Posts Tagged ‘Serbia’

To Sofia via Nis

I had ridden the bus from Belgrade to Novi Sad, and the train on to Subotica, in reasonable comfort, but I made the mistake of taking a local train back from Subotica. Knowing it had a four digit number had given me concern, but the timing was much better than the later three digit train. My bad, although it had airplane-type seating, it had no AC, and without AC you’re actually better off in the really old-fashioned compartment-style carriages, where you can get a cross-draft.

So I was pleased to settle into a modern coach for the long haul from Novi Sad to Nis, where I had decided to break the trek to Sofia. But no sooner had we reached the main highway than we had a flat tire. We limped to the nearest service station, where it took only the announced twenty minutes to put on the spare, and where the passengers had access to toilets, coffee, snacks and shade, but we were clearly traveling below normal speed, and were switched to a much older coach in Belgrade.

My seat-mate was a woman about my own age, who made a point of telling me that she was really Hungarian, rather than Serbian. The country south of Belgrade was much hillier than the flat plain to the north, with plenty of woodland, and I was in reasonably good shape when we finally reached Nis. But the bus station had no services to speak of, I didn’t have a map of the town, and eventually I took an expensive taxi to the Hotel DuoD.


Situated in the heart of the cafe district, on a pedestrian-only cobbled street, above its eponymous restaurant, it was much quieter than I feared, but the under-floor AC was hopeless. It didn’t cut the humidity, it didn’t really cool the room in the afternoon, and it was very cold to walk on at night. I can’t imagine it works much better as a heating system in the winter, either. Still, I had a comfortable, if old-fashioned, room, where I slept well.

After I checked in I went off to investigate the fortress, where I found another very helpful T.I. before succumbing to a starvation attack. The fancy Hamam restaurant inside the fortress walls provided a tasty but very tough goulash, although it had more oil than broth. Then I followed the T.I. lady’s instructions and took a bus to the train station, where I bought a ticket for the mid-day train to Sofia (and Istanbul) as the buses either left in the middle of the night or arrived in Sofia after 10:00 pm. The train was supposed to get in around 6:00 pm….


I decided not to trek to the other side of town to see the remains of the gruesome Tower of Skulls, a relic of the Turkish victory at the battle of Cegar in 1809. I did admire a couple of statues, and once again appreciated the parks and trees that seem to be a feature of Serbian towns. Dinner, which I ate in my hotel’s restaurant (there wasn’t much to choose between the ones lining Kopitareva), featured good chicken and fries, but veggies that managed to be undercooked and burnt at the same time! I consoled myself with a reasonably cheap glass of Cointreau.

I needed consolation rather more the next afternoon, as the international train to Istanbul put me forcibly in mind of the train ride I had suffered through from Istanbul to Sofia back in 1974, when the Turkish-Greek war over Cyprus closed Istanbul airport, and the tourists were crowded into carriages added to the back of the Orient Express – fifteen hours sitting up with no restaurant car and abysmal toilets.


I would not have been surprised to find that the two carriages headed for Sofia dated from 1974, although this time I only had to share a compartment with two people – a couple of Swedish backpackers. At the Serbian border the engine disappeared, leaving us sitting in the sun for what felt like hours. After we finally crossed into Bulgaria it was to embark on another long wait, for no apparent reason, as checking passports took very little time, and the ineffectual search for contraband not much longer. (There actually was contraband, we had watched it being hidden, and later watched it being retrieved, but it wasn’t where the guards were making a big show of looking.)

All that sitting around, steaming in the heat, meant that I arried in Sofia in darkness after all. The Swedes had been told they would be moved to a different train, with better carriages (they had paid for couchettes) in Sofia, and with the other Istanbul passengers disappeared in a rush. I trekked upstairs to the main hall where I found a functioning ATM and not much else besides a series of taxi touts. I had intended to take a tram to my hotel, but after one of the touts pointed out the route to the trams – down a dark underpass – and I recalled warnings about the station district after dark, I took the helpful tout’s taxi instead.

