Before school starts back again next week, we’ve gone to Sofia for WordCamp, a WordPress conference held in the last weekend of September. You never know where WordPress will lead you.
Because we’ve got time, and not a lot of money, we decided to take the train there and back. And by train, I mean trains.
First, we took the day train to Belgrade, waited for 4 hours, then boarded the night train for Sofia. The whole journey was relatively pain-free, although long.
Train 1 – Zagreb to Belgrade – 11:15 – 17:30
There was a bit of confusion about the train as it pulled alongside the platform in Zagreb. Was it the train from Zurich, or the late running train to Zurich? The last two carriages would not open, and staff seemed to be too preoccupied to answer the questions of the many concerned passengers milling about on the platform.
We soon realised that the train, which was the train to Belgrade, loses its rear two carriages at this point. It no longer needs the sleeping wagon and the additional carriage, so they get taken off here, ready to be put back on the train going back to Zurich. Trains are tricky.
The train itself is comfortable enough, although if it’s a sunny day you should aim for a seat on the left side. There is no buffet car, but after the Serbian border crossing an enterprising man comes aboard, selling softdrinks, coffee and – most importantly – beer. We had a Lav.
Belgrade station is a fine place to kill a few hours. If you have leftover Croatian currency, changing a 100 kuna note will get you enough Serbian dinar to get 4 beers and a couple of hamburgers, with free wi-fi. We had a most enjoyable time watching an extremely drunk Norwegian get drunker and drunker and then get belligerent and demand to know why the Budapest train was running one hour late. It wasn’t, he just had the time wrong.
Train 2 – Belgrade to Sofia – 21:50 – 8:30
We splashed out here and got a 4 berth couchette, which was just a 6 berth couchette with only 4 people in it. We were luckily enough to be sharing with David and Margaret from Liverpool (not from At The Movies). They were a middle-aged couple who, to the horror of their children, were backpacking around Eastern Europe with very little in the way of a plan. They had just spent 4 days in Belgrade “which was one day too many” and so were heading to Sofia with no set itinerary for how long they would stay or where they would go next.
The couchette is fine enough. If you’re lacking in mobility you definitely need to take a bottom berth. The wonderful conductor was selling beer and coffee from his little cabin, which we oddly declined. We stayed up chatting with Margaret and David for a while, then we all read our books for a bit and fell into a comfortable sleep.
As with all international trains, the border crossing happened around 5am, and getting through both borders took around 30 – 40 minutes. By now, there was a bit of light on the ground outside, but we managed to get in another quick kip before the conductor came around to let us know that Sofia was “maximum 20 minutes away”. It stayed a “maximum 20 minutes away” for the next 45 minutes.
Arriving in Sofia
Arriving in a city at 9am has its ups and downs. You have the whole day ahead of you (win!) but you can’t check in yet (fail!) Sofia is one of those places where lots of ‘helpful’ people will attempt to ‘help’ you the moment you get off the train, knowing that you’re tired, confused and don’t know how the currency works yet. We worked our way through them and headed for a taxi. Margaret and David didn’t have any accommodation booked, so we suggested they could try the place we were staying at. So we all piled into a tiny taxi and braved the Sofian roads which are, in a word, even scarier than Italian roads.
The whole journey, from Zagreb to Sofia, was around 20 hours. The total of the return tickets is about 72 Euro plus 9 Euro supplement for the couchette. And on Monday, it’ll be time for the return journey!