Kotor, Montenegro to Prizren, Kosovo (by way of Albania)

It was a late start yesterday since I didn’t have to take the bus till noon. My host brought me coffee and treats for a final breakfast on the deck and I had a note prepared thanking her for her hospitality that I think said what I hoped it said… I had her call me a taxi around 11:15 and was correct in thinking that she’d get one not driven by a scammer. I actually gave her a hug before getting into the car!

There was a cruise ship right in town. I could not believe how huge this thing was and that it was practically parked on main street! Not a single one of these was taken with a zoom!

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I didn’t know how to pronounced Ulcinj, so I had it written down. The ticket seller look at my paper, then up at me and said slowly and kindly, “Ool-seen.” So there you have it! The bus showed up a bit late, enough that those waiting for it were starting to look concerned enough for the guy manning the gate onto the platform to call the driver to make sure he was incoming. I think we ended up leaving five minutes late, at most.

There is so much traffic coming into Kotor, not very practical for busses trying to leave town! Here we are stuck trying to make the left-hand turn.

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I was sent off with a giant bag of mandarins and I promptly tucked into it. This was the best one yet. Some have been super tart.

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It was lovely to do the return drive to Budva in daylight!

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I kept seeing this graffiti in several towns and it made me laugh every time. It says “PFK,” which is KFC (the chicken place) in Quebec. I have no idea what the letters mean in Montenegro, though. All I could find was the Maritime Faculty in Kotor or a Russian sports team.

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We arrived in Ulcinj around 3:00. At this point, I had no confirmation that there really was a 4:00 o’clock bus to Prizren, but there was. Woohoo! But I was disappointed that there was nowhere nearby to grab a quick lunch and that the convenience store was useless, having only junk food, nothing with which to put together a picnic. I didn’t fare any better at the grocery store next door as there was nothing in individual-sized portions.

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As I sat down to have a small snack in lieu of lunch, a stray cat jumped into my lap, burrowed in, and started purring. I was shocked… but not as much as when a second cat did the same thing! Do I reek of cat pheromones or something?! I named them Watson (the one with white) and Holmes. 🙂

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My layover went by really quickly and before I knew it, the bus to Prizren was boarding. I was a little disconcerted when I was asked for my passport by a kid without any sort of ID and it wasn’t returned to me by the time we pulled out. But everyone else had handed over their documents, so I figured it was okay.

We headed into the mountains again.

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The road was twisty and narrow. We frequently had to pull over to let cars pass.

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Before I knew it, we were at the Albanian border.

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We were at the Albanian border for a long time. The kid who had taken my passport kept coming to ask people to follow him into the customs building and the people returned looking a little harried so it was a bit disconcerting. But we were finally cleared and got our documents back. It ended up being just one stop, so it probably wasn’t really as long as it felt. I was really disappointed that I did not get an Albanian stamp in my passport. 🙁

I hope to come back to Albanian properly one day. Because I’m heading to Spain a little early, I had to choose Tirana or Prizren and going to Kosovo felt more pressing.

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I liked the coloured houses we passed in Albania. Here’s a bright yellow one.

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Another land of mosques.

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A Pepto-Bismol pink house.

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Another mosque.

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And another. I never get tired of these, the way I never get tired of beautiful churches.

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There was a fortress on top of this mountain.

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Yet another mosque.

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Yet another pink house.

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We eventually got onto a proper motorway and then what I noticed was the number of gas stations. It was just one after another after another. And then, it got too dark to see anything. 🙁

The boy passed out candy at one point and when I saw that they were coffee-flavoured, I accepted. Yum!

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He also passed out Coca-Cola, but I refused that.

We finally reached the Kosovan border and a very surly officer came on board to get our passports, then promptly returned them. It was a super fast crossing! I didn’t get a stamp again, but this time it made more sense, because having a Kosovo stamp can cause problems with entering in countries that don’t recognise Kosovo’s independence, such as Serbia and Russia.

Prizren was right over the border, so my journey was almost done. But when we got to the bus station, I didn’t know if I was really there because there was no signage. As I looked around trying to figure out if I was at the bus station or just at a bus stop the gal in the seat across from me said we were in Prizren, so I got off.

