Five years ago, Vladimir Kulasev poured sand into a 1,067-foot-long handmade luge and skied it up into the gondola.
“I was very happy that we could accomplish this together,” Kulasev said. “This is the only way we were going to reach the others. And now we are so far. Nobody is the first to come.”
The last of Bulgaria’s narrow-gauge train routes reached the summit this summer.
The Lady Sofia ran one way for about three decades, from its terminus at the town of Veliko Tarnovo in southwestern Bulgaria up through neighboring Romania and into Hungary before ending at the capital city of Bucharest.
But during the winter of 2015, after years of being closed for maintenance, the train fell apart and had to be removed.
“The carriages used to come from Spain,” former train conductor Jan Lengky said. “The Romanian government leased the carriages to the Romanian Railways. They were never used.”
The restoration by Lengky’s company did not meet the rail company’s requirements — it wanted an accurate rendering of the train, but had not lost any footage. So they found photographs and started documenting the old cars, including some with thumping music playing from the radios.
Lengky said they gave the photos to the rail company, but that was in 2016. Since then, it’s taken the company another year just to start planning the restoration.
“We are here to save the locomotive and carriages,” the superintendent of Bulgaria’s Balkan railroads, Milko Marakovskis, said. “We are all proud that there is such an engine here. It is remarkable.”
The restoration has not stopped at the locomotive and cars — the train had to be running before any private development could start. To make sure the train was back on track, the government of Bulgaria offered to buy the only “gondola” shuttle busses on the ground, which cost about $100,000. The train operators for the foreign countries it ran on approached the Bulgarian state railway to purchase the busses.
“Only with the government’s support we were able to make the train go,” Lengky said.
The government built an elaborate gondola structure on the railroad route, where little restaurants and souvenir stands have sprung up.
The Lady Sofia makes stops in Bulgaria’s only three-star hotel, Sitaa, and in Budapest before it disembarks in the Romanian capital, then “definitely not on time,” Lengky said.
The restored train cut the remaining distance of about 21 miles from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest in two days.
Svetlana Murova, who once represented Bulgaria in the European Parliament, said it’s a big step for Bulgaria to no longer rely on other countries to transport goods across its border.
“I consider this recovery a great success,” Murova said. “Because what it means is that we have already managed to preserve the national heritage.”
The Sofia — Sofia route cuts through picturesque hills near Podmarni, an idyllic town with a horse-drawn carriage park on the waterfront.
“I am too old to do any hiking,” said Liza Zelenko, a 63-year-old veterinarian. “I am OK here.”
It’s the same story in Hungary — the only other country served by the Lady Sofia — as well as Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. As the train falls apart in Bulgaria, it is reborn in others.
Michael Fahrenkrog is the Balkans correspondent for The Associated Press, a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning international news gathering team.
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