Day39: Getting to Germany from Bulgaria: My train trip with bicycle from southeastern Europe to northwestern Europe

It is hard to find good information about trains for travelling with bicycles between Germany and Bulgaria. My version that trip includes Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, and Sophia, cities, especially the first two, that are popular with bike tourists.

I was in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria after having ridden through the lovely Rial mountains and I wanted to get back to Germany where my tour had started. Blagoevgrad is about 100 km south of Sophia and Sophia is the major travel hub for this part of Europe. It is also an interesting city to visit. I'd ridden through and spent a hight there before, so, this time, I was just interested in using it as a hub on my route from south eastern Europe to north western Europe.

There are day and overnight trains from Sophia to Belgrade and, from Belgrade, you can get day and overnight trains to Budapest. From Budapest, it is a short trip, although possibly a pain at the border, to Vienna. Vienna is a very special place for bicycle tourists because of the Donau Radweg which is on the most popular bike touring route in Europe with several hundred thousand riders each year. Most of those riders start or end their tours in Vienna or Passau, so the Austrain railroad system has a special train for taking them between Vienna and Passua which is on the Austrian/German border. That train carries only bicyclists and cost about a third of what a regular Austrain or German train covering the same distance would cost with a bicycle. Once in Vienna or Passau, you have the excellent DB system to get to pretty much anywhere in western Europe.

My train to Sophia

My bike on board that train

I took a train from Balgoevgrad to Sophia since the weather was very hot - 100 F / 39 C - and the road I would have had to ride is a busy expressway. It was a nice train, much nicer than I expected in Bulgaria, but a slow trip since the train stopped about 20 times in 110 km. There are three morning trains and several afternoon/evening trains, I took the 2PM train which arrived in Sophia about 5 PM.

The international train ticket office at the Sophia main station is separated from the rest of the station by a big Change (as in currency) office. The exchange rates at that office are not good, so don't change money there if you don't have to. The international office is small, with two service desks. They only take Lev - Bulgarian currency. I changed money at a bank in Blagoevgrad so I would have the Levs I needed when I bought my ticket. I decided to go ahead and buy a ticket all the way to Vienna so that I wouldn't have to deal with Serbian or Hungarian currency issues.

The ticket I bought cost 170 Lev - a Lev is .5 E - and that included a sleeping compartment on the train to Belgrade. I considered doing a night train from Belgrade to Budapest as well, but decided I'd rather get to Vienna a day earlier in the evening since I knew a nice place to stay very near the West Vienna train station. That didn't exactly work out, but one has to expect problems on a trip like this.

The very nice lady, with good English, who sold me the ticket could not sell me tickets for my bicycle on the trains. I expected that and that, in Bulgaria at least, I'd have to bribe the conductor. I didn't know what to expect in Serbia or Hungary, but I figured I could deal with it. The lady told me I must keep my bike with me in my sleeping compartment and gave me a compartment, with three beds on one side, which would only have me sleeping in it.

In the park in Sophia

I had a few hours to wait before the night train left for Belgrade, so I left the station and, after eating and using the bathroom at a small cafe near the station, rode towards Sofia's centrum. I didn't go very far - I'd been in the centrum before - because I saw a park with lots of small children playing with parents and grandparents watching while sitting in the shade of large trees. I stopped there to relax and people watch for about an hour before heading back to the station to find my train.

There was an escalator down to the tunnel under the tracks and an elevator to get me and my loaded bike up to right platform. As soon as I got to the train, I was approached by the conductor. He challenged me about bringing my bike on the train without paying for it. I replied that of course I would pay for it and offered him 20 Lev - 10 E. He became very helpful, showing me to my compartment, helping me get my bike on board the train, and telling me that I would have to take the bags off the bike and carry them, separately, to the compartment. The corridor that goes past the compartments is very narrow, so it took three trips to get my bike and bags to the compartment. Once there, my bike was a close fit in the compartment. A large bike and/or a bike with wide handlebars, would be difficult to get to or into the compartment without removing its front wheel.

