhausting odysseys, where the driver availed himself of numerous opportunities to pass in dangerous conditions. I imagined the same or worse could happen in Bulgaria, which was known for bad roads, poor drivers and Soviet levels of comfort when it came to public transport. One thing was for sure, it would be an experience, one that I would have to repeat on this trip and many others in Eastern Europe.

Surprisngly smooth - On the road in Bulgaria

Surprisingly smooth – On the road in Bulgaria

The Baggage Of Habit – Bringing It All The Way From Home
The Sofia Central Bus Station is located close to the Central Train Station. This makes it very convenient for travelers, but also means that the strange characters always lurking around urban public transport facilities are double in number. I scouted out the station in advance. Compared to the dreadful, communist era concrete pile of the Train Station, Sofia’s Central Bus Station was a classy upgrade. It was relatively new with a sparkling glass covered exterior. The shops inside were brightly lit and the ticket area efficiently manned. I later learned that it also has over a hundred surveillance cameras, likely for good reason. It certainly looked safe enough and I saw none of the glue sniffing, homeless that were rumored to be in and around the station. My departure was scheduled for mid-morning. Out of habit I arrived at the station an hour and a half early. I developed the ritual of premature punctuality as a child from time spent with my grandmother. She made it her mission in life to always be early for meetings, family gatherings and church. If someone arrived earlier than her, she was visibly shaken. It is incredible how even half a world and thirty years away from that upbringing, I still obeyed a habit ingrained during summers spent at my grandmother’s side. The people, language, alphabet and culture were all foreign to me in Bulgaria, but habit was the baggage that I carried with me everywhere. It gave me a sense of security.

I found the platform for my bus and joined a group of Bulgars who were managing to look both bored and anxious at the same time. Soon the bus arrived. Out jumped the driver who began to sell tickets for luggage which was to be stored in a compartment beneath the bus. This led to less a line and more of a crowd forming around him. My competitive instincts kicked in. I managed to jostle my way into prime position where I quickly purchased my luggage ticket, which was then packed away into the storage. I entered the bus and found an empty seat halfway to the back. My fervent wish was that no one would sit beside me, I was in luck. When it looked like everything was ready to go, quite suddenly a man appeared at the front of the bus. He held up what looked to be some kind of magazine-like travel guide. He then launched into a speech several minutes in length, at the end of which he stood silently holding the guides up in both hands. There were no takers. He exited as fast as he had appeared and soon we were on our way.

Destination - Veliko Tarnovo

Destination – Veliko Tarnovo (Credit: Nikola Gruev)

From Gridlock To Comfort – Journey To Destination
The ride to Veliko Tarnovo got off to a glacial start due to Sofia’s traffic. The snarl was maddening. Each time the bus stopped there was a minutes-long wait. Vehicles were packed almost on top of one another, bumper to bumper where nothing could move. Lines extended as far as the eye could see. There was no accident, only gridlock. It was ten in the morning yet it looked like rush hour. It was hard to imagine that it could be much worse, than again it could have been eight in the morning. Slowly, ever so slowly we crawled out of the city, idling for long moments beside the gigantic concrete apartment blocks that ringed the city. Finally after nearly an hour we broke free of Sofia.

A ribbon of black top in surprisingly good condition opened up before the bus. The bus made a gradual ascent into the Balkan Range, passing grassy meadows and rising hills covered with barren trees still a few weeks away from producing spring foliage. The smoothness of the ride was the opposite of what I had imagined. We only stopped a couple of times and made excellent time once outside the capital. I grew a bit sleepy, but forced myself to stay awake so I could have a look at the central Bulgarian countryside. It reminded me of the mountain areas of western North Carolina close to where I grew up. The familiar landscape brought me a feeling of comfort. It was not long before we arrived at the outskirts of Veliko Tarnovo. I ended up getting overly anxious and exited one stop too early. This left me standing at the bottom of a hill, with a steep trek in my immediate future. I could have cared less. The fresh mountain air energized me, it tasted just like home. I had a new city to explore in a beautiful landscape, with an incredible history I knew hardly anything about. I was deep in the heart of Bulgaria with nothing but time to myself.

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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.

Disorienting Express – The Belgrade To Sofia Sleeper: What Nightmares May Come (Part One)

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.

Belgrade Main Railway Station

Belgrade Main Railway Station (Credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Sofia Central Railway Station

A frightening prospect – the Sofia Central Railway Station (Credit: Edal Anton Lefterov)

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.

Serbian sleeper car at the Belgrade Railway Station

The nightmare awaits – Serbian sleeper car at the Belgrade Railway Station (Credit: Wikipedia)

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.