Travel During a Pandemic: Andy from UK for his Railway Adventures in Bulgaria
Andy Brabin is a British train enthusiast who loves to explore the world using railway transport. To date, he has visited 176 countries and traveled by train in 75 of them. For most of his life, he worked in the travel industry and is a founder of the award-winning Railbookers which offers worldwide rail holidays. Currently, he has his own business called Discover By Rail where he uses his knowledge to help create dream trips for fellow train enthusiasts. Andy is also very active on Twitter (@AndyBTravels), posting threads about his railway travels across the world and providing useful tips and information for those who follow him. We contacted Andy after we saw an unusual shout-out that he made regarding the toilets in Bulgarian trains. It turned out that he had some fascinating stories to share with us and the readers of Novinite.com
Our conversation begins on a cold Saturday morning. Andy is just having breakfast and is getting ready to catch the subway towards the airport. It’s his last day from the Bulgarian trip that he already extended by a week.
- I was due to leave last Saturday but I extended the trip by a week because I was enjoying Bulgaria so much.
That’s great to hear. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your passion? What made you decide to travel the world by train?
- Sure. I’m British and I’m in my mid-50s. Currently, my lifestyle is of a digital nomad. I’m traveling pretty much constantly, mainly by train. I got into trains as a youngster. My father used to work on the railways and we also lived near a railway line. This was in Manchester, England. Then when I was in senior school I had some friends that were intro trains just like me so we used to go off together and look at the trains. In the UK it’s called trainspotting. That’s basically how my passion developed. When I was 17 I did my first interrail. Bear in mind this was during the Iron Curtain and my first trip was to Yugoslavia by train. In addition, I also visited Hungary. Overall, I experienced a different side of life compared to Western Europe, it was a real eye-opener. Really, it just continued from there.
What about when you were older? How did your passion for railways develop further?
- Well, for my professional career I’ve always worked in the travel industry. I worked in a very big, global company which specialized in travel for students and young people. I was with these guys for a long time. Around the year 2000, I moved into the digital online travel industry. I did that for 2 years, then I set up my own company. It’s called Railbookers – a specialist tour operator where we did holidays by train worldwide. I got out of Railbookers 6 years ago and since then I’ve been very much traveling.
And what are you doing right now?
- I have a small business called Discover By Rail where I’m a travel architect, designing people’s trips based on my experience. I’m also on my social media (@AndyBTravels) a lot, getting enough volume that I can start to act as an influencer and maybe make some money out of it as well. My motivation for traveling is self-interest but I’m also passionate about getting people to travel by train and to use public transport. I believe it’s a great way to get to know a country because you get to see a country at ground level. You meet local people, people of the country, who use the trains. So it’s a great social experience. It’s an eye-opener, you see stuff that as a regular tourist you wouldn’t see. So that’s why I like to travel by train.
Why did you decide to visit Bulgaria? How did you do your research?
- Currently, I’m on a quest to travel on all the railway lines in Europe that have passenger train service. And I’m actually almost done with it. Western Europe is complete. Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states are where I need to travel on more railways. That was the main stimulus to come to Bulgaria. In terms of research, I have lots of atlases and guides to railways and rail maps and so I know where the routes go in the network. For the timetables, I used the Bulgarian Railways (BDZ) website which is quite good actually and user-friendly. I’m traveling with an interrail ticket so I haven’t need to buy tickets apart from yesterday cause my interrail ended up on December 9th. So yeah, I just really needed to travel on the railway lines in Bulgaria as part of my Europe quest. Now, I knew Bulgaria was a nice country in terms of scenery, you have mountains you have a ski industry. I have been in Bulgaria a couple of times before but it was a while ago so I didn’t remember too much. I’ve got to say some of the railways in Bulgaria are as good as traveling in the Swiss Alps.
It’s a Winter Wonderland out there this morning! pic.twitter.com/Bm2hFPUs2G— AndyBTravels (@AndyBTravels) December 8, 2021
Really, you think so?