I was immediately accosted by taxi drivers. I told them no because I had seen food coming into the bus station and I was really hungry, but once I realised how cold it was, I just wanted to get to my hostel to find more layers before going to search for food. So I finally got in a cab and did not get scammed! 🙂 It was only a 1KM ride, but it was late and dark, so there was no way I was walking.

The owner of the hostel, a fairly young guy, immediately came out to get my luggage and take it up to my room while he had another guy get me a beer. WOW. Welcome to Kosovo!

They let me drink most of my beer while we chatted and then invited me to join them for dinner. Oh, awesome! I assured them that I eat meat and off we went to a nearby restaurant that serves typical Kosovan food.

The official language of Kosovo is Albanian and I’d been warned about how different it is from the other Balkan languages and unlike any other language on Earth. Well, that’s complete horse hockey. Visually, I can see a lot of French, Italian, and even Spanish influence to the language. The menu at the restaurant made more sense to me than most Serbo-Croatian or Bulgarian menus ever did. But I had my host order for me as this was my first time going out for dinner with locals and I wanted to see how they do it.

First, a giant salad came. It had two kind of marinated cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, potatoes, and more. The guys (five of them) told me to help myself and that they would just eat off the plate together.

Then, French fries topped with shredded cheese came. I had a few of those.

Then, our mains came. Mine was a huge steak stuffed with ham and cheese and topped with a creamy sauce with a side of carrots and broccoli! Wow! I hadn’t had a nice piece of meat like that in ages and dang was it good! The meat was marinated so it was flavourful. There was a basket of flatbread as well for mopping up the sauce.

We were there for a long time, which explained to me why people in the Balkans eat their food tepid to cold — they linger over it so long. I would never have thought I could get through that steak, but I found my second wind. 🙂 I had a nice glass of white wine with dinner as well.

The guys then decided we were going to move on to a bar for more drinks. I wondered how the bill would be split and the guys told me I just had to pay 5 Euros for my steak and part of the tip and they were covering the rest. WOW!

We went to a nice little bar not too far away and I had a few beers and shooters. We gabbed, mostly about Canada and my travels, and it was a very nice time. But as we got close to 2:00, I knew I had to get in. I only have the one day in Prizren and didn’t want to spend all of it in bed!

Prizren is small and, like the rest of the Balkans, safe, so I had no issue with the thought of getting back to the hostel on my own without an escort. My host gave me the most foolproof directions back to the hostel, not the most direct, and made me repeat them to make sure I’d get back okay. Sure did! And, get this, the guys said they would cover my bar tab!!!

I got in, had a shower, and lost consciousness. 🙂

This is the artwork in my room. I get such a giggle out of it as this is from a show, La Linea, that I used to watch as a kid. It is really good and the link takes you to a compilation of segments.

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Sarajevo, BiH, to Kotor Bay, Montenegro

I had a lovely stay in Sarajevo, but I would lie if I didn’t admit that I was relieved to go this morning. It is good that I went, but I felt such overwhelming grief at being there. Everywhere I turned was a reminder of what a lost cause humanity is. I came to Sarajevo with so many questions and left with no answers.

The alarm rang at 7:00. I’d had a pretty good night, but hadn’t slept the night before, so I was rather groggy. I was almost all packed, so I finished that, dressed, did a final tidy up, and was out the door by about 7:30, with the bus being at 9:00. I made my way down to the taxi stand at the bottom of the hill and arrived to find… no taxis. It was 7:45 by this point, I had no idea how traffic was going to be, and I didn’t know where to get my bus ticket once I got to Lukavica station. So I really didn’t have much time to wait. I looked around trying to pick out a business that was open that might be willing to call me a cab when one came down the hill! I flagged him over and not only was he was available, but he quoted me a flat rate of 20KM! That’s what I paid for my transfer on arrival and a full 5 to 10KM less than the expected cost of a taxi to East Sarajevo. I was very happy with that!

