Get to know Bulgaria in eight hours by taking the train from Sofia to Varna via Gorna Oryahovitsa. Or just hop on any train you choose for a uniquely Bulgarian experience
Issue 30, March 2009
by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff
A few new German trains don't add up to an innovation. Unfortunately the only fairly novel thing you're likely to find on most Bulgarian trains is the layer of grime that has built up over the past decade. Also delays are nothing new to the Bulgarian trains – this is, more or less, how they run by default.
But still, there is no better, or more pleasant, way to get to know Bulgaria and its inhabitants in a short time and with minimal effort. Just buy a ticket – we recommend forking over the extra lev for a zapazeno myasto, or reserved seat, next to the window – for some longish trip, for example Sofia to Varna via Gorna Oryahovitsa. In seven hours on the express train or eight on the fast train – let's put delays on the side for a while – you'll see the whole country pass before your eyes.
While travelling in relative comfort, from the window of the train you'll see some of Bulgaria's famous attractions as well as a few less known ones. On the Sofia-Varna-via-Gorna-Oryahovitsa line, for example, you'll catch sight of the stunning Iskar Gorge; the fortifications from the 1877 Siege of Pleven; the St Peter and Paul Monastery on the plateau overlooking Lyaskovets; the blocks of flats built to house the residents of Strazhitsa after the 1986 devastating earthquake; the gigantic – and pointless – 13 Centuries of Bulgaria monument looming above Shumen; the Madara Horseman on the cliffs near the town of Madara; and the Varna train station. The latter, along with its twin in Burgas, is perhaps the most beautiful building of its kind in the country.
But the landscape that rolls by the window is only half of your encounter with Bulgaria. The other half takes place inside the train itself, in your compartment. The train is the cheapest mode of transportation in the country – a fact evident not only from the rundown trains, but also from the people who use it. Among them you'll find retirees going to visit their children or a doctor in the bigger cities, as well as Gypsies, traditionally Bulgaria's poorest ethnic group. The compartments are also packed with hundreds of students, especially before and after their final exams.
Another large group, travelling primarily short distances, are residents of larger cities who escape every weekend to their home villages and towns, returning on Sunday with sacks crammed full of provisions: turshiya, or pickled vegetables, meat, wine and rakiya, and eggs.
Trains chugged into Bulgarian life in 1866, when a British company completed a two-year project to join by rail Ruse and Varna.
Today the location of the first Bulgarian tracks may seem odd, but in the years before Bulgaria's liberation from Ottoman rule, when Sofia was essentially a podunk town dwarfed by a dozen more developed Bulgarian cities, the choice made sense: Ruse was the largest port on the Danube, while Varna was the largest port on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers