A Travellerspoint blog

Buses, Trains, Bosnia, Bulgaria...

The incredible journey from Dubrovnik to Sofia.

My stomach had been in knots for a week or so about my uncertain arrival in Sofia...I couldn't go through Macedonia, there wasn't anything direct from Croatia (not even a flight!), and I wasn't particularly keen about veering several hundred miles out of the way - (the only reliable hub being Belgrade).

Keen or not, my choices were increasingly limited. Basing my itinerary on an offhand travel agent remark about heading to Bosnia, I hopped a three hour bus to Mostar...crossing my fingers for a timely connection to somewhere near sofia. Three hours later, (at approximately 11 am or so), I was bummed to find that my only option was a 13+ hour overnight bus to Belgrade, leaving later that evening. Boo on Belgrade. I sighed a heavy *darn my luck* kind of sigh.

Well, I had a number of hours to kill, and luckily, Lonely Planet described Mostar as a “charming medieval town”. As I was perusing my restaurant options, two young men approached me about my plans for the day. One was a Frenchman living in New York, the other was his American roommate of Iranian heritage – (a general surgeon about to start his residency, I told him all about you dad!).

Since my sense of direction is atrocious, and we were all about to suffer through an overnight Bosnian bus together, we joined up for a little Mostar exploration. There is a famous 16th century bridge (Stari Most) in town that historically represents the bridging of ethnic diversities – ironically enough, it was completely destroyed in the recent ethnic conflict, and then reconstructed. At 24 meters tall, it is a thrill for young local men to go leaping from it into the river. Tourists can pay to see this done – I could think of better ways to spend my money. The whole town is extraordinarily charming and photogenic – though there are many grim reminders of the conflict.

While walking around, it was impossible to ignore the thousands of bullet holes scarring virtually every building of the town. Some of the structures were particularly wretched – so destroyed by heavy shelling that their sagging walls and exposed interiors remain completely abandoned – not demolished, not refurbished, just empty, hulking reminders of human conflict. Of course, there were also freshly constructed homes and businesses in shining coats of gaudy paint dotting the city. The contrast was certainly striking.

We also strolled past a number of graveyards – I was mildly horrified to see that every single headstone was engraved with the date “1992” – to say the least, this put the scale of the casualties into perspective. Graffiti around town included patriotic messages flaunting Bosnian pride, random swastikas, and several Tito’s scrawled on most available wall spaces.

Old town was lovely, mostly intact, and devoid of graffiti; we perused a number of souvenir shops and spoke with the shopkeepers. I managed to meet several lovely gentlemen and a young woman – coming away from the day with two free post cards and a cup of mint tea. I also bought a few souvenirs (I’m a sucker for textiles and the choices were tantalizing)….actually, I’m a sucker for shopping in general. I was mildly horrified to find that many of the souvenirs offered were constructed out of old shell casings (some half as tall and as big around as I), and bullets. War, as much as it traumatized the nation, was being exploited as a tourist attraction. I felt a surge of conflicting opinions/emotions:

1. It is good the country has harnessed something lucrative – war, death, violence, and destruction in the form of knick knacks.

2. It is horrifying that this grotesque tourist fascination is lucrative in the first place. Yikes, it’s even more horrifying that I was equally as fascinated as your average fanny-packed daytripper.

Like I said, conflicting opinions/emotions. We also came upon a number of fascinating Tshirts for sale - the heroic faces of Che and Tito were emblazoned on several, another boldly stated: "f*** the country that is not Bosnia" (every country that is not Bosnia, that is...I asked for clarification), and another was particularly hilarious: "I'm Muslim, don't panic." My companion of Iranian heritage bargained the shopkeeper down to $4 and plans to wear the shirt as much as possible around the states.

The time finally came for our long-dreaded bus ride to Serbia – we scoped out the “best” seats somewhat near one another, staking out our territory for the next 13+ hours. I soon came to realize I was the only woman aboard, and that my territory didn’t really mean much. I wasn’t able to lean back my seat – with every nudge, a remarkably tall, bulky man behind me would grunt with disapproval. He’d wedged himself into an impossibly fetal position for someone his size; his rear end was firmly shoved against my seat. Well, if you can’t beat them, join them? I curled up into something relatively comfortable, but sleep was virtually impossible – and I found myself counting down the clock to Belgrade.

We arrived at the god-awful hour of six thirty a.m. Nothing was open, no one spoke English, and the city was a hideous, sprawling, terrifying metropolis. I was lucky to find a train to sofia leaving a mere two and a half hours later – I spent the down time holed up in a nearby hostel chatting with a loony Australian and friendly Serbian.

The 9 hour train was mildly comfortable. I was overwhelmed to find my six-person compartment filled with five large, middle-aged men and an empty seat in the corner for me. They were polite enough to stop smoking within the compartment upon my arrival (I was completely amazed!), though none of them bothered to acknowledge me much beyond that.

