Did you know Bulgaria is technically part of the Balkans? I feel silly saying it, but I did not know that until I actually visited. I had always thought of the Balkans as being the countries of the former Yugoslavia, but in reality, the Balkan peninsula (and thus, “the Balkans”) includes Bulgaria as well.
So when I read about the only narrow gauge railway in Bulgaria and learned that it was also the highest in the Balkans, I decided I had to ride it. Never mind that it started and ended in towns that I wasn’t even originally planning on visiting. Or that it would take five hours for the ride itself. Or that I didn’t really have any extra days to kill on my eight day visit to Bulgaria.
No, I decided I had to make it happen. Fellow travel blogger and train aficionado Michael Hodson would be proud.
My plan was this: Catch an early morning bus from Blagoevgrad to Bansko, arriving by 8:30 a.m. According to all the information I could find online, the train was scheduled to depart Bansko at 9:36 a.m., giving me an hour to kill there. I would arrive in the town of Septemvri just after 2:00 p.m. and a 3:00 train would connect me to Plovdiv, which was my original destination for the day. Mind you, I could have just caught a bus from Blagoevgrad to Plovdiv first thing in the morning and arrived there by noon. But what fun would that be?
My bus to Bansko left right on time and was mostly empty. We stopped in a couple towns along the way, pulling into the clearly marked bus stations to pick up additional passengers before moving on. Soon, we were driving through Bansko, stopping in front of a hotel to drop someone off and then continuing on through the city, which was much larger than the previous two – it has been developed as a popular ski resort town in the winter months. But instead of stopping at a bus station, we just kept going and going and going. Finally, as it became clear that we were heading out of the main part of town, I tried to ask my fellow passengers if we were still in Bansko.
And it turned out we weren’t really. I immediately got the driver to stop the bus and as he went around back to retrieve my luggage from the hold, I scolded him in Russian for not telling me where to get off – while at the same time wondering why the hell we didn’t stop at a bus station?
The driver pointed me back the way we came and I had no choice but to hurry along with my suitcase dragging behind me, asking everyone I saw where the train station was (the bus and train stations were supposed to be adjacent to each other, so this should have been an easy transfer).
Now, you are probably starting to wonder – isn’t this post supposed to be about actually riding the narrow gauge railway?
Never fear – I did finally make it to the train. It turned out that the bus and train stations in Bansko are currently under construction and the bus station is completely closed. The train station sits behind the bus station and the road between the two is completely torn up, so the only way for me to eventually find it was to walk through a field, behind an abandoned looking house and along a stretch of the train tracks. At that point, I was staring at what looked like a completely abandoned train station as well.
But as I went inside, I saw a man inside the ticket office and confirmed that the station was indeed open and that the train to Septemvri did indeed leave at 9:36 a.m. I was also able to buy a ticket that would connect me on all the way to Plovdiv.
The train itself was incredibly small, just a few cars long. A Bulgarian couple was boarding at the same time, so I just followed their lead as we got on the train. There were no assigned seats and the cars featured single seats on one side and rows of two seats on the other. The seats faced each other, with a small table in between. Luggage racks overhead were large enough to fit my suitcase and I stashed my day pack on the seat across from me as I got out my camera to start documenting the ride.
Our first stop was Razlog, a town my bus to Bansko had stopped in (if only I had known!). Then Gulijna Banja and General Kovachev. Then Belica and Dagonovo. I started writing down all of the names, challenging myself to spell them correctly as I deciphered the Cyrillic station signs.
Avramovo (the highest station, at 1267 meters high)
Sveta Petka, Tzvetino, Velingrad, Chakalnya, Kostandovo, Dolene, Cepina and Varvara. And a few that I missed in between that didn’t even have signs.
One of the knocks on the train is that it moves fairly slowly and stops a lot, but I really enjoyed that. Every station seemed to be a little different and it was fun to observe the other passengers coming and going. At one point, a woman and her child/grandchild boarded and grabbed seats across from me. The girl was four or five years old at most and her father or grandfather stood outside the train window waving to the girl as the train started to depart. And then as we pulled into the next station, there he was again! But instead of disembarking, the woman and child continued on. When I saw that the man was there waving to them at the next station too, I realized they were just letting the little girl enjoy a train ride for the day. She was having a blast and when they finally got off and rejoined the man about four or five stops later, she was clearly disappointed.
The five hours on the train seemed to fly by and before I knew it, we arrived in Septemvri. There, I boarded a “regular” train to Plovdiv, which took another hour and was far more crowded than the narrow gauge train. It also featured compartments with six seats each – three and three facing each other. I could only find a middle seat and I have to say, that was one of the most uncomfortable and awkward train rides of my life as my legs were neatly touching the legs of the man across from me. I quickly understood why everyone recommended bus over train travel in Bulgaria!
That said, I really enjoyed the experience of riding the narrow gauge railway. After a whirlwind first two days in Bulgaria, it was a nice way to relax and slow down for a bit (once I finally got on the train, that is!) and it was a great way to see more of the country – the mountains, the countryside, the villages; I felt like I got just a little extra taste of life in Bulgaria from riding the train.
Do you enjoy traveling by train?