Every evening, the Istanbul-Sofia Express sleeper train departs into the night connecting stations in the two countries of Bulgaria and Türkiye. This train is jointly operated by state operators in the countries it serves, the Turkish Railways (TCDD) and the Bulgarian Railways (BDZ), and is the only direct rail daily scheduled service available connecting the two countries. Believe it or not there is not a daytime option to travel between the two places, and the questioning as to why will be even more apparent as you read this Travel Report.
This journey was the final leg of my epic trip from the United Kingdom to Istanbul exclusively by train, taking place in 2019. This grand finale did bring plenty of excitement and a sense of achievement, but also tiredness as the journey ahead resulted in little relaxation.
Recently after a break during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Istanbul-Sofia Express has started running in 2023 again with some changes. The departure from Sofia is earlier, at 18:40, and thus the arrival into Halkali, a suburb in Istanbul, is now at 05:34, the following morning. The departure is now three hours earlier than in 2019.
We arrived in good time at Sofia Central Station for our 21:45 departure – over an hour and half prior to this time. This meant that there was some waiting around required in the station and, to accommodate, the Sofia Central Station did have available plenty of places to sit in the warmth to admire its unique architecture.
Sofia Central Station is the main passenger station in Sofia and is located about one kilometre north of the city centre. The station in its current form is built in a Brutalist architectural style and dates back to 1971 where the station opened in 1974. It has more recently been renovated. Direct trains to/from Sofia serve four countries including the cities of Belgrade, Bucharest, Thessaloniki and Istanbul.
The notices and departure boards are in Bulgarian and English. Bulgaria is one of the few European countries to use the Cyrillic alphabet.
Onboard the Istanbul-Sofia Express
The Istanbul-Sofia Express came with a colourful mix of carriages – some old, covered in graffiti and rather dirty and others much newer looking and cleaner. Attached to the train was a variety of accommodation – sleeping cars, couchette cars and seated carriages, the former which are only available as far as the border where they are detached.
It is worth noting that there is no dining car or snacks to purchase on this train, nor any breakfast offering. Therefore, before departure we’re raided a supermarket in the centre of Sofia to arm ourselves with plenty of snacks and drinks for the journey.
Sleeping Car Accommodation
The sleeping cars on the Istanbul-Sofia Express are provided by the TCDD and make up all of the newer carriages built in the late nineties.
Armed with our reservation for car number 483, it took us a few moments to work out which car was ours as the coach number indicators weren’t in the usual place by the external doors as seen on other European train carriages. Hand-written on the side of the cars, in marker pen, were large three-digit numbers, one of which matched our reservation. The car numbers also happened to be marked on the destination plates, however, clearly these haven’t been obvious enough in the past to warrant the large scribble as well.
I’ve always wondered why many continental European trains have car numbers that are in the hundreds -if you know why please let me know in the comments section!
The sleeping car accommodation on the Istanbul-Sofia Express included the usual features of a sleeping car including air conditioning, a sink and curtains. It also had clean bedding, blankets sporting a tartan design (very cosy vibes indeed) and pillows provided. What really made this sleeping car compartment stand out compared to other European sleeper trains were a few features. Firstly, the compartments were the largest I’ve come across, and, secondly, there is also a fridge in the room that is stocked with some complimentary items including free bottled water, orange juice and cheese crackers.
Upon boarding, we found our sleeping car host who checked our travel documents briefly who then returned later to scrutinise them more after departure. Our compartment was initially set-up in ‘daytime mode’, which is that the beds that have been folded away to make way for two armchairs. When we were ready to sleep, we could fold the beds down to make up them ourselves.
There aren’t any en-suite compartments on the Istanbul-Sofia Express, with toilets at the end of each car. There was a choice between a western-style toilet at one end and a squat toilet onboard in each carriage. The western-style toilet, which also had toilet paper available, even had a bidet fitted to the toilet bowl. I can’t vouch for its success though!
Couchette Car and Seated Car
The Istanbul-Sofia Express also has a couchette car available for the full journey. At the time of the trip this was provided by the BDZ and it was quite a contrast to the cars provided by the TCDD with the carriage covered in graffiti and no air conditioning. Fast forward to today, this car has now been replaced with an upgraded air-conditioned TCDD Couchette Car improving the service offering.