It was the next morning, when I discovered I was too late for breakfast, before I realized that we had arrived even later than I had thought, as there was an hour’s time change between Serbia and Bulgaria. I spent one night in the Hotel Niky, thinking the tour hotel too expensive, and my room was really only acceptable for one night. The hotel restaurant, on the other hand, with a stream running through the middle and plenty of happy-looking locals, was fine. I appreciated my first taste of Bulgarian wine, too.


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Novi Sad vs Subotica


Reading the guidebooks it was clear that any self-respecting Art Nouveau fan should visit Subotica, just on the Serbian side of the Hungarian border. My first thought was to fly into Budapest and take the train south, but since I was already visiting Budapest to fly home, I flew to Belgrade and took the train north instead. To keep the journeys shorter I decided to sleep in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, and day trip to Subotica.

The sleeping part went well: I stayed at the Voyager B&B, which got me a huge bed-sitting room, with sofa, desk, wifi and TV, a second small bedroom and a good-sized bathroom, along with friendly staff, for just 49 euros/night. The first thing said staff did was register me with the police, at which point I realized that the Art Home B&B in Belgrade had not done so. Hadn’t the guidebooks stressed the importance of registration?


My train to Subotica, a comfortable intercity bound for Prague, was boarded by police (not immigration officials) who came through checking IDs. They were happy with my one registration slip, but two young women seated nearby were hauled off because they hadn’t been registered. When they eventually returned they had each been fined 50 euros (reduced from an initial demand for 300 euros each). Since the Art Home B&B had made a point of asking for payment in cash, I can only conclude that they were pulling a tax dodge by not registering me. A place to avoid!!!


Feeling lucky to have stopped in Novi Sad instead of going straight through from Belgrade, I got off the train in Subotica, crossed a rather tired park, and found myself facing the first of several wonderful buildings. It’s true: if you like Art Nouveau you have to visit Subotica. You especially have to get there in time for the 12:00 tour of the interior of the town hall, during which you can marvel at the fact that they still hold meetings in the museum-worthy council chambers. I ate lunch in the Caffe Boss, in the courtyard of the building across from the train station, and considered making a return visit on my way to Budapest…


Cafe culture was as much a fixture of the scene in Novi Sad as in Belgrade, but the people seemed friendlier – I was especially impressed by a very helpful young man in the T.I., and by the woman who closed her Bureau de Change to help me track down an elusive travel agency. All those cafes didn’t make it any easier to find somewhere for lunch, however. The patrons seemed only to drink, not eat. I did find one that also served pizza, and since I was suffering from both sore feet and a cold, I ate dinner each night round the corner from my B&B at Paprika.



Novi Sad is famous for the Exit festival, a multi-day music extravaganza I was happy to miss, and for the Petrovardin Citadel, where it’s held. North of Belgrade, Serbia is decidedly flat, and the citadel was built in the 1700s on one of the few outcroppings of high ground, overlooking the Danube. I went up near dusk, as the remarkably high daytime temperatures cooled a little, and admired the views and the extensive remains.

Besides the citadel I checked out the cathedral, a church or two, and the museum (three good Roman helmets) but it was really too hot for extensive sightseeing. I had hoped to visit the monasteries in the Fruska Gora region, but the only affordable tours went on the weekend. Instead I took pills from a local pharmacy for my cold (mostly paracetamol) and enjoyed the AC in my comfortable digs.


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Belgrade: Second Thoughts


After lunch, and a wander through the park surrounding the fortress, I headed back into town. I took a look at the inside of the Orthodox cathedral (right after a wedding and right before a Japanese tour group) and contemplated the outside of the Patriarchal residence opposite while drinking coffee. A visit to the Palace of Princess Ljubica (not very palatial, but showing the transition from Ottoman to Western interior decor) completed my sightseeing for the day.



