Through Uncivilised Europe: Copenhagen to Sofia by Train

Angry border guards who throw you off trains, alcohol smugglers, war-torn villages, bombed-out taxis – Europe may claim to be the origin of ‘civilised’ society, but it is often far from it. But it also has the sensuous Copenhagen, the obsessively organised Germans, the faded Austro-Hungarian glory of Budapest, the sheer energy and desire of Belgrade, and the impenetrability of Sofia. I was in Copenhagen and wanted to get to Sofia in Bulgaria, from north-western to Eastern Europe. What better way than by train? Unless one wants to sell an organ or three and take the infrequent Orient Express – a luxury option for the obscenely and obnoxiously well-to-do – the best way is to break the journey into a series of local trains.

Six days it took, although the actual travel time is about 48 hours. Why so slow? I wanted to stop for a while, taste, smell and touch a city like Budapest and Belgrade on the way. I was also newly in love with a woman from half a world away in Copenhagen. We wanted to celebrate the discovery and passion with a journey that few in Europe have actually taken in its entirety. Across the heart of Europe, in sleek first class seats with tea and coffee on a tray, rattling sleepers that lulled one to sleep with the familiar rock and creak of a train, and in broken-down carriages that boasted mythical dining cars we journeyed, marvelled, laughed and were sobered by the sheer variety.

Smoking, Smuggling Danes

Out of Copenhagen it is a short journey to Hamburg, across the straight to Germany. Denmark is, apart from Jutland, a bunch of islands huddling in the Baltic. So before you can settle into the massive easy chairs that pass for seats in first class (yes, I hate to admit it, but at little extra cost I love to take this option), finish a cup of tea, make your gums sing from a sweet pastry, or clear your mouth with an apple – all provided by the conductor – the train arrives at Rødby (pronounced roughly like roerthboo), a scrappy town whose main claim to fame is the ferry crossing to Puttgarden in Germany. (Speaking Danish is a little like a wedgie: more than half of the spoken word usually disappears into some unspoken place and thereby bears little relation to what is written on the page.) Astonishingly, at least for someone used to trains crossing thousands of kilometres of desert over days on end, the train simply hopped on the ferry. Obviously it wasn’t a long train, but the first time it stopped, waited a moment and crept onto the boat, I thought it was the oddest thing in the world. Especially when you need to get off during the crossing: you simply step out of the train into the ship’s cargo hold, walking amongst the trucks and cars and buses which have joined the train.

Up the stairs to the passenger decks I was looking forward to a grand crossing to the mainland, one full of history in which Danish kings sent ships full of soldiers to fight over Schleswig-Holstein, or in which smugglers would try to make the run in the cover of darkness, or impoverished peasants seeking the supposedly better conditions on the other side.

Not quite.

Passengers regarded the whole business as a necessary evil, a reminder that Denmark really is a tiny country and that the Danish Empire barely a memory. For some childlike reason I love to walk about a ship (or a train), exploring its corners, stairs and alleys. So I made my way out on deck. Instead of a grand view of the sound, looking out to the Baltic states and even Russia, all I could see were the backs and overhanging bellies of other passengers with the grey looks of nicotine addicts. I was standing shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of smokers. They seemed to have some unwritten pact that they would produce – collectively – more smoke than the engine’s smoke-stack around which they huddled. Al least the floor was soft underfoot, I thought, rather than the usual hard iron of most ships. Until I looked down and realised it was a carpet of cigarette butts.

Back inside I soon saw that the one or two best seats had been fought over and won by passengers in the know. I left them guarding their prizes and meandered past the café, took one look at the food – greasy blobs of deep fried somethings that were all brown and shiny – and kept walking. Duty free maybe? The shop was busier than Christmas Eve back home. Did it have the usual trinkets of duty-free shops the world over? Cameras, watches, mobile phones, perfume, souvenirs? In one small corner a few such faded items hung, but it was really a grog shop. Whiskeys, rums, wines, cognacs, snaps, and beer … above all beer piled so high in trolleys that I could barely see the purchasers. And in the corners of the ferry people stacked their loot, waiting for the crane to lower the grog to their cars and trucks below. The trick was to convince the customs people on the other side that all those concealed crates were really fluffy toys for the neighbours kids, or perhaps parts for the backyard pool one could use two days a year in chilly Denmark.

