To a month-long strike, immense debts with little hope for refinancing, and 2,000 jobs axed add the obsolete rolling stock, frequent accidents, possible privatisation and talk of spending "optimisation": in the beginning of the 21st Century the future of the BDZh, or the Bulgarian State Railways, is looking very gloomy indeed.
The first railway in Bulgaria was built in 1866, while the country was still under Ottoman rule. It was a British venture and connected the busy ports of Ruse on the Danube and Varna on the Black Sea, considerably shortening the old trade route through the Danube delta. Other investors followed suit and in 1873 Baron de Hirsch inaugurated the Constantinople-Belovo railway line. When Bulgaria regained its independence, the nationalisation of private railways became a top priority. In 1888, employing somewhat dubious methods, the government of Stefan Stambolov acquired the Ruse-Varna and the Tsaribrod-Sofia-Belovo lines, establishing what is now known as the BDZh.
In the following years the company went through many changes – from network development and the creation of a special training school, to the railway workers' strike that literally brought Bulgaria to a halt between December 1919 and February 1920. The company was favourеd by the Communist regime, which saw the value of its role in any potential conflict. The network was expanded, electric engines were introduced in the 1960s, and the railway staff became a privileged elite who enjoyed perks. They received good salaries and even better bonuses, plus train tickets for the whole family, housing, food, holidays in company resorts all over Bulgaria, and clothes and shoes. Few Bulgarians owned cars and BDZh had the undisputed monopoly of country-wide transport. This explains why, although the trains were old, badly-maintained and usually ran late, they were frequently overcrowded.
Things went from bad to worse when Communism fell in 1989. The state could not afford to keep all the staff privileges going, and the company started losing custom when many former clients bought cars or switched to the comfort of private coaches. Wages became unappealing and, inevitably, railway workers started to leave. Equipment and machinery became increasingly obsolete and even the introduction of several recycled carriages and the borrowed Desiro diesel locomotives did little to ease the uncomfortable inconvenience that train travel had become. Most attempts at modernisation were derailed by corruption and misuse of power. In 2011, for example, Bulgarians learned that about 1,000 carriages had gone missing from the BDZh. Missing. Carriages.
Several governments promised immediate reforms, but most of them did nothing more than make more employees redundant and reduce train stops, closing stations and even whole lines, citing low passenger numbers.
However, the decades that passed after the first train steamed its way through Bulgarian territory have left the country scattered with silent witnesses of the times when travelling by train was the way to go. The railway stations, some still in use and others abandoned, all have a personality and a story to tell. Here are some of them.
The 2,088 sq.m neo-Baroque Central railway station of Burgas stands at the beginning of Aleksandrovska Street, the city's main shopping venue, but it is also quite close to the port which, in fact, is the main reason for its existence. Until the 1880s, Burgas was a humble, malaria-stricken backwater, village where only poor fishermen lived. By the turn of the century, however, it had grown considerably, absorbing thousands of Bulgarian immigrants from Macedonia and Thrace. Trade increased and the port expanded, and the need for a proper railway service quickly became obvious.
In 1903 architects Kiril Marichkov and Nikola Kostov produced the first plan for the railway station. Actual planning started only in 1908 and, after a considerable delay caused by the three wars that Bulgaria was involved in between 1912-1918, the building was finished in 1922. The tall clock tower received its German-made mechanism in 1929.
The design of Burgas railway station, with some small changes, was replicated in the rival port city of Varna, in 1925. Varna, however, has a longer railway history than Burgas. In 1866 it became the final stop on the Ruse-Varna line, and in 1883-1885 welcomed the passengers of the Orient Express, who would leave the train there and continue to Constantinople by steam ship.
Dimitrovgrad, the epitome of Bulgarian Stalinist brutalism, was founded in 1947 by, as propaganda still has it, about 50,000 enthusiastic Bulgarian youths. They arrived in that relatively empty area – if you don't count the three villages that had existed there for centuries, and those youths didn't count them – and created from scratch a whole new Socialist town, with squares, streets, administrative buildings, residential quarters, a cement plant, a chemical factory and a railway station. The latter now stands at one end of the central pedestrian area.
