This month we are looking at a complex table, offering timings for three possible routes across the breadth of Bulgaria. These routes offer travellers a variety of pretty mountain scenery, a view of stark industrial towns and some of the oldest history in Europe, before arrival into the beach resorts of the Black Sea coast. Bulgaria is one of the most budget-friendly countries to travel around and there is plenty to offer the more adventurous traveller. Exploring Bulgaria by train can be rewarding but don’t expect modern railway comforts like air conditioning or fully stocked restaurant cars; most passenger accommodation is generally very dated with a post-communist feel and services are often slower than buses, but this can add to the unique experience!
Trains are operated by Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ) and are classified as either ekspresen vlak (express trains), bârz vlak (fast trains), or pâtnicheski vlak (slow trains) with most long-distance services offering first and second class seating. Reservations are compulsory on the express services (marked with ‘R’ in our tables) and there are also a small number of overnight services offering couchette or sleeping cars.
From the capital Sofia, there are three options for travel shown in Table 1500, ending at the coastal resorts of Burgas in around 6 hours 30 minutes or Varna in around 7 hours 30 minutes.
1. Through Mezdra and Pleven to Varna, with an optional sidetrack connection to Ruse
2. Our recommended route via Karlovo and Tulovo to Burgas (the scenic area is shown in green on the map extract below)
3. An alternative route to Burgas via Plovdiv and Stara Zagora
Travelling on the most scenic of the three routes, we depart Sofia towards the picturesque and historic town of Karlovo. The town is famous as the birthplace of Vasil Levski, leader of the revolution against the Turks, an important time in the history of the country which is detailed in his museum here. The town has a traditional charm with narrow cobbled streets with local crafts on display. Karlovo and the next stop Kazanlak form part of the ‘Valley of the Roses’ as they are major producers of rose oil for the cosmetics industry. When the roses bloom each May and June, visitors flock to this area to see the huge fields and experience the aromas. Kazanlak is an attractive town and amongst its attractions boasts the world’s only museum dedicated to the production of rose oil and water. The region around Kazanlak is chequered with important archaeological monuments. A short walk from the centre stands a 4th-century-BC tomb of a Thracian ruler, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tomb is situated near the ancient Thracian capital of Seuthopolis and the Valley of the Thracian Kings where more than a thousand tombs of kings and members of the Thracian aristocracy can be found
The next major stop is the town of Sliven, situated at the foot of a unique rock formation that now forms Blue Rocks Nature Park. Despite the name, you’d have to look hard to see more than a bluish haze here (thought to originate from a concentration of quartz). The hills have an interesting history, they were once a place of refuge for the hajduks (foot soldiers) fighting against the Ottomans. Visitors can take the chairlift to the top for spectacular views of the valley and access to the many paths and caves. There are also opportunities to practice various sports such as mountain climbing, paragliding and skiing.
Following the most scenic route, last week we reached the town of Sliven. We now arrive into the large port city of Burgas. The city is well-kept with a neat, pedestrianised centre, a long, uncrowded beach and some interesting museums and provides a good base for exploring the southern Bulgarian Black Sea resorts such as Sunny Beach. One of the prettiest parts of the city is the 600-acre Seaside park, one of the most beautiful parks in Bulgaria. The gardens display exotic plants from all over the world and a walk through the park provides lovely views of the sea, the pier and the port. Besides a nice walk, there are numerous little relaxation areas, restaurants and a theatre and cultural centre where the city hosts multiple literature, musical and folklore festivals. The city is surrounded by Burgas Lakes, protected wetland areas that are inhabited by many locally or globally endangered species of birds, fish and mammals which attract birdwatchers and nature lovers from all over the world.
The alternative endpoint on the routes from Sofia in Table 1500 is Varna, Bulgaria’s second largest city and maritime capital. There is a connecting train service between Burgas and Varna or a faster bus link. The impressive Art Nouveau style station is one of Bulgaria’s oldest and has previously been a stop for the Orient Express. Varna is an interesting combination of a port, naval base and seaside resort. It’s an exciting city, packed with history yet thoroughly modern and has a lengthy beach. In the city center, you’ll find Bulgaria’s largest Roman baths complex, a naval museum, and an archaeological museum which exhibits the impressive Gold of Varna – some of the oldest gold treasure in the world.