Belgrade, Serbia, to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (or eight hours on a bus to do 300km)

I actually slept my last night in Serbia. Wow! I got up around 8:00 and had my coffee right away so that it would have time to percolate through me before my eight-hour bus ride. Needless to say, a final coffee off Trg Republike was out of the question! I then dressed and went out to get some vittles for the ride, going to the Maxi behind the National Museum.

It was only about nine when I got in. I finished most of my packing and spent some time enjoying the internet connection before packing my electronics bag and doing a final sweep of the apartment. I headed out around 10:30, with my bus being at 11:30.

I got to the bus station around 10:45, which sounds like I was super early, but I wanted to change some money and also be one of the first on the bus to ensure I’d get a window seat. First, I used the facilities so I could break up a 500RSD note to have some change for the day.

Here’s a woman’s bathroom stall at the Belgrade bus station:

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I knew I would eventually encounter these in my travels, but I hadn’t expected it to be in Belgrade! I had no trouble using it, but it felt incongruous to the modern world around me!

In the privacy of the stall, I sorted out my money, keeping 400 or 500RSD in small notes on me for the day, and then took the rest to one of the many money exchange windows. I asked the lady if she spoke English. She said said no very curtly and then started going through her phone. “Euros, please?” I asked her in Serbian and she blatantly ignored me. Okay, fine. I went to the next window and tried again with “Do you speak English?” Nope. But he didn’t dismiss me, so I said, in Serbian what I was pretty sure was, “Please, from dinar to euro.” The guy’s head whipped up and he quirked a smile. I passed him my bills and he sorted them, handing back a few small notes. “45 euro,” he said in perfect English! That was about what I expected to get, so I said okay, then thank you, in Serbian. He wished me a nice trip… in English.

Like in Nish, you need a ticket to go out to the platforms. Unlike in Nish, the system in Belgrade is more antiquated, so you get a token with your ticket rather than a bar code. I had been holding onto my token for dear life since I bought my ticket yesterday! A a security guard got my suitcase through the turnstile while I dealt with the token.

One of the reasons I made sure I had small notes on me was that I was putting a suitcase under the bus and I had to pay 50RSD for that in Nish. So I was thrown for a loop when the driver said, “Shto dinara.” I repeated what he said because I didn’t understand at first. “Da, shto,” he replied. I thought for a second and then trigged onto the fact that¬†shto is 100! Well, 100 is sto in Bulgarian, but close enough. I pulled out a 100RSD note and said, “Shto?” The driver replied, in perfect English, “That’s it, thank you!”

I climbed on board and got one of the last window seats. The bus was packed.

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Pretty building by the bus station.

The bus station is right by the river, so we were quickly in New Belgrade and before I could blink, we were out in the country.

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I can’t remember why I took this picture!

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This part of Serbia is so flat and there are just cornfields as far as the eye can see. It’s rather like Iowa. ūüôā

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We made a few stops along the way and eventually pulled into the bus station at¬†Ň†abac. I’m not sure where the open seats came from as I was sure we were full, but more people sat down!

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Crossing the Sava yet again.

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Serbia feels more prosperous than does Bulgaria. All the Bulgarian towns and villages I visited looked rather alike, well tended, but only at the bare minimum. They were rather shabby or forlorn. The Serbian houses are in a similar style, but have more ornamentation. There are more flowers and greenery and the pavement is in better condition.

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This doesn’t look up to code…

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Two hours into our eight-hour trip, we pulled into a truck stop for smoke and pee breaks. I was happy about that since there was no bathroom on the bus!

Before long, we were at the Serbian/Bosnian border. Like the Alaska Highway along the Yukon/BC border, we went in and out of Bosnia a few times before getting to the official border crossing.

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First glimpse of Bosnia in the distance.

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Our side of the river was Serbia, the other side was Bosnia.

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A border officer boarded the bus and got our ID cards and passports. They were returned in short order with no stamps, so I figured that was the customs stamp. Sure enough, we moved ahead to another queue and had to give our documents back. The ID cards came back quickly, then the passports, this time with a stamp. And that was it. Welcome to BiH —¬†Bosna i Hercegovina!

My first Bosnian mosque and minaret were right over the border.

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I was startled by how literal the border was in terms of geographic change. We moved into a lush green mountainous region that reminded me of “my” part of Bulgaria, only more prosperous (but less prosperous than Serbia).

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We continued to make stops and pack people on board. Some folks stood for the last three hours to Sarajevo! If there was free wifi and a city sign, I would check Google Maps to track my progress. Here’s¬†Vlasenica, 90KM, or about three hours, from Sarajevo!