There was no traffic down “Sniper Alley” and we got to Lukavica just past 8:00. As it turns out, the bus station is tiny. I followed the “tickets sold here” sign (prodaja karata/продаја карата) and found two windows. One had no lineup and an attendant who appeared to be on break and the other had a short line up as well as a sign for the Sarajevo-Herceg Novi route I wanted. So I got in the line. Got to the head of the line, gave my destination, and the man pointed to the other line. Ah, I love buying bus tickets in the Balkans. 🙂

My destination was Budva, Montenegro. I was ultimately going to Dobrota, but there was no direct route. The owner of the hostel where I’m staying said to get off at Budva, take another bus to Kotor, and then take a taxi from Kotor. I was going to go to Tivat, which is closer to Kotor, but when I looked at a map, I understood why she said to transfer at Budva as going to Tivat would mean having to double back.

I noticed today how much calmer, for lack of a better word, I am about getting around. I remember when I was looking up the route to Belgrade and freaking out that I’d have to get off in Nish and figure out how to get buy a ticket for the Belgrade leg! But today, I was serene. Research told me there were a bunch of buses from Budva to Kotor and if there weren’t, a taxi would be less than paying for a room in Budva and the room here in Dobrota. Might as well sit back and enjoy the scenery.

Ticket bought, I went into the very smoky onsite café and ordered a coffee, then went back to the terrace to wait for it even though I could see my breath! A great espresso was just 1KM (0.78CAD)! I can’t get over how cheap coffee good coffee is out here. I drink my coffee black in restaurants, not willing to pay the hefty surcharge for milk. But I’m not quite ready to drink it black at home.

Before getting on the bus, I decided to brave the toilet, expecting a squat one. Nope!

I was surprised that we got a little bus, not quite a mini, but not full size, and was pleased that it wasn’t packed. I was able to spread out and be really comfortable for the very long ride to the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

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Leaving Lukavica station.

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Countryside mosque.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was pretty as a postcard, all verdant green under the fog.

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We began to climb a mountain and before I knew it, SNOW!

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But blue sky at last!

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We stopped for our first pee break in Foča. Google the name of this town at your peril. I wish I hadn’t.

I really hoped it was our pee break as we’d been on the road almost two hours, but nobody moved to get up until the driver stood and said something of which I understood “pause” (pronounced “pa-u-za,” just like in Spanish) and “15 minutes.” I was out of there fast! 😀

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From Foča, we continued climbing on the other side of the river. This would be the day, just going up and down switchbacks at a glacial pace. Thank goodness the scenery was great!

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I saw lots of beehives today and honey (med) for sale.

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We sometimes got way too close to the edge of cliffs.

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This was terrifying! The bus was bouncing so hard I thought we were going to bounce of the road entirely!

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We eventually reached the border of Montenegro, which had the cutest border control officers ever! 😉

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It was here that I had a I’M SUCH AN IDIOT revelation. I had crossed from Bulgaria to Serbia, Serbia to BiH, and now I was going from BiH into Montenegro. With the first two crossings, I thought that we went through two different checkpoints, one customs and the other immigration. No, no, no, no. The first one is basically an exit interview! This is why the guy on Serbian border day was so interested in how long I’d been in Bulgaria. He was a Bulgarian, not Serbian, official! It was only today that I realised that his stamp was to mark my exit and so, no, I did not get two entry stamps into Serbia. So this is why they collect and return the passports twice!

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Take my word that this is a welcome to Montenegro sign. 🙂

The area we had just passed is rafting country and apparently the deepest canyon in Europe.

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It was at this point that we actually went through the Montenegro checkpoint. The official came on board and asked the driver how many passports were on board (as opposed to national ID cards) and the driver replied two. Yes, I understood that exchange! I’m getting enough of an ear for the language now that it’s not entirely gibberish and I can pick out some words. I was really excited listening to the radio this morning when I heard, “Good morning! And now, for the football results!” 😀

Interestingly, the other passport on board was Canadian. But owned by a Montenegrin, who was not as excited as I was that there was another Canadian passport on board and just glared at me when I asked her where she’s from…

Instead of taking the cards and passports, the official came on board with a portable scanner (kind of like a debit machine) and swiped all our documents one after the other. Then, he went out to get a huge stamp. He opened my passport on top of the seat back in front of me and stamped it there. So informal! But I was in, no questions asked again.

