Bulgaria, 27th November 2012.
I’m woken with a start by the shout and the knocking on my compartment door. In the dark I fumble for the light switch, my glasses and then my passport. I slide open the door to see a heavy set border guard wearing a green bomber jacket and holding a stamp. He looks briefly at the passport, stamps it, passes it back and moves on. I check the time, four o’clock in the morning, then turn off the light and fall into a half sleep.
I wake again, fumble for my things, open the door and sleepily hand the conductor my ticket. He looks briefly at the ticket, scribbles on it, passes it back and moves down the corridor. Five o’clock.
When I wake next it’s no longer dark, the train isn’t moving and I can’t hear any human movement. I lie still and try to work out what’s happening. I’m somewhere in Bulgaria, hopefully on my way to Sofia, assuming we’ve not already arrived. The train is meant to arrive around ten in the morning, but the trains are reliably a few hours late. I check my watch, it’s about eight in the morning.
I pull aside the curtain and look out of the window. There are a few parallel lines of track, a few platforms and one stationary goods train; beyond that some bigger warehouses and dilapidated factories with lines of rust dribbling down their sides of bent and missing corrugated iron. It looks like the industrial outskirts of a city. I know Sofia is not a big city, but could this be it?
Still only half awake I’m suddenly gripped by the thought; perhaps we’ve already arrived, early! That’s why the train isn’t moving and that’s why I can’t hear any people; they’ve all left.
I bolt upright, put on my shoes, manage to get my glasses to stay on after the second attempt and pull open the compartment door then stop and listen. I hear no movement in the carriage, the distant rumble of traffic in the distance and closer by the tinny sound of dance music playing from a small speaker.
Leaning out of the carriage window I see the station sign which says Стара Загора. I’d forgotten that Bulgarian is written in Cyrillic, looking again at the sign I have no idea what it means. Стара Загора, could that be Sofia Station? The platform next to us is quiet, I lean further out and see that the train is now only made up of two carriages and without an engine attached. I walk up and down the carriage corridor. In other compartments I can see people sleeping, as I move towards the toilet end I find the source of the dance music. One of the Turkish train conductors is lying asleep on the his back on a sleeper compartment’s bench, breathing quietly with his jacket draped over himself. Opposite him sits his laptop, happily playing folk infused dance music to itself. I’m pretty sure if we were in Sofia that the train staff and other passengers would not still be on the train peacefully asleep.
Feeling less panicked and a little stupid I return to my compartment and open the guide book at the bulgarian section. Looking at the map all the place names are written in Latin script, not Cyrillic. I flick through the different cities listed and notice happily that below each the name is repeated in Cyrillic. I go back to the corridor, look at the station sign, then start going through the pages of the guide, trying to see if I can match up the names. Eventually I match Стара Загора with Stara Zagora. Good, but where is Stara Zagora? I flick back to the map page; there, almost in the middle of Bulgaria. Now I know where I am I feel a lot more relaxed, but realise that it’s still a long way to Sofia, especially at our current speed of zero kilometres an hour. Seeing there’s no rush I go back to my compartment and go to sleep again.
The next time I wake up we’re moving, trundling through the flat yellow countryside. The carriage rocks gently and clatters with the knock of each rail joint. The occasional small village rolls by or a town where we stop at the single platform, always with a red hatted station manager there to meet us and then wave us off again. We continue like this for a few hours. I eat some baklava from the plastic bag of sweets I bought in Istanbul. The journey has not been kind to them; most have large bits missing, now floating somewhere in the bag, others are completely crushed. The only one unscathed is the large red lump of turkish delight. I pull off and eat a few remains of the weaker sweets from the sticky surface of the turkish delight, then seal the bag up again and return it to my rucksack.
The weather is still foggy, not as thick as at the border, but thick enough that I can’t see more than a kilometre or two from the tracks across the empty fields. The fog begins to lighten as the train starts to climb gently. Eventually the tracks curve more and more as we start to climb through rocky valleys with bare bushes and trees growing out of the stoney ground. The hazy sunlight washes everything in a slightly yellow glow, most of the trees which still have leaves are brown and orange. Opening the window the air is fresh and cold. The train rattles on, winding and climbing through the small valleys. A little after midday we stop climbing and then start to drop, on one curve I think I can see the large grey sprawl of a city on the plain below us which I assume is Sofia.
After a few more stops at tiny one-platform stations, each complete with a guard wearing a red hat, we arrive at our destination. I step off the train and into the crumbling concrete monster that is Sofia station. The underpass connecting the platforms is dark, most of the escalators are broken and some wall panels have fallen off, revealing sad concrete underneath and bits of wiring. The main concourse hall is a gloomy rectangular space, filled with a dusty light coming through dirty windows. On the wall above the underpass sits an ugly soviet mural made of long strips of steel that does nothing to cheer the station up. I dodge the touting taxi drivers at the exits and follow the tram lines into the city centre.
I make my way towards the main shopping street, Vitosha Boulevard, hoping to find one of the hostels I’d marked on my map before leaving home. On the way I pass the brick Eastern Orthodox Sveta Nedelya Cathedral and the imposing Palace of Justice. As I wander down Vitosha Boulevard I’m struck by the many, many lingerie adverts which outnumber even the omnipresent adverts for MacDonalds.
I find the hostel hidden up two flights of stairs behind a coffee shop. Aleksander, the owner, is very helpful and finds me a bed in his brightly painted hostel in a room with a small balcony overlooking the boulevard. From this lookout I can see down through the trees and jumble of tram cables onto shops and passers-by walking briskly through the cold air.
South of Vitosha Boulevard sits the Park of the National Palace of Culture; the Palace itself rests heavily at the far end of some landscaped square fountains and terraces. Immediately in front of me is a decaying communist monument, bare skeletal metal sticking out above the remaining stone panels. As I get closer to The Palace of Culture its brutal octagonal form fronted with a giant bronze star looks more and more like a bad science fiction film’s set for an intergalactic parliament. Behind the Palace rises the massive Mount Vitosha, its blue outline hazy in the autumn air, standing guard over the city.
The tiredness from a lack of sleep on the night train starts to kick in as I wander around the many small streets east of Vitosha Boulevard while I try to decide where I should eat. The many little restaurants and cafes all look inviting, nestled in the bottom of apartment blocks, light and warmth drifting out into the pavements as the shadows lengthen and the city drops into night. I decide upon a rustic looking place with a large mural on the wall called Made in Home which turns out to serve uncomplicated fresh food excellently prepared.
After dinner I’m too tired to look any further and head back to the hostel. As I get into my room I see blue flashing lights outside and hear chanting. Standing on the balcony I watch as a small march of protestors walks down the main street, chanting a message I can’t understand. They wave bulgarian flags and hold banners of black and white portrait photos from the early twentieth century. After they pass by I get into bed and instantly fall asleep.