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And here’s Sokolac, 43KM and two hours away…

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The slow going was in part because we were doing a milk run and in part because of the super twisty mountain road that the driver took slowly while talking on his cell phone most of the way… The scenery, when I could see it, made up for some of the queasiness!

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One final detour (I forget where, but it was definitely a detour as we went the wrong way for Sarajevo and had to double back)…

 

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And then, Sarajevo, under a cover of darkness. I was stunned to see that the core of the city is in a valley, with buildings climbing up the sides. I stopped counting the number of lit up minarets at six.

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Incredibly, the bus had to climb even higher to get to the bus station. By this point, I was sure I was going to die on that bus and that we were never going to get there. But that said, I’m someone who enjoys the journey, especially when it’s new, and the day had really gone by very fast. I was just ready to land.

We’d had a lot of moments during the day when we could get off for a leg stretch or a pee, so when everyone seemed ready to get off at a stop, I was rather in disbelief that we’d arrived. “Istońćno?” I asked my seat mate. She smiled and said, “Yes!” We had arrived!!!

My transfer was supposed to pick me up at 7:30 and we were a little early. I thought I might have time to get some food (I’d eaten snacks just before and after the border crossing, but was too queasy to do so again after), but, nope. There was a guy on the platform holding up a huge sign that said “MRS. REA.” I was pretty sure that was me, LOL!

It was indeed my transfer, Dennis, and he was super friendly. His English isn’t that good, but he did his best to point things out and engage in conversation. The traffic was unbelievable and the ride to old town took ages. I’m sure a taxi ride would have cost me a lot more than the 10 euro I was expected to pay him and was so happy I’d gone with the transfer.

I mentioned that I needed food and he offered to stop en route, but I said that if there was something close by that I could walk to, I preferred to get home and go out again. So as we came into old town, he pointed to what appeared to be a pedestrian street and said that that’s where I should go for dinner and that it was a straight shot down from the house (I didn’t realise just how literally he meant down — I should never have complained about the hill in Maluk Izvor!). Oh, and he did ask me what I wanted specifically, so he could send me straight there, but I said I’m not picky and would take whatever I found!

We got in and he explained a few things about the house to me. I passed him 20 euro for the ride and he gave me 20KM in change, telling me that anything I read about being able to use the euro might apply in downtown Sarajevo, but not in old town, so I better get some marks. I’ll hit an ATM tomorrow. The KM will actually be easier for me than the euro as they are roughly equal to BGN, so I’m used to the conversion rate. Then, I was left to settle in.

The apartment feels really huge (I’ll post pictures tomorrow) since it has a kitchen with a door, a bathroom, an L-shaped hallway, a bedroom, and a living/dining/second bedroom! Unlike other places I’ve stayed, this one isn’t bare and has had long-term tenants, so there is a lot of stuff lying around and I’ll have to be careful not spread out too much lest I forget something. The kitchen and bathroom aren’t as clean as I would have liked, but, really, it’s fine and I should be comfortable here for a week once I sort myself out.

I hiked down to the pedestrian street and look forward to going again when I’m not so knackered and famished as it’s a really interesting place! I heard a lot of Arabic and my headscarf was not out of place. I really didn’t want to overthink dinner so I went to the first place I saw the locals queuing up and ended up with a huge lamb donair sandwich for 2KM (about 1.50CAD). It was surprisingly bland (I’m glad I accepted the spicy stuff they offered), but hit the spot, offering a good balance of bread, light meat, and lots of veggies.

To get to the house, I have to open the pedestrian door to a garage, cross the garage, open another door, and cross a yard. Coming up my street, I realised with a sinking feeling that I hadn’t made note of any landmarks around my garage entrance. It was dark-coloured, but so were a lot of other doors. Just as I was ready to double back, sure that I’d missed it, I saw it! I was glad to get in as it was getting cold (the house is actually rather cold right now and I hope I’ll be comfortable tonight).

I cannot believe that I’m in Sarajevo!

Or that it takes eight hours to go from Belgrade to Sarajevo on a bus…

First Day in Belgrade, and a Walking Tour

After returning home with groceries this morning, I did some research and then went out in search of lunch before the 2PM walking tour. As I turned onto Knez Mihailova Street I heard the amazing violin playing and discovered it was coming from this little girl:

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She needs to be in a world class music school, not busking. ūüôĀ

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For lunch, still craving meat, a burger made sense and Burger House seemed like my best bet for an “American-style” burger. But this shot is more about the beautiful building at the end of the street!

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Next door to Burger House, these were the pub’s specials of the day…

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Burger House is a “build your dream ¬†burger” joint. I asked for one patty with cheddar cheese, bacon, grilled onions, and honey mustard sauce, with a side of half-and-half — fries and onion rings.

