To my immense surprise, I actually got some sleep in Sofia. I woke up around 3:00, but, thankfully, was able to go back to sleep until my alarm rang at 6:30. I dawdled almost too long in bed and then hurried up to dress and finish packing. I was out the door by 7:00ish, with my bus being at 7:30.
The bus wasn’t at the station yet, so I went off in search of coffee, which in Bulgaria either comes from a vending machine or is a freshly made espresso. I wanted the latter of course. As I scanned my myriad options, an older gentleman came over and asked me in perfect English if I needed help finding a bus! All my uncaffeinated brain could stammer out was, “I’m fine Thank you. You’re very kind!” Where was he yesterday?! I settled on a café and was very pleased with my choice, since the coffee was good enough to drink black!
I kept an eye on arriving buses as I drank my magic bean potion.
Finally, I saw a bus marked Nish, like that, in Roman letters. A lot of people spell it Nis, without the accent (Niš), but if you drop the accent you need to add the h to get the proper pronunciation. The driver got out and called out, “Serbia!” I felt a little shiver of anticipation. I stowed my suitcase under the bus and went in to get a window seat.
The woman who had sold me my ticket had really not been listening to me and had sold me a ticket for 4:00PM today instead of 7:30AM. I chose to play dumb and see if it would get sorted out. Sure enough, the woman matching the tickets to the passenger manifest (international route!) took off with my ticket. A few moments later, I heard the driver call out “Maria!” It took a long moment to realise that that was me! He handed me a corrected ticket and off we went!
There was a whole lot of nothing to the Serbian border, which we reached in about an hour and a half. En route, I started to feel queasy and realised it was because I’d just had the black coffee, so I tucked into one of the cheese croissants I bought yesterday. It cured my ills!
At the border, we waited in line behind another bus and then it was our turn. We all had to disembark to go through the immigration part of the checkpoint. Everyone ahead of me had just an ID card and flew through this part of the crossing. Then, it was my turn. The officer scanned my passport, frowned, and looked up at me.
Him: How long were you in Bulgaria?
Me: About three months.
Him: About three months?
Me: Um, a little less. About 88 days.
Him: Are you sure?
Me: Pretty sure…
Him: You were in Bulgaria 87 days.
Me: I didn’t know if I should count the entrance and exit days.
Him: You can only be in Bulgaria 90 days.
Me: Yes. That is why I have to go to Serbia today.
Him (after stamping my passport and handing it back to me): Welcome to Serbia!
Now, how do you think this exchange went? Just from reading it, it sounds like a Canadian-style interrogation where I was sweating bullets, right? Well, not at all! The officer’s tone was friendly with an under tone of teasing. I wasn’t worried at all!
As everyone was processed, we had to move to the back of the building and then go outside, where it was freezing. Thankfully, everyone else got through more quickly than me and the bus was finally cleared to let us back on.
Next step was customs. This time, an officer came on board and took our documents. I didn’t really like seeing my passport go off like that, but at least I expected it. It came back with another stamp showing I’d cleared customs.
After the border, we almost immediately pulled over at a rest area before finally starting to get some Serbian miles under us. Like Bulgaria, Serbia is wide open and rural.
Serbian villages look like Bulgarian villages.
353KM to Belgrade…
There was a lot of roadwork being done, what appeared to be the construction of a new highway. My first impressions of Serbia are that it is very industrious!
I liked the stripes of colours at this quarry:
I turned to look towards the driver’s side at one point and WOW!
Serbia really wasn’t that different from Bulgaria!
We got to Nish at 10AM local time, which was 11AM Sofia time, bang on schedule. I just wanted a bathroom, but the cost was 50RSD (dinar) and, of course, I had no local currency on me and didn’t want to break my euro note. I realised to my horror that to control human traffic within the departure terminals where the bathrooms are, there’s a turnstile system to get back in. To get cash, I would have to exit, find an ATM, wait in a very long line to get a ticket, and then get to a bathroom. I rather cursed my coffee at this point. 😀
Thankfully, I found an ATM from a proper bank right outside the bus terminal. It was a bit strange to request a withdrawal of 10,000 anything, but it was only 122CAD! I grabbed my bills and went back to the station to buy a ticket.
The lady who served me had just enough English to understand me when I asked what time we would arrive in Belgrade, but not enough to answer, so she wrote it down, 2:30. Oh, and she had offered me an express or a local, and I went with the express since it was the next bus (at 10:50) and would get me to Belgrade faster. I forget the difference in price, but I don’t think it was significant.
And then, finally, the bathroom! I paid and was heading to the turnstile when the attendant banged on her window and motioned for me to come back and leave my suitcase with her! I was rather loaded down and have no valuables in the suitcase, so I was very happy to do so, especially since she pulled it into her booth where it would be secure.