Dinner, alas, did not live up to lunch. I made the mistake of visiting the Skadarska area, highly touted by Lonely Planet as Belgrade’s “Bohemian heartland”, and “sliced straight out of Montmartre”. Not on a Saturday night it isn’t. On a Saturday night it’s home to loud music and louder groups. Not a place for a solo traveler, as the waiters at Dva Jelena (Two Deer) made clear by ignoring me, even after I made it plain that I wasn’t waiting for anyone.

I decamped to Sesir Moj (My Hat), across the street, where the hostess adopted me, although she did try to explain (she had virtually no English) that the street was different on other nights. I concluded that Belgrade was a party town, and not really my kind of place.


Sunday morning the center of town was taken over by in-line skaters holding races down the main street – no sign of hangovers there. I checked out the Ethnographic Museum (good thing it was free on Sundays, although I enjoyed the costumes downstairs), and took a look at the Parliament building, near yet another nice park. I was more interested in the used book market behind the building, where mini-vans stacked high with books had drawn quite a crowd.


In this part of town I also discovered the very photogenic Hotel Moskva, which somewhat improved my outlook. I had an enjoyable fruit drink there in the morning, and a lovely salad of baby greens, avocado and orange followed by a mixed grill for dinner. I was not reluctant, however, to leave the next morning for Novy Sad. Three nights was plenty.


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Belgrade: First Impressions

There are, occasionally, days when I wonder why I travel – usually when I have to get up early to catch a train or a plane and especially when I’m leaving a place I liked. So I wasn’t in the best of moods as I waited for the airport bus to show up at the Radisson in Riga, but at least I didn’t have to join the long line for Ryan Air once I got out to the airport. I had printed my boarding card the day before, and airBaltic’s bag drop went fast. In fact, my only problem with the flight wasn’t airBaltic’s fault at all, the wretched woman with the grating voice seated behind me, who talked even-on for the entire flight could have happened anywhere.


Instead of the rather pricey taxi offered by my B&B I opted for the public bus, but it did take a long time to show up, and I did have rather a long trek through town from the bus stop. The Art Home B&B, number one B&B/Inn for Belgrade on Tripadvisor, but listed nowhere else, impressed me favorably at first. I had a big room, with a big bed, a desk, wifi and TV, and tea, coffee and fruit available all day. Later I discovered there was nowhere in the shower to put anything, including the shower head, and there was only room for three people to eat breakfast. (The real problem with Art Home wouldn’t show up until later.)

My route through town, with my new wheeled bag, had taken me up the main pedestrian street, which I visited several more times during my stay. The smooth pavement and upmarket shops could have been anywhere, and made a favorable first impression. So did the trees lining the streets in the Dorcol section where I was staying, although the pavement and buildings were in worse shape.


You couldn’t leave the main street without encountering a cafe, but at 6:00 pm on a Friday evening it seems you’re supposed to drink alcohol. I picked the only one with a posted price list, but the waiter told me that I couldn’t have fruitjuice on its own, and then walked off! I did not feel welcomed to Belgrade, although I did slightly better at dinner that night. Little Bay, a Lonely Planet pick, did indeed remind me of the Sarastro in London, which has a similar opera theme, but the appetizer was mostly pastry and the trout tasted pickled.


The next morning I trekked over to the bus and train stations, where I checked the bus times for my move to Novy Sad, and found that I could only buy train tickets for journeys starting in Belgrade. Then I crossed the railroad tracks (on foot!) to reach the very nice bike/foot path along the river. I also approved of the park surrounding the remains of the fortress, strategically located on a bluff overlooking the junction of the Sara and Danube rivers.


By the time I reached the fortress proper I was too tired to keep going past the (pricey) restaurant to the (presumably cheaper) cafe, but I did enjoy a huge portion of pork stuffed with cheese and ham, with a good view. I was less pleased to discover I could also see into the very sad zoo, where an unfortunate tiger was kept in a concrete cage.


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