Also on the train is seated accommodation available on the train as far as Svilengrad, on the Bulgarian side of the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Seated accommodation is not available, however, for the full trip unlike nearly all other sleeper trains in Europe.
As Bulgaria is in the EU and Türkiye is not, there are two border controls to go through on the trip once the train has arrived at the border stations of Svilengrad, on the Bulgarian side, and Kapikule, on the Turkish side. As this is a sleeper train unfortunately these controls fall during the night. Today, the eastbound train arrives at Svilengrad at 23:40, and in Kapikule at 01:45,
To keep things interesting the process required at each border station is different. At Svilengrad, the passports were collected by the sleeping car hosts and returned to us shortly before departure after checking by the police. Quite an easy process without the need to leave the compartment.
At Kapikule, the experience was entirely different. We had to disembark (with our luggage as is the case on eastbound trains) to go through passport control (showing my eVisa) and place our luggage through an x-ray machine, including our remaining items out of our compartment fridge! This took place in the main station building so we had to walk from the platform via the underpass. We were off the train for a pretty miserable hour, to be honest, and it was a chilly September night with only some stray cats to keep us company. Kapikule, like most border towns, didn’t exactly have a lot going on. One passenger was quite emotional, rushing to one cat’s defence, as one cat launched an attack at the smaller one. The authorities didn’t start the bag x-rays until after the last person has had their passport checked.
In 2019, when I made this journey, the train departed Sofia three hours later than today and not only that, the train picked up a delay of two hours within Bulgaria. This meant that we were finished with both borders at 05:00, which killed any hope of a good quality sleep. Not only that, the train was scheduled to arrive early in the morning, but we didn’t know how much time the train would make up in the early hours. Still we managed to get a few hours sleep and not miss our stop and end up in the train depot!
Arrival into Istanbul
Due to long-running engineering work, the sleeper train terminated in Halkali (and still does today) instead of the more central station of Sirkeci. Halkali is situated twenty-three kilometres from the centre of Istanbul. We were still able to finish our epic journey by rail, however, by using the Marmaray Metro direct from Halkali to Istanbul Sirkeci.It was lovely to finish our trip at the beautiful station of Sirkeci which is where the Orient Express finished its journey from Paris between 1883-1977. The station has its own museum which is jam-packed with old TCDD merchandise and machinery – well worth a look and free to enter.
The Istanbul-Sofia Express was quite a memorable experience! The sleeper train itself was comfortable and well equipped. Unfortunately, the disrupted night with the delay and the border controls, especially having to pack our bags and disembark with our luggage at Kapikule, meant for a largely sleepless night. The sense of achievement travelling across Europe exclusively by train was well worth it in the end, however.
Booking and Fares
This train is well known for being complicated to book, especially from abroad, with tickets only available in person at the station booking offices or via a travel specialist. Tickets or reservations can’t be issued online. The train can book up quickly and at the time I was able to use a renowned travel agent in Belgrade, Serbia who issued us with a hand written reservation to go with our tickets (quite a rarity these days!). This appears to no longer an option – you can check the Man in Seat 61 for the latest booking options from abroad.
Passengers with Interrail Passes (and FIP Free Coupons for European rail staff) are required to only purchase the reservation fee outlined below for their journey.
Couchette (2nd Class Ticket + couchette supplement)
Sleeping Car – 2 berth (2nd Class Ticket + sleeping car supplement)
Sleeping Car – Solo Occupancy (1st Class Ticket + solo sleeping car supplement)
I embarked on a voyage with my Mam to travel exclusively from York, England to Istanbul, Turkey by train – that’s right, over 2,100 miles without leaving the ground once!
In total this would mean 52 hours being spent on 12 different trains (albeit inclusive of a few days ‘off-piste’ to visit beautiful Split, Croatia.. who said there were rules?!). This would be nicely spread out across 2 weeks which meant for a journey of pure relaxation and excitement. Much more interesting than flying!
Here is the itinerary and that all important route map…
York 🇬🇧 to London 🇬🇧
London 🇬🇧 to Paris 🇫🇷
Paris 🇫🇷 to Munich 🇩🇪
Munich 🇩🇪 to Villach 🇦🇹
Villach 🇦🇹 to Zagreb 🇭🇷
Zagreb 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷
Split 🇭🇷 to Zagreb 🇭🇷
Zagreb 🇭🇷 to Belgrade 🇷🇸
Belgrade 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸
Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸
Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬
Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul 🇹🇷
The grand plan was to spend 2 or 3 days in any one city and then spend a day travelling. We did however take two time-effective and very comfortable sleeper trains.
