Dear fellow travellers
Septemvri might have been a railway town like Swindon. If Isambard Kingdom Brunel had not built a carriage works at Swindon on his Great Western Railway, the place would probably have remained an insignificant dot on the map halfway between London and Bristol.
Like Swindon, the Bulgarian community of Septemvri was born of the railway. The Istanbul to Vienna railway passed this way, taking advantage of the flat lands that make the Plain of Thrace. The line from Plovdiv (away to the east of Septemvri) was opened in 1873, but the onward route to Sofia took another decade to construct. So for a spell Septemvri was the railhead, and a bustling community developed around the station. Traders, hustlers and navvies gathered at this unsung spot on the plains.
Nowadays, Swindon bustles. Visitors who go in search of Brunel's railway workshops will find they morphed into a shopping centre. Septemvri has no shopping complex, nor much evidence of economic activity of any kind. The railway workshops have long closed. Bypassed by the motorway, forgotten by bureaucrats and planners, the 8,000 people who live in Septemvri don't have easy lives.
Tourists have discovered Plovdiv and Sofia, but Septemvri is just a sad spot on the railway line between Bulgaria's two largest cities. A trickle of more adventurous travellers do indeed alight from the trains that stop at Septemvri. This is not because they wish to explore the town, but because Septemvri marks the valley terminus for one of the most extraordinary train journeys in the Balkans.
The hill country south-west of Septemvri is remote and difficult terrain, territory that was much contested during the Balkan Wars (the first of those wars was at its height 100 years ago this month). The first section of the narrow-gauge railway into the hills from Septemvri opened in 1926, though the full 125-kilometre route to Dobrinishte was not completed till after the Second World War.
Twice-daily trains make the five-hour journey from Septemvri to Dobrinishte. Fierce gradients and tight spirals mean that progress is often painfully slow, but that brings its own blessings. There are superb views of three different mountain groups: the Rhodopes, the Rila range and the Pirin mountains.
Along the way, this slowest of slow trains crests a ridge before dropping down into the Mesta Valley. Near the summit, the train (with its red Romanian-built engine and four green carriages) pauses at Avramovo, a tiny wayside halt which, with an elevation of 1267 metres, is the highest railway station in the Balkans.
The Mesta Valley is a delicious wilderness punctuated by little oases of human settlement. Minarets on the hillsides recall that this is a part of Bulgaria with a substantial Muslim population. One or two houses fly the distinctive blue and red Pomak flag - a nice reminder that in these hills it is perfectly possible to be both Slavic and Islamic at the same time.
This train journey is a ride into cultural eclecticism, a chance to experience the ethno-confessional mosaic of the southern Balkans. Just short of the end of the line at Dobrinishte, our train pauses at a station named General Kovachev. It takes its name from the Bulgarian military commander who played such a decisive role in securing territory for Bulgaria during the First Balkan War.
Sovereignty is ever-contested in these hills. Perhaps the only real monarchs in the region are the birds which sweep over the Mesta Valley. There are snake eagles and white storks, rock partridges and calandra larks.
Its passengers a little rattled by the long ride, the tired train arrives just after two in the afternoon at Dobrinishte. This village in the hills has a buoyant lumber trade, plenty of winter snow (and thus skiing), hot springs and abundant fresh air. It is a place with energy - truly another world from rundown Septemvri, the railway junction on the plain that never quite developed into a Swindon.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)