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This may be the best burger-fry combo in the world and that is not hyperbole. I am going back there before I leave!!!

At the end of¬†Knez Mihailova¬†Street, you get to Belgrade Fortress. We’ll come back here later on the walking tour, but, basically, it’s a giant park that you can wander freely.

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Looking down at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. The Danube!

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Notice that bridge in the distance? It so reminds me of the Provencher Bridge in Winnipeg, which is also at the confluence of two rivers, that I wonder if there is a connection.

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I’ve seen a lot of this graffiti with Nikola Tesla’s name and this date. I wish I had remembered to ask my guide about it!

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One of the words I learned in Bulgaria is “pesh” (on foot). The word carries over to Serbian in that “peshachka” means pedestrian. My guide told me that Bulgarians and Serbians do not understand each other despite these similarities.

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I got back to Republic Square around 1:50 to wait for the walking tour. Since I was a bit early, I walked up a side street beside the National Museum and found a jewelry vendor with lovely wares. I was really disappointed to leave Bulgaria without a pair of earrings, but I didn’t find anything I liked there, not even in Nessebar, and, really, I didn’t get a lot of opportunities to browse as I passed maybe five earring vendors total in the three months I was there. There just weren’t stalls and markets with them the way I’ve seen in Mexico. Here in Belgrade, in just the short span of time I’ve been here, I’ve seen heaps of such stalls, running the gamut of prices. I tend to know what I like and be quite impulsive in my earring purchases. These beauties spoke to me and were just 400RSD (5CAD):

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I then went back to Republic Square to start the tour, but something weird happened. The guide said to me, “You’re looking for another tour. Go wait at the clock.” I didn’t question why I couldn’t join his tour. I’d done some research and knew there are several different walking tours by different outfits and that the 2PM tour didn’t really have much of what I wanted to know more about. So I took that as a sign to go home for a rest and try again at 4PM with a different tour.

I got back to Republic Square at 3:45 and the guide said we would start at 4:05. It was chillier than expected after the hot afternoon, so I said I was going to go home and be right back, which I was, fleece in tow!

Republic Square is Belgrade’s anchor. People meet at “the horse,” even though the person on the horse (Knez Mihailova — Prince Michael) is more important. But the statue has been called “the horse” since at least the early 19th century.

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I learned that the National Museum has been closed for ages and that the reopening keeps getting delayed for lack of funding. ūüôĀ

But the National Theatre has been in continuous operation since it was built in the 19th century, its programs running even through all the wars.

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We headed off to the Bohemian Quarter, Skadarlija or Skadarska Street. Let me pause here to say that,¬†like always, my review of a city tour is in no way going to encompass everything I learned. There’s just too much to remember!

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This street is lined with pubs and “kafanas,” the Serbian answer to the pub. It’s a drinking district. I asked if it’s safe for a single woman to be out after dark and have a few drinks and our guide, Luba, said absolutely and that Belgrade does not have any “bad” neighbourhoods. The worst that will happen is you will get scammed by a taxi, something that even happens to locals!

I am definitely going to come back here to have a drink!

By the way, it was here that I learned that Serbia is the only European country to have two writing systems that are used equally and interchangeably. Most Serbians favour using Latin letters.

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Since it is a drinking street and people have a hard time staying on their feet, this helpful sign tells drunks that the moon is that way, so, obviously, the ground is the other way…

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These are kafanas. They have booze, coffee, light local fare, and live music past 8PM. I think they are best described as a cross between a bistro and a pub.

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This is where Luba pulled some rakia (fruit brandy) out of her bag for all of us to try!!! I had rakia in Bulgaria, where it is also popular. This was honey rakia and it was really lovely!

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This is a statue of a famous Serbian poet outside the house he shared with his wife and ten children. He wanted a house on the drinking street and died from an alcohol-related disease at the age of 40. What a shame. He was actually lauded in his lifetime, so he must have been very good!

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This is a chimney from an old beer brewery owned by a Czech.

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We continued on and stopped here to talk a bit about the history of Belgrade in terms of armed conflicts and the geo-political situation. Way too much there to get into in this post! The damage on this wall apparently dates back to WWII! Luba explained that Belgrade has such a hodgepodge of architecture — Turkish, 19th century, and Communist, among others, is that every time a building was destroyed in a bombing, a modern building of the day was erected in its place.

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This is the Museum of¬†Vuk and Dositej. From Wikipedia (echoing what the guide told us!): “one of the most important memorial museums in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Founded in 1949, it depicts the life, work and legacy of Vuk Stefanovińá KaradŇĺińá (1787‚Äď1864), the reformer of the Serbian language, and Dositej Obradovińá (1742‚Äď1811), a writer who was the country’s first Minister of Education. The museum is a crucial site for understanding the revival of Serbian culture at the time of the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire.”