Leg 1 – York 🇬🇧 to London King’s Cross 🇬🇧(1 hour, 59 mins)
We kicked things off with travelling by the new LNER Azuma train from York to the heart of the capital London King’s Cross in just under 2 hours.
Leg 2 – 11:31 London St Pancras 🇬🇧 to Paris Nord 🇫🇷 (2 hours, 16 mins)
After a day exploring London we really kicked our European adventure off by travelling ‘sous la manche’ from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord on the high-speed Eurostar service.
We then had one hour in Paris before leaving on our next train to Munich. We allowed an hour between trains in Paris to give time to the 10 minute walk from Paris Gare du Nord to Paris Gare de L’Est and any minimal delay on Eurostar. Thankfully we were running to time. However we had the knowledge that if we missed the connection we would be covered by the self explanatory Hop On The Next Available Train (HOTNAT) agreement between Railteam members.
Leg 3 – 15:55 Paris Est 🇫🇷 to Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 (5 hours, 41 mins)
Our next train was the double-decker TGV for 770 km direct from Paris Est to Muenchen Hauptbahnhof (translated as Munich Main station). Upon entering Germany it was apparent that the train didn’t require customers to have a seat reservation as in France, so we timed our visit to the bar badly having to navigate our way around standing customers through four carriages as the train travelled between Strasbourg and Stuttgart.
When we arrived at the bar we treated ourselves to the in-house TGV chef menu by Michel Sarran. I had the ’Poulet Grillé’ and ’Comme une Charlotte aux Fraises‘ for dessert, both of which were very tasty however I was disspointed at the lack of chicken with the main course. The bar had also run out of white wine so I had to opt for rose and bought an extra one… why not!
We arrived into Munich Hauphtbahnhof on time ready for a full day of sightseeing the next day. Although the weather was wet, we did a walking tour to learn about Munich’s fascinating history and take in the sights of the glockenspeil in the main square, the Residenz and visit the Hofbraeuhaus.
After a day exploring Munich, and what beautiful city it was, we were eagerly awaiting the next leg of the journey. Today would see us travel some 850 km through four different countries and on three different trains with our final destination being Split in Croatia.
Leg 4 – 07:47 Munich Hbf 🇩🇪 to Villach Hbf 🇦🇹(4 hours, 56 mins)
First up, we had planned for an afternoon in Austria’s seventh-largest city, Villach.
The train was due to depart at 08:17 originally as marked on our reservations, however it’s just as well we checked the Deustche Bahn app the night before. Due to engineering work, our train was scheduled to depart half an hour earlier than scheduled! A lesson learned here is definitely to check your train before you travel.
Luckily we were in for a absolute treat with this journey so it was well worth the extra early start.
The smart Austrian RailJet train was our chariot for this leg. It boasts 3 classes of travel from Economy to First Class and even Business Class. It also has a sit-in restaurant called DoN’s Bistro which is available for all customers to use!
Mid journey we were peckish, so consequently headed to said restaurant for a spot of lunch. We were transiting through Austria and so chicken schnitzel and potatoes felt an appropriate choice. We also shared a bottle of very nice white wine while enjoying the spectacular scenery.
My Mam tried to flog Alex, who was looking after us in the bar, a £1 coin instead of a €1. He commented how much he liked Elizabeth, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to accept GBP so we did more digging for Euros.
As marked in the menu the Viennese-style chicken breast with parsley potatoes (Wiener Schnitzel von der Hendlbrust) main course cost €11.20 each while the large, high quality ‘Riesling’ bottle of wine cost €10.20. There was wine on the menu for €3.80 for a small bottle as well however this was the only one Alex had left on this trip.
While eating, we enjoyed the most scenic leg of the trip with lush green fields and steep mountain sides, especially in the run up to Bad Hofgastein during and after. Simply stunning.
Leg 5 – 16:53 Villach Hbf 🇦🇹 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (4 hours)
After a relaxing 4 hours in Villach, where we explored 3 churches, had a long walk by the river and found a café serving Sachertorte (hurrah indeed!) we headed to the main station to board our next train. This was the cross-border EuroCity service to direct to Zagreb.
