Hornbill Publishing recently published ‘Wilbur’s Travels, Travelling by Train Across the Balkans’ recounting memorable travels in Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia & Slovenia as well as parts of Greece, Turkey & Romania.
Here is an extract from a particularly excruciating journey – all part of the experience!
A Train Journey From Niš to Sofia
Our express train from Niš to Sofia had started in Belgrade and was destined for Istanbul. Despite starting its journey only some 200 km away, it was already well over an hour late by the time it slithered into Niš.
We had waited impatiently without information with hordes of luggage laden Serbs & Bulgarians in the relative warmth of the station building, as temperatures outside fell below freezing and snow started to flit across the barren tracks.
As the weak locomotive headlights honed into view and the ancient station PA system crackled into life, downbeat but relieved passengers scrambled their possessions together and slid them purposely along the platform as the twelve-carriage train limped to a halt.
(Regular travel buddy) Hamish & I had been due to arrive in Sofia at teatime for a last evening hurrah before our flight home, but as we eventually set off it was very clear that the train was moving particularly slowly. With the lack of official announcements, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 550 KM. 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.
A pizza and some red wine later and the world seemed an infinitely better place.
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!
Wilbur’s Travels Part One is available from Amazon as a download or paperback.