The scenery continued as before, but grew exponentially in its faery tale nature.

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There was a pothole or something right in the middle of the bridge and the driver had to conveniently nearly stop completely.

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I couldn’t believe this place exists.

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I was surprised by how many roofs in Montenegro are metal, rather than the terracotta tiles I’ve been used to seeing.

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We stopped at a little cafe before Podgorica for another pee break. I was disappointed there wasn’t any food. You see, I woke up at 3:00 this morning famished and could not go back to sleep unless I ate something. So I ate my breakfast for today, which means I had my lunch for breakfast and my snack for lunch and ran out of food. 🙂

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Our little bus.

I’d heard that some bars out in this part of the world serve hard boiled eggs in lieu of, say, peanuts, but had never seen it. Until now.

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We continued on.

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Then stopped minutes after the break to get fuel. I’ve only ever seen fuel pumped into Coke (or other “non-approved”) containers in Mexico!

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It was late, nearly 4:00, when we reached the capital of Montenegro, Podgorica. I’d heard of it described as “the armpit of Europe” and as a shockingly unappealing city in one of the most beautiful countries on Earth. Indeed, I saw nothing in our long meander through town that made me want to stop there, just new construction next to tenements. I know bus stations are rarely in a good part of town, but there didn’t seem to be a good part of this city.

Except maybe this view.

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I’d be annoyed if I lived in the building behind this one and lost my view and light through my windows!

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This appeared to be the pedestrian core and should have been appealing, but wasn’t.

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But, wait, palm trees!

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“Crnu Goru” is Montenegro in Montenegrin.

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I had thought that the Podgorica bus station would be a good place to get a snack, but the driver said “Five minutes!” so there was no time to go exploring.

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First glimpse of the Adriatic Sea/Mediterranean Sea high above Budva.

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We went down an impressive series of switchbacks. The effect was rather like landing with an airplane.

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The promised rain appeared to be incoming. 🙁

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We arrived in Budva around 5:30. I went to the ticket counter to ask about a bus to Kotor and there was one in 20 minutes! Unfortunately, there was no food other than pastries or junk food, so I preferred to stay hungry.

The Budva bus station is in scenic surroundings.

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The bus to Kotor pulled up and left a few minutes early! Thank goodness I had stayed by the platform! For some reason, I thought it would be another hour to Kotor, but it was less than 30 minutes. From there, I had a five-minute, 5 euro taxi ride to the hostel. I did have to argue with the driver and threaten to get out as she wanted to charge me 7 euro. I was told that a ride should be 3 to 5 euro!

I’m glad that Montenegro’s currency is the euro because I’m starting to have quite a bit of small change left when I leave each country. Always less than 5CAD because I’m pretty good at budgeting, but those piddly amounts are adding up. I’m also going to get some experience with a currency I’ll soon be using for several weeks!

The hostel wound up being disappointing so far, although the host is super friendly (I appreciated the offer of a coffee upon arrival even though I declined!). I was sure I’d booked something with a private bathroom and desk, but she does not speak much English and we couldn’t sort it out. I checked my booking and I think she’s correct and that I looked at the wrong picture. At any rate, it’s super cheap compared to everything else I’ve seen out here, clean, has a comfy bed, is convenient to Kotor, and there’s a kitchen I can investigate for self-catering. I also appear to have the floor (and bathroom) to myself at this time. So it’s a bit of a shock going from my cosy Sarajevo flat to this, but it’s only for four nights and, again, a bargain for the location. I will make do!

I regretted not investigating food around the bus station as there is no restaurant handy. My host wanted to send me off in a taxi, but no. Thankfully, I had a smooshed bit of a loaf of still fresh bread and a full jar of peanut butter in my suitcase and I made myself a couple of sandwiches for dinner. Emergency rations at their best!

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Here’s a map of my day.

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And here are the Balkans and my journey from their east to west coast over the last four months. 🙂

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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. 🙂

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We made a few stops along the way and eventually pulled into the bus station at Šabac. 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. “Istočno?” 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…

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 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.

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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 (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.

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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. 😀

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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 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!

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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. 🙂 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…

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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. 🙂

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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 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.

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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! 😀