Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia; Turkish-Bulgarian train in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria; Tsarovets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.

Sofia — Veliko Tarnovo
София — Велико Търново

By Train across Bulgaria from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo

Athens to Paris
by Train

The next stage of our trip was across Bulgaria from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo. This is part of the Athens to Paris by Train series. The main line from Sofia to Varna, on the Black Sea coast, passes through Gorna Oryakhovitsa, a small city that is a rail hub in central Bulgaria. Veliko Tarnovo is a short distance south from there, it is at the end of the final hook in the red rail line on this map.

Our destination is Велико Търново, a name that gets transliterated into the Roman alphabet in a variety of ways. Велико or Veliko means Great, but shall we spell it Tarnovo, Târnovo, Turnovo, or Tŭrnovo? The character ъ functions as a vowel in Bulgarian, pronounced like the a in ago or the u in turn.

There are a few trains every day from Sofia connecting onward to Veliko Tarnovo, including 1005-1451, 1320-1805, and 1540-2020. There are several other trains getting you as far as Gorna Oryakhovitsa, at which point you can take a minibus or even a taxi for the short 8.5 kilometer ride on to Veliko Tarnovo, including trains running 0705-1051 and 0905-1305.

These maps show the route of the rail line: north out of Sofia along a river flowing through a forested valley. Out of the river valley near Vratsa, and into the rich area of agricultural land running across the top third of Bulgaria, north of the Stara Planina mountain range running west to east across to center of the country. Turning east, through the productive farmland through Pleven, then turning slightly south to Gorna Oryakhovitsa.

Map of Bulgaria showing rail line from Sofia through Pleven to Gorna Oryakhovitsa and Veliko Tarnovo, on its way to Varna.

In red: The rail route from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo.

Operational Navigational Chart ONC F-3 cropped to show Sofia, Plevin, Gorna Oryakhovitsa and Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.

We'll start by going back to Sofia's main passenger station. Taxis, at least those not leaving from the station, are cheap and honest.

Main lobby area of the Sofia, Bulgaria train station.

I will buy our tickets at the station.

Buying a ticket in the Sofia, Bulgaria train station.

Here's a ticket. As it says, it was purchased at Gara Sofia (Гара Софиа) at 12:45, 35 minutes before the scheduled departure time (час) of 13:20. Train (влак) number 2615 from Sofia to Gorna Oryakhovitsa (Горна Оряховица) connecting there to train number 40217 to Veliko Tarnovo (Велико Търново). All for a cost of just 14.20 Lev (лв) or about US$ 7.10.

All of this becomes much easier when you can read at least a little.

Bulgarian train ticket for travel from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo.
Food and drink stands in the Sofia, Bulgaria train station.

We will buy some food and drinks for the ride. We definitely are in Eastern Europe. The largest words on the sign at left say, top and bottom:


In smaller letters it mentions that they also have non-alcoholic drinks.

We want train #2615 to Varna via Gorna Oryakhovitsa. They have just posted the platform: 10и.

Departure schedule board in the Sofia, Bulgaria train station.

Notice the first column, headed КАТ, short for Категория or kategoria.

Б is short for бърз, meaning fast.

П is short for пътнически, meaning passenger.

You really want to take the бърз kategoria trains. The пътнически trains move slowly and stop pretty much everywhere.

Also notice that at least for this sample the fast бърз trains have 4-digit numbers and the slow пътнически trains have 5-digit numbers. I don't know if you could always count on this, but it seems like a common practice for the increasingly obscure routes on railroads and airlines to have larger numbers.

Departure schedule board in the Sofia, Bulgaria train station.

It's time to get out to the platform and find our train. Here's one of the cars.

Bulgarian passenger train car.

This is car 2, seats from 71 to 98, from Sofia via Gorna Oryakhovitsa (the placard says Г. ОРЯХОВИЦА) to Varna (ВАРНА, the placard can be rotated 180° to show БУРГАС) However, we have second class tickets, no reserved seats, so we will sit anywhere we can find seats in a second class car.

Bulgarian passenger train car.

The passenger compartments are three seats facing three more seats, with luggage storage on racks over each row of seats as well as in a compartment over the corridor.

Interior of a Bulgarian passenger train car.

The guy sitting next to me for the first part of the trip was on his way to visit family in Plevin. He was in the military, not in any especially technical role, but here he was using a newer laptop than I owned at the time.

Interior of a Bulgarian passenger train car.

I gave him my business card, and he brought up my web site. His Internet connectivity was through a small GSM interface that plugged into a USB port. This was a little jarring. The American image of Bulgaria does not even consider the possibility that Bulgaria and other eastern European nations have better networking infrastructure than what you find in the U.S. But they do.

Then he went back to reading the BBC's Bulgarian language news pages.


The content delivery service Pando Networks did a worldwide study in 2011. Bulgaria had the third-fastest Internet service in the world. The USA came in at #26. Pando's systems distributed around the world serve up the bulky image content making up the majority of the data on media-rich pages. They are therefore in a position to measure network speeds from their widely scattered servers, all of them with very high bandwidth connections to the Internet backbone, to client hosts all around the world. The limiting bandwidth is the bandwidth of the connection between the client and its ISP, and that is what is measured here. Pando collected data for a year, gathering statistics on 27 million downloads by 20 million client computers in 224 countries, totaling over 35 petabytes of data.

Rank Speed Nation
1 17.62 Mbps South Korea
2 15.27 Mbps Romania
3 12.89 Mbps Bulgaria
4 11.70 Mbps Lithuania
5 11.02 Mbps Latvia
6 10.91 Mbps Japan
... ... ...
26 4.93 Mbps USA
Worldwide average: 4.64 Mbps

We arrived in Gorna Oryakhovitsa after about four hours.

Bulgarian passenger train arrives in Gorna Oryakhovitsa.

Here we are arriving in Gorna Oryakhovitsa. The large yellow "2" means that these are second-class cars. With our tickets, we could have taken seats in any of them.

Bulgarian passenger train arrives in Gorna Oryakhovitsa.

Some people got off in Gorna Oryakhovitsa, others continued toward Varna.

Bulgarian passenger train arrives in Gorna Oryakhovitsa.
Map of area around Gorna Oryakhovitsa, Bulgaria.

The main line from Sofia and Pleven to Varna runs west to east just north of Gorna Oryakhovitsa, you see its station (gara) is just north of the city on the main line.

The line that winds a bit before disappearing to the north leads nearly due north to Ruse, on the Danube River and the Romanian border, and then continues on north to Bucharest.

ASIN: 1843534576
Lonely Planet Romania and Bulgaria
Amazon 1787016358

Another line starts back toward the west and then winds to the south, down one side of a river valley with a highway on the opposite bank. That leads to Veliko Tarnovo, marked here as Tŭrnovo. That line eventually continues to the Turkish border and on to İstanbul.

After a few days in Veliko Tarnovo we will return to Gorna Oryakhovitsa and board the Bosfor Ekspresi, a train running from İstanbul to Bucharest. But for now, we're headed south to Veliko Tarnovo!

Small modern self-powered trains like the one below are used for the shorter runs with frequent stops, such as the connection between Gorna Oryakhovitsa and Veliko Tarnovo.

Modern Bulgarian train in Veliko Tarnovo.

We stayed at Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo:
10 Улица Йофдан Инджето
An ensuite double room was €30 and a dorm bed was €11

The next stage of the trip:
A few days in Veliko Tarnovo

We will see the Veliko Tarnovo station (and Gorna Oryakhovitsa once again) when we continue on from there toward Bucharest.

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