The night service restarted in April this year, after being suspended at the start of 2020. When introduced in 2017, it was the successor to former night train services, including several incarnations using variations of the name East Express. I boarded one of the fast commuter trains from Istanbul’s Eminönü district to Sirkeci, leaving the city for Halkalı, an unassuming suburban station that is now the departure point for this overnight train.
Leaving Istanbul from here is like traveling from Euston to Watford Junction to board the Caledonian Sleeper: it’s a modern, functional station, but not much to see. Once in Halkali, the night’s pre-departure ceremony began. Cries of “Sofia!” station staff summoned passengers from an uncomfortably hot waiting room through a baggage x-ray machine and then onto the platform. I was directed to my 1990s sleeper compartment by the train manager. The reception for the night came air-conditioned, with a power outlet but no wifi and, exceptionally, a fridge filled with water and a few snacks.
Leaving on time at 8:45 p.m., we rode the single-track line in the dark. Somewhere along the way, I dozed off. Around 1am we approached Edirne, with the Selimiye Mosque illuminating the cityscape. Leaving Edirne, the train manager suddenly became unpopular, knocking on doors with a brisk “Check!”. It was the signal to get up and enter a slowly shuffling queue of passports at Kapıkule on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. There were a few hundred passengers on the platform, most still half asleep. Waiting for that passport stamp was the perfect opportunity to meet other passengers. We were crossing the EU’s busiest land border, and it was becoming apparent to all that taking this sleeper did not guarantee a restful night. Snacks and cigarettes were offered around and stories were shared.
It took about an hour to get everyone through the queue and back on board. Leaving Turkey, the train crawled through openings in the barbed wire fences and into Bulgaria, where another group of border guards confiscated everyone’s passport for about an hour. I didn’t sleep until mine was returned. The barbed wire and guards in the lookout towers weren’t for those of us on that train, but they were for someone.
The rest of the trip felt like a dream, partly due to the interrupted night which induced a slightly sleepy feeling of where we were. At breakfast we arrived in Plovdiv, famous for its well-preserved 19th century Roman theater and wooden buildings. It’s a great place to stop. The final transport over the mountains to Sofia was in daylight, with views of rocky hills and forested streams.
There was no catering service on board – passengers would have to buy a take-out breakfast on their way out of Istanbul – but our enterprising train director passed by selling coffee and tea for small change, endearing himself to those he had to get out of bed at night.
Around 9:30am the train arrived at the communist era station in Sofia and I hopped on the metro to the city center for brunch. Although the signature Banitsa pastries are sold everywhere, the city’s foodie scene has evolved into a diverse café culture with fine, strong coffee at its heart. A cup of this was welcome after an unforgettable train journey between two different cities that offered a break to reflect and venture down parallel tracks, stretching across the southeast Europe and beyond.
Tom Hall is Vice President of Lonely Planet
The Istanbul-Sofia Express runs daily in each direction. This departs Istanbul Halkalı Station, a 45-minute ride from the center, at 8:45 p.m., expected arrival in Sofia is 9:35 a.m. but border procedures can cause delays. In the opposite direction, it leaves Sofia at 6.30 p.m. and arrives in Halkali at 05.34 a.m. Tickets cannot be purchased online. Buy in advance from discoverbyrail.com – Tom Hall paid £105 (including Discover By Rail fee) for single occupancy of a sleeper compartment, including ticket delivery to his hotel in Istanbul. For two person occupancy the cost is £57.50 per person via Discover By Rail. Tickets can be purchased from Sirkeci international sales office where second class tickets (no sleeper or sleeper) cost £16 plus £9 for a sleeper or a sleeper cabin for yourself £55. Although it is cheaper to buy in Istanbul, there is a risk that the train will be full, especially in summer.