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This is where I won a prize for¬†being the tour member who has made the most progress with the Serbian language! Really! LOL This is a special glass for drinking rakia. I’m wondering if I can find a place in my luggage for it as I really would love to get it home…

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Here’s the minaret of the last remaining mosque in Belgrade. Most of Serbia’s Muslim population is in the south.

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We then made our way to Kalemegdan Park, which is open 24/7, and which is also the site of the Belgrade Zoo and the Belgrade Fortress. The zoo boasts the oldest known alligator in the world!

The fortress is a series of fortifications, but there’s no castle in it or anything like that, as such construction kept getting destroyed and so there was no point to making the effort to build anything. The fortress is on prime real estate to protect the city and so has been a prized treasure during many conflicts.

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Here, you can see some of the original Roman limestone that once surrounded the city and gave it is name, ie. “the white city.” Beo is white and grad is city. I forgot to ask how Beo became Bel in English and French.

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Looking again at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers.

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This is the Sava.

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This giant statue of a naked man represents victory.

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Looking out to New Belgrade, which was built after WWII on reclaimed marshland. It’s mostly a residential and business zone and Luba told us it’s not worth a visit by tourists.

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As we finished our tour of the fortress, Luba spoke some more about conflicts in Belgrade, including the 1999 NATO bombings. I’m exactly 10 years older than her and was 20 when that was going on, so I have a pretty clear memory of news reports about the bombings. It was fascinating to hear what it was like over here compared to the media coverage in Canada. The bombings were announced and were strictly on infrastructure, so there was little loss of life and not much disruption to daily activities. Serbia has yet to recover financially from the bombings.

Again, there is way too much history to go into here, but Luba emphasized that the bombings had nothing to do with the conflicts going on in nearby areas, including what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, but were¬†in response to Serbia’s relationship with the disputed state of Kosovo. This is a part of the world with a particularly convoluted and complicated history and 20 years beyond peace, it is obvious that there are still tensions that keep Serbia from moving forward.

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We then headed out to our final stops. While we were told that New Belgrade isn’t worth a visit, we were advised to try to make it to¬†Zemun, an old community that dates back to the days of the Ottoman Empire and which is now part of Belgrade.

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I wish I could remember what this building is all about, beyond it being the home of the mother of Knez Mihailova.

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This is the top of the largest Orthodox cathedral in Belgrade.

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I learned that each country has its own Orthodox church with its own leader. There is no central Orthodox leader like the Pope for Catholics. This is the seat of the Serbian Orthodox church.

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This is the palace of Princess Ljubica.

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An example of three styles of architecture side by side:

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The Question Mark kafana. It was the kafana by the church, but the priests complained to the authorities. The owner removed the sign and put up a question mark while he searched for a new name, but the question mark stuck!

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Our last stop was a school where basketball was first played in Belgrade.

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This is where we learned about the time that Bulgarians were billionaires, during a period of hyper inflation. This was around the mid-1990s and Serbia’s hyper inflation was second only to Zimbabwe’s. We all got one of these bills!

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The tour was free, but a tip was welcome. I thought 500RSD would be fair and that turned out to be the suggested tip. This was an amazing tour! Luba was very knowledgeable and her English was excellent. I did not come close to doing justice to all that she taught us!

It was just past 6:00 at this point and I was done for the day. I just wanted to unwind with a beer and then get a takeaway to eat at home.

Going down the pedestrian street, I was amused to hear a bagpiper!

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In my comings and goings from home today, I had spotted a kafana, Zora, on the opposite side of the block from where I live (basically across the street) and decided to check it out since they make their own beer. I went in and the bartender spoke English, so I was able to ask for recommendations. He said they do a number of fruity beers, but he recommended their lager. That sounded good, and it was! It was a bit cloudy and citrusy. I nursed it for almost an hour, enjoying American music from the ’90s (interesting, that’s what frequently gets played in Bulgaria, too), especially the Bon Jovi! A pint of good beer here was 200RSD (about 2.50CAD). Wow! A pint of average commercial stuff¬†in Canada is about 5CAD and it’s about ¬†7CAD in London!

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I then headed across the street to get a slice of pizza. They were down to the dregs, but this looked good, and it was! The salami was super spicy, but the sesame seeds on the chewy crust were inspired. Pizza out here in the Balkans has yet to disappoint! But like Bulgarians and Mexicans, Serbians put mayo, ketchup, and sometimes hot sauce on their pizza and look at you funny if you decline!