The train had come from Frankfurt and the it divided into two parts at Villach with one portion for Klagenfurt and the rear three coaches for Zagreb, the latter of which we joined.
This train was immensely popular, especially with interrailers. All three carriages were full upon departure from Villach, however 1.5 hours into the journey the vast majority of customers disembarked. The train was then only around half full for the rest of the journey to Zagreb.
We watched the sunset as we travelled towards the Slovenian-Croatian border. The mountains were dominating the landscape more and more as we travelled south so less of a view to enjoy from the train.
As the train was approaching the Slovenian-Croatian border, it stopped at a place called Dobova where our Slovenian conductor left the train for the authorities to conduct passport checks. It was now pitch black outside.
The station had an eerie feel to it as if this small village had history. The border police were searching the train on the adjacent platform, the Serbian carriages departing for Ljubljana, before moving onto our train so we sat waiting.
We watched as the torch was shone in a search for something in the toilet as you can see in the photo below. They then evicted a gentleman from the train.
We stood for around 40 minutes then our Croatian Railways’ conductor joined the train and we departed for Zagreb.
Upon arrival into Zagreb we had a couple of hours to find a hot drink and stock up on supplies before our next departure, the domestic Croatian Railways’ night train from Zagreb to Split.
22:56 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Split 🇭🇷 (7 hours, 49 mins)
Our train was ready to board approximately 20 minutes before departure. In the meantime we sat at the station watching the train being prepared. There were staff walking on the tracks to access carriages with various manoeuvres and uncoupling of cars taking place, others were sat in the station platform bar drinking and enjoying a cigarette.
The train consisted of a motorail coach at the front followed by one sleeping car (1, 2, 3-berth cabins), two couchette cars (6-berth cabins) and four 2nd Class seated compartment cars. There are no catering facilities so luckily we brought our own drinks and snacks.
We had reservations in the sleeping car which was very comfortable, although the beds were quite short. On this train, in the sleeping car, despite three beds being made up the cabin is reserved exclusively for your booking. There are two toilets at the end of the carriage.
We arrived into Split station on time, refreshed and ready to sightsee whilst looking for coffee due to the 06:42 arrival!
We had a good couple of days exploring and relaxing in Split, especially enjoying its Roman old town. This was beautiful and a great place to get lost in the winding streets, not knowing which monument you’re going to bump into next from Diocletian’s Palace to the Cathedral of Saint Domnius and a number of restaurants serving high quality cuisine. Just outside the old town was a enticing fruit and vegetable market.
We also had time for an afternoon visit to Hvar with frequent ferries direct from Split with Jadrolinija and Kapetan Luka ferry companies. Fares were priced as one-way journeys around 40 kn / £4.63 each way depending on the departure time.
Hvar was quite similar to Split in size and feel and was easily walkable from the port. Hvar also had an impressive Spanish fortress dominating the skyline. To walk to the fortress, this involved a large number of steps.
After three days enjoying Split and Hvar we were due to travel to Zagreb on the one direct train per day leaving at 08:33 the next morning. Well, we weren’t officially due to travel since our compulsory reservation bought in the UK in advance was actually dated for April…
This meant an impromptu trip to the station was in order at 21:45 to be issued with a new reservation. The booking office clerk laughed at the error and issued us with a new reservation and actually at a fraction of the cost of the original.
While we were at the station I couldn’t help but notice the sleeper train about to leave for Zagreb and a shunting type of locomotive on the front. Apparently this is normal for the front of the sleeper for the first part of the journey out of Split to Ogulin. It has a sole purpose of climbing the steep mountain from the port town up to Ogulin then the locomotive is changed.
08:33 Split 🇭🇷 to Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 (6 hours, 13 mins)
We arrived at Split station on time to catch our one daytime train option to the capital. Much to our surprise the train waiting to take us had only two carriages! As expected the train was relatively busy upon leaving, but we found that roughly 90% of customers travelled the entire route to Zagreb!
With two of us sitting at a table of four, we were convinced we were going to have to share with some other travellers at some point in the journey. Another surprise… At the 15 stations en route no more than 4 people joined at any one station! Most stations had no customers, so we never had to share our table with anyone.
