Ben’s Train Travel: First Stop Bulgaria with the Eastern European Pass

Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Sofia.

French teacher, travel lover and train enthusiast, Ben Ratliff writes about his “life changing” journey across Europe. Armed with a France Rail Pass and an Eastern European Pass (courtesy of Rail Europe), Ben visited Bucharest, Prague, Vienna, Paris, Avignon, Nice and Bordeaux with his partner and (soon-to-be) in-laws. We hope that you find his journey as inspiring as we did.

“Excuse me sir, may I hitch my rental car to your donkey’s wagon in order to drop it off the nearest cliff?” I considered asking.

Four hours of car rental contract negotiation took place at the Bucharest Airport yesterday afternoon.  How is it that what seemed to be an easy “four click and your done” online reservation turned out to be a total nightmare at the rental agency?  Was I the only American in history trying to rent a car to travel from Romania to Bulgaria on a Sunday?

Prior to my US departure, I thought it would be a “good” idea to spend a few days at a remote hotel/resort on the Black Sea.  While looking at the map I said, “It isn’t that far.  While in college, I drove from Oklahoma City to Dallas once a month to see my cousin.  Isn’t Texas a whole different country?”  I-35 has a bridge that allows drivers to easily cross the Red River between states.  Come to find out, the Romanian/Bulgarian boarder has a small tugboat named “Perla” and a crew of one, age 65+.

A Boat Named Perla in Bulgaria.

Once I passed the passport checkpoint and all my rental car contracts were carefully scrutinized by the police, I was ready for the winding, two-lane, barely paved, out of cell range, no gas station for miles road.  As the song, “Ease down the Road” came out of my mouth (that’s the only part I know) white smoke engulfed the inside Czech-made Skoda automobile.

Was it? 1.) a lit cigarette from a border crossing guard that happened to land in the back seat 15 minutes ago?  2.) the tires smoking from a quick stop to avoid hitting a shepherd crossing with herd goats?  3.) The engine overheating due to strenuous driving conditions?  4.) The double-adapter international car charger short circuiting causing a small electrical fire?


The loose fire extinguisher bouncing around the trunk at 75mph decided to combust not only on my man purse and bag, but all over the inner-cabin.  White powder engulfed the small cabin forcing me to make an emergency stop on side of the road.

Emergency Side of the Road Stop in Bulgaria


Goat shepherds, farmers, children, and fellow travelers must have said, “He better run.”  To be honest, I thought about it.  If the car WAS on fire, I would have been better off running away.  Forget the $2,000.00 deposit!  Get me out of here!

I wanted to to take a risk. – It was risky.

I wanted an adventure. – I got one.

Needless to say, no more rental cars for me in Eastern Europe.  I’m sticking to the train.  Although it is and will be a great story at a cocktail party, doctor’s appointment, or “Back to School” meeting with parents, I think I’m going retire my international drivers license for a while and let the train take me to where I need to go.

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