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It has been a really full and great first day in Serbia’s capital. I will do a few museums tomorrow since they will be closed on Monday. I’m not sure yet what the rest of the week will look like and it will depend on my work load.

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First Morning in Belgrade

I had a really good first night in Belgrade! There are two layers of windows, so once they were shut, the apartment was surprisingly quiet, except for when other tenants would clomp up the stairs. I woke up around six, answered a few emails, then went back to sleep until about eight.

This was my first morning since I left Haven that I wasn’t feeling rushed to do something. I’m here long enough that I don’t feel an immense pressure to go explore right this second and I don’t have dogs whining for their walk. So needless to say, I took it slooooow.

It took a while to get coffee since I had to boil water on an electric stove… and didn’t notice I’d put the pot on the wrong element. No wonder that took a long while. *sheepish grin* My bun (still fresh) with peanut butter was the perfect breakfast and I was happy I would be able to head out in search of groceries on a full stomach.

I was surprised to find tons of info on Belgrade, like the low-down on where to get groceries, in English. I found that such info, usually written by expats, was sorely lacking in Bulgaria. Moreover, the expats I had contact with were surprisingly useless for that sort of knowledge. They live in small towns and don’t¬†go to Sofia much. Max, who lives in Sofia, seems to eat a very clean diet and doesn’t appear to shop in proper supermarkets, so he didn’t even seem to know there are Billas and such right downtown. My limited contact with the expat community in Bulgaria made it seem very insular, rather like how I perceive a good part of the Gringo population in Mexico, choosing to be in that country for the better climate and cost of living, but not being really present or immersed. So it was refreshing this morning to have all this great information on hand as it would make it much easier to settled into my life in Belgrade, however short my stay might be.

Since I live a block from Republic Square, I did a search for grocery stores in its vicinity and found a Maxi right behind it. That was twice as close as the nearest grocery store Siri found. I located the store without any issues and it was great! The produce was better and more varied than what I found in Bulgarian grocery stores (hence why I preferred to buy at the markets!) and I found more international items, including a few Canadian Patak sauces (not my favourite one, sadly), and came¬†home with a tub of HUMMUS! ūüėÄ I was realistic as far as how much I expect to cook and focused on just breakfasty and snack stuff and some pasta for a quick dinner the night I know will come when I don’t feel like going out. Prices seemed comparable to Bulgaria (ie. very low by Canadian standards). Like in Bulgaria and some US states, beer is mixed in with all the other groceries rather than being in a separate area. I didn’t get any because I had too much to carry as it was!

It’s now 11:30 and there is a walking tour at 2:00. I’ll probably go amble around for a bit and grab lunch. Once I’ve done the walking tour, I’ll be ready to visit museums and sites as I’ll be better orientated. I’m thus far finding Belgrade very confusing and street signage isn’t obviously so it will be good to get a few landmarks. Being so close to Republic Square is a huge help as I know I can always get there and then find my way home.

I still can’t believe I’m in Belgrade of all places!

Sofia, Bulgaria, to Belgrade, Serbia (with a layover in Nish)

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.

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Points to anyone who recognises what this is and where this picture is from! Hint: I was there this summer and there are pictures of this on my blog! This gorgeous scene was hung above my bed in Sofia.

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 caf√© 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.

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That bottom word is one of my least favourite in Bulgarian! I know what it means (entrance), but forget pronouncing it! The X sound is the bane of my existence. This is something along the lines of V-k-h-o-d….

Finally, I saw a bus¬†marked Nish, like that, in Roman letters. A lot of people spell it Nis, without the accent (NiŇ°), 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.

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Foggy mountain.

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I thought we might be driving into a storm, but nope.

Serbian villages look like Bulgarian villages.

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353KM to Belgrade…

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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:

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I turned to look towards the driver’s side at one point and WOW!

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Serbia really wasn’t that different from Bulgaria!

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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. ūüėÄ

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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.

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Serbian currency is going to take some getting used to! Divide by 120 to get the CAD equivalent, or more roughly, by 100. So these bills would represent our 20, 5, 2, 1, 0.50, and 0.10. Kinda sort of. I’ve figured out that less than 1,000 is a deal for a meal!

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 –Ņ–Ķ—Ä–ĺ–Ĺ. 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” Mazatl√°n buses, so my knees were touching the seat ahead of me. It was cramped and would get a bit painful as the trip progressed!

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Saw this car coming out of Nish. Better a “Yugo” than a “Nova”!

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.

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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?!

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Yes, we were!

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Belgrade’s trams look much more modern than do Sofia’s.

