Continuing extracts from my forthcoming book. This was a train journey memorable for all the wrong reasons…….

Our train had started in Belgrade and was destined for Istanbul. Despite starting in the same country (Serbia) it arrived over an hour late for the 163KM leg from Niš to Sofia.

We waited impatiently with hordes of luggage laden Serbs, as snow fell heavily around us. The train had been due to arrive in Sofia at teatime for a last evening hurrah before our flight home. As it eventually set off, it was very clear that the train was moving decidedly slowly, so we soon started speculating about the actual arrival time – predictions were pretty bleak by all accounts.

Hamish & I shared our carriage with what appeared to be the only other English speakers on the train – a couple of Canadian girls and an American guy.

Our transportation eventually crawled into the border station over three hours late. By this time it was starting to get extremely cold and it soon became clear that the heating system had packed up.

We were then treated to an episode straight out of the Keystone Cops as we moved forward out of the main train station and stopped just outside in a siding.


Going Nowhere

Surrounded by razor sharp barbed wire, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, we were to stay parked up for over two and a half hours.

The train guard and driver considered it their duty to try and fix the heating for the suffering passengers, many of whom were pensioners.


Emergency Staff Meeting

Armed with one screwdriver and some pliers, they proceeded to open every panel above the compartment doors to locate the wiring. They then proceeded to bang and prod blindly in the forlorn hope that somehow miraculously their actions would inspire the heating to start working again. Of course they were unsuccessful.

Why they had not phoned through to Sofia to request a heating engineer and just got there as fast as possible I have no idea. At least that would have saved us 160 minutes of misery.


Heating Engineer, Not!

As darkness fell and the temperatures dropped below freezing, we were now wearing much of the contents of our rucksacks. Jumpers, scarves, hats, gloves, thick socks, fleeces. All five of us now resembled Michelin men. I hadn’t noticed that Hamish was the only one of us not to put a hat on – he was to pay for this mistake later on.

I tried to speak to the guard to find out their full plan but he did not speak English, German, French or Greek, so we remained totally in the dark in more ways than one.

The cold and gloomy conditions got us talking to our companions. Food was shared by torchlight, travel stories told and jokes concocted about our current predicament.


Getting Colder!

We even resorted to riddles to keep ourselves entertained, for example  – ‘a man walks into a pub and requests a glass of water. The barman reaches for a gun and points it at the man. The man says thank you very much and leaves the bar happy. Why?’*

* The man had hiccoughs

After a couple of false starts we finally left. No heat or light, but at least we were moving. The whole train cheered.


Light At The End Of The Tunnel?

Our ‘express’ was still travelling way below optimum pace and was now over five hours late.

We had run out of food, conversation and any inspiration by the time we finally crawled into Sofia an excruciating six hours late.

Bading our fellow travellers farewell, we went off in search of a taxi to take us to our reserved hotel. It was now after 11 p.m., so all notion of a last night jolly was blown out of the water. The train still had to get to Istanbul, another 550KM. We felt really sorry for the two old ladies that we saw board as we alighted. At this rate it could be days before they reached Turkey!

There was no signage to speak of at Sofia Central, so we went off in search of a taxi rank in what we thought was roughly the right direction. The North Americans went to the main concourse to try and arrange some accommodation. I wished them luck.

It was then that I properly realised that Hamish was struggling somewhat. He had got so cold that his lips were blue and he was shivering uncontrollably. The early stages of hypothermia had set in – we needed to find somewhere warm quickly.

We staggered up some steps and found ourselves stood beside a six-lane highway that now separated us from the train station. The taxi rank was infuriatingly by the station across the carriageway and we were just about to walk back down the steps when I noticed a taxi driving by, which I exuberantly flagged down.

Thankfully he knew where our hotel was and agreed to take us there. We slumped onto the back seat where I listened to Bulgarian radio and the chattering of Hamish’s teeth.

After fifteen minutes we stopped and the taxi driver gestured that our hotel was somewhere on the left through a pedestrian zone. Beanless, I quickly found a cashpoint to draw some Lev, but by the time I returned Hamish had already settled up with a €2 coin.

We slumped off in the general direction indicated in search of the hotel. I could see that Hamish was in a bad way, so when we stumbled across an Italian restaurant I ushered him inside – the hotel could wait.


Hamish Warming

A pizza and some red wine later and the world seemed an infinitely better place.


Wilbur Warmer

Our waiter knew our hotel and offered to lead us there, an offer we were grateful to accept.

When we arrived we were dismayed to find that they had treated us as a ‘No Show’ and given our room away. Fortunately they had a sister hotel that had a twin-room free. A taxi was ordered and we eventually arrived there around 1 a.m.

The hotel receptionist was curled up on a sofa asleep so had to be woken to take our booking. We had to be up again in four hours or so for our flight home, but still had to go through the ritual of handing over our passports for photocopying.

We had the foresight in our tiredness to arrange for the taxi driver to meet us at six to take us to the airport – the last thing we needed was more transport dramas!

Barely able to get undressed, we were soon sound asleep and stayed that way until the evil alarm clock blasted out its rallying call at 05.30. Bummer!


  1. […] of our most tortuous train trip ever in 2006 as we made our way to Sofia. You can read my account here for what was a completely opposite issue i.e. sub-zero temperatures. We considered that the curse […]

  2. […] of our most tortuous train trip ever in 2006 as we made our way to Sofia. You can read my account here for what was a completely opposite issue i.e. sub-zero temperatures. We considered that the curse […]

  3. […] I will be releasing some excerpts from the book on this blog over the coming weeks and you can already read a couple by clicking on Crimea & Serbia. […]

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