Although there’s nothing wrong with drinking in your local pub, it’s wonderful to broaden your horizon from time to time. Find new places to get hammered and new people to join you while doing so. The best stories simply don’t start with the words: “This one time I was drinking at home when…” And if we can get a little philosophical here, let’s throw in a Buddha quote: “The goal is not the destination of your journey, but the journey itself”. Now every drink and travel enthusiast can tell you that the best kind of transportation to combine both hobbies is the train. For a car you need a designated driver, busses usually have a lack of toilets and most airlines forbid you to consume your own booze on their planes. And since boats don’t get very far without a waterway that leaves the train. One of the trips that was on the Lords of the Drinks bucket list was the 13,5 hour train ride between the capitals of Bulgaria and Serbia, also known as the drunk train. For the fans of alcohol tourism: enjoy our story.
This January yours truly went to Bulgaria for a reunion with the other founding father of this website Nikolay. Main reason to come was the annual Surva festival in Pernik, a 3 day carnival with traditional masquerades and loads of happy drunk people. But as we had some free days left we wanted to go on a small adventure in neighbouring Serbia as well. We had heard great stories about this train ride between the capitals Sofia and Belgrade and wanted to check this out for ourselves. The plan was simple: get two train tickets, a shitload of booze and a hired accordionist and see what would happen. In total it would take 3 trains and 13,5 hours to complete a single trip between the 2 cities, so plenty of time to get completely sauced.
Now the hardest part turned out to find an accordionist that was willing to travel with 2 drunk idiots from Bulgaria to the Bulgarian-Serbian border. We called 5 different traditional folk bands that usually perform in taverns and at wedding parties, but were unsuccessful. Apparently all these accordionists had daytime jobs as well, but all really loved the idea of performing on a crazy train ride through the Balkan mountains. So with a bit of early planning in the future, who knows… Luckily we had fewer problems getting drinks, so armed with beer and vodka we got to the train station of Sofia at 9 am on a Tuesday (the original plan was to leave on Monday, but our alcohol intake on Sunday prevented that). Our first train to the border city Dimitrovgrad was just an old locomotive with a single small wagon. The amount of other passengers could be counted on 1 hand as well and nobody was carrying booze, so we realized it was all on us to make our experience on the drunk train a proper one.
For the second part of our journey we got on a similar small train that would take us from Dimitrovgrad to Niš. As the drinks were going down easier we often tried to make up for the absence of a real musician by singing ourselves. And through the beautiful Serbian nature and countryside we had a pretty jolly ride. We even managed to stretch our alcohol stock till we reached Niš, where we would have 1 hour time before the departure of our next train to Belgrade. A good opportunity to find a kafana to have our first taste of Serbian food and rakija. In the end we left the place with 3 water bottles filled up with homemade quince rakija for the final part of our train ride. Quite intoxicated we arrived at the hotel in the outskirts of Belgrade where we had reservations for the night before. The host looked a bit puzzled to see a Dutchman and a Bulgarian showing up a day late to ask if their room was still available. But as it was vacant he quickly gave us the key and started pouring rakija for us and a few locals who also assembled in the hotel bar. To paint the picture: at some point the hotel owner apologized for the state of one of the locals, but we were having good fun and assured him that we were just as drunk and we enjoyed the company of other drunkards.
The next day was our only full day in Belgrade, as we would take the train back to Bulgaria at 6 am the next morning. The plan was to do some sightseeing, while hopping into a bar from time to time. After a bottle of red wine and a huge plate of different kinds of pork meat for breakfast we can honestly say we went to the St Sava church (named after the founder of the Serbian Orthodox church that you may remember from the folk tale where the Devil gets him drunk) and one history museum, but for the rest it was mostly bar hopping. In the first kafana we went to we both had around 9 large rakija’s, which was a proper warm up for a place called Rakia Bar. A young waiter started off with the question if we ever drank rakija before. While in my head I was screaming “probably more than you ate bread in your life”, we just smiled politely and said we knew our stuff. After tasting some large quince, peer, plum and who knows what other rakijas we continued to 2 more bars. In one of them we ran into a Spanish basketball team that apparently were all point guards, as the tallest was perhaps 1m75. As they kindly turned down our inviation to drink with us I told them to enjoy Belgrade. A bit of a weird thing to say in a city I knew for just 24 hours or something, but apparently the place made me feel at home.
For the final destination we headed to the river Sava, where we got on a boat, a so called splava, with live pop folk singers. A place where we wanted to stay the rest of the night before catching the train back to Bulgaria. Now this was truly one of the highlights of our trip. As there was only one other table with guests and one table where the 4 different singers were sitting while waiting their turn, we could basically do whatever we wanted. As soon as the singers noticed that at least one of us was Bulgarian they started singing a popular Bulgarian song, while reading the lyrics of their smartphone. It was the start of a few hours full of rakija and song requests.
When Nikolay fell asleep in his chair at some point I pulled up my shoulders to the singers at the other table as to say: “it can happen guys”. They immediately invited me to their table and for the last 2 hours of the night I was chugging rakija with them. Nobody bothered to wake up my friend and nobody told us to leave. It was pretty clear that this scene wasn’t unusual for them. With one sleeping and the other quite sauced it’s a small miracle we actually made it to the train in time, but we did. Now I can’t say the trip was super spectacular, but for sure we had fun and I can highly reccomend this ride to everyone. Although next time for sure we’ll go with a bigger group and a musician on board.