Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Septemvri -Dobrinishte train - a scenic voyage through Bulgarian Alps

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The alpine views of Rhodope train from Septemvri to Dobrinishte make the journey worthwhile. 

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The wooden benches of Velingrad station are full of old ladies in flowery scarves tightly wrapped under their chins, surrounded by what seems like all their worldly belongings shoved into tons of plastic bags. Quietly they're chewing their lunches with their toothless mouths with an empty stare in their eyes. Outside an old man is packing his horse-driven carriage. The toilet is a hole in the ground and there's no paper anywhere, obviously. I look around and promise myself never to complan about the Finnish railway company ever again, no matter how often the trains are late and how impossible their online shop is to navigate.

The locals, with their piles of plaztic bags are starting to make their way onto the platform - there aren't many more minutes to go now. Unlike in Finland, there's no refund system for empty bottles, so the reason for all the bin liners they're lugging, full of empty bottles remains a mystery to me.  

I'm about to leave behind the spa town of Velingrad, known for their hot mineral springs and make my way to Bansko,a popular ski resort. My means of transpot is old Rhodope train route between Septemvri and Dobrinishte. 

The inviting aroma kebapche wafting from the grill of a nearby kiosk reminds that there's still time to get a sandwich to go. We, however, have better plans: we'vereserved an entire carriage for ourselves and for the next 3 hours we'll be feasting on a picnic of local wines, cheeses and salami.

The result is the single most entertaining train journey I've ever been on - even if there's no WiFi or sockets to charge my phone. 

The train gets its name from its route that takes the traveller through the spectacular scenes of Rhodope, Rila and Pirin mountains. 

When the building of the route was finished, there were three trains a week. Now there are four trains both way each day.

For timetables, please see here.

Completed in 1945 the route is narrow gauge one. And a slow one, too: in its entirety the 125-kilometre route takes five hours. 

But, it is a cheap one, too: price for a ticket from Velingrad to Bansko for instance starts at  BBN 3.60 (less than €2).

And hey - for about €40 you'll get a carriage (seats 30 people) of your own!

It is morning, so the mist that has been our constant copanion in the recent days shrouds everything into its opaque blanket. The forest balancing on the cliffs stands up against the foggy backdrop like in a Japanese wood carving.

Slowly the train makes its way through the bright autumnal colours, though here, too, autumn is swiftly turning into winter...

...and past the countryside where life goes on unchanged, as it has for so many generations already.

Eventually the sun manages to break through, exposing the small villages nestled on the foot of the mountains. At times it's impossible to tell whether we're in Switzerland or Bulgaria.

Only the minarets piercing the scenery give it away.

The sparsely inhabited mountain regions has always been home to a diverse population. There are the Bulgarian Orthodox, Greek and Muslims. "We're all Bulgarian, after all", shrugs the guide.

There haven't been problems between any of the groups. Communism treated every religion as their enemy so people, be them Muslim or Christian, are rather secular. They've lived together for centuries and coexistence has largely been peaceful. "Except in the run-up the elections", our guice sighs and rolls her eyes.

Mosques are heavily supported by Turkey and around election time they tend to activate and start exercising pressure on the voters. Almost 9 percent of the Bulgarian population is ethnically Turkish and MRF's, Bulgaria's Turkish party's agenda is essentially to look after their interests. 

Towards the end  of 1980's Soviet's hold of Bulgaria got stronger which was reflected among other things on the Turkish population's assimilation campaign. As a result hundreds of thousands of them emograted to Turkey. Later one third of them returned, today constituting the second largest ethnic group in the country.

Though the train ride offers an intriguing glimpse into the Bulgarian reality that a tourist would not probably even get to see, there's no question what it's key attraction is. 

As the train starts its almost 1000-metre descend from the station of Sveta Petka, one starts seeing the first glimpses through the tree-tops, but blink it and they're gone. 

Did I just...? Was that actually...?

By the train the train reaches Avramo, located 1267 meters above the sea and as such, warranting the title as the highest located train station in the whole Balkans, one can longer miss them. 

They're everywhere.

Known as the Balkan Alps, the snow-capped peaks rise in the horizon with such majestic aura that even I, born and bred in Lapland; profoundly sick and tired of all the snow and ice that entails, am speechless. 

So, I just stare at them. And sigh. At first glueing myself into the dirty window screen, a little later hanging halfway through the carriage door with my camera.

And so, almost 20 years after I waved Lapland goodbye, I'm finally starting to see the magic that lures hundreds of thousands of visitors there every year.

*In cooperation with Viinitimo and European Trade House Ltd*



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