Written by by Zohra Bensemra, CNN
This is part of a series of stories that CNN Films is presenting as part of the OutFront: Difference Maker series.
In his forties, with leather-y skin and a soulful, lustrous voice, Phelim McAleer is the figurehead of the minor Brexit group “Leave Your Country Alone,” or LOYAL. Like McAleer’s cinematic campaigns to abolish gay marriage, allow only Bulgarian and Polish entry for Eurovision and seek the truth about Gordievsky, his latest target is the 37-mile-long, 2.5-millimeter-wide, 44-year-old single-engine narrow-gauge railway between Bulgaria and Romania.
“The only thing a narrow-gauge railway does is fail,” says McAleer. “This one, incidentally, is currently being used by Turkish lorries carrying cheap, unbranded textiles across the border into Romania.”
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“I had to go over the top of the locomotive to get there,” says Lorca, a Romanian-born Bulgarian tourist with an enormous, laid-back grin. “I was so happy. It was such a trip for me. The carriage was cleaned and looking so nice.”
Without question, it’s the worst railway station in Bulgaria. Designed by the Soviet constructors in 1977, it sits in the shadow of Nikola Tesla Tower and is exactly the sort of neat, impressively decorated place that would be perfect for a movie. But if you’re hoping to get any intrigue on here, the grimmest secret of the entire train journey is that, more than any other railway station in Bulgaria, it is the link between your five-euro Bulgarian lira notes and the hot goods on sale in nearby shops.
Travelling north and walking along the narrow green expanse that stretches between the railway station and the snowy mountains, I come across a small chain of tidy shops on the other side of the road where the bright red goods are packed up ready to leave. Twenty-five cents will get you 20 yards of curtain into Romania. I say “sounds good to me,” and one woman asks if I’d like to join her for a special 15-euro excursion.
But what if your 20-euro note is damaged? After all, it isn’t as if you can just take it back at the end of the train journey. What is supposed to happen to damaged money? “They don’t lend you money,” she says, staring at the security guard at the gates of Nikola Tesla Tower with a look of horror and helplessness. So the trains keep coming, and the visitors arrive. They stand there, staring at the black market vendors with a wide smile, waving their Hungarian lire and bypassing the badhearted grandmothers in cream-colored saris who sell their wares on the side of the railway tracks.
Like the narrow-gauge railway, the face of Bulgaria doesn’t look like it’s changing
Those who manage to climb above the tracks have direct access to the capital Sofia. I go over a red earth bridge over the main road and into the narrow gorge surrounding the town of Pissouri. The road is eerily clear of its rush-hour din but still full of cars and vans. Down below is the railway and the high forest valleys that surround it. There is no sign of the peeling corpse of Nikola Tesla lying underneath an overhang of high, thick branches and tall grass.
The wandering head of a dog with nowhere to go decides to escape the town and forage for food with a fox. A visit to the crypt of Gregorio Gregorio, where Nicolaus Copernicus is buried and where scientists are waiting to find him alive if he is alive after 500 years on Earth, is proving elusive. There’s no sign of a burial ground here.