Ironically, though, there had been another, older railway station, that predates Dimitrovgrad by many decades. It belonged to Rakovski, one of the villages that the so-called City of Youth destroyed, and had been built in 1873 as one of the stops on the Belovo-Lyubimets line.
Nestled on one of the most picturesque slopes of the Stara Planina, Elena is a quiet little town that attracts many tourists with its old architecture, its scenery and its famous local ham. The town is so far off the beaten track, however, that you need a car to reach it.
Not that long ago, though, Elena had its own railway station. It took a very long time, and much effort, to construct a railway line to Gorna Oryahovitsa, the local transport hub about 40 kilometres away. The first attempt was made in 1895, and the route was finished in 1974. The railway station was built in a style blending Socialist Cubism (heard of that before?) with details of local Revival Period architecture.
The line was abandoned in 2002 and the plans of several local mayors to turn it into a tourist attraction never materialised. Deserted ever since, the station at Elena is crumbling. If everything goes according to the plans of the Transport Ministry, the whole line will be dismantled in 2012 and the surrounding areas "re-cultivated."
When looking at the pitted and dilapidated façade of the Kazichene railway station, with its faint traces of former neo-Baroque charm, it is hard to believe two things. The first is that the building is a monument of culture and a museum, and the second is that this station was once used exclusively by the royal family, who lived in the nearby Vrana residence, on the outskirts of Sofia. There was even a narrow-gauge line that connected the residence and Kazichene station.
At that time Kazichene was referred to by the public as "The Royal Station" and it witnessed some important events in Bulgarian history. On 3 October 1918, the day of his abdication, King Ferdinand (1887-1918) arrived at Kazichene and boarded the train that would take him away from the country he had ruled, never to return. His grandson, the eight-year-old King Simeon II (1943-1946) did the same, on 16 September 1946, a few days after a now disputed referendum proclaimed Bulgaria a "people's republic."
You need to plan carefully before taking the train from Sofia to visit the picturesque traditional town of Koprivshtitsa. True, the line built in 1952 from Sofia to Burgas squeezes through the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora, revealing breathtaking vistas that are a feast for the eye. There is a major drawback, however, as the Koprivshtitsa railway station is eight kilometres away from the town and the local shuttle service very unreliable.
VILLAGE OF VASIL LEVSKI AND HRISTO BOTEV RAILWAY STATION
Well, this one is very confusing. The railway station of the village of Vasil Levski (former Mitirizovo) is called... Hristo Botev. Given that the station and the settlement bear the names of the two most famous Bulgarian revolutionaries, the history of the railway station is in keeping. A humble plaque on the wall relates that it was here on 9 November 1943 that men from a partizan group named, again, Vasil Levski, captured the station and the nearby railway workers' cottages and "supplied themselves with clothes, weapons and money."
This small and quiet train station near the Rhodope village of Podkova deserves more attention than you would have thought. It is the southernmost train station in Bulgaria and the end of a major railway route. Take the train from here and you can end up in Ruse and from there travel to Romania, Ukraine and Russia, or, if you change in Plovdiv, to Istanbul or Vienna. Under Communism, the Podkova station was the farthest place into the border zone which one could reach without the special permit known as otkrit list, a special document the Communist issued to allow travel into Bulgaria's "border zone" with capitalist Turkey and Greece.
If you are looking for an eccentric railway station in Bulgaria, try Sofia's Central station. From 1888 until 1974 the capital had a nice, friendly neo-Baroque railway station. It is no more. When the station was thought to be to small for the increasing traffic, it was knocked down and replaced with a new one.
This huge new station is chilly in winter, full of pigeons all year round and is so appallingly planned that even experienced passengers get lost in its dim and dingy underground level.
