Belgrade to Sofia Journey and the Honest Truth About Night Trains

Travelers love to bond over shared experiences – the good ones, the bad ones, and the ugly ones.

Typically (and by typically I mean most certainly) night trains fall into the latter two categories.

Anyone traveling Europe needs to experience a night train once. And, if after that one time you decide that the night train is not for you – that is OK. There is nothing more frustrating than other people pushing their travel standards on you. Yes, night trains save daylight that can be used to explore. Yes, night trains save you a night paying for accommodation. Yes, they are incredibly uncomfortable, quite dangerous and are not the ideal transportation method for everyone. When you opt for a night train – keep this in mind.

I want to share my experiences with nighttrains to (hopefully) help fellow travelers from feeling absolutely hopeless during those rough, sleepless hours around 3am. You’re going to feel dirty. Frustrated. Anxious – I did too. Sometimes as travelers we are too proud to admit that we had a “melt down” but I’ll take a moment of humility to say it: Nearly every time I take a night train, I have a few moments throughout the night when I want to cry.

You are NOT less of a traveler for having a few internal “diva” moments on night trains. Just always be respectful, wear a poncho to not touch the bedding if you have to (guilty) and just know that you’ll arrive at a new, awesome destination in the morning.

My first night train was through Russia at the prime age of 13 – I had a blast playing cards and sleeping on the top bunk. Next night train was a seat with my family through Austria – I had a good laugh at my Dad who stood the entire time, my mom who made friends with army people and my sisters who slept with their mouths gaping open. Two fun night train experiences (which both happened to be first class tickets) gave me a false impression of the typical night train experience…

Then comes Morocco.

The 11 hour train from Tangier to Marrakech, second class seats, cost us nearly nothing in money, but everything in comfort. It was freezing cold, crowded, loud, bustling and we were located very near to a stand still pot filled with human waste. The stench, the noise, the temperature – it was terrible. TERRIBLE.

And then we got off the train and soaked up Marrakech and the misery of the night train faded into enjoyment and awe of our new surroundings.

That’s the thing – when you get to your destination the good overshadows the night train experience, so then you make the mistake of booking another night train.

Spain

Ah. The Barcelona to Granada night train. Few countries are more notorious for pickpockets on night trains than Spain and Italy. Knowing the high likelihood of pickpocketing – I entered the train prepared.

  • You are never too cool to pass up wearing a money belt. You wear that money belt, and you put your valuables where (hopefully) nobody will nab them
  • Carabeaners are great for connecting your belongings to your body. You might have to sacrifice some comfort to have your pack attached to you, but its worth the peace of mind.
  • And by peace of mind I mean don’t ever have peace of mind on a night train. Be alert. Go ahead and sleep, but I would never take sleeping pills or Nyquil or anything.
  • Pack your own snacks. First off, it is way cheaper. But more importantly, it means you don’t need to leave your luggage to have a meal.
  • Or maybe the easiest safety tip is to make sure and have your iPhone stolen your first week in Europe, then never have to worry about it being stolen again! In all seriousness, iPhones are much more expensive in Europe and are a major target – reconsider bringing a nice smart phone on your trip.
  • Travel with minimal cash on night trains.
  • I have most my books on my iPad, but I NEVER EVER take the iPad out on night trains. I read my token paperback night train book. Keep valuables tucked away, and never flaunt any kind of wealth.

With all this said – I managed to not be robbed on the Spanish night train. Though the night was still far from an enjoyable journey. My compartment was all female and near my age – but it was full of very disrespectful females. I awoke to one girl painting her toe nails and our very small, locked  tight compartment wreaked of acetone. I had to stand outside to try and wait out the smell – which never went away. Another girl took up the entire middle section with her luggage, making it a massive challenge to get down from my top bunk bed without stepping on the beds of strangers. The final female in the compartment kept stumbling in between the bar car and our sleeper.

Belgrade to Sofia Night Train

OH GOOD GOSH. This train. The compartments and train itself were designed during communism, and the last time it was cleaned was around the same period. My bed was at a 45 degree angle, which made it impossible to do anything besides sit on it and crouch down to not hit my head on the bunk above. Train conductors do nothing but yell at you in Serbian and make aggressive hand gestures in the direction of every foreigner. The train stops at least 4 times during the night for passport control officers to shine bright flashlights into your eyes and demand your papers. You are provided with a pillow, a scratchy blanket and one grimy sheet that you need to creatively figure out how to wrap yourself in so as to have both your head and feet covered at all times to avoid touching the pillow with questionable stains or the filthy, smelly blanket.

Instead of double bunk beds, the beds are stacked in threes, so 6 of us had to fit in an incredibly narrow compartment. It was freezing cold. The beds squeaked and I kept envisioning the bunks toppling down on me because they rocked with every train bump. Dark, dirty green and gray defined the color scheme of the train. The windows had cracks, the blankets had holes, every aspect of the train dated back to before I was born.

