If the scenery down to the southern Romanian border was a bit lack-lustre, once we’d crossed the Danube into Bulgaria things become noticeably more interesting to the eye. First of all there’s the huge colourful border notices, and of course the abandonment of our familiar Roman alphabet in favour of the native Bulgarian cyrillic alphabet (note Bulgarian, and not Russian-invented!)
The warnings we’d had about lengthy and complicated border crossings were unfounded, certainly until we arrived at Gorno. 15 Mins at the Romanian border and half an hour at the Bulgarian border town of Ruse and we were on our way again.
This is only the second border we’ve had our passports checked at (not counting when we left the UK), but never fear Daily Mail readers! I’ve been reading up, and a substantial number of EU countries have also signed up to the Schengen agreement, which removes border controls between signatory countries (the UK, Romania and Bulgaria are not currently signed up). The removal of border controls actually makes a lot of sense – having spent a week trying to spot similarities between languages and cultures to understand what’s happening around us, and it’s incredibly obvious, even after just a week, just how much of a continuum there is between language and culture in Europe.
Bulgaria soon becomes green and undulating, with twisting rivers, deep valleys, cosy-looking villages and green fields with sprinklings of snow dust (it’s not snowing today but it is still pretty grey outside). The rolling scenery in fact reminds both of us of the Yorkshire Dales.
There are plentiful level crossings and the odd horse and cart waiting in the small queue of cars for us to pass. Fortunately we’re not cold in our carriage as the (we assume) compulsory Eastern European practice of turning train compartment heating up to 30 degrees C.
It’s certainly worth heeding the advice of travel guides if you’re coming to Bulgaria by train, and bringing a map of the country and train route with you. We didn’t know for certain what our expected arrival time was going to be (although our tickets suggest, in Romanian, 1805), there are no on-train announcements or conductors to ask, and there’s only one sign at each station, which you will only see if you are in a coach that stops opposite the station building – so if you don’t know where you are expecting to be then you could easily miss your stop.
The last big stop before Veliko Tarnovo was at Gorno, so we rang Randy our hostel host for landmarks to look out for. While we were waiting for the train to set off again, some “undesirables” we were warned against finally got on board, and predictably plonked themselves in the compartment next to us, yelling aggressively over each other for the last half hour of our ride. On leaving Gorno, we looked out especially hopefully for Randy’s landmarks. “Look out for a ghost station, and Veliko is the next stop, I’ll be waving at the station so you won’t miss me!” Sure enough the scenery changed pretty abruptly from Yorkshire-reminiscent dales, as the train trundled through dramatic Byzantine mountains and dense and spooky snow sprinkled forests. Then – at last! We saw Randy’s abandoned town, its train station – and then at the top of a gorge, we saw our first Turkish-influenced towers of Veliko, followed by the twinkling house lights of the streets at dusk covering the hill that Veliko is set on, and finally Veliko station itself. Still screaming at each other, we snuck past the “undesirables” to freedom, and to Veliko Tarnovo!
Days since leaving the UK: 9
Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys: 2824+135 = 2959
Countries travelled through so far: 8
Cities visited: 8
Hours spent on a train today: 10.5
Hours spent travelling from Brasov-Veliko: 13
Border checks completed so far: 3