Bucharest to Istanbul by TrainApril 2nd, 2012
A very sunny Bucharest in mid-March with temperatures in the lows 20s was a perfect place to be starting a journey from. Bucharest’s North Station was a bustling place with coffee shops, the ubiquitous McDonalds and KFC, a handy supermarket and numerous other stalls selling food and drinks which are all very useful as you need to stock up with provisions for the journey through to Istanbul as the train does not offer any dining or refreshment facilities.
The train left Bucharest bang on time at 13.00 and the sleeping car to Istanbul was well filled with all but two cabins occupied. Leaving Bucharest behind we travelled across very flat terrain with little of note except the Romanian oilfields with hundreds of oil derricks bobbing away. After a couple of hours we approached the Danube which forms the border between Romania and Bulgaria and crossed the river on the aptly named Danube Bridge (!) formerly known as the Friendship Bridge which apparently is quite spectacular to see but as we were crossing it the view was somewhat limited.
Entering the town of Ruse in Bulgaria was a thoroughly depressing sight with legions of dilapidated tower blocks and dusty unkempt streets. Immigration checks were carried out quickly and the train was soon on its way quickly escaping the eyesore of Ruse and entering some very scenic countryside following the valley of the River Yanta for some time and the railway line descending rapidly down the valley. Soon after we passed through a series of tunnels on the approach to Veliko Tarnovo and were rewarded by some brief glimpses of the old city clinging to the side of the Yanta River valley, it appears to be worthy of a stop en route so perhaps next time I am in the area I will visit. With the clocks not having not gone forward to herald summer time it got dark quite quickly and my attention focused within the sleeping car rather than out of the window, which was not so bad as the bed was made up and the motion of the train had me slumbering contentedly for a couple of hours as I knew I was not going to get a good nights sleep. On waking we were squealing, the trains wheels that is not the passengers, our way through what I expect is very dramatic scenery, all I could see were piles of snow next to the line – this was the stretch of line between Veliko Tarnova and Stara Zagora. Falling back to sleep again I was woken next by the sleeping car attendant knocking on the door saying Bulgarian border as we had reached the Bulgarian / Turkish border.
This border is somewhat disruptive to sleeping car passengers as it is reached at 00.40 and you have to be up and awake to present your passport to the border guards. Non European passport holders have their passport taken away for the formalities and it is then returned in what I think is a very quaint way – the border guard calls out the passengers first name and he / she identifies him/herself. On departing the Bulgarian side of the border, a town called Svilengrad, the train travels for around 20 minutes and arrives at the Turkish border at Kapikule. For my trip this was the end of the line as this is where the train is terminating during the course of the engineering works in Turkey.
All passengers have to get off the train and pass through Turkish immigration control. Many of us had to buy our visa at the border from a small visa office window. As a British passport holder I handed over my passport and a crisp £10 note, the cost of the visa, and a stamp was put into my passport and then I had to walk over the border control and enter Turkey. This all sounds very formal but in reality it’s a bit of a free for all and is a little confusing for some people as they had queued at the border control only to be told they had to go to the visa office to get their visa and then return to border control. Fortunately there were only 22 passengers on the train, including the Turkish couchette carriage that had joined our train at Dimitrovgrad, so the process was relatively quick. Chatting to one of the border guards he said in summer the process took a long time as the trains were very busy!
To maintain the rail connection with Europe, Turkish Railways are providing a replacement coach service from Kapikule to Istanbul. The coach is a modern one with comfortable reclining seats and tea is offered to passengers on board. The coach departed from Kapikule at 03.00 and travelled along a well maintained dual carriageway right through to the centre of Istanbul to arrive at Sirkeci Station at 05.30, this is almost two and half hours faster than the train would be! Fortunately there were taxis at the station and I quickly got into one and was whisked to my hotel who luckily got checked in to my room straightaway as I had actually booked a room for the night before in anticipation of an early arrival. Once in my room I slept until 11am, and had a somewhat jetlagged feeling, is it possible to get train lag?
The journey was an interesting one and in the summer I imagine the scenery in Bulgaria is very attractive. The downside of the trip is that very little sleep is available as you spend a couple of hours at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey in the early hours of the morning. The replacement coach though was much better than I expected but as there were so few passengers there was plenty of space on board. Would I do the journey again? Yes…… it was an interesting experience, not a luxury experience but none the less reasonably comfortable.
PLEASE NOTE:If you are looking to do the journey by rail the whole way, the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express’s annual trip to Istanbul and the more frequent Danube Express journeys are still operating all the way through to Istanbul by rail as they have negotiated special dispensation.