My sleeping compartment on the night train to Belgrade

Near sundown in northern Bulgaria

At the Serbian Border

The bed was comfortable and, except for dealing with the passport control at the border, which was a confused mess that disturbed my sleep for about an hour, the trip went smoothly. It was quite hot in my compartment when we started, but cooled down nicely, with the window open, during the trip. In Belgrade, I needed my down vest which was a huge change from the record hot temperatures in Bulgaria.

There is a hour time change between Bulgarian and Serbia, so the train arrived in Belgrade at about 5 AM local time. Not much was open at the station which was much smaller than I expected. There was a Change place, with lousy rates, so I exchanged $7 for several hundred Dinars and was able to buy breakfast around 6 AM. It really wasn't breakfast - a sandwich and a salad with coffee - but it was good enough and the cafe had wifi.

When it was time to get on the train to Budapest, I headed down the train looking of a conductor. I found one by the first car in the train. She asked me if I had a bike ticket and I explained that I started in Sophia where I could not get a bike ticket for this train. She helped me load the bike into a bike/baby carriage/ big luggage compartment in the middle of that car and I sat in a regular compartment towards the front of the car. I noticed that the doors to the aisle beside the compartment were too narrow to fit a bicycle or a baby carriage.

After that train was underway, the conductor who helped me and the other conductor who had more English, came by my compartment and, after a bit of consultation, charged me one Euro for a bike ticket. I gave them a 5 E bill and got back less than 4 E worth of Dinars, but it sure beat the 10 E bribe on the first train. I thought that was it for the bike until I got to Budapest.

Morning at the main station in Belgrade

Early morning in southern Serbia from my window on the train to Budapest

Tour boats on the Danube in Novi Sad

The ride through Serbia was fine, if a bit slow. It wasn't that we made a lot of stops, but rather that the train just went slowly for most of the journey. Sometimes it was cruising at 20 mph for long periods and other times it was doing 50 or 60 mph.

The autoroute bridge I rode across the Danube on an earlier tour

Traffic backed up in Novi Sad because of the train
A highway and the railroad tracks share the bridge we came over
When I left Serbia for Bosnia on my earlier trip through Serbia, I rode over a train
bridge converted for both train and car use because we had destroyed the car bridge.

A knocked down crossing barrier which caused the train to stop for 30 seconds

The train station in Subotica with border control police

The border crossing at Subotica was also slow, but not confused like the one at the first border. Since the train was now getting back into full EU land, that was the last time we had to deal with border control. It was after noon, so I headed down to the dining car where I found the cook was dining. After waiting for him to finish his meal, I order mine. It was OK and, for train food, not a bad value.

When I got back to my compartment, I was locked out of it. I went on search of a conductor and found two of them, looking for me. They asked for my bike ticket and I showed them the one that I got in Serbia. They said I had to have a Hungarian bike ticket. We went back to my compartment and talked about it. I pointed out that there was no way I could have a Hungarian ticket since I couldn't buy one outside of Hungary. They agreed and asked for 10 Euros. I told them I'd just used my last 10 E bill in the dining car and offered them a $20 bill. They said that was too much - $20 is about 15.5 E right now - and, after much discussion, ask for 5 E. I had about 4.70 E left and they accepted that.

This as a very different scene than in Bulgaria. These guys were just trying to do their job and realized I was caught in a system that wasn't able to handle folks on international trains with bicycles. They told me that, in Hungary, every train journey requires a separate train ticket for each leg of the trip. When you come in from another country, you are expected to have a bike ticket for that leg of your journey. Maybe you can get them by mail when getting Hungarian train tickets over the internet, but I don't know now I can order Hungarian train tickets over the internet.

In Budapest I discovered that I couldn't use the train I had a ticket for since it was a faster train that didn't carry bicycles. That ended up meaning that I had to use three local trains, two of them in Hungary and one in Austria, and have bike tickets for each of the two Hungarian trains and, probably, one for the Austrian train.