It was almost 10:40 by the time I sat down to try the free wifi. My stupid phone refused to connect to it, but my iPad had no trouble, to my immense relief, since I wanted to contact my host in Belgrade to confirm my arrival time. I’d said 4:00 and decided to stick with that as it would leave time in case there were any contingencies or I couldn’t find the apartment. He wrote back immediately to say he’d be there.
That done, I Googled “platform” in Serbian since I wasn’t sure where to catch my bus and I knew the info was somewhere on my ticket. I learned that a platform is a “peron,” rather like the French for a porch! I scanned my ticket and found перон. As it turned out, I was at the right platform, eight, so I didn’t have to go anywhere.
The bus pulled up right at 10:50 and we lost a few minutes while passengers disembarked. When it was finally time to load luggage, I was confused that people were passing the attendant money. As it turned out, you had to pay 50RSD (about 0.60CAD) per bag on top of your ticket. This is where I started to learn that Serbian numbers are very similar, if not identical, to Bulgarian numbers! I mean, the guy said to me, “Pet…” which meant he wanted 15, 50, 0r 500 for my bag. 15 and 500 made no sense, so I pulled out a 100 and he took that, gave me back 50, stuck a tag on my bag, and handed me a receipt!
The bus was super crowded but I managed to get the last window seat!!!!! AND no one sat beside me, so I was able to spread out! That’s the good news. The bad news is that the bus was apparently manufactured by the folks who build the “local” Mazatlán buses, so my knees were touching the seat ahead of me. It was cramped and would get a bit painful as the trip progressed!
We made a stop or two before finally getting under way. I had a simple lunch of pineapple juice and a ciabatta roll that I just dipped into my peanut butter jar. I then played a word game for a while since the scenery was getting monotonous, then decided to have a nap. It was bang on noon and I was just started to doze off when… BOOM. Tire blowout! The driver did a great job steadying the bus and pulling over safely.
I calculated I could afford only a one-hour delay and still get to my apartment by 4:00. So I figured I was going to have to scramble for internet access in Belgrade to let my host know I’d be late since there was no way a tire repair service and/or backup bus could reach us in time. But, get this, the bus driver and his helper changed the tire themselves!
I was in such disbelief that I got out and took a picture because I figured no one would believe me.
We were back underway in 45 minutes. Wow! I promptly went to sleep and next thing I knew, I was in civilisation. It was about 2:30. Were we coming into Belgrade already?!
Yes, we were!
We got to the bus station at 3:00, so I had an hour to get to my apartment, only 1.3KM away. So, of course, I planned to walk and turned down offers of taxis.
Look at this sign near the arrivals. Puts so many countries to shame:
There was a wifi signal at the park behind the arrivals area, so I figured I could use it to orientate myself and then follow the directions to the apartment. But signage was poor and Google Maps was being a Google product and not cooperating. I could not orientate myself at all. The iPad doesn’t have the compass and the phone’s compass would not work on wifi, so I couldn’t even figure out in which direction to set off. So frustrating!
I eventually got into a cab and quickly realised I’d made a mistake (ie. got into a fake cab) and was about to be scammed. Sure enough, my 1.5KM drive cost me about 12CAD! I know I should have gotten out the minute he turned on his metre, but I was running late and lost! I just did some research and his metre did start off at the right amount, but ran up very quickly, which is how they get people. So, welcome to Belgrade. It appears that getting scammed by the taxis is a rite of passage. I’m just glad that this doesn’t matter even if it matters. I’ll be more careful if I get in another taxi.
I recognised the apartment when we got to it and said the Bulgarian “tuk,” for here, only to learn that it’s “tu-ey” in Serbian. 🙂 The driver got the luggage out and made sure I knew where I was going, so he gets points for not being an evil scammer (I read horror stories about scamming drivers, so, really, I got off easy). It wasn’t until I was standing at the door to the apartment that I realised I had no idea where exactly I was supposed to meet my host! Dang, what did we ever do before internet?! I scanned the names next to all the buzzers for the building and was going to press the one that started with “иван” since my host’s name is Ivan when I heard my name! I turned around and a man introduced himself as my host’s brother Marko (easy to believe based on the host’s Airbnb picture). It was exactly 4:00!
My arrival in Belgrade continued to be a little less than smooth when Marko informed me that the apartment I’d rented had been flooded overnight and was inhabitable… He said he had another place for me that was comparable and even closer to downtown. I followed him there. The apartment he showed me is comparable, but not newly renovated the way the other apartment had been and also doesn’t have a balcony. But they actually rent it out for more (which I know is true because I saw the listing for this one) since it is right downtown about a block from the pedestrian street, rather than about a kilometre away. So, in a way, this is an upgrade, depending on your priorities. The bed is comfy, so I’m happy, but I am concerned that there’s just a bar and no table, so I’m not sure where I’ll be transcribing from…
I took lots of pictures of the surroundings so that if I get lost, there’s a chance of someone being able to guide me home!
