The Orient Express: Leg 3, Plovdiv to Sofia

1:20. Earlier this morning I had the excellent free breakfast at the hostel before walking a few blocks to find an ATM and check out the Ancient Roman theatre (1st century AD) and a very old church which the caretaker opened just for me. The hostel’s credit card processing system is down so I had to find an ATM before I could pay my bill.  It was the exhorbitant sum of $40 for three nights, after all. Hostel Old Plovdiv was rated #4 in the World in 2014 in Lonely Planet’s ‘Best Value Stay’ category and I can see why.  It’s pretty quiet in February but if there were a few more people around it would be perfect!   The city itself is very nice and there’s several thousand years worth of history to soak up, but with heavy rain forecast for the next two days, I have decided to move on.  I will take the 4:35 train to Sofia where it’s supposed to be sunny and warm.




2:40. The girl on the front desk at the hostel asks if she should call a third taxi for me. The first two have yet to show up even though both times the dispatcher promised that a cab was on the way and would arrive any minute. The last call was 30 minutes ago. After Googling “Uber-Plovdiv” I learned that Uber never did get off the ground here and was recently shut down in Sofia after the taxi industry took its case all the way to the Supreme Court of Bulgaria. 

3:00. I have walked to the pedestrian mall at the heart of the city where it will be easier to find a cab. But first, vegetable soup and a traditional Bulgarian salad at Gusto!  I had dinner at this little cafe on my first night in town and it was excellent.  Let’s see if they can serve up an encore.

3:42. The “vegetable soup” turned out to be puréed squash and the salad consisted of two roasted red peppers, a ripe tomato, a generous slab of goat cheese and some course salt.  Both dishes were tasty and good value for under $7 when you consider the two glasses of red wine, a basket of fresh bread and an hour of free wifi that came with the lunch special!

3:50. I found a cab within a block from Gusto but the driver didn’t seem to understand “train station” or “central station.” I’ve dealt with cab drivers around the world who had a limited grasp of English but every single one of them has known the meaning of two phrases: “train station” and “take me to a grossly overpriced dump of a hotel that pays you a generous commission.” 

3:53.  I had to make the “choo choo” sound before this guy clued in but we’re heading in the right direction according to the little blue dot on Google Maps.

3:55. Securing a ticket for the 4:35 train to Sofia was quick and easy. I paid $6 and will be taking the “Express” train.  This seems odd as there is only one train to Sofia but I suspect they call it the “Express” so they can charge an extra buck or two.  I don’t know what they’re doing with the profits but they’re not reinvesting in the facilities.


 


4:35. We left the station at precisely 4:35. Bulgarian trains may not be luxurious but they are punctual!

4:45. Although I’m seated in a car with five other people, the odds of having a meaningful conversation are not looking good and they’re rising by the minute. Seated in Row 2 are two girls of about 16 who have been shopping at H&M in Plovdiv. They’re busy comparing purchases and posting pics on Instagram. Seated in row 6 is a man of about 70 who may have been Canadian actor Don Harron’s inspiration for the crotchety Charlie Farquharson character. He’s wearing a brown sweater interwoven with a quarter bale of straw and an old cap that looks like it may have hung in the barn for 20 years. Seated opposite me in Row 8 is a guy who I assume to be a university student.  I’m sure he would speak english but when I said hi he mumbled something and turned the page in his textbook.  (Do I really scream creepy old man?)  Seated several rows behind me is a middle-aged woman who is wearing six or eight winter coats.  She was asleep before we left the station.

 5:02. The old man (not me, the other old man) has been reading out loud for a few minutes.  At first I thought it was religious material and we were getting a sermon but now I can see that he’s reading a pamphlet from a bank or financial planner.  Even from this distance I can make out the standard bank pamphlet photos – sporty looking seniors walking hand-in-hand on a beach and a desktop with calculator, fountain pen, eye-glasses and a cup of coffee!  

5:16.  The woman in the last row is awake and having a rip roaring argument with the woman seated to her right.  You and I would call that person a reflection in the window but this woman clearly sees the world a little differently.  She’s probably harmless but just the same, I’d rather not have my back to her for four hours.

5:30. We have stopped at six small-town stations in the last hour. Although each stop was less than a minute and we’re probably still on schedule, I wonder what the milk run would be like if this is the “express” service.

5:44. The train picks up speed as it leaves yet another rural station. I didn’t see any passengers or railway employees but an old dog was asleep on the platform and three baby goats had been grazing in the ditch beside the tracks. They disappeared when the train pulled away and I have a feeling they may have ended up under the train.  

6:10.  He already thinks I’m creepy so I might as well snap a photo when he’s not looking.  

6:25. The talkative woman in the back row has moved to another car, the old man got off at the last stop and now the student and the two young girls are gathering up their H&M bags and preparing to get off at the next stop.  I will probably have the car to myself for the next two hours.

8:21. I slept for an hour and only woke up when the train pulled into the station in Sofia.  The train terminates in Sofia so there was never a chance that I’d miss my stop.  I can’t see much of the city in the dark, especially with the interior lights on, but it looks like a good sized city with brightly lit signs for many western stores and brands.  I guesss I shouldn’t be surprised as Sofia is the capital and with a population of 1.8 million it’s the largest city in the country.

8:25. When I walked out the main doors of the station I found a long line of yellow cabs. The drivers were huddled under an awning, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. I got the impression that I was troubling them but eventually one guy wandered over and asked where I wanted to go. I didn’t get a good first impression but he surprised me by knowing exactly where Hostel Mostel was located and saying that he only uses the meter so there would be no negotiation (AKA blatant thievery).  As we pulled away from the station the driver rolled up his window, put out his cigarette and cranked up the car’s surprisingly good stereo system. I was treated to an extended remix of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus for the 10 minute ride to the hostel. Did I mention that the driver was 80 if he was a day? I think I’m going to like Sofia!  

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