World Cup Road Trip, Day 13: Tension on the train, scenic rides and a man named after Tupac

A tense day in Sofia as we were left in limbo for several hours on our sleeper train to Turkey.

Booking an online reservation for 6.30pm in Istanbul had proven impossible in the weeks leading up to this trip, so we feel we should do it in person and head to the train station as soon as we finish our breakfast, which mainly consists delicious Bulgarian Banitsa – filo pastry filled with feta cheese.

Usually, boarding a train without a specified seat is not a big dilemma, but the urgency here comes from the fact that it crosses the night and arrives in Turkey’s largest city at 5:34 a.m. local time. We need something a little more than a place to sit. We need a bed. Preferably one to ourselves.

Initially things seemed to be going well when we spoke to the woman behind the counter and gave her our names and Interrail contact details.

As the conversation turns to who is snoring and “breathing heavily,” the woman begins to shake her head. “We have a problem,” she said.

Is the train already full, are we afraid? Not enough. Turns out the computer doesn’t say no. The computer says nothing. The systems are completely down.

Day 13. Bad luck for some.

We decide to wait in case the machines come back to life. Maybe someone needs to wiggle the plug in their socket. Laurie has the Edwin van der Sar interview to write up (yes, that was nine days ago), so the time can be used.

However, we realize that Sofia station is not the most conducive place to work. A man looks at us with a slightly awkward air, standing in our group and staring at us in turn, while wearing a smile oscillating between warmth and threat.

So we head into town, down the subway, past the wonderfully colorful graffiti on the underpass, and to Boom Burger, which according to subscriber Nish, who got in touch with Laurie, is the best place to the city. The name makes us wonder if our stomachs will explode later, but we needn’t worry. Nish was right. The pancakes have great flavor.

We had planned an interview with Dimitar Berbatov for the day, but he has to cancel as the fever has set in, so instead we do a walking tour.

We encounter the Church of St. Nicholas the Wonderful, at which Nick, in a flash, says to Martino’s camera, “That’s what my girlfriend calls me.” He has to shoot an extra clip a few seconds later after remembering that they had been engaged for three years.


Athletics prodigy Nick Miller walks into the church in Sofia which may or may not have been named in honor of his many talents

Much of where we walk is cobblestone streets painted yellow. A literal road of yellow bricks. Martino’s effort to see Nick and Laurie jump on it arm in arm – Athleticism response to the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow – falling on deaf ears. Although Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, with its emerald roofs, could be considered the castle of the Wizard of Oz.

The cathedral is hugely impressive, but Nick and Laurie still can’t muster the necessary skills as they head their World Cup ball between them. The count does not reach two digits.

We visit the Bridge of Eagles, which marks the entrance to the Old Town, the Soviet Army Monument, which depicts a soldier wielding a Kalashnikov rifle and is the subject of a campaign for his removal, and the Vasil Stadium Levski, who proves more difficult to integrate than the Belgrade Marakana the day before. The security guard waves a finger at Martino every time he pleads.

We don’t linger too long. The stadium, where Bulgaria are playing in the World Cup qualifiers, is the site where England players suffered racist abuse in October 2019.

We return to the station hoping someone has called an electrician but no luck. We are advised, with a shrug, to “just get on” the train.

A couple overhears our interaction and says they’ve been told the same thing, and are equally dubious, before conversing in more depth with Martino in Italian. Turns out the woman used to play soccer professionally and then worked for the Venice women’s team until 2020, earning a promotion at the location that was our Day 9 slot.

It’s another lovely moment of serendipity in a journey that has been strewn with it.

The night before, Laurie and Martino had gone in search of Sofia nightlife and found a bar where rubber ducky disco balls were hanging from the ceiling, and they had chatted with two football fans who were traveling to Qatar – an English and a Danish. Shakur, a final-year medical student named after rapper Tupac, thinks England have a chance to win.

It’s that kind of positivity that Nick channels as we bite our nails on the sleeper train. He takes the controls, heads for the platform 40 minutes before departure and negotiates masterfully with the Turkish conductor. Or, as he puts it, “I asked him if we could continue.”


Panic over – Nick and Laurie Whitwell finally prepare to board the sleeper train to Istanbul

The panic is over. We are introduced once boarding is complete by everyone who has managed to magically secure a seat, and chat with the conductor as he fills out our tickets.

Again, football is the language that runs through. He is a fan of Fenerbahce and also loves Manchester United.

“Cristiano Ronaldo,” he says. “Red Seitan.”

The first passage is clear, but we don’t quite understand the second part, so he puts his index fingers on his head like two horns. Ah, red satan.

We have nine hours left in these cozy cabins and we hope that after a day of anguish, no harm awaits us.


Previous entries on Athleticismthe World Cup route

Day 12 – Welcome to Red Star Belgrade – watch out for the tank

Day 11 — Discuss Panini stickers with Biscan and lunch at Boban restaurant

Day 10 — “Break into” an abandoned stadium? Yes please!

Day 9 – Meet the loved ones of the man who created the World Cup trophy

Day 8 – A visit to FIFA Headquarters — and a very expensive orange juice

Day 7 – A Klose shave, scenic stadiums and timely chocolate

Day 6 – Meeting with Gotze, scooter ride and misery for Mane fans

Day 5 – A date with Heitinga and The Dronten Poltergeist

Day 4 – Meet Van der Sar, random cricket bar, watch Gakpo

Day 3 – An incredible moment in Belgium ruined by a sneaky thief

Day 2 – To Paris via an underwater train in search of Mbappe

Day 1 – Inflatable unicorns, Welsh lessons and beer from Gareth Bale