If you haven’t noticed the recurring theme yet, travelling the Balkans in the off season is a little harder than the rest of the year. And heading into Bulgaria was no different. In the summer there’s an express train that runs direct from Belgrade to Sofia once a day. But in the summer you have to book three separate local trains to get there. There’s a direct ~7 hour bus that many people take but it’s only offered on the weekends and we needed to travel on a Tuesday. We had booked our Sofia room before we researched the transportation options deeply enough. There are other buses running on Tuesday but they go all the way through Budapest and other insane routes. So we picked the train even though we had been warned it was slow.
To do it all in one day you have to catch a 5:45am local train out of Belgrade to Niŝ, deboard in Niŝ and buy a ticket to Sofia which gets you aboard a local train to Dimitrovgrad at the Bulgarian border, there you deboard and wait on the local Bulgarian trainline to Sofia and board at 3:25, finally arriving in Sofia at 6:30 local time (you cross a time zone). It’s a long fucking day. Plus not much time to buy food between stops. We just didn’t have the heart. Plus we wanted to stay up late drinking at the Hostel’s trivia night and would have had to get up at 3am. Nope.
Instead, we decided to do it in two days. First leaving Belgrade midday and traveling to Niŝ and then doing the second half starting at 11am the next day. We extended our stay in Sofia by a day and luckily our Bucharest AirBnB allowed us to shift our dates back a day for no charge.
As promised the Serbian local trains are slooooow. Like I’m pretty sure I could have speed walked faster than this train was going most of the time. Plus it hits every town along the way. Dozens and dozens. Some of the train stops are just a pile of rubble in the middle of an abandoned field with a dirt road leading away and what’s left of a sign hanging in the breeze. But we stop. I recall dropping one elderly man off on such a dirt road and watching him walk into the distance with his box tied with string. It seemed so desolate. I would say that more than half of the stops were no longer manned and the building in ruins. Others still had a uniformed man with a stick in his hand and a red hat standing dutifully by the track as we pulled in. But almost always alone.
The train to Niŝ comprised of about 2-3 cars total started empty and had spells where a dozen or so people would get on and then get off at another stop midway but generally the train was mostly empty. The train to Dimitrovgrad similarly had about 7 other people on board most of the time. And the train to Sofia started with only us and another lady that didn’t speak English. (In retrospect I think that lady asked for help with her bag off the train but I couldn’t understand her and before I could figure it out the train was moving again. I feel bad about that. I assume she made it off ok.)
So in conclusion, taking the local trains is like taking a Greyhound bus in the states. It’s going to at east double your travel time from what it would be to drive. But it’s spacious, the seats are nicer, plenty of room for your luggage, and it’s always a scenic route with big windows. There’s a bathroom but it’s not well maintained. Bring your own toilet paper. Stations are remote so language can be an issue. Katy did the research in advance so we knew where we wanted to go and when. If we had to rely on the agent we would have been screwed I think. Also, we discovered that there’s a special international ticket office in each station. The regular ticket agent can’t sell international tickets. So if you’re crossing a border, look for a sign for the international office or agent.
When we arrived in Sofia on 6:30 Wednesday night the international ticket agent was closed and we were told to return the following day. But that’s not going to happen. We have tickets for a Star Wars marathon ending in the new movie premiere!
Staying the night in Niŝ
We only chose Niŝ because it was our train stop. But after some research Niŝ is the third largest city in Serbia and is a college town. There’s a fortress and an old town. But aside from that it was a pretty fun town. Old town was modern. There’s a mall and lots of shops and bars. Good traditional food and lots of cheap fast food. It had some run down parts but the center was pretty hopping. Lots of young people about. We had dinner out and walked the main pedestrian street on the way back to our hotel. An all too fleeting glimpse of a city that I think I underestimated.
Etno kuća Biser
The first two restaurants we tried to go to on a Monday night were completely full. Out of desperation Katy spotted a dark storefront with large printed signs of food but the curtains were closed and you couldn’t see inside. I slipped in the front door to a dark wood bar room full of tables of men drinking and chain smoking. They all stared as we entered. But fuck it, we were hungry, there was food on the door, beer, I like beer, the waiter seemed nice, so we grabbed a table in the middle of the room and everyone went back to their conversations.
The menu was old and taped together but it was filled with all sorts of local delights, the prices were suspiciously low, and the portions were shown in grams for each item. 200g, $1.80? That’s a lot of grams of food for under $2. There were all the dishes we knew about: stuffed cabbage, beans with meat, grilled stuff. But mixed in were all sorts of local dishes you would never offer up to tourists. And I knew we were in for something special. Whole veal head with entrails? What would that even look like. A veal head is enormous. Coated brain? What is coated brain? Tripe in a variety of forms? Oh man this place was getting me excited. We both got the veal ragout soup (delicious). Katy got the mixed salad which in this case turned out to be a ginormous plate of pickled vegetables. Like half a head of cabbage sliced thick, big whole pickled peppers, pickled raw carrot slices, cauliflower, actual pickles. It was amazing. My beans with sausage was top notch, thick rich beans and charred sausages chopped up in it. Almost more than I could eat. And Katy’s sarma had like six meaty rolls topped with sour cream. She also got a glass of red wine poured up to the tip of the glass that was delicious. After I finished my beer I ordered a glass for myself. And for the entire feast, it was like $18. The waiter was also great, very polite and accommodating and spoke really good English. I could have eaten at this place every night. And now I’m thinking, man, did I mess up by only spending a night in Niŝ? I think this place has more to discover.
I regret not trying the pihtije which is pork or calf meat cooked until falling apart and congealed into a jelly from the collagen and sliced into cubes. I don’t know if I could eat 400g of it but where the hell else can I find this?
I only saw this city from the train station but it didn’t seem to have much going on. The station had two benches and a fairly disinterested teller. I walked out on the street and didn’t see any food or businesses from there or really as we pulled in or out. Maybe the town center was out of site from the rails. But certainly no food options nearby for travelers. Don’t expect to find lunch at the station. Buy a sandwich in Niŝ. If you exit the train station and go right on the main road you’ll run into a few food stands with grilled meat and sandwiches. The menus are all in Cyrillic and the workers didn’t speak English so you might have to point a bit to order but my sandwich was large and really good for almost no money. The bus from Niŝ arrived only about 15 minutes before the next bus showed up, barely enough time to buy your ticket. So you might want to have a backup food option with you if the train is running late.
To buy your ticket to Sofia in Niŝ, go to the far left ticket window marked as international and they’ll sell you a ticket through to Sofia that will get you on the train to Dimitrovgrad and on the train to Sofia all in one. The times on the sing in red are the summer direct trains but those aren’t running in the off season. I’m not sure why the lady in Belgrade couldn’t also just sell us a ticket all the way through but she wouldn’t.