I guess I should remember that "no problem" as an epithet of hope is an extremely unwise remark for a traveller to make. As we left Novi Sad, we encountered only problems - firstly running to catch our train in time, secondly being told we had to pay a supplement for not having a reservation (which the european rail database said was not necessary on this train) and thirdly, after all this stress, sitting in a steamy oven of a carriage half-full of Serbian grandmothers who refused to open any windows because of the noise were not exactly our wishes.
Anyway, when we arrived into Belgrade, we immediately noticed that it could not be much more different to Novi Sad, considering that they are both part of the same country. While Novi Sad was flat and neatly laid out, Belgrade was hilly and crammed with the kind of decaying tower blocks I know only too well from Croatian cities. The city is spread out on the three opposing banks of the two enormous rivers on which it lies - the Danube, which is now roughly the width of the Thames estuary, and its tributary the Sava. On one side, where
we were, lies the city centre and most of the city. One the other side of the Sava, which seems very flat, many gigantic tower blocks can be seen. The opposite side of the Danube, correctly a separate city named Novi Beograd (New Belgrade), is piled with business parks.
The second thing I noticed is that Belgrade is possibly the last place on Earth I would want to take my driving test! The drivers here are absolutely reckless, impatiently rushing all over the place, and the soundscape of any major throughfare is simply a collage of car horns and shouting. As we walked up the main road leading to the fortress after sorting ourselves out leaving the train station, we could barely hear each other speak over the bagarre.
Despite our negative first impressions of Belgrade, the fortress was a nice place to be. We were really not feeling active at all on this day, and the air here was somewhat cleaner than in Budapest, so we relaxed for a long time in the park before doing a walk around and then returning to the city to find an internet café. This took us something like one and
a half hours, and was followed by another long search for a food shop, aswell as intermediate last resorts to find a tourist information desk for help, which in themselves were unsuccessful. We went for another sit in another park, tired by all this kerfuffle, thinking that this city really isn't so ready for tourists.
In our second park we found a lovely fresh water fountain, which we kept returning to fill our bottles with between excursions to the cathedral (impressive but currently undergoing reconstruction - we guessed due to damage from the wars in the 1990s) and to pubs for food and shots of rakija. We started to head back to the station as the sun began to set, getting ready for our sleeper ride to Sofia.
On the walk to the station I donned my linguistic hat and began to ponder the reason for two alphabets being used in Serbia. The Serbian language is "officially" written using the cyrillic alphabet (unlike the closely related Croatian, which uses latin letters, despite the languages being highly mutually intelligible), however nowadays, people seem to use latin letters enough (perhaps an influence from Yugoslavia) and you will see both alphabets
(wuss style with beds :P)
used around. Signposts are usually in Cyrillic and sometimes in both. Commercial advertisements are nearly always in latin. The most interesting case was the graffiti around the city - the ubiquitous extremist political graffiti (e.g. pro-communism or anti-kosovo independance) was almost always in cyrillic, while the petty "Darijo <3 Ivana" type was always in latin. It seems that the cyrillic alphabet is becoming more a symbol of keeping a tradition here than a means of communication.
It was good to spend the time in Serbia before leaving for Bulgaria at least to get some practice reading cyrillic, since in Bulgaria, you don't escape from it. Even entering our Bulgarian sleeper carriage on the train, I felt like I was stepping into another world from all the warning signs and notices. We slept well, lucky enough to be alone in the carriage, and only waking up in Niš and then at the border station Dimitrovgrad, doing the usual passport routines, by which time we were some two hours delayed. At Sofia this morning, we were woken up by an angry cleaner, signalling that we had been asleep for quite some time after the train had arrived. And sure enough, it
Monument in one of our many visited parks
was now twelve hours after we had left Belgrade. We stumbled out onto the platform and organised ourselves, our watches and our wallets, left our luggage, bought our tickets to Varna for tonight and then headed off into the city.
I had a really good feeling from Sofia. Its bustling (but not reckless) streets piled with buildings of all different sizes and tiny independant shops selling a variety of things really reminded me of inner city London. Ignoring all the cyrillic letters I actually felt somewhat at home here. We found the centre and a nice park to sit down and have breakfast (bread from yesterday and cheapo Serbian nutella substitute) and then headed off to the tourist information to get a map. We went to the cathedral first, which was a sight different from the building site in Belgrade - magnificent. While outside we were accosted by an apparently friendly man who eventually tried to offer us to change money on the street - which according to our guide was the "number 1 risk to tourists" in Bulgaria.. so future visitors take note!
We then had some truly wonderful and cheap food in a café in the
centre - Jitka took the local delicacy šopský salát, which I'm saving until the seaside before trying, but excited about since I usually can't eat salad thanks to all the leaves and sauce, of which this has none. I settled with a lasagne bolognese which kept me full for hours. Afterwards we spent another long time relaxing in a park and doing a bit of food shopping for desert - discovering our new favourite Bulgarian delicacy, a type of cake which is basically a muffin except with a filling rather than a topping, so a cross between a muffin and a donut which I henceforth shall refer to as a "muffnut".
After scoffing a tray of muffnuts, we went to see the city's largest mosque - the proximity of Bulgaria to Turkey means the islamic population starts to grow significantly at the point. I was initially interested, but only Jitka went inside, as we had to pay and I don't pay to enter places of worship. Predictably Jitka was ordered to go upstairs and out of sight by the men praying in the main hall. Nearby the mosque was a large spring, which we hoped would be similar quality
We wished this water were colder...
water to what we had found in Belgrade, but it was hot water of around 40 degrees! Despite this, there were a lot of people filling up bottles with it and drinking it, so we filled up one, hoping that it would cool down a bit, or if not, be useful for having a wash with when we arrive at the seaside tomorrow.
We're now enjoying some shots of Rakija and Pliska (which are more like sherry glass size here and for something between 70p - £1 each) in a great little bar down a side street, and will continue to do so until our zombie train and the closing left luggage office at the station call us. We're very much looking forward to the Black Sea tomorrow, however, I'm quite sad to leave Sofia so soon, it really is a great city. I would gladly spend more time here sometime when I have more energy to do things.
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