Intrigue. That was my overwhelming feeling as I landed in Sofia in early January. Over the last few years, the east of Europe has captured both my travel and photographic interest. I’ve written at length in various places about my love of Romania, the rural lifestyle, and warmth of its people. In the search for new photographic opportunities, my next stop would be Bulgaria.
I’d planned to head to Bulgaria to catch a handful of festivals that had caught my interest. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my trip coincided with some of the heaviest snowfall and extreme temperatures seen for decades. At some points, the snow was over 4ft deep and the temperatures touching -30C. Very Cold.
This kind of extreme weather makes traveling in these areas difficult. Yet, the minimalist landscapes and simplistic beauty that the snow had brought made me optimistic.
I’m going to cover the festivities in a series of future posts. For now, I want to focus on one of the most surprising experiences I had in Bulgaria – the mountain train.
My friend and travel companion Pavel suggested we took a ride on the mountain train. At first, I was a little skeptical.
I’ve taken many trains in the past, and to be truthful, I’m not the biggest fan of train rides. But, the opportunity to explore with the landscape covered in deep snow was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
The Septemvri–Dobrinishte line runs through the valley that separates the Rila and Rhodope Mountains. Originally built for military purposes, the train now serves as a link for the Pomak (Bulgarian Muslims) villages spread down the valley.
We headed by car to meet the train at the top of the valley in an area called Arvamovo. At 1267 meters, is reportedly the highest train station in the Balkan peninsula.
The conditions on the mountain roads were difficult at times. High winds whipped up snow, covering the road and restricting visibility.
Unfortunately, due to the conditions, the 4 times per day train was due to arrive 1 hour delayed. Instead of waiting around in temperatures dropping below -15C, we hiked up to the nearby village that sits on the hillside above the station. With the extreme temperatures and deep snow, the number of locals outside was low. However, the snow did transform a simple village into something a little special.
Dogs are a common sight in many villages and become somewhat of a photographic interest of mine.
As we approached the center of the village, we met Ayesha, a local Pomak lady who was busy feeding her cows. Ayesha kindly showed us around her small landholding and introduced her cattle. Due to the cold, she was pretty keen to keep working (and staying warm) rather than standing around chatting to us. We let her get on with her jobs and continued onwards to the top of the village.
At the summit of Avramovo stands a large mosque, a familiar sight in many of the Pomak villages in this area. Despite being much simpler than middle eastern mosques, the aesthetics of the mosque gave it a striking appearance in the snow.
It wasn’t until we began to descend from the summit of the village that we met Georgi by the roadside. He was busy clearing the road in front of his house to retrieve his car, ready to drive to a neighbouring village.
As with the majority of people that I encountered in this area, he welcomed us with warmth and seemed amused that I would want to photograph him in such weather. After saying our farewells to Georgi, we continued on at pace. Our train was finally due very soon and with the next train in 4 hours, we couldn’t afford to miss it.
All Aboard the Mountain Train
As we waited for the train, much of the station remained under heavy snow. Trains back home are canceled at the earliest sighting of snow, so to hear it approaching in the distance came as somewhat of a surprise.
The train that runs along this valley line is short with only 4 passenger carriages. The majority of those traveling were Pomak families. This being their only means of transport down the valley in the snow.
Before boarding the train I had no idea what to expect or even what I would photograph. An exercisese I often do is to challenge myself to create something cohesive in a situation like this. It’s a great way to flex your creative muscles and to try out some new ideas.
The train line winds through the mountains, crossing the main road that we’d driven along only a day before. It meandered away from the road through a serious of winding bends, cutting through the forest. We also passed through many tunnels, invisible from the road.
One of the delights of this train was seeing the villages and landscapes I’d driven through from a different perspective. A landscape dotted with small agricultural holdings, unused tobacco drying equipment, and sparsely populated villages.
Many of the locals stay inside their homes or move down into the towns in the lower part of the valley in winter.
All along the journey, the remnants of the communist period of Bulgaria’s history are visible. These leftovers are not only visible in the structures of buildings but also in the people we encountered.
One thing that caught me by surprise in many of the villages was how the locals would ask whether we wanted to know their Slavic or Muslim names.
This is a habit that has evolved in the older population. During the communist period most had to abandon their Islamic faith and adopt Slavic names.
We departed the train at Guliyna Banya, the final station on our journey and the closest station to Draglishte, our base. When I started this journey, I had expectations of finding what I’d found in Romania. In fact, it was very different, but fascinating in its own way.
Bulgaria is a country that I’ve fallen in love with. I look forward to sharing more images over the coming weeks. I have many more images of the exotic side of Bulgaria, the Kukeri festivals, icy rivers and fire festivals. Yet, recently I’m finding interest in the simpler moments.
Spread the Word
If you enjoyed this photographic story and images, I would love it if you could share it with your friends and family. If you’re also interested in joining me in Bulgaria during January 2018, I’m opening up a small photography tour for only 6 people early next week. If you wish to register interest in this and get early access to bookings, you can click here.