Having a weakness for anything narrow gauge, the offer of some cheap as chips Ryanair flights to and from the Bulgarian capital tempts me to pay a springtime return visit to that country’s remarkable state-run and sole-surviving narrow gauge railway, the 125km (78-mile) route from Septemvri, south-east of Sofia, into the Rhodope Mountains close to the Greek border.
When the 2,800-mile round trip from Stansted to Sofia had cost less than £28.00 it means my four-day mini-break came in at a remarkably modest total of just £195.65, including flights, all rail travel, accommodation in Sofia (one night) and Velingrad (two nights), as well all my restaurant food and drink.
For anyone who fancies the idea of spending around five hours trundling through beautiful countryside and mountains while being hauled by a 1960s-vintage diesel in steam-heated coaches at a maximum speed of 50 km/hr (31 mph), the journey from Septemvri up to the ski resort of Bansko and journey’s end at Dobrinishte nearby, is one for the bucket list.
This 760mm (2’ 6”) Bosnian gauge line is a truly remarkable railway and one which, after surviving numerous closure threats, remains a vital life-line to the communities it serves, as well as being one of the most spectacular and unspoiled narrow gauge railway in Europe.
Two outstanding features of the route southwards from Septemvri are its perilous passage high on a narrow stone embankment alongside a road and the Chepinska River before reaching Velingrad, then the four spirals and around two dozen tunnels that allow the line’s ascent from Velingrad to Avramovo.
Travelling in both directions via Sofia, my 19.00hrs arrival on 22 March 2022 (14.00 from Stansted) meant an overnight stay in the Bulgarian capital before continuing towards the narrow gauge on the following day, so (as usual) picking the closest possible hotel to the main railway station, I had found the comfortable Aris Hotel, just five minutes’ walk away (£30.00 a night B&B).
Getting into Central Sofia from the airport is remarkably cheap and easy using the city’s efficient metro system, where a 20 minute trip on line Yellow line M4 from the airport to an interchange station called Serdika, then two stops on blue line M2 costs just BGN 1.60 (70p).
Bulgarian train fares are also remarkably cheap, but use of the Cyrillic alphabet can make buying tickets and checking station names a bit of a nightmare! To overcome that problem I discovered that it was possible to get times and fares in English on the state railway company website www.bdz.bg where it is also easy to book train tickets and so avoid potential booking office difficulties.
Booking my first day’s travel from Sofia to Avramovo online I paid just BGN 11.65 (£5.05) for a journey of 151kms (94 miles) and was pleasantly amazed to discover on printing my ticket that the two-hour trip on a regional service from Sofia to Septemvri was first class.
First class in a Bulgarian regional train is pretty comfortable, though there was no running water in the toilet and progress to Septemvri was painfully slow. Extensive sections of temporary single line working mean that the scheduled running for the 82.6km (51.6 mile) journey is just over two hours, with eight intermediate stops, an average speed of just 25mph!
Arriving at Septemvri just in time for the 10.50 narrow gauge departure, my heart sank when I was told it would be a replacement bus. Fearing that the whole line may be shut I checked the BDZ website and was relieved to see that the next departure at 12.40 would be a train.
In glorious sunshine that gave me time for a leisurely visit to the loco shed, outside which stood a trio of derelict-looking steam locos (506-76, 470-60 on a wagon and 1-76, along with railcar 82-01. It also meant a chance to photograph arrival of 75-009 with the 06.25 from Dobrinishte.
Another trick I have learned for foreign travel that comes in rather handy when station names are shown in the Cyrillic alphabet is to print out a detailed itinerary for any European journey I am making from the German Railways website www.bahn.de which does away with the risk of missing your stop!
Besides being the highest station in the Balkans, Avramovo is one of the handful of places along the route with semaphore signaling, though both its signals are rather remote and out of sight from the station. Elsewhere the only visible signalling are a few colour lights at Septemvri, Velingrad and Bansko.
One major change since my 2017 visit was disappearance of the Romanian Class 77 diesels, which dated from 1988. All services were in the hands of the 1966-built Henschel Class 75 units, with four of the original 10 in service during my time on the line (75-005/6/8/9), 75-004 on shed and 75-002 also on shed, but seemingly out of use.
On my return to Septemvri (25 March) however, what appeared to be the last of the Class 77 locos (77-002) stood outside the shed in pristine condition, after returning from a major overhaul in the city of Ruse. A second loco in the 1988-series, 77-009, has now gone to Ruse for overhaul, so the Class 77s will be back in traffic on services to Dobrinishte.
Trains on the route comprise three 30-seater second class coaches on regional services – four on the fast “Rodopi” working – which are both comfortable and warm, thanks to their steam heating. The services I travelled on over three days seemed fairly well-patronised by local people, but there was precious little evidence of the tourist traffic which this line deserves to attract.
After a night in Sofia, my base on the narrow-gauge was once again in the pleasant spa town of Velingrad, where I had found a comfortable apartment just five minutes’ walk from the railway station called Guest House Radoychevi that cost me a mere BGN 76.80 (£33.32) for my two-night stay.
Velingrad station is a magnificent building to the east of the town, where there are many sidings and dumped freight wagons, some with large trees that have sprouted up inside them. Freight traffic ended 20 years ago (in 2002) but this is one of a number of places where lines of long-disused wagons remain.
Taking a trip to Bansko (24 March 2022), it was interesting to see that the “preserved” rolling stock I had seen in December 2017 had gone – I had seen railcar 82-01 on depot at Septemvri, so I assume that the 0-10-0T steam loco 504-76 (CKD Prague, 1927) had also gone there, although it was not one of the three steam locos I had seen outside the loco shed the previous day.
Sitting in the busy lobby of the sumptuous Grand Hotel, only two minutes’ walk from Bansko station, and savouring a pint of local beer (BGN 5.00 / £2.30) I started wondering how many of its multi-national guests were aware that they were so close to one of the railway wonders of Europe. Precious few, I fear.
Travelling on a low-cost airline like Ryanair it is very easy to get seduced into paying for all sorts of extras, from luggage to priority boarding and extra legroom seats. But keen to ensure that my bargain-priced flights remained just that, I decided to shun all the up-selling and travel light, with just a modest rucksack that would easily fit under a Ryanair seat.
There is something rather satisfying in planning what to take on a short break, then paring it back to absolute necessities, but it is something I can highly recommend for any budget-conscious traveller considering a short break such as this one, and something I should have woken up to before now!