An overnight adventure travelling from Sofia to Istanbul by train

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“No dining car,” says Vasil, vaping through a cloud that smells of strawberries. A paralegal from Plovdiv, he’s been eavesdropping on my chat with the barman at One More Bar, in Sofia, about the sleeper service to Istanbul, the last leg of a journey that had begun several days earlier at London’s St Pancras station. My shoulders drop: the dining car is the beating heart of a night train. It’s where strangers become friends, food tells a story and the air is thick with soupy aromas and laughter. 

“Go right and walk up to Izbata: it’s real, traditional Bulgarian food,” he says, kissing his fingertips. Leaving the din of the cocktail den, my friend Jamie and I wander around the corner and find a pink building with a basement entrance leading to a tavern with stone walls and wooden tables. After a long day trudging between musty, onion-domed cathedrals, secondhand-book stalls and flea markets selling military medals, hot stew is what I need to set me up for the 12-hour ride to Turkey. Chef’s kiss, indeed — the menu is a riot of meat on meat. Spicy sudjuk sausage arrives curved around fried dill potatoes and raw red onion, followed by an earthenware pot of kapama (silky slivers of veal, pork and chicken in rice, sealed by a crisp, doughy lid). Rich and filling, it beats anything I’d find in a European dining car.

Half an hour before the 6:40pm departure, we lurk on the platform among passengers carrying bottled water, breadsticks and children. The Sofia-Istanbul Express groans into the station, on each window a crescent and star (the symbol of the Ottoman Empire). Hands are clasped to loved ones’ faces, tears quietly wiped with sleeves and bags heaved up the steps. Passengers glance into one another’s compartments to gauge which ones look best. Turkish house music starts in the one next door to mine and I peek in expecting to find a group of students but discover a family of four loading up their fridge with energy drinks. Our twin compartment has made-up berths, sealed bags of ironed linen, fat pillows and a fridge stocked with water, apple juice, pretzel sticks and hazelnut Hobby chocolate bars. By the time we sail away from the platform, Jamie’s set up Netflix on a MacBook, hotspotting off his phone.

It feels like a sleepover: film on, Pringles popped open and socked feet tucked under blankets. But I can’t turn away from the window — hands cupped to the glass for a better view, as the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital pass in the creeping darkness. Apartments loom by the track, revealing families at kitchen tables, flashing TV screens and smokers standing in the shadows on balconies. As the train breaks into a canter, fields and farms whip by, a flash of silver from a river winding alongside. Then there’s nothing but blackness and the thump of trance from next door. 

On a final toilet trip before bed, I chat to Grace and Alex from Munich, who have made a no-fly pact for a year, and Murat, a construction site manager from Istanbul. Having found work in Romania two years previously, he’s on his biannual journey home. “Normally I fly home but this time I thought it will be good to try the journey by train,” he says.

Kicking off my hotel slippers, I clamber up to bed, the steady drum of the wheels soothing now that the music has stopped. I know I’m in for fitful sleep as we’re due a passport check at 11:45pm at the Bulgarian border town of Svilengrad and then a 1am schlep off the train to scan bags at the Turkish border crossing of Kapikule.

A tremendous thud brings us to a halt and I ease back the curtain to see barbed wire looping along a low-lit wall. Footsteps approach. Kapikule border guards knock and ask for passports. No one knows where to go when we disembark, passengers lighting up cigarettes and milling around, station cats curling around our legs. The staff here have turned doing nothing into an art form, and it’s half an hour before a blind goes up and tired, flopping children wearing Disney backpacks are ferried to the front of the queue with their parents. I could have an arsenal in my backpack, so oblivious is the guard, who ignores the bags passing along the conveyor belt, before the train lets out a comical pair of toots and we stumble back on and into bed. 

It’s warm and quiet on board. We sleep deeply but an internal alarm stirs me at dawn and I slip outside the compartment in time to see an indigo sky cracking open over Lake Küçükçekmece, an orange glow shimmering on its surface. Istanbul’s hills roll into view, as do minarets sharp like pencil points and mosque domes, soft-edged in the fading darkness. The city is already stirring, lights flicking on in buildings, cars reversing down drives. A fingernail of moon sits in the corner of the sky. As we glide to a halt, I feel a burning sense of achievement, to have reached this far overland. For the final time, I step down off the train, ambling up the platform at Halkali station as the morning call to prayer floats out across the rooftops.

Published in the September 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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