Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Balkans Express: Istanbul to Sofia train

A few years I had a pleasant experience traveling on a Turkish Railways (TCDD) sleeper overnight train from Istanbul to Sofia, Bulgaria. So while planning my latest European rail extravaganza (yes, extravaganza!) I didn't think twice about repeating the journey. Particularly because Sofia is a nice entry point into Eastern Europe with a direct train to Belgrade, my next destination.

The first sniff that something was not right came when the TCDD officer in Istanbul's Sirkeci railway station informed us the journey to the Bulgarian border was by 'special' coach. Subsequently, after crossing into Bulgaria, all passengers will board a Bulgarian train for the remainder of the journey to Sofia.

The Turkish border town of Kapikule located on the Turkish - Bukgarian frontier
Ok, slightly inconvenient but really not such a big deal? Right - wrong, very wrong!

The journey began uneventfully enough. A comfortable TCDD operated coach to the Turkish border town of Kapikule. Turkish immigration formalities were completed at Kapikule. Once out of Turkey, a Bulgarian train was waiting to take us all the way to Sofia. Or so we thought!

The train left Kapikule as expected. Bulgarian immigration officers boarded the train and completed immigration formalities on the moving train. (Singapore and Malaysia: please implement similar immigration procedures for rail passengers traveling between the two countries). Again, nothing unusual.

The bombshell was dropped by a Bulgarian railways conductor a little while later. The present train terminated at Plovdiv – about 160 kilometers short of Sofia! All passengers were required to board a connecting train to Sofia at Plovdiv. A hassle, but not the end of the world. The only hitch: there was a transit time of two hours in Plovdiv. Not exactly how one wanted to spend the morning after an all night, coach – train journey.

Stuck for two hours in Plovdiv without any Bulgarian Lev and not knowing if any shops – or money changers – in town are open! Certainly an enticing and ominous way to inaugurate Europe Extravaganza 2015 rail journeys?!

The front of the train station at the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv - an unscheduled detour in Bulgaria!
Traveling, like life, means rolling with the punches and looking at the bright side. The bright side? I got almost an hour wandering around Plovdiv, even eating some Bulgarian pizza in the bargain.

The Sofia train departed Plovdiv as scheduled and rolled into Sofia at lunchtime. Sure, a 634 kilometer journey from Istanbul to Sofia took approximately half a day … but the sun was shining in Sofia and my 'Europe 2015 Extravaganza' had well and truly begun.

It can only get better from here onwards!
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at

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