Bulgaria’s an EU country with a swirling Cyrillic script that’s indecipherable. Unless you’ve studied and learned it, of course, when I would imagine it would be perfectly easy. It counts Greece as a neighbour, and on and off ally, along with Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and Turkey. It hasn’t yet entered the eurozone (so it’s probably feeling smug right about now) and it has fewer people living inside its borders than there are within London’s M25 (a record, incidentally, that several Balkan nations share.)
It also has a graveyard of a central station, or so I thought when I first arrived. Blinking with sleep into the buttercup-yellow light, I stood on the platform and looked around.
An abandoned train stood opposite, incoherent graffiti scrawled along its length. The escalators had seen better days (I hoped) as they slumped, lifeless, in a congealing layer of sludge.
After the escalators, there was no-one. Just the echoing footsteps of my fellow passengers as they made their way to Sofia’s hottest parties, clad in hot pants, mustard tights and white wellies. We’d travelled together on the overnight train from Istanbul, me on my interrail pass, they as a diversion from their English studies in Turkey. A story for another day.
Back in Sofia, in the midday sun made milky by the wintry haze, I hauled my suitcase up the steps to the central rail concourse.
No-one moved. Traffic peeled past outside, casting reflections on the floor. A man sat inside a tiny McDonalds booth, arms crossed, shoulders hunched. The “golden M” was one of the few symbols I could recognise, a rather depressing observation.
I sat down to gather my thoughts. Where should I go in a city so derelict and deserted?
I checked my phone for the time. Within five minutes I’d found a map, a hotel and a guidebook.
And I hadn’t even stood up.
Bulgaria, you see, has free fast wifi streaming through its central station. That was my first clue that there’s more to Sofia, Bulgaria than first meets the eye…
In December 2011, I set out to travel from Istanbul to Berlin using a global interrail pass*. I wanted to find out more about the countries I knew so little about and to explore the past in terms of east and west and the former iron curtain. The #ironroute journey began here and progressed with travel articles about Istanbul and photos of Sofia.
You can read more about how it is progressing with these live updates – and for even more news, check out the #ironroute hashtag on twitter.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com