- Absolutely. The scenery is stunning and particularly in the last few days having the snow as well. On Wednesday I went north, I traveled from Sofia to Mezdra – what a stunning railway. Also, if I might add, the railway lines from Sofia to Kyustendil and from Karlovo to Sofia were really nice as well. From Veliko Tarnovo south to Gabrovo – just amazing.
- Just everywhere was really really nice. Bulgaria has an amazing asset with its railways particularly in terms of tourist potential. I’ll be honest, you speak to most people throughout Europe and they probably associate Bulgaria with the Black Sea beaches, Sofia, nature, skiing. But you have so much to offer particularly by train. People are friendly, they speak English. Also, the railways can bring tourism in easily. There is a lot of railway enthusiasts and people who don’t like to fly. I know people who travel from London to Istanbul by train, quite a lot of people do that. These people are the high-disposable income tourists, they have money to spend. They could be a real benefit to the country, to have these kinds of tourists coming into the country.
How can Bulgaria attract these potential tourists?
- What Bulgarian Railways really need to do is work with the surrounding countries. After COVID make sure that the international links are there. There is a lot of demand from Northern Europe to travel to Greece by train. But now everybody goes to Italy and takes the ferry across the Adriatic. Bulgaria should focus on those people who maybe would spend a couple of days in the country, see the sights, travel around the beautiful countryside and so on. Right now there is no active connection to Greece, the same situation is with Serbia*. There is a lot of opportunities for international visitors but the Bulgarian government needs to be active on this front.
*As of June 30, 2020, international trains that will not run are: Sofia-Thessaloniki, Sofia-Istanbul, and Sofia-Belgrade, according to Bulgarian Railways. Gradual restoration is expected for the Serbian line but there is no information for Turkey or Greece. The only international connection that has been restored is Bulgaria-Romania (Sofia-Craiova and Sofia-Bucharest). The reason for the discontinuation of international trains, as stated by BDZ, is in connection with the measures taken against the spread of COVID-19.
You mentioned a lot of positives about Bulgaria and its railways. Can you share some of the negatives you’ve experienced throughout your journey?
- Of course. I find it quite offensive that the Bulgarian Railways allow their trains to have such dreadful toilets and the outside of trains to be covered in graffiti. In my opinion, that’s offensive and shows no respect to the passengers. Overall, the cleanliness on the trains was quite good in terms of there wasn’t any litter. In fact, the trains were relatively comfortable, no graffiti inside, seats were quite reasonable, they just need good upkeep. Two of the trains I rode had blue-type carriages, the first class on them was fantastic. It was as good as any first class in Europe – apart from the toilets.
Would you say the toilets are the main negative?
- Yes, for sure. In addition, Sofia Railway Station really needs to think about the homeless people in the area. Particularly, they need to get looked after. A railway station is not a place for them and more importantly, that’s the third impression tourists arriving in Bulgaria are going to get if they arrive by train. The first impression will be the toilets on the train. The second impression will be the fantastic scenery outside the windows. So overall I’m leaving with a mixed message – beautiful scenery, the trains, particularly, are in good quality especially for people coming from Western Europe. First class is a no-brainer as the quality is very good. About the toilets – if you are aware that they are so bad you can come prepared, I travel with my own toilet kit.
I couldn’t resist….. so here is another AndyB Train Toilet Review from Bulgaria… pic.twitter.com/4faKcdXsPI— AndyBTravels (@AndyBTravels) December 9, 2021
So you’ve been to 75 countries by train. Would you say the toilets in Bulgarian trains are the worst you’ve seen so far?
- If we’re just talking about Europe the worst were in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s interesting that in Bulgaria most of the toilets didn’t smell. So they were clean in that respect. The problems were the lack of a toilet seat and most importantly, in these times of covid, there was no soap and nowhere to dry your hands*. That, I would say, is a bit of a concern… But yeah, Bosnia was by far the worst experience I had with toilets on trains. Romania can be challenging. Let’s put it this way – Bulgarian trains are not in the first division when it comes to toilets. But what’s interesting is that toilets are something that can be addressed quite easily and they’re actually not very costly either.