No wonder my partner wanted to snooze in the train below decks. ‘I hate that crossing’, she said, ‘it’s so depressing and reminds me of the worst side of Danes’.

Retentive Germans

We were eager for Budapest and Eastern Europe, wanting to get out of the overdeveloped and numbing feel of Western Europe. So the passage through the bustling hub of Hamburg was business-like and quick. A nachtzug train with its immaculate sleeper compartment – 6 bars of soap, floors from which you could eat, that slightly burnt smell from sterilised sheets, a firm if slightly ascetic mattress – awaited us on the next platform. I always find the distinctive rhythms of a train deeply comforting, so soon I fell asleep. By the next morning we were in Munich, so I lay awake pondering the massive blob of Germany in the middle of Europe (whose unification, it has recently come out, was opposed by the other countries in Europe in 1989).

One of the great values of war is that it clears the ground in preparation for a complete rebuilding. So it is with Germany. Hitler may have done some unconscionable things with which Germany, Europe and the rest of the Christian world are still coming to terms, but at least he managed to provide Germany with a clean slate. This is really what people mean when they say that Hitler enabled Germany’s late arrival into the modern bourgeois world. Hitler attracted so many planes with so many bombs, which did a marvellous of job of obliterating what was there before. Which is why Germany has such an extraordinary railway system: they were able to start largely from scratch and build a comprehensive and efficient network. To be sure, I miss quirky little railway stations in odd corners (there are still a few of those) and the monstrous steel structures of Hamburg, Munich and Berlin don’t quite have any ambience to speak of, but name a place and time and you can get there by train, bus, metro or tram.

What they do not have are smiling, rotund, Danglish-speaking conductors with trays overflowing with free pastries, fruit and jugs of tea and coffee. No, every item on the food and drink trolley on German trains costs you a part of your reproductive system. But then you can pick up a pile of ryebread, fresh fruit and decent pretzels at the railway station, as well as fill up your water bottles, so there is little to complain about.

At least that’s true about the food at the stations. The conductors on the trains are another story. I once had the misfortune to have a bicycle with me, a fold-variety that would take up no more room than a medium suitcase. Alas, I had neglected to bring its cover, so I snuck it in and tried to conceal it. Along comes Colonel Schultz, takes one look at the bike, another at me, and begins to bark commands at me. I figured out that I needed the bike covered and that I had to get off the train, schnell! But I made out that I had no idea what he was talking about, asked him if he spoke Dutch or Danish or French – repeatedly. Eventually he stormed off, threatening the plagues of the Apocalypse as he went. By the time he came back the train was already underway. He stopped when he saw me still there, scowling. I smiled sweetly back, so he threw the detailed timetable you only get on German trains on my lap.

Those timetables are one of the great wonders of the world. Each station, half station, unscheduled stop, smoko, piss break and branch line is listed. It has the time of arrival and departure down to the minute. You can tell exactly where you are at any time, especially since the screens on the end of the carriage announce it in large red letters. None of the announcements over the PA to which I’ve become accustomed elsewhere: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Intercapital Daylight is running about an hour behind schedule’, or ‘well … yes, I think we’ll be there today’, or ‘fuck me dead, this is the wrong line’.

But it did make me think about the conditions for fascism. When I was in Italy (another story) and asked about Mussolini – as one does in Italy – older people would respond: ‘Mussolini might have done some bad things, but at least he drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains run on time’. Like most people, I had heard this before, told to me by school teachers or mentioned in a book, but I didn’t imagine for a moment that Italians would actually say it themselves. Of all that Mussolini did, and of all the studies and history books written on him and fascist Italy, it came down to marshes and trains. But perhaps this common saying reveals a deeper insight, some stronger connection between trains and fascism: it’s not that fascism made the trains run on time, but that if they do run on time it means one of two things. Either we’d better be damn careful, since fascism may be just around the corner, or it’s already here, since the trains are already on time. I’m far happier in a place where one disregards the timetable altogether and turns up at the railway station, assuming that a train will arrive … soonish.