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:

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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. ūüôā 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 “–ł–≤–į–Ĺ” 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…

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Standing at the entrance, bathroom to the right, then kitchen, then living space.

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The kitchen isn’t bad at all. I should be able to cook simple meals here, but, really, I’ll probably do a lot of takeout pizza. ūüôā

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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!

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My building and address.

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Organic bakery right next door!

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Fancy clothes store on the other side.

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.

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Fancy building. Government offices?

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It’s the post office! Wow!

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Ah ha! Directions! I headed in for the tourist info centre!

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Another fancy building…

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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!

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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!

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And ice cream! Coconut! I haven’t had coconut ice cream since M√©rida! This wasn’t as good, of course, but it sure hit the spot! The attendant spoke perfect English, so it was easy to order.

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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!).

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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.

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National Bank

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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.

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This hunk of bleu alone was worth the price of dinner!

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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.

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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!

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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! ūüėÄ

Goodbye Malak Izvor and a Final Afternoon in Sofia

I had a disappointing final night in Malak Izvor. I haven’t been sleeping well there to start with because of the crappy bed and then add in my sore body and all the excitement of the coming days and the night was pretty much shot. ūüôĀ Plus, it was really cold! I got up twice to add extra blankets!

So I didn’t really want to get up when the alarm rang this morning, but I really didn’t have much time, only about two hours.

The dogs are smart and knew I was leaving. I took them for a short final walk as far as I dared, then came back to finish my packing as a load of laundry tumbled (sheets, towels, and bedding), and they stuck very close, whining a lot and giving me lots of nuzzles and kisses. Penghu got in one final nap across my neck.

Packing finally done, I finished cleaning the house and hung up the laundry, then brought down the trash. A friendly neighbour¬†was there and I tried to tell her I was leaving, but I don’t think she got it. I tried, “I from Malak Izvor to Canada” and “goodbye,” but she still looked confused.

When I got back up to the house, it was really time to go as it was almost 9:30 and the last morning bus is around 10:45. I gave the pets their final cuddles. Mechka and Sausage whined and started howling as I headed through the gate. They knew full well I was leaving them and they were upset. I started crying as I headed down the hill.

Down in the village, I passed another friendly neighbour and she understood that I was leaving. She said thank you (because I always schlep things up the hill for her if we’re coming up at the same time), and she waved and blew kisses as I took the road out. A rather lovely send off!

By the time I was outside the village, I knew I¬†had to really hustle if I wanted even the slightest chance of catching the¬†last morning bus if I didn’t get a lift. Surely it wouldn’t be that hard, what with me trundling along with all that luggage. Well, I tried my damnedest and no one stopped. ūüôĀ It was easy going to the village turnoff, but then there’s a long steady climb before you head down into Yablanitsa, so the going got tougher.

I had a vague memory of there possibly being a 10:00 or 10:30 bus from Teteven that I could possibly flag down along the way, but I didn’t want to stop at a turnoff in case I was wrong. As long as I kept moving, I had a chance of making a bus. Otherwise, I’d have a three-hour wait for the first afternoon bus and miss out on my last afternoon in Sofia. I’d made a bad gamble and regretted not getting up earlier.

At the start of the final¬†descent, about a kilometre from Yablanitsa, I accepted that I was not going to make it and slowed down a bit since I was no longer in a hurry. And then, I heard a honk behind me. I stopped, turned around, and did a double take as I saw a bus marked –°–ĺ—Ą–ł—Ź (Sofia) that had its turn signal¬†on and was slowing down to pull over. I thought I was hallucinating!!! But no! The driver motioned for me to hurry to get on (there was no shoulder where he stopped) and I heard “luggage, here” in his prattle, so I understood to leave my suitcase by him. When we stopped in Yablanitsa, he moved it under the bus.

It was an easy ride into Sofia. The other direction, though… Traffic was at a standstill for miles. I don’t know if Max and the new host got caught up in that, but was I glad I hadn’t been waiting for Max¬†to get me to town or I’d still be in Malak Izvor!

We got to the bus station in Sofia at bang on noon. I wanted to find and buy my ticket for Nish (–Ě–ł—ą) today since the bus is leaving at 7:30 am. I went through all the kiosks until I saw one that had Nish listed. I asked for one ticket for tomorrow, but the lady just handed me a business card and rattled off something. I caught “gara,” so I went next door to the train station. It took a bit of wandering around to understand the layout there as there is a whole mess of travel offices outside the train station. I finally realised that my card had an office number and that all the buildings were numbered logically. I eventually found the one I needed.