The first train I had to take from Budapest went to Gyor, about half way to Vienna. It took just as long to get there as the fast train took to get to Vienna. After getting ripped of for 11.5 E for not having a bike ticket on that train, I finally learned that I could buy bike tickets at the railroad ticket places. I could have saved 7.5 E if I had know that in Budapest.

I decided, because I had been travelling for over 24 hours by train, that I would spent the night in Gyor. I know Gyor well because my European dentist is there. Hungary is an excellent place to get high quality dental work done cheaply. In Gyor, I discovered that all the hotels were full because of some holiday. I ended up heading out of town towards Slovakia and stealth camping in a small woods.

The next morning, I went to train station to find out when the next train to Vienna was and to get a bike ticket for the Hungarian part of it. They couldn't deal with bike tickets for a train going to Vienna, so they sold me one for the trip from Gyor to the town on the Hungary/Austria border. It cost about 1 E and that trip was about 40 km. It looks like the Hungarian bicycle ticket charge is about 1 E per 40 or 50 km. I had to wait several hours for the next train that could take bicycles toward Vienna. I though it went Vienna, but found out that it only went the border and then I had another hour and a half wait for the train to Vienna. At least I had the bike ticket for the last leg in Hungary.

At the border town, Hegyeshalom, I met a German speaking Hungarian guy who helped me get to the South, rather than West Vienna station, without having a proper ticket for me or the bike. We had a good visit along the way and that probably made up for all the earlier Hungarian hassle.

Franz-Josef Station from the Rad Express Donau - Bike Train

At the South station, which is a massive construction project right now, I learned that the bike train now departs departs from the Franz-Josef station and ending up riding down there, It was a nice ride through some of Vienna's high end places, and high end in Vienna is really high end.

Tomorrow, hopefully, I'll be on the bike train to Passau which leaves here at 7:30 AM and gets there at noon. Then I'll take a train to a place near Stuttgart which is my first destination on this trip back to Germany. In a few days I will take the train to northern Germany and. next week, I'll fly back to the US from Hamburg.

I can't say it was simple or stress free, but there is no simple, stress free way back from south eastern Europe to Germany. This way has the advantage of being relatively cheap and requiring no train changes that were physically challenging. If you have the time, which I didn't on this tour, you can also spend multiple days in or around Belgrade and Budapest or any other place that the trains stop. The ticket is good for a month and there are no restrictions, other than those imposed by having a bicycle, on the trains you can take.

From my seat on the bike train

My trip on the bike train to Passau went smoothly. I got to the the track before 7 AM and the train showed up at 7:15. My bike was the second bike loaded and I sat in the rear most window seat on the train. A family of three joined me and, although we didn't talk much, it was very pleasant, except for a lack of foot room, being with them during the trip. We got to Passau on schedule, so I had over two hours to get lunch and do internet before the next train. The only problem I had was getting my bike up the stairs at the station. The had the powered luggage assist tracks which make that easier, but it was not working when I brought my bike up so I needed to ask someone to help me with the last half of the push.

At a stop on the Bike Train

Passau train station

The restaurant at the Passau Station

On the train to Munich

I rode an RE train to Munich. That means no special bike space, but a space for bikes, baby carriages, and wheelchairs in the the car I rode in. It was a smooth ride, but we got to Munich about 6 minutes alter than scheduled and I only had 6 minutes to get to my next train. Munich has a single level station where the trains come in and back out so I didn't have to deal with stairs or elevators. I just ran, as fast as I could through the folks in the train station, between the trains. My running was longer because the bike car on the IC train that I took to Stuttgart was at the far end of a long train.

On the train to Stuttgart

The IC was faster and smoother than the RE, but I had to take the bags off my bike and put it in a bike rack. It arrived on schedule in Stuttgart. Because of construction at my destination station, I took the S-Bahn - subwayish - train to the stop before my original destination when it was easier to get the bike off the train and easier for my son-in-law to park and meet me.