It was then time to walk around and orientate myself. Marko told me that behind the building is all manner of cheap fast food and he’s right. Don’t have to go far for pizza! I walked a bit aimlessly for a while.
Another fancy building…
The national museum! This is when I realised just how close I am to everything! And that my Bulgarian was going to be useful in Serbia!
Bulgaria invented the Cyrillic script and is very adamant about using it. Serbia, not so much. There is a of Roman writing all over and even books are published in it. I actually find it more difficult to read the Romanized Serbian than I do the Cyrillic because the Romanized version relies on a bunch of accents to guide pronunciation. I haven’t learned those (yet?), so I have no idea how to pronounce most of what I see, even if the letters look more familiar. The Cyrillic does have some unknown characters, but I can muddle through.
I found the pedestrian zone!
And ice cream! Coconut! I haven’t had coconut ice cream since Mérida! This wasn’t as good, of course, but it sure hit the spot! The attendant spoke perfect English, so it was easy to order.
I found the tourist info kiosk after and the attendant there also spoke English. I got a map, info on a free walking tour, and advice to visit the nearby Telenor store to see about internet (shame that my Bulgarian Telenor SIM isn’t transferable!).
I found the Telenor store, where the attendant there also spoke perfect English… Let me pause here to say that I’m exhausted from not being able to communicate effectively in Bulgaria and I’m happy to hear the English! Research had told me that Serbians generally speak English and that it’s possible to get by without using Serbian, but I didn’t believe it. Looks like it’s true at least in Belgrade!
The Telenor guy said that they’d sold their last “tourist SIM” and to go next door to the MTS (competitor) office. That place looked a little sketchy, but the attendant understood me perfectly and put me at ease. For 1,000RSD, she sold me a SIM card with 1GB of data on it and the ability to call others on the MTS network. She said I would have to go to a convenience store kiosk to get a top up to make calls or text. I don’t think I’ll need to do that, so I won’t bother unless the need comes up since the kiosks are everywhere. If I run out of bandwidth, it’s only 200RSD (2.40CAD) per GB! As a point of reference, at last research, Bell Mobility charged 10CAD for 1GB over overage and Telus charges 55CAD. Let’s not get into the cost of getting set up for pay as you go. I won’t be able to go home again…
Internet sorted, I ambled some more in search of dinner. I passed a few restaurants that looked good and had what seemed like excellent prices so I made a mental inventory of where to go when I was done ambling.
I picked an Italian restaurant that had reasonably priced pork choices since I am going into meat withdrawal and pork is my favourite! Eight years of wearing a head scarf and tonight was the first time a server made sure I knew I was ordering pork!
My dinner choice was perfect and wonderful, but I’m sure it will not be to most of my readers’ tastes. There’s a bed of grilled zucchini with the pork over top and a blue cheese and prune sauce over everything. Served with a chewy bread with sesame seeds and a glass of white wine.
This hunk of bleu alone was worth the price of dinner!
It was sadly too much and I was unable to finish. It was sooooooooooooo good. An amazing first meal in Serbia! I will have to remember the combination of blue cheese and prunes!
The server was very quick to tell me that the tip is not included in the bill… I hadn’t researched tipping in Serbia and my phone died just before, so I handed over 1,500RSD (about 17CAD). Later research told me that that was a good tip, on the higher end, but not excessive. Notice that the bill is in Roman letters.
I was done by this point and just wanted to crash. I gained an hour coming to Serbia, but my body doesn’t appreciate it!
Marko thought there might be a grocery store near the apartment, but I couldn’t find it. I still had a bun left that should be fine tomorrow morning, plus the peanut butter and coffee, so I figured I was fine for the morning. I did pop into a convenience store for water since I don’t like the taste of it here (it is potable). This was one of those stores where you have to say what you want. I broke the ice with those in Bulgaria after getting enough vocabulary to do so. So facing the store here wasn’t as intimidating as it might have been had I zero experience with them. Here, after determining the woman didn’t speak English, I just said “voda” (same word for water as in Bulgarian) and put my hands wide apart to show I wanted a big one. The attendant understood me fine and a bit of “da, ne-ing” got me the bar of Milka chocolate I wanted. The attendant was so sweet! Please and thank you are complicated in Serbian and aren’t sticking yet, so after I paid, I just said thank you in English and the lady gave me a big smile. So she might not speak English, but she understands a bit.
I then rounded the corner and decided to climb the four flights of stairs to my flat rather than fiddle around with the scary lift.
I unpacked a bit when I got in, then jumped in the shower, which was hot and had good pressure. The shower in Malak Izvor was luxurious, so I’m a tad spoiled in that regard and glad I have a good shower here!
So that was my very long day. I’m off to crash. It’s crazy noisy out there, which will take some getting used to, but this is what I wanted, the big city after four months (three in Bulgaria, one at Haven) in the middle of nowhere! 😀