If the train condition itself wasn’t enough to make for an uncomfortable night, I could not have been more unlucky with my compartment. On bunk above me was a bizarre couple from Australia who decided to cuddle the whole night instead of sleeping in their respective beds. I had to listen two the bed creaked and to them whispering the entire night. The very top bed was supposed to be occupied by an incredibly short British man, but he decided to stand at the window the ENTIRE night instead. It was eerie having someone awake and standing near me the entire night – I just wanted him to get into his bed and close his eyes to at least give the illusion of privacy.

The middle bunk was an unfortunately creepy looking middle aged Bulgarian. I feel terrible about my initial judgement of him, because soon after sitting down in the cabin he tried (in very broken English) to talk. We established I was from Chicago, he from Sofia, and then he dove into reading The Bible after our communicating failed and then failed again. I deemed him respectable, and let my unrest about him recede.

Then, the real problem stumbled through the door carrying that ever familiar scent of rakia. Typically a nice potent smell, he filled our cabin with a disgustingly sweet, fruity stench from his breath and open alcohol container. He was drinking it from an old soda bottle – meaning it was the very strong, home-brewed kind. He drank it like water. The man was drunk. He was sick. He threw his tissues on the ground. He obviously drank himself into a headache and sat leaning over with his head in his hands which was really into my space because the cabin was so small.

I just gave up. All I needed that night was a decent sleep – and at this point all I wanted to do was cry from exhaustion. Frustration. Discomfort. I ended up going to the middle exit car and sat on the stairs looking out the tiny, fogged up window at the passing shadows. You never realize how slow night trains move until you alternate between staring at your watch and at the standstill or slowly passing scenery outside.

Many travelers pride themselves on the ability to “rough it”. I can rough it. But that doesn’t mean I always enjoy it. Don’t feel like less of a traveler if you are grossed out by vomit filled public toilets on night trains, or are repulsed by the snot and hot breath of a stranger waking you up when you try to sleep. We are fortunate if these scenes aren’t our daily reality – just respect that these difficult conditions exist, experience them, and then if you have the means to – take another more comfortable mode of transportations.

railroad_tracks

 

Posted on by Reagan J Payne in Part II, Uncategorized

11 Responses to Belgrade to Sofia Journey and the Honest Truth About Night Trains

  1. Aunt Susan

    You are brave soul and sometimes traveling as cheaply as possible can be miserable. I’m glad you experienced everything you did, but I’m glad I heard about it AFTER THE FACT! Love and admire you, niece!

  2. Jon @ jonistravelling

    Those trips sound pretty bad but I’m sure you’ll always remember them!

  3. Clara

    Hi! I’m from Uruguay planning on travelling from Belgrade to Sofia, initially by night train, but having read lot’s of bad reviews like this one i’m thinking of taking a bus… Hopefully it will be better. I had two experiences in night trains before, one 16 hour travel from Xi’an to Shanghai in China, in a first class compartiment, shared with a great chinesse family of three… We slept through it like if we were at home :-). Then a Munich – Venice ride which was also very good since I had the compartimen all to myself :-). Thanks for the info!

    • Vero

      Hey! I am also planning to travel from Belgrade to Sofia, and night train is the obvious option for me, I have travelled many times (Dresden-Vienna, Amsterdam-Berlin & back) and besides the real anxiety of sharing a closed compartment with complete strangers, my experiences have been sofar really good.. But your post and others I found on Internet have let me really doubting, it does not seem a reasonable option if comfort is expected..
      Clara, if you happen to have good tips, let me know, I also live in Uruguay. Are you of Bulgarian descent?

  4. Sneaker zu Top-Preisen

    Wow, that’s what I was looking for, what a data!
    present here at this website, thanks admin off this web page.

  5. Yogi

    Thanks for your experience, having just considered modifying my interrail trip to include a night time train from Belgrade to sofia, its good to have heard the honest truth about someones experience and be ready for it. Good luck to all.

  6. Ryan Davis

    I have traveled on night trains in Central Europe since 1991, up until the day before yesterday, when I took the Belgrade Sofia night train. I have never been robbed. I don’t know anyone who has ever been robbed, though I do know people who know people whose cousin was gassed, and then woke up without a kidney, or some such nonsense. The trains southeast of Budapest are threadbare because the countries whose rail systems they belong to are poor. Despite being poor, however, most of them are (as you put it) “respectable.” I’ve seen far more public drunkenness in the UK and Germany (where I live) than I have in Serbia or Bulgaria.

    By the way, your bed was at an angle because it was in seat mode and not bed mode. I pointed at it, the conductor fixed it, and it was fine. You need to flip down the two rods underneath the bed/seat.

  7. Cool Guy

    I read this and liked your experience.

  8. sasa.p

    It’s better and quicker to catch bus for that trip.

  9. Nick

    Maybe in this route but I’ve taken about 30 night trains in Europe and all were good or great.

  10. Briana and Kyle

    So funny! Loved hearing all your stories.

Add a Comment