There wasn’t much demand for travel at intermediate stations and there was nobody sitting in the 1st Class at any time in the journey. Not even the train conductor sat in there. She set up camp in 2nd Class placed her HŽPP branded antimacassar onto a seat of her choosing after departure. She mustn’t have wanted any customers to sit in her seat!
The train didn’t have any catering facilities, though there was what looked like a shop in the centre of the train albeit closed for us. I was informed on Twitter that this is supposed to be used as a ‘coffee point’ where the conductor can give you free coffee, but we were not offered this unfortunately.
The ICN train travelled through some beautiful mountainous terrain. The trains tilt around the corners to allow for a faster journey time which is a strange sensation.
Upon arriving at every station, even stations where the train didn’t stop, we found there was a Station Master awaiting the train’s arrival ensuring it safely departs. This railway pride was lovely to see, especially as we were travelling through many remote areas in the Croatian countryside. I don’t expect their jobs to be stressful in the slightest.
We arrived in Zagreb’s Glavni kolodvor station on time. The afternoon arrival enabled us to make the most of sightseeing and we particularly enjoyed exploring the Old Town up the mountain accessible by foot or by the funicular railway.
There was a wedding taking place in the Old Town, and what an amazing place and weather for it! We were in time to see the official photographs being taken with the bride and groom and their guests.
Leg 6 – 11:03 Zagreb Glavni kolodvor 🇭🇷 to Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 (6 hours, 39 mins)
Next up was our train direct to the Serbian capital. There is one day train per day from Zagreb to Belgrade and the train consisted of just three carriages, two 2nd Class Serbian carriages and one 1st Class Croatian car. The latter car was detached within Croatia at Vinkovci however, so only 2nd Class was available for customers travelling to Serbia.
The Serbian carriages weren’t too inviting especially from the outside. They were drowned in grafitti. Inside the colour scheme is bland however the seats are very comfortable with decent legroom on offer.
The train actually starts in Zurich and runs direct to Belgrade as a EuroNight service. However, to travel from Zurich to Belgrade you must change cars since there is no through coach travelling the entire way. The Serbian day carriages are attached to the train at Villach and the night train carriages from Zurich are detached in Zagreb.
Mid-journey, I noticed that there was a steady stream of passengers moving themselves and their luggage into the next coach. Interested to find out what was happening, I went for a walk and discovered that one of the 2nd Class carriages was a declassified 1st Class coach and there was plenty of room for us to sit and enjoy it.. what a winner I said! In the carriage, there were more comfortable, larger seats and more leg and arm space than 2nd Class. Plus there was carpet instead of lino floor.
Without hesitation we moved our bags and enjoyed the second half of our journey even more. The scenery was mainly countryside and flat landscape, but pleasant enough.
There is no catering car so bringing your own picnic is recommended. Zagreb Glavni kolodvor station has an underpass beneath the station accessible by escalator in the square, at the front of the station. This features a supermarket and a number of bakeries with delicious pre-made sandwiches. Upon entering Serbia however, at Šid station, there was a very welcome arrival onto the train… a vendor with his cool box of drinks!
Six hours is a long time for no drinks to be available so unsurprisingly many people took advantage of his good selection of Serbian beer, canned soft drinks and strong coffee to keep them going for the remaining 2 hours while transiting through Serbia.
I saw him get off the train at the following station which concerned me as I hadn’t been able to ask him for a drink yet. Behold, he got off the train to hand strong coffee to the train drivers up front as I captured in the photo below. I’m sure they were in awe of his arrival as well!
He soon got back on the train and I was able to put in my order for a can of lovely Serbian Lav beer. Much nicer than the name suggests in English!
For payment he accepted both Serbian Dinars and Euros, which was a great way to use up our change from Germany and Austria.
The arrival into Belgrade was quite something with a view of the Ada Bridge whilst crossing Railway Bridge across the Sava river.
Our arrival into Belgrade was into the new Beograd Centar station, 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade. That evening following a visit to the excellent Zavicaj restaurant we went to see the sad state of affairs at the old Belgrade Main Station which has been closed to trains since June 2018. Following from my visit 4 months ago in June 2019 (see my blog post here from then) the old platforms have now been completed dug out.
