When I think of an international train, what springs to mind is a long train with at least two classes to choose from and a Dining or Café Car to assist with hunger on the trip. Most international trains in Europe are like this, however, there are some unique exceptions. The once per day train from Dimitrovgrad, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria, which was the only way to get from the capitals of Belgrade to Sofia from September to June (the winter season), was formed of a locomotive and only one Second Class carriage. They don’t lie when they say train travel isn’t popular in the Balkans!
I took a trip on this international Bulgarian Railways (BDZ) train in September 2019 as part of my trip from the United Kingdom to Türkiye exclusively by train. This particular train ran exclusively in the winter season as in the summer period the same train, except two carriages, started from Belgrade, completing its journey to Sofia in just over eleven hours.
Belgrade did happen to be our origin for this leg, however, as the direct train wasn’t available on our date – the only option was three trains from Belgrade to Niš, Niš to Dimitrovgrad and Dimitrovgrad to Sofia. All three journeys were possible to do in a day, though we opted to break the journey overnight in Niš and explore the fortress there (highly recommended!).
Surprisingly, having to take three different trains actually turned out to be a blessing as I explain below. At the time of booking this blessing was unknown as I tried to piece together timetables with the help of Mark Smith, the Man in Seat 61, to double check that I wouldn’t get stranded. Timetables have been known to not line up with connections. On the day I did witness the Niš to Dimitrovgrad train waiting for passengers connecting from the delayed Belgrade to Niš train, so it appears some people do make connecting journeys on this route, and this was known by the conductor on the train.
Unfortunately as of 2023 there is track work taking place on the Niš to Dimitrovgrad route with no replacement transport provided – there are public buses, however, they do not connect with the train as explained by the Man in Seat 61 here rendering Belgrade to Sofia in a day challenging if not impossible.
Here is a map of the journey from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia:
Departure from Dimitrovgrad
Dimitrovgrad is a town in the south-east of Serbia and was a peaceful place to enjoy a quick break from travelling. There wasn’t much going on at the station, however, I did find a kiosk that sold some cold drinks. These were very welcome as I glanced at a thermometer that confirmed that it was a hot day with the outside temperature of 32oC.
As we were connecting from the Serbian train from Niš, the platform change was a straightforward one – the Bulgarian train to Sofia, that departed fifty minutes later than the scheduled arrival into Dimitrovgrad, would depart from the same platform. We were running thirty-five minutes late, however, which meant that we would only have fifteen minutes in Dimitrovgrad before the only train that day to Sofia. It was hair-raising to see the Serbian train, that was our chariot for the last few hours, reverse out of the station almost straightaway after dropping us off. The reason immediately became apparent – the Bulgarian train that would take us to Sofia soon after, arrived on the same platform from a siding from the same direction.
They call it a small world and what happened next validated that. I never thought, at a small station in Serbia, I would meet a fellow traveller from the UK. Peter, who teaches at the University of Cambridge. had in fact followed us all the way from the UK by train, taking a similar route. We also met Alejandro from Spain who was en route to Kiev. We all made friends quickly and shared what was left from our food reserves for that day including a banana, a pack of apricots and biscuits to accompany our now lukewarm drinks.
Onboard the Bulgarian electric train
As we boarded the Second Class only Dimitrovgrad to Sofia train, we were immediately hit by how hot the carriage was inside – the train must have been sat in the sun for the whole day since its outward journey from Sofia. It was the first train on our journey from the UK without air conditioning and we had soon realised how spoilt we were on our previous trains. Myself and my new found friends wasted no time in opening all of the windows in the carriage for much needed respite. On departure, we were joined by three other passengers resulting in total occupancy of seven passengers.
The carriage, that was partitioned off into three compartments, had seats that were arranged in tables of four (without the table) as well as airline-style seating for two passengers. A toilet was available at the very rear of the carriage which I had the displeasure of using – it was very dark and not clean.
Very soon after departure from Dimitrovgrad, the train brakes were applied and we were stopped in a siding. This was for the Bulgarian Border Force to conduct passport checks to allow us to enter back into the European Union and Bulgaria. Passports were taken away for about thirty minutes and then returned to us before the train departed.
Once we were en route we sailed through to Sofia, having to close the windows at one point so the train didn’t lose its dark blue curtains in the draft, branded with the BDZ logo to match the seats. I noticed that the guard had a rather unusual cardboard pole that looked like a long cigar that he was using to signal to the driver to dispatch the train.
The train from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia passes rural parts of northern Bulgaria with calls at some villages and towns en route.
Arrival into Sofia
We arrived on time into Sofia Central Station which is situated 1.7km from the centre of Sofia. The station was built originally in 1888 and rebuilt in a Brutalist style in 1974. It had extremely long platforms as you can see in the video below.
As we disembarked the train we noticed that this same carriage had been used for the direct summer only service from Belgrade Topčider to/from Sofia as shown on the carriage door and the plate on the side of the train.
I thoroughly enjoyed my Balkan trip and the train from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia was certainly a memorable experience.
Despite having to make three train changes to travel from Belgrade to Sofia, we concluded that this was the best way to do it in the hot weather to make the most of trains with air-conditioning. Travelling for some eleven hours in this carriage in this heat would have been a real challenge.
It’s a shame that the line from Niš to Dimitrovgrad is closed and no alternative transport is available. I hope that the service will resume soon to allow more seamless journeys from Belgrade to Sofia, two great capitals to explore.
Booking and Fares
I had used a free coupons issued to European rail staff for the full trip for both Serbian Railways (SV) and Bulgarian Railways (BDZ), though I think only the latter was necessary for this train. My travel companion had a Global InterRail Pass. The public price is available to buy only at the station prior to departure – it cannot be booked online.
While doing his ticket checks, our conductor was taking pictures of our passes. I don’t know why exactly, I’d like to think he was impressed we had travelled such a long way!
|Journey Leg||Full Public Price||InterRail||European Rail Staff FIP Coupons|
|DImitrovgrad to Sofia||10 Bulgarian Lev||Included||Free|
This article was first published in April 2023.
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