Some people see it as an anachronistic oddity in the age of affordable cars, but others depend on it for their daily commute. The government shut it down a couple of years ago, but reopened it in 2014. One thing no one can deny: Bulgaria's only narrow gauge railway is a tourist attraction drawing in not only Bulgarians but also, increasingly, an international trickle.
I first took the Septemvri to Dobrinishte narrow gauge train when I was a teenager in the 1970s. At that time trains were the chief method of mass transit through the country as there were no intercity coaches at all. My memories are few and filtered, but I do remember the narrow gauge was like a real train, just smaller. It went so slow that in some places where it had to go uphill you could actually jump off, climb the hill yourself, and hop on the train as it trundled down on the other side.
My teenage memories were encouraged by a 2002 Bulgarian feature film, Petar Popzlatev's And God Came To See Us. A part of the action took place inside the narrow gauge train where a Frenchman, an anthropologist who'd come to Bulgaria to study the country's Muslim minority, met up with the locals, conducted a hilarious conversation with them through a faux interpreter (whose imagination more often than not made up for his inability to understand French), and eventually got himself himself drunk into oblivion straight out of a demijohn about which the ticket inspector had demanded an extra luggage fee. The scene stuck in my mind as one of the funniest and most absurdist I'd seen in Bulgarian movies – and so the desire to relive my teenage days brought me on a fine summer morning to Septemvri whence the narrow gauge joins the Sofia-Plovdiv-Burgas line.
In Balkan standards, the narrow gauge railway is an engineering feat. The 125-kilometre line was constructed in the 1920s. Its inter-rail clearance is just 760 mm. The line has numerous bridges, and 35 tunnels with a total length of almost 3 km. The distance between Septemvri and Dobrinishte, the two terminal stations, can be covered, weather permitting, in about five hours. That makes an average speed of 25 km an hour.
The first thing I noticed when the train pulled out of the station was how relative everything was. What over 30 years ago had looked to me like a real train, just smaller, was now but a toy, a contraption on two rails that made such screeching noises and that provided such a bumpy ride that I started seriously fearing it could collapse any minute. I needed a drink, just like the Frenchman, and I looked around. Unfortunately, no one carried a demijohn.
Then there was the feeling for speed. Twenty-five kilometres an hour? Well, that might have been the case if I observed the narrow gauge train from my car's side window as I swished past it. From inside the train I got the feeling it was speeding up at at least 100 – and an additional benefit was that at turnpikes I could see lined up cars, including very expensive German cars, actually waiting for me to pass.
The train quickly filled up. After Varvara, just 5 km southwest of Septemvri, it was almost full, and I soon realised that its chief attraction was its passengers.
If you want to meet the real Bulgarians, your best bet is to take a Bulgarian train. If you want to meet the creme-de-la-creme, take the narrow gauge. The strange concoction of Bulgarian tourists, local men and women, Gypsies and Pomaks is hard to describe except that once everyone is onboard there comes an uncharacteristically Bulgarian feeling of community.
Some people sleep, some read, others talk with each other. When you get bored, you can go from one carriage to another via the open-air bridges, which are usually blocked by people smoking. Strictly speaking, highly illegal and in fact quite dangerous as I didn't see any fire extinguishers around, but then adherence to laws and regulations has always been one of the Bulgarians' most creative features.
In a couple of hours the train entered Velingrad, now one of this country's major spa resorts. A significant number of the domestic tourists got off, and their places were filled with genuine locals: Pomak women wearing colourful headscarves and baggy trousers, lumberjacks going to work, Gypsies carrying their luggage in huge bundles, young people with rucksacks going for hiking holidays in the western Rhodope or the Pirin. Sill no one with a demijohn, I realised.
From Velingrad the train started a steep climb, eventually reaching Avramovo, this country's – and the whole Balkan peninsula's – highest elevation train station. At 1,267 metres above sea level I felt immediately the air was quite cooler and pleasanter to breathe.
Avramovo, until 1983 known as Avramovi Kolibi, or Avram's Huts, used to be a border post between the newly-independent Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, in the period 1878-1912. There are four lines at Avramovo for trains to pass, but only two are used. Whichever train arrives first has to wait for the oncoming train to show up.
We were given about 15 minutes at Avramovo. Everyone alighted to stretch their legs, and some chatted up the station master who enthusiastically dispersed facts and figures about his station and the narrow gauge railway. I noted a brand new clock hanging above his office. Its dial said Grand Central Terminal New York. I looked around for a demijohn in increasing desperation.
From Avramovo to Bansko and Dobrinishte the train went downhill. Most of the pretty, toy-like stations had been abandoned and lay in ruins. The train did make stops there and people did get on and off, but the general feeling of post-Communist destruction that is so omnipresent throughout Bulgaria was making itself increasingly felt. Broken windows, overgrown old train cars, benches with missing planks were all over. Surreally, the only buildings that seemed to be in use were... the public toilets. They still bore those charming blue-and-white signs indicating, in French, Hommes and Dames.
Post-Communist depression quickly yielded to post-Communist success as the train pulled into Bansko. The little town, until just 15 years ago a backwater known mainly for its peculiar cuisine and the strange local dialect, is now a major town the size of Sozopol. Where there used to be quaint Revival Period houses there is now endless rows of hotels, casinos and bars. The Pirin, whose highest peak, Vihren, hovers over Bansko, was still there, thankfully. I got off at Bansko station to partake of the only coffee machine along the route. What few passengers had remained onboard lined up in front of the toilet. Understandably so, I thought, since the train's toilets smelled as if they hadn't been cleaned since the second five-year plan.
From Bansko to Dobrinishte was just a short ride in the plain. Several Russian tourists got on to show their children what it felt like to be going on a narrow gauge railway.
On the way back to Septemvri the situation changed dramatically. Still there was no one carrying a demijohn, but at Belitsa, the village where this country's only sanctuary for brown bears is situated, I was joined by an young couple from... France.
OK, I had to give in. I produced my own metal flask bottle of Scotch and offered them a sip. We engaged in a pleasant conversation the bottomline of which was that the English word demijohn translated as the French damejeanne. A local overheard us. No, he poked in. It's Turkish, he said. Its damadzhana. Nonsense, another passenger joined in. It's Bulgarian. Damadzhana!
Do I need an extra ticket if I carried one, I asked.
The sun was coming down and the light became as surreal as my 10 hours on the Bulgarian narrow gauge railway. We parted with the French at Septemvri and each took their onward train, they to Plovdiv and myself to Sofia. I had discovered that a flask of Scotch does wonders where you don't have access to plonk out of a demijohn.
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.