The Balkan ExpressJune 17, 2018 in Serbia ⋅ 🌧 19 °C
The Cyrillic alphabet is used throughout Bulgaria with very few concessions in English. Accordingly, in Sofia station only numbers are an indication of where you should be and when. The train departure board indicated that my train number was leaving at platform 4 so I made my way there only to find it deserted. The only passengers I could see were a couple of Norwegian backpackers on platform 5, so back down the stairs and along the underground passage and back up the stairs I eventually found my train there. The International Balkan Express consisted of only two carriages, both filthy, littered and covered in graffiti. There appeared to be only 6 passengers on board this once per day international train, so why reservations were essential was beyond me. I eventually found a seat at a window with minimal graffiti which I could actually see out of. Looking around I wished I had packed the G Tech vacuum cleaner Mum had bought us, to freshen the place up a bit. The toilet had no lock, seat, toilet paper, soap or towels and was already blocked before we left Sofia. I can safely say this is the dirtiest train I have ever had the misfortune to travel on. Given there were no catering facilities again on this lengthy journey, I had fortunately stocked up with provisions including what looked like a 4 pack of Greggs sausage rolls mounded into one, with the sausage meat cut up into bits. It was filling if nothing else.
Again we were stopped at the Bulgarian border for passport checks, and the Border Police ordered passengers to stay in their seats while they searched the whole train - luggage racks, toilets, even ceiling panels and electrical equipment areas were removed by screwdrivers and meticulously searched. A similar procedure took place a little later at Dimitrovgrad as we entered Serbia. Two of the other passengers turned out to be train buffs from Dublin (one of them a driver on the Maynooth-Dublin train, Jennifer) who were excited when the Bulgarian engine shunted off and was replaced by its Serbian counterpart.
As the train meandered across Serbia at a leisurely pace, the scenery became more mountainous and dramatic, and for a while followed the scenic route of a muddy, brown river. The heat rose, and by early afternoon the smell in the compartment had deteriorated. A Serbian couple a few seats in front fortunately managed to screw open a few windows. She then proceeded to strip off her top half standing in her bra for a good 10 minutes enjoying a cigarette (yes!) before fanning herself and putting her top back on. She had clearly never heard of deodorant.
Serbia is not included in the list of countries where you can benefit from using your mobile phone at the same rate as your agreement allows in the UK. Neither was I offered the same deal of unlimited calls, texts and data for £4.99 by o2 as you are in some other countries. At £2 per minute per call, the phone would stay off until I got WiFi.
Eventually, 11 hours after it left Sofia, the Boggin’, sorry Balkan, Express limped into Belgrade, Serbia. I was never so glad to disembark.Read more