I love Tram 18 in Sofia.
All through this frigid East European winter, when every instinct tells us to hide under the blankets, my family has journeyed downtown on this steel relic from Bulgaria’s past. It provides a perfect, nicely-heated portal for journeying through a city that was made for walking.
The trip starts at the southern terminus in Istok, directly opposite the Russian embassy. Passengers line up at trackside, pull up their scarves, and point their faces away from the wind like seagulls on a pier.
When the tram arrives, be prepared to wait a few minutes longer. First the southbound passengers disembark. Then the tram reverses and disappears into a cul-de-sac in the neighboring park. Wait for it. A few minutes later – time enough for the driver to switch tracks, move from back to front, and perhaps take a swig of coffee – the tram reappears for the northward journey.
I said this is a city tram, but one of the pleasures of 18 lies in its varied route. Starting in Istok, it winds past the sprawling Boris’ Garden park. One catches a glimpse of the swank Lozenets neighborhood, and then we’re back into the snowy woods.
At the Vasil Levsky stadium the tram turns northwards. On soccer nights, be prepared for a crowd of red-faced soccer fans. Afterschool and on weekend evenings it might be a crew of boisterous teens. At the change of shift, look for workers to jump aboard. Fares are 1 leva ( 67 cents US) from the machine on board, and don’t forget to punch a hole in your ticket with that implement bolted to the wall; you never know when a conductor might be checking.
From the stadium, the tram runs up Boulevard Graf Ignatiev, a shopper’s paradise of stores, book stalls and food vendors. Apparently the line continues to the Orlandovci quarter, but we’ve never yet had the willpower to make it past one of our favorite haunts: Confetti, a delight of fresh-baked cakes, hot chocolate and Sofia’s best gelato. Someday, I’m sure, we’ll ride 18 all the way to the end of the line, just to see what we’ve been missing. But it will require a powerful sacrifice to skip the temptation of dessert.
To look at them, these trams are fairly mundane and workaday machines in their white and orange steel. Some of these cars were built in the Czech Republic, while others hail from Germany. Bulgaria has made plenty of its own tram equipment since the system was inaugurated back in 1901. And lately the trams are getting all dressed up with advertisements for Milka chocolate or the latest HBO series.
But for us, the real interest lies in the view from the inside looking out. Take a ride on the 18 sometime and feel all of that history rolling by with a hum and clatter.