I’m sitting in the roof of a hostel on William Gladstone Street in Sofia. If ever there was a name to conjure up the tortured to-and-fro of this region, it’s William Gladstone Street. My history isn’t up to this, but I think I remember Gladstone being a proponent of a unified Bulgaria when half the country was still under the sway of Ottomans.
We arrived in Sofia an hour ago on a Russian train with Ukrainian carriages which we hauled ourselves onto in Bucharest. Patterned carpets lined the carriages, and there was a good deal of old wood and leatherette to lend more character than the plastic-and-nylon of Western European trains. The only other people on our carriage were fairly tough-looking Slavic men with close-cropped hair and a certain way of looking at you, who always turned out to be charming when you spoke to them.
In Bucharest we ate dinner and some of us went to a pub to watch the cricket. Others wandered around the place, which still has a good deal of dehumanising Ceaucescu scale to its boulevards, though the backstreets are slowly filling with restaurants and bars. In the early evening these places were empty but by the time we made our way to the station at 9.30pm the place was absolutely jammed solid with young men and women, almost all of them in couples, dressed to the teeth.
The journey from Sofia was interrupted twice by shouting border guards in the early hours, once in Romania and once in Bulgaria. One of them was carrying a great pile of Ukrainian passports. I wonder if these angry burly men on the borders ever hanker for the Communist era, when the power they wielded was so much the greater.
The train split apart and joined with others three or four times, shunting around on ancient rails which screamed in protest. When we woke in the morning we were passing through the mountains which give their name to the Balkans. The train went through a deep valley carved in the limestone by a rapid river. At every station, the stationmaster stood to attention as we passed in full uniform. Almost all of them were women. Stationmistresses?
There was real poverty on display in these mountain villages. Houses with caved-in roofs were everywhere. At the railside was the occasional ancient railway carriage adopted as a home, a satellite dish on the side giving away the presence of humans within. Or perhaps inside were the bodies of past travellers, lying in their couchettes waiting to be connected to trains arriving from Points North.
From Sofia we go, by bus, to Skopje where we hope to get on the sleeper to Belgrade. Our only reservation confirmation is an email with a name on it. For the next two days we will be outside the European Union, and I do not know whether battery life and mobile coverage will allow updates to this blog. We shall see.