Faded Imperial Glory

From Munich it was a day train to Budapest Keleti station. (This took some getting used to, I must admit: cities with more than one major railway station. St Petersburg is the most elaborate, with something like half a dozen, depending on your direction and destination. In Budapest there were two, Nyugati and Keleti.) But the station really captured much about Budapest: an extraordinary construction, elaborate, majestic, imperial even, but it was a little worn and dusty. Pigeons nested busily in the waiting room ceiling, a shop in the basement sold marijuana biscuits, and not all the signals were working properly. I gained the impression not of a lost era of communism but of the faded glory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Toilets are always good indicators of how a people feel about themselves and the toilet at the Central Café, where we spent more time than we had planned, was as good a sign as any. Should you need to relieve yourself, you would descend a grand, marble staircase to a couple of doors. The men’s door, accessed by a coin to the careful guard, opened up to a palace of mirrors, washbasins, urinals and cubicles. A little cracked and worn, perhaps, but it was clean and there was toilet paper. This extraordinary toilet – no, it was really a celebration of the act of evacuation – simply said: we used to be an empire once.

Perhaps one of the best ways to see Budapest if you have little time is take up one of the offers from the taxi drivers who jump on you at the railway station. ‘Taxi’ they say, offering to help you with your bags as you get off the train. ‘Taxi’ they say, in groups of six or seven. My usual practice is to wave them off and find a real taxi that isn’t parked up on the steps. But every now and then it’s worth taking a ride with one of them. The ‘taxis’ are easy to pick – beaten up Trabants with home-made taxi lights on the roof, which are whipped out when you get in to make it all look official. Then you might find that the driver is extremely keen to get you to ‘Hotel Carmen’.

‘It’s cheap’, he points out, ‘just over here. Why don’t you come and have a look?’

‘No thanks,’ one of us replies. ‘We have a reservation at Hotel Erzabet’.

‘Erzabet!’ he cries. ‘Too expensive! 200 Euro! Carmen is much cheaper!’

We insist, but not before he has driven us a few times around Budapest hoping we would agree to see the fabled Carmen.

But you are lucky when you get a quiet, rotund taxi driver with a soft voice like a Walt Disney animal, rattly throat from too many smokes, and a tour around the city. The story of Pest and Buda comes up, the hot springs, the Pest Hill, the Jewish Quarter, and of course the Danube, at which point his eyes begin to swim. After a ride like that you don’t mind that he has just charged you Yom Kippur or Christmas Day rates (they are still way cheaper than any taxi I’ve travelled on).

So we took his advice, walked along the Danube and its famous bridges, climbed the Pest Hill with its grottos and trees and ancient paths, pondered the city from a vertigo-inducing cathedral tower, and even slipped into an Orthodox church service. These churches are wonderful, since you can drop in for a few moments, pay your respects and move on without offending anyone. All perfectly normal: people come and go, meet for a coffee at the door, puff on a cigarette and return to the worship service. And the Erzabet Hotel was not expensive at all.

Border guards

We were to return to Budapest unexpectedly, courtesy of the Romanian border guards. It began, I think, with the dogshit. I had stepped outside the magnificent Keleti Station to take a photograph late in the evening, and as I concentrated on the shot managed to collect a massive load. Much of which conveniently attached itself to the hallway and floor of our tiny cabin. I scraped it out of the deep grooves of my walking boots with matchsticks, she sniffed the floor and wiped it up with ginger ale on a paper towel. The smell lingered …

Finally, after doing our best to pretend that the only smell in our compartment was of freshly-baked bread and coffee (no mean feat of imagination), we drifted off to sleep … only to be woken by the first of a series of border guards and petty officials. They had all spent many years practising the finely-tuned skill of knowing precisely when you had drifted off to sleep before knocking. One after another they came – ticket collectors, Hungarian border guards, Romanian border guards. On each occasion we had an advance warning, then a friendly guy who explains things, then the puffed-up boss with four or five muscle men crowding around.

