TAILS OF A TRAVELLING CAT
Greetings, humans! Here we are at the penultimate day of this adventure, my, my how time has flown. We were up and off to the station to catch the 9:40 train to Dimitrovgrad, Serbia, although there is also a Dimitrovgrad in Bulgaria and Russia. Anyway, this Serbian Dimitrovgrad was very close to the border with Bulgaria although there are several towns between it and Serbia so I cannot call it a border town. Initially, we thought this train journey would only last 50 minutes, but then we realised Serbia is one hour behind Bulgaria which means it actually took one hour 50 minutes. Which makes sense as that means the journey back was two hours 20 and not three hours 20. With a final check that we definitely didn’t need seat reservations either there or back (this being an international train), we entered the platforms and were surprised to discover the big old engine pulling a single worn out old carriage was our train to Dimitrovgrad.
The train was straight out of the last century (although which decade is hard to say) and was somehow reminiscent of what the three of us had been expecting of an Eastern European train. We very much liked this little train and as it moved away, it was obvious why we didn’t need reservations. Although this was the only train from Sofia to Dimitrovgrad today, there were all of six or seven passengers, this number dropped down to five at Dragoman station, our train’s only station before Dimitrovgrad. Two of our fellow travellers were also Interrailing, we struck up a conversation with them somewhere around passport control at a place called Kalotina Zapad where our passports were worryingly taken away by customs and not returned for some time. A couple of customs officials started banging the ceiling with screwdrivers, whether they were looking for drugs or stowaways or perhaps checking the structural integrity of the train remained unclear. Anyway, no drugs or stowaways were found, our passports were returned and after a forty minute wait, we were on our way again. Although Jack had read the internet and informed our gang, which had temporarily swelled to five instead of the usual three, that border and passport control was very strict between Bulgaria and Serbia (and it is strictly forbidden to take pictures of the police and army – we naturally assumed this also applied to the customs officers and their building), none of us had quite expected the checks to take this long.
We were eventually on our way again, and eight minutes later we arrived in Dimitrovgrad. Our journey had taken us through some beautiful Bulgarian and Serbian countryside and mountains, some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen. We were all set to disembark the train, but no. it was now the Serbs’ turn for passport control. Once more our passports were whisked away, a mildly less worrying experience than before, and returned quicker this time bearing a stamp (exciting!). This stamp read ДИМИТРОВГРАД (Dimitrovgrad in Cyrillic), today’s date and a nice train picture. We were all expecting to have to wait as long as at the previous control and it wasn’t until a guard asked us if we knew the train terminated here that we realised we were free to enter Serbia and piled off the train onto the small, empty Dimitrovgrad platform. (Strangely, today seemed to be the only day at which this train terminated in Dimitrovgrad, by looking at the Eurail website, it seems every other day – including other Wednesdays – the trains continued all the way to Belgrade, how very strange).
Our new Interrail buddies boarded a train to Niš and from there to Belgrade. Jack, Charlie and I, a tripod once more, crossed the train tracks – the way to exit this platform being to walk across the tracks – and left the station through the waiting room to a hot, empty, sun-baked street.
We had arrived in a rather rundown, sleepy town, which was not, we quickly discovered, a city. Perhaps we should have realised this sooner, Dimitrovgrad having no ratings on Trip Adviser and being absent from Happy Cow. We walked along the one main street, although compared to the other streets we had seen recently, it wasn’t much of a main street and we were starting to wonder if we’d made a mistake coming here with nothing to do, when we decided we could go climb part of one of the beautiful mountains, they were so close after all. We turned and walked up some smaller streets, which had some rather dilapidated buildings and an almost total absence of people, but there were some more cats. The road started to curve upwards as we neared the hill and we spotted a sign which pointed up the hill stating there was a monument 3km away. High up at the top of the hill, we had been able to make out what seemed like a church. This seemed very far away, we probably wouldn’t reach it, but we might as well find the monument. We began to climb upwards, the path weaving back and forth and around the mountain, mostly our view was lost between the trees, but occasionally we would catch a glimpse of the ground falling away below us. In no time, a large bypass high above the town became level with us and then we were above it. As we climbed higher and higher, we passed many exciting wildlife including lizards (one was bright green) and butterflies with seemingly disproportionately large orange and white spotted black wings. All of these managed to evade capture on film (or pixels, more accurately).
The path continued to climb until we began to wonder if we’d ever find the monument – was this path just going round and round the hill? No, finally we reached the monument which was in fact the church-like building we had seen at the top of the hill. We’d climbed to the very top! In just an hour and a half! As the monument was inscribed in Cyrillic, all we could decipher was that something had happened on 12th November 1885, although what happened may remain an eternal mystery.
