Bulgarian Bummel

Saturday 11 Jan 2020 (Bummel is one of Christine’s favourite German words meaning a slow journey and is also in the title of one of her favourite books Three Men On A Bummel by Jerome K Jerome, a sequel to the Boat book.)

An 11 o’clock train meant a leisurely start to the next leg of our journey which would take us from Bucharest to Istanbul on 4 trains over more than 18 hours. This took us out through the scruffy western suburbs of Bucharest into the countryside which was as flat as a pancake and characterised by enormous fields, poor looking villages and piles of rubbish alongside the track.

After 2 hours we arrived at the last town in Romania where a policeman took the passports of all 8 passengers (3 Aussies, an elderly Chinese lady, a Hispanic Canadian, a young Luxembourgish lad and us) away for 20 minutes. We were all very relieved he returned them!

Jumping back on the train we crossed the Danube which forms the border round here and into Ruse in Bulgaria. Again our passports were whisked away for checking but returned more quickly this time. A short wait and we were off on the second train to Gorno Orjahova somewhere in the middle of deepest, darkest Bulgaria. As we moved away from the river the countryside became more rolling but the villages still looked poor and we saw several horse-drawn carts.

At Gorno Orjahova we changed trains again with over an hour’s wait in between which the the Luxembourgish lad used to find WiFi in a local bar to arrange his Turkish e-visa. (He had been a little surprised when Christine told him that she had read these are not issued at the land border we were going to cross – unlike at Turkish airports.)  However, it transpired that Luxembourg citizens do not need a visa unlike us Brits. We used the time to reserve a 2 berth couchette on the last (overnight) leg of the journey as this hadn’t been possible in Romania.

The third train of the day, although nothing to shout about from the outside, was definitely a step up on the previous two when it came to the interior. It even had power points so we could top up the charge in our phones, etc. We couldn’t see much out of the windows because night had fallen but there was one point, when we were at nearly 1,000 merits altitude, where there was several inches of snow lying on the ground.

We reached Dimitrovgrad right on time at just after 10 o’clock having taken 11 hours to cross a little of Romania and most of Bulgaria. This was where we were expecting and hoping to catch the sleeper train to Istanbul. Promisingly the arrivals display showed that the train was running only 5 minutes late and so we were optimistic that, with a scheduled 30 minute halt, we would be leaving on time. The three of us settled down to wait for 10 minutes. We were the only people on the station apart from four policemen.

Our optimism was rewarded by the train turning up as promised and the couchette attendant showed us to our cabin. We couldn’t really settle down to sleep because we knew that an hour or so later we would reach the border. Firstly, as we reached the last town in Bulgaria, their police knocked on the door and took our passports away to check that we were allowed to leave the country. This completed, we trundled over the border and then stopped at the first town in Turkey for the Turkish authorities to have their turn. This was a more onerous procedure as we all had to disembark with our luggage. We had to queue to show our passports and get them stamped. Thankfully the three carriages of the train were only carrying 20 passengers so this wasn’t too lengthy a process. Then we moved down the platform to have the luggage scanned. This was a very cursory inspection as the cases went through the scanner very fast and the one official didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the screen.

This all took well over an hour so we were grateful that we weren’t crossing in the high season and this combined with putting the clock forward an hour for the Turkish time zone meant that we had only 4 hours until we reached our final station on the outskirts of Istanbul.

We are so chuffed to have travelled overland all the way to Istanbul on a total of 12 trains. When we set off we weren’t sure we would make it, but thanks to the brilliant and accurate information on www.seat61.com it was far easier than we had imagined.

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