Wednesday, December 06, 2006 Bulgaria Bulgaria / Serbia Serbia

Stuck at Niš

When we pulled into Niš station en route from Beograd to Sofia, little did we know we would be stuck there for the next two hours with no announcements. [IMG_0402]
Stuck at Niš [Enlarge]

We beat a hasty retreat from Belgrade. Hurrying across town to catch the 08:40 train to Sofia the sun came out and the city looked less filthy than it had the night before. But we had bought a ticket to Sofia, and a night's accommodation, and that is where we were going. The train was due in at 18:35. We weren't sure if they had allowed for Sofia being an hour ahead of Belgrade or not, but either way it was going to be a very long day.

Once again, our compartment was based on the same pan-European design, and once again we had stepped back a few decades in time as it was several iterations older than the last. Having complained about the heating in the last train being stuck on, we wouldn't have the same problem in this carriage because the heating was broken! And it was cold outside. As we moved slowly through the Belgrade suburbs and then into the countryside we were struck by just how much rubbish is strewn over the whole country. Every inch of land—street corners, back gardens, farmland, woodland, is covered in detritus.

For the next twelve hours, we would spend some of the time hurtling along at speeds approaching 30 km/h, and the rest of the time stationary. We passed the time by chatting to the only other person in our compartment, a young guy from Montreal who had just finished an MSc in Music at Queen's University Belfast (which is apparently world-renowned for the subject).

Eventually we crawled into Niš, a large town about half way to Sofia. We stopped. And stayed stopped for two hours. We still don't know why, because we can't speak Serbian and none of the Serbs on the train could speak English. In any case there were neither announcements nor staff to ask. When we finally began to move again, we were consoled by the beautiful sight of the Balkan mountains separating Serbia from Bulgaria in the distance lit by the setting sun.

It was 20:30 when we arrived at the Communist-era, brutalist-style concrete statement that is the new Sofia station. The continuing radio silence on the train coupled with a complete lack of visible signage at the station made us want to double-check that we were at the right place. As we got off the train we asked a local guy by saying "Sofia?", making our best attempt to make a single word sound like a question. "Sofia!" came the reply. The tone definitely indicated the affirmative, but the accompanying gesture was a very clear shake of the head. A thousand thoughts, including "what the hell does that mean?" flashed through our minds, then Glenn luckily dredged up some ancient memory of reading somewhere about the Bulgarians being one of the few peoples to shake their heads for 'yes' and nod them for 'no'. We had arrived.

There was something about this city that we immediately liked. The pavements are terrible, the driving is down to the usual Eastern-European standard, the side-streets are unlit (and our hostel, like many, was down a maze of such side-streets), but at no time did we feel the slightest bit unsafe. We had not had the chance to get a GPS lock on the hostel before setting off, so this time we were navigating using the instructions on the hostel's website (to save money, we don't do taxis unless we are really lost or the distance is too far to walk—hasn't happened yet). We had a shaky start: the first instruction was "Leave the station and turn left", but having been unable to find the main exit from the station we had instead emerged from the subterranean labyrinth on a tram platform, so we didn't know which way was left and which was right. We made an educated guess, and it turned out to be correct. After that the instructions were a breeze and we found 'The Rooms' hostel quite easily.

The Rooms is a quirky place—the common area and kitchen (with a camping stove for a cooker and a large flagon of bottled water in place of a sink and tap) are both in the corridor, and the only heating in the place seemed to be a small electric heater in each room. Nevertheless it was very friendly and they served great coffee. After a few minutes as we waited for them to finish preparing the room, one of the other guests came out of his room in search of another cup of tea. This was Matt, an orthodontist from Frankfurt Teaching Hospital. He had become burned out at work and, like us, sold up to go travelling. His big trip was to see central Asia (Kazakhstan etc) but he was in Bulgaria first on a mini-trip to find his travel legs. We talked for ages and he told us a lot of things that we already knew but needed to hear from another traveller—we need to slow down and find our own rhythm. We decided that when we reach İstanbul, we will stop and spend some proper time there.

We had a shower and went to sleep in this clean and quiet hostel without ear-plugs for the first time since Dover.

Map of Day 011

Day 011
Belgrade to Sofia

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Jimmy K. said...

What is the cost of staying at the hostel?
Glad you are slowing down, seemed like the "Amazing Race" on T.V.
what is the average cost per day, all together?

Glenn Livett said...

We haven't worked it out yet. We're afraid to, because it will definitely be more than we wanted to spend. Look out for a post in the near future when we have worked it out.
But as a guide we have a fantastic room in the old quarter of Istanbul right now with a view over the sea to Asia, a private bathroom with hot shower, breakfast, free internet and as much coffee as we can drink for 20 Euros each (GBP 15 / USD 26) a night. We could do it much more cheaply by taking bunks in a dorm room in a grubby hostel but we're too old for that and we value our sleep!