After a lot of confusing research using Google translate and the date given, it appeared a Serbian-Bulgarian war had broken out two days after the date given on the monument. It would seem hundreds of people died and as the Serbians were defeated, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had to get involved, and finally call a ceasefire. However, the Serbians continued to attack and it wasn’t until 3rd March 1886 when a treaty was signed in Bucharest (Romania).
A storm was approaching and thunder rumbled in the distance so we decided it might be a good time to get off the mountain (ok, hill). Before we were even a little way down, the thunder stopped and the clouds began to clear, by the time we had found some goats, all was sunny again. We stopped for lunch, looking out at the mountains on the other side of the town, saw a lovely old tractor and continued our descent. We sat and admired a water fountain at the foot of the hill for a little while then walked back through the town to the train station. It was nearly two hours until our train was due, but we were by now very much aware there was nothing to do in Dimitrovgrad besides climb the hill and there wasn’t time to do that again.
Therefore we sat at the train station with the intention of watching trains come and go. As it turned out, not many trains come through this station, which we really should have realised by now. Anyway, whilst we wait, let me tell you some exciting things about Dimitrovgrad, Serbia. For fear of this being a rather short list, I’ll add in some facts about the Dimitrovgrads of Bulgaria and Russia too.
Dimitrovgrad, Serbia is home to 6,278 people (as of the 2011 census), the majority of which are employed in processing and administration, although whether they work in the town or further afield is unclear. The town is a fair bit bigger than we thought, it extends between the mountains and onto the other side of the hill we climbed. Bulgarians outnumber Serbians 2:1 in Dimitrovgrad which was named after Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist who wanted Bulgaria and the then-Yugoslavia to be joined in the Balkan Federation. As Bulgarian is also spoken here (being so close to the border), in this language the town is known as Tsaribrod (ЦАРИБРОД) to avoid confusion with the Dimitrovgrad of Bulgaria. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, Dimitrovgrad also has a third name – Caribrod – which is the Serbian equivalent of Tsaribrod
Now, let’s move onto Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria. This is in the south of Bulgaria with a population of 38,015 as of 2011, and was created in 1947 by the People’s Republic of Bulgaria following WWII. It was designed to be a model of a socialist city, named after the same Georgi Dimitrov as that other Dimitrovgrad.
Dimitrovgrad, Russia, is also named after Georgi Dimitrov, although until 1972 it was called Melekess (МЕЛЕКЕСС), after a nearby river. Its population was 122,580 as of the 2010 census, and I believe is the only Dimitrovgrad we can count as a city! When Dimitrovgrad was founded in 1714, it was but a humble village, providing homes for the workers at a distillery. How it has grown.
Eventually, our train arrived and we boarded. Once more, the customs people entered the train and, like seasoned travellers, my humans handed over their passports, knowing they would be returned. And so they were, with another ДИМИТРОВГРАД stamp. Our train had a few more people on board this time, but we were still stopped for forty minutes at the checkpoint on the Serbian-Bulgarian border. It was at this point that the clouds began to pour down with rain, fork lightening flashed and thunder rumbled. The storm that the weather app on Charlie’s iPod had been joyfully promising all week was finally upon us. This train stopped at many small stations after Dragoman and by the time we arrived in Sofia the little train was rather full. We believed the single carriage and engine were the very same train we had journeyed on to get to Dimitrovgrad this morning.
We returned to the AirBnb by which time it had stopped raining (good, or I would have refused to leave the station) and then headed straight to Edgy Veggy (still just a minute’s walk away!) for dinner again. This time Jack had the seitan, cheese, mayo and salad taco, although it was in a tortilla wrap as there were no taco shells and Charlie had the ‘unchicken’ burrito: seitan, mayo and salad, this was in a tortilla wrap. My humans also shared a nice large bowl of hummus which made a great dip for the burritos.
For pudding, my humans had another of the two cookies they had had last night, once again Charlie had a berry smoothie bowl, but Jack opted for a chocolate smoothie bowl.
It had started to rain and storm again at this point, but a minute wasn’t far to walk, we were soon back at the AirBnb (I still didn’t appreciate the water falling from the sky, of course).
We are preparing for our last day tomorrow (!). To lighten Charlie’s bag, these two have just eaten an entire packet of (slightly crushed) double stuffed Oreos, one of which they put ketchup in – as you do.
Anyway, although we may initially have had our reservations about Dimitrovgrad, we did very much enjoy a chance to climb a hill and escape the cities. Although not what we were expecting, Dimitrovgrad did in some ways epitomise what we imagined a small Eastern European town to look like and we learnt some Cyrillic which is always educational. Just remember, B = v, Г = g and И = i. Simple, right?
Tomorrow we shall explore Sofia, many exciting things are in store and then we will fly back to Stansted in the evening. But tonight, I will not dwell on endings and instead finish on some wonderful pictures of Bulgarian and Serbian countryside and mountains. I should probably find out what these mountains are called. Enjoy!
Until tomorrow, folks. Chesh.