It was the Romanians who put an end to our quest for Bucharest. We had imagined a journey through the Transylvanian mountains, the glorious hills and fields and then the challenges of Bucharest before going on to Sofia. Not in the opinion of the Romanians border guards. We had blearily negotiated three levels of these guards, from advance party through junior guard to boss. All had the same message: ‘You need a visa to come into Romania’. I questioned the boss insistently but to no avail, for all I managed to do was make him furious. It was as though I had stuck a red hot poker up his bum: ‘No!’ he yelled in Romanian English. ‘No visa, no entry: Australia, New Zealand the same. You must go back’. We were escorted by four guards from the train. Fortunately another train was returning to Budapest, undergoing the same treatment but in reverse.

The carriage back was a Romanian special – it had seen better days and closer relations with cleaners in the past. Yet we laughed, in disbelief maybe, at the extraordinary experience of being thrown off a train at the Romanian border at about 3.00 am, and at whatever small country station. The serious guard placed at our door was less than impressed, but there was little he could do except scowl.

Six hours later we were back in Budapest, enjoying the services of yet more taxi drivers and central cafes. I decided to call the Romanian Embassy.

‘But of course I speak English’ said smooth voice on the phone, almost as though he’d been watching old Hollywood movies of the Iron Curtain.

‘What do I need for a Romanian visa?’ I asked the smooth voice.

‘What is your purpose?’

‘I’m travelling through’.



‘You will need to send me’, the voice said, ‘your train ticket through to Sofia, your hotel reservation, a recent statement from your bank, two colour passport photographs and forty Euros’.

‘When would the visa be ready?’

‘If you bring them by twelve o’clock today I will have the visa ready tomorrow’.

‘So much Romania’, I said.

It was 10.15 am. So we returned to Keleti station, boarded a brand new German train bound south for Beograd. At least the Serbs didn’t need a visa.

Glorious Belgrade

I have never travelled through a country in which the scars of war were so fresh. The newness of the track, freshly laid after it had been blown to smithereens a few years before, the newness of the train in a country with few of its own, the bombed out houses in village after village, slowly being rebuilt as people had the time, found the tools and managed to reuse the rubble from other buildings. Here too were shepherds and goatherds with their flocks. People were out hand-harvesting their corn, since they could no longer afford machines with the end of communism. Now that every one proudly claimed their farms as private property, they couldn’t afford the machinery that the collectives once provided. And a sure sign of recent war was the last bridge over the Danube; or rather, the absence of the bridge. In war of course, the first thing you do is blow up your enemy’s bridges so they can’t move troops around. So it was with the bridge over the Danube just outside Novi Sad.

It was a simple ride into Belgrade by bus. Or at least it was if: a) you can read Cyrillic: b) you can talk Serbian or German; c) you can find the ‘international’ ticket office open and with someone who speaks more than Serbian; d) you can find other travellers who won’t snub you. With none of these options in our favour, we somehow managed to get a scrap of paper that looked like a ticket, boarded a bus that said Београд and hoped for the best.

Beneath the ‘no smoking’ sign sat a grey bus driver with a cigarette hanging on his lip. He managed to belt along as fast as the bus would allow, belching smoke while riding the shoulder in an unofficial second lane to the road. Staggering off a wheezing and spluttering bus we thankfully spied a taxi. The catch was that it too seemed to have been a car-bomb during the war, with vital parts missing. It did have fours wheels and an engine, although the driver insisted in using the engine as a brake – I thought for a moment that it had no brakes at all.

At last, at long, long last on what must have been one of the longest days of our lives, we landed at Hotel Moskva. And what a glorious place it was: a penthouse for next to nothing, the air of old party operatives with the intercom from room to room, a magnificent bath, windows in cubbyholes that opened (no air-conditioning) onto the square. As we savoured the chairs, the view, the bed and each other, I imagined communist officials using it in the past on state business. If there’s one thing the communists did well, it was to build grand hotels and charge next to nothing for the rooms.

