The train from Septemvri to Dobriniste, Bulgaria harkens back to the golden age of train travel
By Di Bach
It’s the small details–brass coat hooks, tiny semi-circled tables with old-fashioned metal ashtrays underneath, which add a civilized edge to the journey and the otherwise shabby interior of this little train carriage.
Looking out through the dirty, smudged windows, we pass through woodlands, open pastures, and curve above mountain roads or flank alongside river bends. Occasionally, our train twists and has to spiral along the single tracks to allow it to negotiate the ascent which carries us further upwards and downwards through a collection of small tunnels.
The short train with its Romanian, red engine leads the way from Septemvri to Dobriniste which travels through the Rhodope, Rila and Pirin Mountain ranges in Bulgaria and is renowned for its narrow gauge line (760mm) and slow-traveling heights.
The journey usually takes six hours but there are no hard and fast rules up in these gorges and valleys, and the only thing to do is sit back and enjoy the leisurely ride through the 25 station stops and 125 kilometers of stunning backdrops that it encompasses.
Arriving at Septemvri’s train station beforehand was an almost deserted affair which made me doubt if anyone at all would be traveling this journey with me. The Station Master I had previously seen on the platform when I alighted from the Plovdiv train was nowhere to be seen so, with my knowledge of the Bulgarian language limited, I had no choice but to approach the sullen workmen to ask about my onward journey.
In typical Bulgarian style, they instantly cheered up at the prospect of practicing their English and I was guided towards the long underpass to await my train on the furthest platform with the other seven passengers who were to travel in the same direction.
Racing the Ladas
As the steam train leaves the station, it initially keeps to the busier Sofia-Plovdiv route and we race alongside the traffic on the main road with its pursuit of cargo lorries, old Ladas and flash 4x4s. When it forks off to the left the real bit of the journey begins, albeit very slowly, along with the narrowest train gauge in the Balkans.
The train obediently twists and turns through the contours of the Cepinska River and eases to begin the climb into the western area of the Rhodope Mountains before doubling back on itself on the other side of the valley. Wafting smoke and chugging along loudly, its traditional, green carriages sporadically cater for local dwellers that are visiting families or using it as a local trade route.
The route is punctuated by the stops at every yellow-painted Station House, some of which have a village background of varying sizes, and others appear to have nothing more than the station in sight. Yet passengers embark and disembark, and you wonder where they must be returning to as there isn’t a house in sight for miles.
No matter how remote we might be traveling, without fail, smartly drThe chugging train.essed Station Managers wearing red peaked hats stand proudly on the platforms holding their mini lollipops signals: it’s a job they take seriously and when he turns his signal to green, there is a mild rush of people hugging goodbyes before continuing on their journey to the next village or two along.
These observations and some conversing with fellow passengers are the only things to entertain me, although I do manage to stretch my legs and stand outside to balance in between the connections of the carriages a few times before being told off by the ticket collectors to get back on the train.
Flying Buzzards, Startled Deer
Flying buzzards, startled deer and natural wilderness leaving remnants of animal skulls in its path, give way to descent into the Velingrad valley and the latest spa capital of Bulgaria. The tracks follow the design of more spiral contours to aid their ascent of the steep hills and the Ablanitsa River. We change direction six times but I lose count of how many tunnels! The climax of this feat is reaching the stop at Avromovo, the highest station in the Balkans at 1267 meters above sea level.
As my destination, Dobriniste gets closer we pass through villages of the Mesta Valley where Muslim-Bulgarian communities, locally known as Pomaks, begin to shape a different landscape. Mosques can be seen in the distance and carriages get busier with neighboring people and children making up the passenger list as the train moves towards the Razlog Plains.
Darkness falls as the last stretch of the journey nears its end nearly six and a half hours later from my starting destination, we pass through Bankso, the most popular ski resort in this country. Bulgarian trains can be slow at the best of times but what this train journey lacks in speed, it more than compensates for a unique ride through this dramatic part of Bulgaria.
There are frequent trains from Plovdiv’s central station to Septemvri and from there you can take the steam train to Dobriniste which runs twice a day, and three times a day if you do a return journey. You can also reach Septemvri from Sofia. Exact times can be found on here.
Dianne Thomas is a freelance writer/photographer who divides her time between London and Bulgaria. You can read more about Bulgarian culture and destinations on her blog: www.travelin2bulgaria.com