The main reason is probably the underpaid cleaning staff in Bulgarian Railways.
- Probably. And also, being in this part of the world, I’ll be honest with you there is a lot of corruption. A lot of EU money comes in. Some people have some very nice houses and cars because of this money. But that’s not just an Eastern European thing it’s also in Spain, in Italy as well. But about the toilets even if it was a case of just providing some hand towels, paper towels in the dispenser – that’s a very little thing and that would make such a big difference.
*Bulgarian Railways (BDZ) have not commented yet on the issue of cleanliness in train toilets during a pandemic. Novinite.com will keep its readers updated on this matter. On an unrelated note, on the date of publishing this interview (16.12.2021), the head of BDZ-Passenger Transport was fired for serious violations.
From toilets let’s change the subject to something more pleasant. What was your favorite station that you visited in Bulgaria?
- I have to think a little bit. The Stations were interesting. There are some, architecturally, stunning stations. Some of them have been looked after. But what is happening in other countries, Poland in particular, but in all over Europe – the stations are used quite often as a community hub. They would have a decent café that even non-train users would use. Which is great because it gives vibrancy, it makes stations more secure, and it’s an attractive proposition for citizens. But just in terms of stations I quite liked Burgas. A nice flat station, Burgas as a town was great, stayed in a nice hotel there so yeah Burgas was nice.
- One interesting station was Guyshevo. Trains there only operate Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays and there are only 2 trains a day. It was a huge station building and it actually looks like it is in a very good condition, believe it or not. But on the station’s history, I found out it was a border station with Macedonia so that’s why it was so big.
- And again one of the things I do when I travel (and make threads on Twitter) is talk about and show the trains, the scenery, but also the railway stations. I often do the longer routes in order to check a lot of stations. Some of them are very basic with only a bench and others are quite nice buildings with amazing architecture. In summary, I would say Bulgaria Railways have a lot to do but the potential of the railways is phenomenal.
Perfectly said. If I can ask you one last question. Many of our readers are interested in the Covid situation in Bulgaria. What is your impression of it? Were measures followed and how would you compare it to other countries you’ve been in?
- Much better than in the United Kingdom. In Bulgaria people are wearing masks, social distancing was easy to achieve on the trains because they weren’t particularly busy. Maybe people don’t use them usually that much or covid has an impact. But I felt very, very comfortable traveling in Bulgaria during covid. I have no problems recommending people to visit at all. While in the UK I feel less secure traveling than I do in Bulgaria. It’s just a shame that your vaccine rate isn’t as good as it should be. But let me ask you this, how are the hospitals in Bulgaria? Are they busy with covid patients?
Just today (11.12.2021) we have 1,719 new cases and 628 people are hospitalized in intensive care units. However, the situation was far worse in November and things seem to be calming down a bit.
- My impression in Bulgaria was that people weren’t overly concerned in relation to covid, they were just cautions. Have you had any cases of Omicron yet?
As of today, not yet.
- People in Bulgaria seem to be respecting the fact that covid exists, they are aware of it, they’re taking precautions. So in this regard, I have no problem recommending people to visit even in pandemic times. The question is does Bulgaria want International visitors who potentially can bring something in. But that’s a question for the government. People should travel to Bulgaria… and do it traveling by train, of course!
Thank you, Andy, for taking the time to talk to us. You’ve shared some amazing stories that we’re sure our readers will appreciate. We wish you more fascinating adventures across Europe and good luck with your challenge. Till we meet again...maybe on a train.
- Thank you! Let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed my Bulgarian travels. I’m looking forward to coming back to travel on the railway lines I missed and you never know…the toilets might be fixed next time.
International rail traveler AndyB is continuing his railway quest in Europe #allthelineseurope right now. You can follow his adventures on Twitter @AndyBTravels.
/Nikola Danailov, Novinite.com
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