Wednesday & Thursday 15 & 16 Jan 2020 Brrrrr. It’s cold in Bulgaria!
From central Istanbul we took the metro back to the suburb where the international trains start and end. As we arrived with more than an hour to spare (for all her extensive travelling cautious accountant Christine always makes sure that she is at the station or airport early) we were grateful there was a warm waiting room in which to sit rather than on a chilly, draughty platform.
Once we climbed onboard the conductor came into our compartment several times to feel the output from the heating system which was clearly struggling. Slowly things warmed a bit and we were ok for temperature in bed with a thick blanket but it was never really comfortable.
The journey to Sofia was uneventful apart from the expected stop at 2.30 in the morning for the border crossing when we again all had to pile off the train to have our passports stamped by the Turkish border police. Ten minutes later, just as we were snuggled up in our beds, they knocked on the door to check them again. A bit later on it was the turn of the Bulgarians!
This third interruption proved to be the last thankfully and we dropped off to sleep. We woke to a landscape of wooded hills and shabby villages made pretty by a very heavy frost.
We pulled into Sofia station nearly an hour late and so were grateful that we had followed The Man in Seat 61’s advice that you should expect to spend a night in the Bulgarian capital. Although according to the timetable you have half an hour to make the connection to the once a day Belgrade train, the reality is that the train from Istanbul is generally late. He also recommends the Favorit Hotel as cheap, comfortable and convenient for the station. He is, once again, dead right!
Whilst walking to the hotel we “enjoyed” a very light sleet/snow shower (or was it freezing fog?) – wet and cold is always a favourite with Christine. Luckily the hotel let us into the room even though it was only 10 o’clock (well before the official check in time) and we spent an hour or so washing and relaxing before heading out to see what Sofia had to offer. In that time the sleet/snow/fog had disappeared.
There were some nice churches and imposing brutalist style buildings – the 6th century (Roman of course) church of St Sophia was particularly impressive – but I’m afraid Sofia didn’t have the same appeal for us as Bucharest.
On Thursday we took a day trip (by train of course) to Plovdiv – 2.5 hours back towards Istanbul – which we had read is the longest continually inhabited city in Europe. It was also the European City of Culture in 2019. This was much more appealing (once away from the area around the station) with lots of Roman remains on display, some more sympathetically restored and displayed than others and, in the Old Town, many pretty buildings and churches. It felt very different and didn’t remind us of anywhere else we have been. It’s a place we can heartily recommend – go there rather than Sofia if you only you go to one place in Bulgaria.
Tomorrow it’s back on the train heading westwards with Belgrade as our destination.