After the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878, the entire nation started building the new country – from roads and cities to new railroads, which were considered a great innovation at the time. The construction of the railroad section cutting through the Iskar River Gorge (from Sofia to Svoge) was followed closely by everyone, and some of the most popular writers at the time dedicated short stories to it (Aleko Konstantinov, Ivan Vazov). The railroad itself twists and turns following the curves of the Iskar River through the gorge while moving from village to village. All of the settlements up until the town of Vratsa are scattered on steep hills on both sides of the tracks and are full of natural wonders worth visiting, such as waterfalls, caves and scenic eco-trails.
In the past, there were several narrow-gauge railroads in Bulgaria, but today only one has survived: the Septemevri – Dobrinishte ride. It runs through three mountains and stops at the highest railway station in the Balkan Peninsula, Avramovo Station. The route is so winding that the train literally crawls at some of the turns. According to the urban legends, the slow speed allowed young lads in the past to court the ladies of whom they were enamored: the boys jumped off the train from the first carriage, picked flowers along the railroad and then hopped back on the train at the last carriage. The space between the carriages is open, which makes it a perfect spot to enjoy the ride al fresco waving to the fishermen along the way.
Take the train from Sofia to Kazanlak for the chance to travel through part of the Rose Valley. The towns of Pavel Banya, Karlovo, and Kazanlak are where many rose and lavender fields can be spotted in June. Kazanlak itself is the capital of the Rose Valley with its month-long Rose Festival taking place every year. Join the rose parade, or spend the night in the town to get up before sunrise and join the traditional rose-picking organized every weekend during the festival.
The Sunny Beach Train (Slanchev Bryag in Bulgarian) is a fast train that runs from Sofia to the seaside city of Burgas, traversing the entire country from west to east. The 250-mile-long (400 km) route takes six and a half hours (it is not really fast compared to other European high-speed trains), which means you can grab a coffee and a good book and get a chair by the window at the café-carriage. This train is packed with vacationers in the summer, but it can be a very relaxed experience off-season.
Plovdiv and Karlovo are located in the Thracian valley, which might mean a bit of flat scenery out of the window, but it is in no way repetitive. Rapeseed, sunflowers, wheat – the colors and texture of the patches of land along the route are ever-changing. The train is used only by locals from the surrounding villages. You will see old ladies bringing bags of fresh produce from their gardens, discussing the latest gossip from the village. The final station is in the historical town of Karlovo, known for its beautiful old quarter with Revival houses, a waterfall, and a laid-back atmosphere at the foot of the Stara Planina mountain range.
Check the website of the Bulgarian State Railway Company for information about routes and ticket prices.