Train travel in Europe can be a delight. Wonderful stations, comfortable carriages, fast trains. Travelling between Budapest and Sofia is not like that – not in the slightest. But it can actually be fun in a step back in time, just like when I was a boy, sort of way.
The distance between Budapest station and Belgrade station is 218 miles according to my GPS. We spent 8 hours and 19 minutes covering that distance at an overall speed of 26.2 mph. But of course we were not moving all the while. It took an hour to cross the border and there was an additional half hour of assorted stops, pauses and unexpected hiatus in the middle of nowhere. So our moving average was 31.9 mph. I think we had our tickets inspected four times and our passports stamped once.
Hungary is flat. A third of Hungarians live in Budapest. So out of the window you see fields without boundaries, sand and gravel pits, small woods and large areas of low scrub. Every so often you pass a small town with a station, complete with Station Master – complete with red hat, and often a woman – standing on the platform making sure that the train passes her station safely. There are lots of birds, shepherds with flocks and wide horizons. Rural life in Hungary is probably very tranquil. The roar of fast expresses certainly does not disturb it.
And in Serbia – at least as far as Novi Sad – it is even quieter and slower. But at Novi Sad the line gets faster – we got up to 40 mph! – and the train busier. People shared our carriage. It was an old fashioned corridor train with six seater compartments. In the corridor were several groups of youths singing songs, waving Serbian flags and swigging vodka and coke. They were raucous but harmless.
The outskirts of Belgrade look horrendous. Grey tower blocks and great walls of apartment blocks, rubbish everywhere – horrible.
Budapest to Subotica
Subotica to Belgrade
At Belgrade Station we changed some euros into Serbian dinars and got the usual rip off taxi to take us to our hotel, passing a couple of bomb damaged buildings on the way. I can’t say much about Belgrade as we arrived in the late evening, ate in the hotel and left early the next morning.
Our train to Sofia was even older than that of the day before. And it was slower! 254 miles, 9 hours moving time, 1 hour 35 minutes stopped, 2 hours late. Moving average 28.2 mph, overall average 23.9 mph.
But it was fun! We shared our compartment with two German backpackers who had just come from Corsica, where they had walked the GR20, and were on their way to eastern Turkey. The man was an ardent conversationalist who loved to talk and who had a lot of interesting things to say.
Belgrade to Paracin
Paracin to Dimitrovgrad
For Dimitrovgrad to Sofia click on the View Larger Map above.
The first part of the journey out of Belgrade was extremely slow. There were lots of track works taking place and we were often at a standstill. But after a while things speeded up and progress was steady, if slow.
As far as Nis the country was flat, but after that things got more interesting. For a while we went along a narrow gorge. The railway on one side of a river and the road on the other.
At the last big town before the Bulgarian border a host of women got on. These, it turned out, are entrepreneurs. In Serbia a 200 pack of Cigarettes cost 8 Bulgarian Lev, whereas in Bulgaria they cost 15. So each day these women take the train into Serbia, buy the legal maximum (and sometimes a few more), and take them back to Bulgaria. With the transit of the border they must spend up to 8 hours a day on the train! At the border the customs inspectors came on. They were not at all interested in our stuff, but the ladies bags were all looked at very carefully, and the compartments looked at to make sure that no excess fags were behind the panelling. I was told that in the next compartment, some backpackers had been putting all their rubbish in the bin. When the ladies came on board the rubbish went out the window and excess fags went in. I don’t know whether the customs people found them.
Once in Bulgaria it was a fairly quick journey to Sofia. Of which more anon.