Belgrade is a friendly city full of history. Its position on the confluence of the Sava and the Danube rivers has made it an important location for trading historically and today makes a lovely view from the old fortress.
Leg 7 – Belgrade Centar 🇷🇸 to Nis 🇷🇸 (4 hours, 43 mins)
In the summer one direct train departs Belgrade Topcider station at 09:12 for Sofia arriving at 20:30, however we were travelling a day after the summer schedule had finished. This meant we had to be up for a planning challenge!
In order to get to Sofia the next day we would have had to either travel from Belgrade to Niš at 06:10 in the morning, with a risky 21 minute connection at Niš or travel the night before and stay over in Niš so we opted for the latter.
We decided to walk to Beograd Centar station from the centre of Belgrade. At first this was a nice walk through some leafy suburbs but we were soon faced with a series of motorways and we got confused.
We asked a series of very pleasant locals “where is Beograd Centar station please?” and not one of them knew where it was. The most common response was “I never use the train”. As a last resort we managed to find our location on Google Maps and which way we had to go. We had minutes to spare before our train was due to leave.
We soon realised that if we didn’t find a taxi we would miss the train. Luckily by the roundabout for the motorway there was a series of five taxis. We asked them one by one and four of them weren’t able to take us nor knew where the station was. Luckily our last driver did know and we made the train with 3 minutes to spare. Unbelievable.
We found the train and behold there were only 3 customers travelling on the smart, modern Serbian train. This departed at 17:30 on a Monday but wasn’t anything like a ‘peak’ time service in the vast majority of cities with a railway!
“Why oh why did Serbian Railways decide to build a centre station 2.7km from the centre of Belgrade?” was going through our lips several times as we caught our breath. We calmed down and we were then able to enjoy the journey to Niš.
Unusually as darkness fell we were faced with police conducting an ID check. This was very unusual for a domestic service not leaving Serbia, but nevertheless we showed our passports.
We arrived into Niš on time and we were faced with its brutalist check-in hall built just after World War II.
We had an early start in Niš so we made the most of being somewhere new and fitted in a walk before the next leg of our journey. Niš was delightful and has its own fortress which is worth a look.
Leg 8 – 11:10 Nis 🇷🇸 to Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 (3 hours, 35 mins)
We arrived back to Niš railway station for our next leg. There were no departure boards so we had to look at a printed timetable on the wall to find which platform we needed for the departure to Dimitrovgrad.
The train was a regional type and stopped 25 times during its journey. The scenery was breathtaking, especially the mountains following Ostrovica station. As at each station en route from Split to Zagreb in Croatia, on this route every station had a Station Master seeing the train through.
The train passengers were a mix of locals and tourists. On the train I had met a fellow traveller, Peter from Cambridge, who had travelled a similar route as us but a day later! He was talking at the European Association of Japanese Resource Specialists conference in Sofia so it was lovely to share the last leg of his journey from Dimitrovgrad to Sofia with him.
Leg 9 – 15:35 Dimitrovgrad 🇷🇸 to Sofia 🇧🇬 (2 hours, 25 mins)
At the border at Dimitrovgrad in Serbia (not to be confused with Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria) our train pulled into the one platform at the station. We disembarked the train and then 15 minutes later, the same train departed on a service back to Niš.
A few moments later a train arrived from the sidings – this was our international train to Sofia. It had only one carriage!
The train was very hot upon boarding as it had clearly been sat in the sun for hours and the windows were closed. Naturally myself, my Mam, Peter and our new train friend Alejandro from Spain soon opened every single window to help cool the carriage down.
This was our first train without air conditioning and thankfully the last, but luckily when the train set off it cooled down inside the carriage. There were curtains on the windows which helped to shield the sun, but once the train got up some speed they started to blow around uncontrollably so I had to open them again!
The train departed Dimitrovgrad, set off promptly but then stopped in some sidings. Bulgarian passport control was about to take place which was the method of taking them away, holding them for 30 minutes and handing them back out again before setting off. The train jumped one hour forward in time.
The train guard had a unusual dispatching device which was nothing more than a cardboard pole.
We arrived on time into Sofia which was a huge station with extremely long platforms. As we disembarked we noticed that this carriage had been used for the direct summer only service from Belgrade Topčider to/from Sofia as displayed on the carriage door. Even though we had 3 train changes, we concluded that we would have preferred to travel in the modern, air conditioned Serbian carriages for the trip from Belgrade to Dimitrovgrad at least.