And Belgrade turned out to be one the great cities in the world. One would have expected that the capital of a country that had only just come out of a horrific war, with an economy on the rocks, and with the EU keeping a watchful eye on its every move – you would have expected it to be down on its luck, with a sullen mood of resentment and loss at what had been. Belgrade was nothing of the sort. It kept some of the bombed out buildings as a memorial to the NATO attacks, gloried in its energy and unaccountable optimism. It simply felt wonderful (and safe) to be there, to walk the streets at midnight, to sit and watch the people go by, to enjoy the food and the people. Belgrade has been destroyed so many times in its history, since it is at the confluence between east and west, a battleground for army after army from even before the Romans.

As a result, different ethnic groups have met, fought, mixed and settled. They are a mongrel people in a mongrel city. But mongrels are always healthier, stronger and more energetic. This mongrel city was a great example, since the people I met and saw are some of the most beautiful on the planet. Well-proportioned, athletic, energetic, they carry their bodies in such a sensual way that you are left in a constant state of arousal, wanting to spend all day, every day in bed with every single one of them. Well, not quite, but they are simply stunning. Then again, maybe … since in survey after survey Serbs seem to come out on top in the frequency and pleasure of sex – even if one takes into to account the inherent tendency for people to embellish such data.

The Sofia run

Eventually Belgrade had to give way to Sofia, but to get there we needed to catch one more train. And what a train it was, the day train to Sofia. According to the timetable it was supposed to take eight hours from Belgrade. Either the driver was reading a different timetable or he didn’t care, since it took twelve hours (the standard time, I was later told). The two hour stop at the border, with guards crawling in the ceiling and hammering underneath, for smugglers maybe, or fugitives, or for their lost sandwich, didn’t help matters. And the train was listed as having a dining car, or at least somewhere to get something to eat. Maybe that’s what the border guards were looking for, since the dining car was either the stuff of myth or it had been quietly decoupled from the train en route and put into some other, less reputable service. We had (just in case) bought a couple of loaves of bread and a large bottle of water before leaving Belgrade. By the end of the journey the drying chunks seemed like a scrumptious meal, washed down with tepid water that tasted like it came from a fresh mountain stream.

I must admit it was refreshing to see no pretence about smoking. Since even children seem to smoke in Bulgaria, it would have been a futile exercise to ban it on trains. People puffed away merrily in the corridors, fumigated compartments with steady clouds of smoke and generally enjoyed themselves. Far better than a train full of edgy, hungry travellers. But I did have to scrape the nicotine off the window to see the fields, farms, mountains and trees of the stunning Bulgarian landscape.

Towards the end of a long railway journey I put aside everything, full of a mix of anticipation and melancholy, looking forward to what awaits and aware that the journey itself is coming to an end. In this case the prospect of a shower, decent feed and fresh water added to the anticipation. And so we rolled past the peeling cement rendering on the outskirt apartments of Sofia, the gypsy carts and the stray dogs, to arrive in the vast cement central station that was new in the 1970s. The communists, I was told, had kept the city tidy and functioning, which is a full time job. Let it go for a bit, as happened after 1989, and a city soon looks dilapidated. Getting things back in order means you have work overtime, which Sofia is certainly doing. Down escalators that had stopped working a decade ago and out into the night, we found a helpful taxi driver who took us from hotel to hotel until we found a cosy spot close into the city and the magnificent Nevski Cathedral. We were to meet some friends in a day or two, but before then we explored the length and breadth of Sofia, wobbling on rough cobbles, dodging falling bricks, fending off money changers and the imploring eyes of gypsy children, wondering at the millennium old icons in the basement of the Cathedral, finding an old brick church that dated from before the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century (he came from hereabouts), and – the crown of the whole trip – a bust of Lenin at the flea market by the Cathedral.

But as we booked our return journey I did look longingly at the line to Istanbul.