This morning, we packed up our bags and left scenic Sofia just before sunrise. We took one last tram ride to the bus station where we prepared to trade in one Eastern European capital for another. We’re pumped to see Belgrade, Serbia and learn all about the former Yugoslavia republic. What do we know so far? Belgrade has a long history with several episodes of conflict that include three months of Nato bombing not so far back in 1999. Serbia is home to the top ranked tennis pro whose name I can never say or pronounce correctly. And also home to electric innovator Nicolai Tesla. To get here, we boarded a 7:30 coach bound for Nis, Serbia and then a quick change would take us onward to our next destination: Belgrade. Since the buses we’ve seen in Bulgaria and Romania have ranged widely in age and quality (and that’s being polite), we sighed in relief when our particular bus pulled into the station: Comfy, clean and modern. Nevertheless, a universal truth is that traveling a good seven hours by bus is rarely boring. Or routine. Or lacks a good story for our blog.
During the ride, we battled mightily (and lost) to keep our eyes open to enjoy the scenic countryside. At the rare awake moment, we met Katarina – a native Serbian student who was just returning from a study program in Siberia. Katarina was full of insight and some solid general information about our next stop. Also an enthusiastic traveler, she’s part of a team that runs this great community website: Serbia Travelers Club. We are already using it as a resource and it’s worth checking out. We had a quick set of dual border checks that gave us two shiny new passport stamps as we exited Bulgaria and entered Serbia. It was when we landed in Nis that things got interesting. Initially we thought that we could stay on the bus to continue to Belgrade. It was only after everyone else exited that we realized we had to transfer our old ticket to a new one and get on a new bus. Our Serbian is jussst a bit rusty, but we managed to muddle through interactions with the ticket clerk to find out that our next bus that was scheduled to depart in ten minutes. As a bonus, without knowing it, we had lost an hour and experienced a time change at the border. Hmmm..it might be wise for us to look at a time-zone map in detail since throughout this trip we’ve never been quite sure when and where the time changes. That might eventually bite us in the rear.
The kicker at the Nis station was the bathroom. The three hour bus ride thus far left both of us with the need to use the restroom. No problem. But it is a small, busted up station that looks stuck in the 1950’s and the only facilities are pay toilets. This wasn’t too surprising, except the clerk at the pay toilet only accepts Serbian Dinars. Which we did’t have. And the bus was leaving in five minutes. And there was no toilet on the next bus. A glimmer of hope lay on the horizon where we spotted a currency exchange, With deft speed and a full bladder, Brooke set off to convert some leftover Bulgarian Leva to Dinar. Amazingly, the stern, unyielding change maven refused to accept the paper bills from the bordering country. While I wasn’t there personally to witness the exchange regarding the exchange, I’m told there was begging, pleading and a request for sympathy. At the last moment, Brooke found an American dollar stuffed somewhere in her wallet and the conversion bought us a pair of trips to the toilet. Quite a way to spend your first Serbian Dinar! Soon, the bus pulled out of the station and all was well. Needless to say, our brief time in Nis did not leave us with the most positive impression. But its all part of the joys of traveling.
Our travel reward and pay off awaited in Belgrade in the form of our next AirB’nB stay located right in the middle of town. Brooke did it again and found us a phenomenal place to stay. We have a full, private apartment to ourselves for the next four days with bedroom, bathroom, clothes washer, kitchen and living room. Even a welcome bottle of wine. It’s the nicest, roomiest accommodations we’ve had in quite a while. I know it sounds minor, but a place like this during a four month trip is rejuvenating, comfortable and does wonders for your state of mind. Plus, we have the greatest variety of cable television since…well…perhaps ever on this trip.
We went for a short walk around the neighborhood to get some groceries, snacks and dinner for the evening. It is warm in Belgrade and the city is lined with small cars and pedestrians moving from place to place in a hurry. We were once again reminded that just because a cross walk signal says that you CAN cross the street, doesn’t always mean you should. Some European drivers have interesting interpretations of pedestrian rights and can be bullies. But we’re saving most of our Belgrade discovering for tomorrow. Today, we have passed an official resolution that we’re not going to do much of anything. We broke out some Baileys (the official drink of relaxation and comfort) that we had picked up in Sofia and settled in. A nice dinner around the corner, some e-mails sent, some pre-research on this new country and then an early bedtime to catch up on some sleep. Kind of a non Day. How did I end it? By enjoying some New York Mets baseball shown through ESPN America where I watched R.A. Dickey punch out 13 to become the Mets first 20 game winner since 1991, and to top it off, it was their last home game of the season. Quite the taste of home. Awesome. Just awesome.