Sofia was a great place to spend a day. There were many beautiful churches, gardens and palaces to explore.
Leg 10 – 21:45Sofia 🇧🇬 to Istanbul Halkali (for Sirecki) 🇹🇷 (8 hours)
Time for the final train of our trip with 400 miles to go on the cross-border sleeper train from Sofia to Istanbul.
We arrived at our train to find five carriages going to Türkiye, four of which were modern Turkish Railways’ sleeper cars and there was one Bulgarian Railways’ couchette car which didn’t nearly look so new and inviting. We were glad we had booked a sleeper.
Once onboard the sleeper we were impressed with the size of the rooms onboard. It was left up to us to put the beds out but these were easy enough to set up. There were two members of staff in the sleeping cars but they were looking after four coaches of people.
The sleeper cars came with their luxuries. The large cabins came complete with their own fridge which was stocked with free bottled water, orange juice and cheese crackers! There was a choice between a western-style and squat toilet onboard in each carriage. The western-style toilet, which also had toilet paper available, even had a bidet fitted to the toilet bowl. I can’t vouch for its success though as I didn’t use it!
As the train crossed out of the EU and into Turkey, we were in for a night of disturbances. This was the negative associated with the sleeper train. The train reaches the first border point in Bulgaria at Svilengrad at approximately 01:30, however on this occasion it was running two hours late. The EU Bulgarian police check passports on the train, taking them away and then returning them upon leaving Svilengrad.
The train then continues across the border to Kapikule where you must disembark the train with your luggage, walk under the tracks and queue up at passport control. After the passports are checked you then queue up to have your bags scanned.
The authorities don’t start the bag check until after the last person has had their passport checked. This resulted in being outside for a while, in fact one hour which was quite surreal at that time of the night. There were wild cats roaming around the platforms which did provide some entertainment until one cat started bullying another one. This caused some upset among passengers.
Due to engineering work the sleeper train terminated in Halkali instead of Sirkeci which is 23km from the centre of Istanbul. We were still able to finish our journey by rail however by using the Marmaray Metro direct from Halkali to Istanbul Sirkeci.
It was lovely to finish our trip at this beautiful station which is where the Orient Express finished its journey from Paris from 1883-1977. The station has its own museum which is full of old Turkish Railways’ merchandise and machinery and free to enter.
Whilst in Istanbul we visited the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar. All of these attractions are in walking distance to each other. We also had a boat ride along the Bosporus crossing between Europe and Asia.
I used Rail Staff FIP facilities to make this journey. Most of the trains accepted FIP Free Coupons and only required a nominal fee for a reservation. My Mam used an Interrail pass and we travelled in 2nd/Standard Class for every train.
For both of us, with our passes, the following services required supplements to be paid:
flat fares for Eurostar between London and Paris
the cross-border TGV between Paris and Munich
the overnight sleeper from Zagreb to Split for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
the overnight sleeper from Sofia to Istanbul for private 2-berth sleeper cabin
FIP Reservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)
Global Interrail PassReservation Fees (inc. supplement where required)
London to Paris
Reduced Rate Card / Staff Travel Card
Paris to Munich
Reduced Rate Card – no free coupons accepted on cross border TGV
Munich to Villach – reservation
FIP Free Coupons (DB, ÖBB)
Villach to Zagreb
FIP Free Coupons (ÖBB, HŽ)
Zagreb to Split sleeper
FIP Free Coupon (HŽ)
Split to Zagreb
FIP Free Coupon (HŽ)
Zagreb to Belgrade
FIP Free Coupons (HŽ, ŽS)
Belgrade to Nis
FIP Free Coupon (HŽ)
Free – reservations not possible
Free – reservations not possible
Nis to Dimitrovgrad
FIP Free Coupon (ŽS)
Free – reservations not possible
Free – reservations not possible
Dimitrovgrad to Sofia
FIP Free Coupon (ŽS, BDŽ)
Free – reservations not possible
Free – reservations not possible
Sofia to Istanbul sleeper
FIP Free Coupon (BDŽ) & full fare for leg in Turkey (TCDD)
This article was first published in November 2019 and updated in December 2019.