The surly lady at the counter asked for my passport before processing my ticket request. She completely missed that I said I wanted a ticket for tomorrow, so she was very upset with me when I pointed out that she’d sold me a ticket for today. She mumbled angrily under her breath as she redid it and answered with a very short-sounding yes when I asked her if the bus would pick me up right there. Whatever… My ticket to Nish was 24BGN (18.24CAD). It’ll be interesting to see how much the trip to Belgrade will cost.

It was 12:45 by this point and I was getting rather hangry. I didn’t do a good job of managing my food stores in my final days and have been pretty much subsisting on jam sandwiches, rice with cheese, and berries for several days. The morning’s jam sandwich and coffee were very far away by this point! But my hotel was right by the bus station, so it made sense to go drop off my luggage before grabbing lunch.

The Zenith Hotel was fully booked, so I took a chance on Kom Rooms, as it is literally across the street from the bus station, which was rather convenient for this particular occasion! I’d spotted the hotel on the way in, so I knew right where to go.

The exterior did not look very promising, but the tiny office was newly renovated and the staff was friendly.

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Standing in front of the entrance, looking to the bus and train stations. I don’t think you can get any closer!

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The entrance did nothing to inspire confidence. It was dark, dank, and smelled.

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Up a short flight of dark stairs:

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To a door that has seen better days. I was rather impressed with security, though. There’s an electronic lock on the street door and a lock for this one. So that’s three locks total between the street and me.

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Through that door into Narnia! Wow, this part was beautiful and smell so sweet and clean!

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My door:

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And tah-dah! Not what I was expecting at all! The room is cramped, but it was recently redone and is so clean and fresh. I love the breakfast/work nook!

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And here’s my little bathroom.¬†My only complaint with this room is the mould around the base of the toilet that would be an easy fix. I’m getting used to these “wet rooms.” Notice where the shower head is located. There is a hook to the right of the sink so you can have a proper shower.

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The Zenith Hotel is about the same price (63BGN/48CAD) and has much bigger rooms, but I find that the convenience to the bus station makes this price fair.

I dropped what I didn’t need, including my fleece, and headed across the street and down a ways for a quick slice of pizza. There was a place literally across from the hotel, but they wanted 1.50BGN for an inferior product that had been sitting for a while. The next place is much busier and only charges 1BGN for a big slice with toppings!

I munched as I headed down to the Sofia History Museum behind the mosque. We’ve been here before, but not inside!

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By this point, I had exactly 6BGN in cash left, with the plan being to take out a bit more. Thankfully, the entrance fee was only 6BGN, so I didn’t regret not going to a bank first. But when I handed the cashier my money, she nodded (Bulgarian no) and wouldn’t take it. I was confused because the museum was obviously open, but figured it was probably for a special event. As I turned away dejectedly, a security guard ran to me and said in halting English, “Free day today. Welcome!” WOW. I’ve been wanting to go there all summer and the day I finally get to go, there’s no admission charge!

The main reason I wanted to visit the museum is that it’s in the old bathhouse and I’d been told the inside was gorgeous. Well, I was disappointed on that end. There were some lovely floors that might be original, but that’s it.

The exhibits were interesting and covered the history of Sofia from prehistory to today, with almost all the signage translated into decent English.

It was really crowded, so I didn’t have many chances to take pictures. I thought this exhibit was unique because you often see carriages, but not with the horses. Adding these “horses” in full apparel, complete with ostrich feathers, really makes you understand what a spectacle it must have been!

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One of the lovely floors:

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A rather ornate desk! I don’t think it’s gold plated, but rather just painted:gold-coloured:

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I loved this central part of the museum, looking out to the mosque:

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I love seeing these travel notes from hundreds of years ago!

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I really enjoyed the museum and seeing how Sofia went from being a giant muddy village of single story homes with none of the features of usual settlements this size (bathhouses, amphitheatres, government buildings) at the start of the Common Era to a bustling metropolis by the 19th century, when it became capital of Bulgaria because of its central location. This is when all the streets were paved and better infrastructure was created. Public transportation, which already existed, was greatly expanded too.

Since I had time after I came out of the Sofia history museum, I decided to try my luck at the archeology museum, where we’ve also been before:

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There was no price list, so I asked how much and it was 10BGN. Oops. I thanked the lady and left, then went around behind the museum where I knew there was a PostBank ATM. I withdrew 100BGN (more on that later in this post) and went right back to the museum, where the cashier and the security guard gave me a strange look.

This museum was just !!! I spent my whole time going, “Wow!” So many statues and stelae and icons and tablets… All in a beautiful building.

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I loved the worn wood floors of the ground floor…

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And the tiled floors of the mezzanine, lined with icons.