The logic of movement in and around Sofia Central railway station is of Escheresque quality. Imagine you have arrived by tram and want to buy a ticket and take the train to, say, Plovdiv. To fulfil your quest, you have to climb down the dark, steep and stinking stairs to the subway, negotiate its menacing and echoing void, cross the circular, open-air plaza with the towering ugly concrete statue and you will find another stinky passage and a new set of steep stairs to climb up. This is not the end of your quest, however. You are now standing at the main entrance. Turn your back on the cowboy cab drivers offering you a ride and enter through the "Exit" gate, as people going out of the station usually do so through the "Entrance" gate and vice versa. Then go to the far end of the huge hall, buy your ticket and climb down your third steep set of stairs in the last 10 minutes. It will lead you back to the very same underground level you have just left. Go straight, find your platform and climb up you-know-what. Then you can take your train. This is not an exaggeration. We have just described the best-case scenario, skipping altogether the circles of hell you need to go through if you are looking for the international ticket bureau or the toilets, for example.
The name of the man who created this mess was the architect M. Bechev. You might think that it would be impossible to make things worse here, but in the early 2000s Sofia Municipality accomplished it. The round, open-air space in front of the station was covered with white plastic sheets copying those of the Munich Olympic stadium. Sofianites immediately nicknamed the structure "Sofiyanski's Underpants," after the then city mayor called Sofiyanski. There is some good news here, though. The "underpants" are not anymore. When in February the heavy snow on them began to melt, the construction collapsed by its weight. Luckily, no one was injured.
The largest Bulgarian city on the Danube boasts an impressive central railway station built in the 1950s, but its predecessor, no matter how small and humble it may look, is of more interest. Situated on the river bank, it was the first railway station ever built in Bulgaria.
The station appeared in 1865 when the Ruse-Varna line was being built, and was the result of the investment by the Barkley brothers and William Gladstone. In 1966 it was turned into the first and only Museum of Transportation in Bulgaria. Since then little has changed, the exhibit captions included, but the museum has a peculiar charm and an interesting collections of carriages used by prominent historical figures. Side by side in the yard are parked the Belgian-made carriage in which Sultan Abdülaziz I (1861-1876) travelled to Varna in 1867, the well-appointed carriages used by the Bulgarian kings Ferdinand and Boris, and the sleeping car in which Soviet Marshal Tolbukhin lived and travelled while the Red Army pushed West during the Second World War.
In the 12th Century, the Bulgarian kings chose Tarnovo as their capital because of its rugged, hard-to-conquer surroundings. Six centuries later, though, when the railway network spread over Bulgarian territory, this became an obstacle. Before the city got its first railway station in 1900, two tunnels and one cast iron bridge had to be constructed.
Trapezitsa, the second railway station in the city, appeared 10 years later. Even before its completion, it served as the background of a major historical event. When King Ferdinand arrived in Tarnovo on 22 September 1908 to proclaim Bulgaria's independence from the Ottoman Empire, he did not leave the train at the main station, as had been planned. Instead, he alighted from the train at Trapezitsa station and headed on foot to the St Forty Martyrs Church, to break free from the sultan's yoke.
In the early 2000s the station was closed, with trains stopping there only to drop off passengers living in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Plans for renovation were drawn up in 2007, but never materialised and now the station is abandoned and decaying rapidly.
Built in 1932 in the centre of Vidin, this railway station has been the end of the line for everyone travelling to the north-west of Bulgaria ever since. This, however, is about to change.
When the construction of the new bridge over the Danube between Vidin and Calafat in Romania is completed, the station will become just another stop on the line to or from Central Europe. The building itself, however, deserves attention. It is a monument of culture and is full with charming little details, like the plaque showing the level of the Danube during the Great Flood of 4 March 1942. Between the lanes on the street in front of the main entrance stands an unusual and touching war memorial. Placed there in 1908, the Grieving Soldier represents a dying Bulgarian soldier in the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885.