This is the part of my trip where most people would have gotten on a plane. I want to tell you that it was only for environmental reasons that I refrained—that I wanted to be an example of sustainable travel and ecotourism. A flight would have been much faster (and probably cheaper) after all—look at me saving the planet! (My Eurail app tells me that I used up to 90% less CO2!) The truth, however, is simply that I avoid flying whenever I can because it scares me. But a bigger reason is that I genuinely love train travel. I love the peace of it. I love that it feels like a journey. I love seeing the landscape change and feeling like I earned the destination. And the environmental benefits are a nice bonus! So, we traveled by land from Skopje to Istanbul.
We took a bus from Skopje to Sofia, Bulgaria, first. We arrived in Sofia at night, and the lights of the city lit up the whole sky as we got nearer. I hadn’t realized how big Sofia would be. We checked into our hostel (at $25 per night for our private room, it was one of the cheapest of the trip), and headed out in search of a late dinner. It felt like such a stark contrast to all the cities we’d seen since leaving Budapest. It felt sleeker, more modern, more western. We got poke bowls that cost like $15 per bowl—a price I’d expect to see in America. We spent a leisure day in Sofia the next day without trying to cram too much in. We knew Turkey would be fast-paced and that we should rest while we could. We ate at an organic, vegetarian restaurant for lunch (because Sofia is the type of city that has such a place) and discovered the Bulgarian masterpiece of a dish called mishmash, which is basically like an egg scramble with veggies and feta cheese that I want for breakfast every day still. We wandered around, visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, almost got yelled at for taking photos there, and replenished my pens in a neat bookstore. We got baklava and snacks for our journey.
And then it was time for a brave leap into the unknown—the night train to Istanbul. There were a few reasons this felt slightly more daunting than any other train I’d taken yet on my trip (though I kept this feeling a secret from Michael who is NOT the intense train enthusiast that I am). 1) Because my first night train experience a couple weeks prior had been a true nightmare. (If you missed that journey, read about it here). 2) You can’t find the tickets online—they’re only available in person in Bulgaria, so I wasn’t entirely sure that the train existed. I knew that it USED TO exist, and some travel bloggers I found online said that the line was supposed to be re-opening in summer of 2022 after being closed for Covid, but since the tickets don’t exist online, I couldn’t be certain. I also knew from blog posts of strangers that if the train route was, in fact, operating, it didn’t go all the way into the city of Istanbul. It would stop at Halkali station which is about a 50-minute metro ride from the city center, so we’d have to take the local metro the rest of the way in. And 3) The station workers in Bulgaria don’t speak English. (I visited Bulgaria 3 different times on my trip, and this continued to be true every time.) If people ask me where I had the most difficulty communicating on my trip, I’d say Bulgaria for sure. After a long, long time of trying to communicate via Google translate, having the station worker react as though she had never heard of this train we were speaking of and also as though we were a big inconvenience in her day, and having to get cash from an ATM (not only can you only buy this train ticket in person, but it also must be with cash), we obtained what we hoped were two tickets for a private sleeper compartment to Istanbul.
And I am STILL elated to tell you that the train DID exist and that it was magical. Magical might be an exaggeration, but truly it was perfectly pleasant. Michael and I had our own private sleeper room that had an air conditioner and sink and a mini-fridge (which we did not use for reasons we won’t speak about, but still) and bunk beds and pillows and blankets that were not uncomfortable! We stopped at the border crossing in the middle of the night for like 3 hours, and the Turkish border patrol officer stared me down for several minutes as though perhaps he thought I was the most dangerous of criminals (he barely glanced at Michael and didn’t even look at his visa), but we finally arrived at Halkali station 12 hours later, delirious and delighted.
And then we encountered a new challenge that we didn’t foresee. The metro train to take us the rest of the way to Istanbul was there in the station as we read that it would be, and it all seemed fairly convenient EXCEPT for the part where you had to buy your metro ticket with cash. And there were no ATMs in the station. None. Nowhere. We asked several workers and they acted like this question was absurd. Like why would there be an ATM at the entry point for international travelers into this country where cash is immediately required? What nonsense were we suggesting? When traveling internationally, I exclusively use ATMs to get local currency, and I encourage everyone to do this. Currency exchange centers usually have insane fees that ATMs don’t, but there wasn’t one of them in the station either. A small group of fellow young people with too-large backpacks were wandering around the station in search of ATMs, and we somehow gathered in a group and became temporary friends as we trekked 30 minutes down the busy highway to the nearest gas station that had ATMs. (There were probably 12 machines at the gas station, truly. Should we have picked one up and transported it together back to the metro station for the good of all society?) We finally got cash and then shared two taxis back to the station to try for round 2 with the metro.
I was fighting as hard as I could to stay awake on the 50-minute metro ride in, and I kept thinking that surely we must be arriving soon, surely. But Istanbul is MASSIVE. The biggest city I’ve ever seen in my life by far. It’s easily twice the size of New York City, so we were technically in the city all that time but still a half-hour away from the downtown that I would recognize. And then finally, as the buildings got more crowded and older, we arrived in the center of Istanbul. Before we even left the main metro station, we purchased our return ticket for the same private sleeper compartment for 2 weeks later so that we didn’t have to make a special trip to the station just to buy it. I’m happy to report that the train attendant spoke English, did not act bewildered by our request, and let us pay with a credit card.