Black Sea Express Train, Bulgaria
There are few better ways to evoke nostalgia of than a steam train journey, and Bulgaria’s Black Sea Express could just be Europe’s most spectacular steam adventure. The train hails from the time of King Boris III, known as the ‘Royal Corona Express’ and used by the king as his royal railway carriages. Today the train is operated by Railway Touring, who offers 11-day journeys that combine days on the train with unique excursions and luxurious hotel stays.
Travelling from the Bulgarian capital Sofia, guests are taken on cross-country Balkan adventure to the glittering Black Sea coast past medieval villages and dramatic gauges, all while being pulled in former royal carriages by powerful and ever-changing locomotives (one for train enthusiasts). This is truly one of Europe’s hidden gem railway journeys.
Prices from: £2,495
Departing from: Sofia
Journey length: 10 nights
Black Sea Express train route
The Black Sea Express train is a private chartered train, and package trips and itineraries are all organised by the train’s operator, the Railway Touring Company. Riding on the train is part of an 11-day exploration of Bulgaria, beginning in Sofia and travelling all across Bulgaria to the Black Sea, with passengers returning to Sofia at the end of their trip. Nights are spent in local hotels and during the day carriages are pulled by a host of locomotives.
The first three days of the trip are spent exploring Sofia and its surrounding areas, and guests experience a mix of riding on the steam train and a host of off-train excursions. On day three the adventure truly begins, travelling on the Black Sea Express train from Sofia to Pleven Zapad and northern Bulgaira, before journeying onto the old town of Veliko Tarnovo.
Other highlights include steaming across the Balkan Mountains, enjoying Nesebar on the Black Sea coast (known as the ‘Pearl of the Black Sea’ and navigating the gorges of the Rhodope Mountains. On day 10 of the trip the train steams back to Sofia where guests spend the night before flying home the next day.
The Black Sea Express train
It’s clear to see the train’s carriages were once used by royalty, clad in smart olive-green livery and boasting luxurious old-world interiors. Three carriages in total make up the train, not including the ever-changing locomotives that are used to pull the carriages, the king’s coach, a saloon coach and sleeper car. Said to be used by King Boris’ staff, the king’s coach is clad in polished walnut panelling and houses some of the train’s private sitting and sleeper compartments.
The second, the saloon car, is the social hub of the train, essentially a dining and observation car where guests can relax in comfortable seating and admire the view from large windows. The third coach compromises of first-class compartments with plush interiors and seating. Many compartments have en-suite facilities and come with a armchair and settee.
Cabins on the Black Sea Express Train
The train has many private compartments where passengers can sit, relax and enjoy the journey, and many compartments have private en-suites. Despite having a history as a royal train the Black Sea Express does not host guests overnight anymore, and passengers spend the night in top class hotels in Sofira, Veliko Tarnovo, Velingrad, Bansko and Burgas on the Black Sea Coast. Hotels vary per trip, so it’s worth checking in advance where you will be staying and try your luck with an upgrade.
Food and drink
As part of the Railway Touring Company’s package 11-day tour most meals are included. Breakfasts and dinners at the hotel restaurant are included with the accommodation and lunches are included when spending the day on the train. The train’s food can be hit or miss and usually includes a selection of sandwiches and snacks, so make sure to pack any other snacks you might want along the way. While dinners are included in your package, there’s nothing stopping you from scrapping the hotel dinner and venturing out to a local restaurant to sample delicious, home-cooked Bulgarian specialities at often very affordable prices.
The Black Sea Express is first and foremost an excursions tourist train, and the operator offers a host of activities for guests to choose from in each destination visited. Excursions start upon arrival in Sofia and include a private tram of the city and lots of free time to explore. In Veliko Tarnavo guests can choose from a walking tour of the medieval old town or a visit to the the Gorna Orjahovitsa depot and Asenovo Steam Reserve (for train enthusiasts). Other off-train excursions available to passengers include a sightseeing tour of the ancient city of Nesebar and visitng the world-famous UNESCO Rila Monastery. All excursions are included in the fare.
As no evenings are spent on board the train does not have a dress code, and casual gear is perfectly acceptable for the day. Make sure to pack comfortable footwear and layers, and some smart casual garments for dinners at the hotel/local restaurants.
Tickets for the Black Sea Express tour of Bulgaria are all-inclusive, and include return flights from Heathrow, all hotels and accommodation, plus all breakfasts, eight dinners and six lunches on-board the train. Transfers are also included. Solo supplements cost £295 and it’s also possible to purchase a ticket not including flights.
Pros and cons
Pro: The chance to explore secret Bulgaria on a former royal train and lots of free time during the evening. Cons: accommodation and dinners in hotels can be hit or miss.