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A glimpse of how stunning the domed ceilings must have been at one time:

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I was going to go up to another exhibit room when a guard standing by a gate smiled kindly at me and said, “Tresor?” That’s French for treasure (and Bulgarian, I now know), so I was curious and said yes. He opened the gate and motioned for me to go up… into Ali Baba’s cave. I found¬†myself in a room filled with gold, silver, and jeweled objects and ornaments.

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There were a couple of final exhibits after the treasure room, but nothing quite as impressive, although I did enjoy looking at some old books. I really feel like I got my 10BGN worth. What a wonderful museum!

It was about 2:30 by this point and there was a surprisingly biting wind. It would be a 1.5KM walk back to the hotel and then back again for dinner and then back again to the hotel, but since it was on flat terrain, I didn’t mind and felt it would be worth it to go have a rest and get my fleece. I stopped for a gelato en route and went all out, getting two scoops in a waffle cone! I had chocolate hazelnut, of course, topped with cherry cheesecake. Yum!

I stopped at the Billa at the Lion Bridge to get food for the road tomorrow. It was surprisingly difficult. The fruit was in poor condition and I knew I couldn’t get salami or cheese since I had no room to store them overnight. I ended up getting an assortment of buns, some juice, and… peanut butter. Who knows if they have it in Serbia! ūüėÄ Oh, and some Eastern European “Jaffa cakes” for tonight!

I had a rest at the hotel and headed back out around five as I was fading fast and looked forward to unwinding for the evening.

En route, I pondered a conundrum. I’d taken out 100BGN with the plan being to convert 40 or 50BGN to Serbian dinars.¬†I’d taken out 100BGN as opposed to the 40BGN I really needed to finish my stay to get as much possible for my 5CAD withdrawal fee. But I learned this afternoon that Serbian dinars are a closed currency and you can’t buy them out of the country. Moreover, this research¬†told me I was going to have a hard time converting my BGN to dinars in Serbia. So, really, I had to get rid of as many of my leva as I could before crossing the border. Dang!

I pondered my conundrum as I walked and the blindingly obvious solution came to me: euros! I popped into a bureau de change and converted 40BGN to 20EUR. The BGN is “pinned” to the Euro, so the exchange rate is fixed and I wasn’t worried about the rate the way I would have been with other currencies. So I didn’t shop for my bureau de change, just went¬†into the first one I passed (Western Union), which happened to not have ay fees. So now, I’m walking around with a bit of CAD change, a lot of GBP change, a bit of BGN, a few euros, and tomorrow I will add dinars! The euros will, of course, be useful in Greece and Spain, but research told me that they are used in Serbia alongside the dinars. So if I have a hard time getting to an ATM tomorrow, I can use my euro as emergency funds of sorts.

Next on my walk, I passed a¬†bulk nut place and was surprised I had never noticed it because it is joined to the gelato stand! It caught my attention because I hadn’t been able to find trail mix at the supermarket. I’ve seen these sorts of stores all over Sofia.

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This place had “energy mix” that looked like raisins and peanuts, so I asked for 100 grams of it. Or, rather, I forgot how to say 100, said energy mix, but wrote out 100 grams. ūüôā The lady was so kind and patient! 100 grams wound up being a decent sized handful, perfect!

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I had sushi, of course, for dinner. ūüôā I think the sushi at Happy Grill is what I will miss most about Bulgaria! *hangs head in shame* I had a lovely meal with a good beer.

Coming back to the hotel, I had to take a picture of this sign at the park at the Lion Bridge because I’d seen the same one at the history museum and it made me laugh. Without going to Google Translate, I’m pretty sure the Bulgarian says, literally, “no grass trespassing.” The English is a bit more severe. If I can’t pass the grass, how a I supposed to get across the park?! *goes off to Google Translate* Ah, it’s actually “no trampling the grass”!

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So ends my adventures in Bulgaria. What a ride it’s been from being afraid of going into the village shop¬†and having a hard time getting service my first weekend in Sofia to going into a city “cold” with no hotel reservation to tonight, ordering at a bulk¬†nuts place that I found so intimidating my first times seeing them!

While living in a country where I have such a hard time communicating has been challenging, it’s also taught me a lot about the subject. A few words and gestures go a very long way and most people will want to help you, especially if you make an effort and have a good attitude. And, of course, I do not regret learning how to read Cyrillic and hope that I have enough general knowledge of the alphabet to muddle through the differences with the Serbian version. I just won’t be in Serbia¬†long enough to make the same kinds of effort with the language there as I did with Bulgarian.

Tomorrow is going to be an adventure — a land border crossing and then the transfer in Nish. I won’t have internet unless I have time to find a SIM card in Nish, so, worst case, I’ll check in when I land in Belgrade. Now, I’m off to bed. Morning is coming fast!