In the last two hours of the trip, only one man and I remained. Just before the Bulgarian border, a flamboyant middle-aged Serbian with a scrunchie and white patent-leather shoes burst into the compartment. He placed his numerous bags in any space not occupied by humans and shoved the compartment curtains closed. Though my compartment partner and I had not yet spoken a word to one another, we exchanged the universal “what the hell?” brow furrowing in our confusion. I’d been nervous about Bulgarian border control – most sources I consulted remarked that the officers are usually less-than-virtuous and particularly keen on extorting bribes from American tourists. I was alone, female, ignorant of the language, and American. I cleverly deduced that to be an unfortunate combination.

When the border control officers shoved open the compartment, they took a long look at my passport, eyed me up and down, and then turned their attention to the scrunchied Serbian. In a bout of screaming on both sides, his bags were ripped open to reveal scores of cigarette cartons….certainly more than the legal amount allowed to cross the border. I was amused by the scene – the officers began to rip the air vents from the floor and ceiling, the lighting fixtures were detached, the protests of the Serbian competed with those of the officers, photos were taken of the smuggled goods….and then, just as suddenly as it all began, it was over. The smuggler sat down in a huff, ineffectively complaining to me in Serbian, and the officers moved on. No confiscation, no citation, no bribes, no arrests…nothing! They just disappeared and it was over. The smuggler re-zipped all his bags and pouted in the corner. His peace was short-lived as he was provoked once more just minutes later – as a group of juvenile football players burst into the compartment and stole some of the much-coveted “goods”. He went hauling after them and then stomped off to another – perhaps more peaceful – part of the train. My compartment buddy and I once again exchanged the universal “what the hell?” brow-furrow. Bizarre.

We were at the border for a bit more than an hour and a half – during which my passport was checked/stamped two more times. I was certainly relieved to find that the border control was more concerned about cigarettes than my money, gender, and/or political convictions. After two days of travel, I finally arrived in Sofia. Phew...adventure.

Posted by MegMc2003 04:16 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Comments (0)

Croatian Observations

The thoughts I forgot to include...

So, in my rush to sort out my life and my journey to Bulgaria, I forgot to include a bit of commentary on culture and politics in Croatia.

Observations:
1. Don’t talk about the war….unless you have a great deal of time and patience. We had brief discussions with a couple of our homestay hosts at one point, but their comments were fairly limited and the memories appeared painful. Our Dubrovnik host remarked – “we tell the tourists not to go into the hills because there are many snakes. There are not snakes.”
There are landmines. He described how the Serbs had attacked from that hill, blowing the neighborhood to bits while some 90 people huddled in his basement. He was very distant and a bit standoffish, so we ended the conversation. Later, while walking in the street in Croatia, I noticed a hub-bub nearby and I asked a nearby police officer about the commotion. He answered cordially that some VIPs were attending a concert. A middle-aged bystander chimed in: ‘not for tourists!’’

He was a little curt about it, which I didn’t appreciate, so I responded, “well of course…I was only curious.” I don’t remember how this conversation transformed into a confrontational discussion about limited western involvement in the war, but I do remember having eyes the size of dinner plates and flaming pink cheeks. Croatians are very, very bitter. He accused us of ignoring the atrocities committed, because we believe (apparently) that Croatia doesn’t matter to us or to the rest of Europe. I replied, “well, I am sorry, but I was only about six years old.”

His tone softened a little – only a little – and I used my irresistible wit and charm (ha) to wear him into affability. I remarked that I certainly would have done something if I were not in primary school – to which he was a bit skeptical – and that I was hoping to work against such atrocities in the future. In the end, he seemed convinced and we even had him smiling and shaking our hands.

I let out a tremendous sigh of relief as we walked away. Don’t talk about the war…unless you have a great deal of time and patience! We should have ignored him, but I was just too damn determined to break through that bitterness. Mission accomplished? Well, for now. I suppose it must be frustrating to see the droves of indifferent Western tourists stomping all over your city.

2. There are no Dalmatian dogs in Dalmatia. At least, I didn’t see any. Many people had dogs of every other persuasion, and they enjoyed flaunting them in public. Leash laws are seemingly non-existent.

3. Park anywhere, please. On the sidewalks, on the medians, in the grass. In fact, be sure to block in everyone else as you wedge your vehicle into the last remaining three inches of space.

4. If you’re just married, you’ll join your friends and family in a long, loudly honking car procession through town. If you’re having a really good time, your friends and family will hang out the window, perhaps waving bottles of champagne. If you’re dead, on the other hand, your picture and short biography will be plastered all over town, so that everyone may know you’ve passed.

5. Pizza…pasta…pasta…pizza…*sigh.* The gastronomic options can be tiring. The seafood, on the other hand, is quite delicious…though sometimes surprisingly expensive.

6. Fruit and vegetables do taste better without scientific tinkering and pesticides!

7. Croatians appear to be avid gardeners. Virtually every home boasted flourishing rose bushes, fruit trees and grape vines. Having the blackest thumb known to man, I was very impressed by the seemingly effortless cultivation of even the smallest plots of land. I kill plants just by looking at them.

I look forward to returning someday to explore several of the more remote towns and villages. It will be fascinating to observe the drastic changes Croatia experiences in the next ten years – though I hope it never loses its irresistible charm and breathtaking natural beauty.

Posted by MegMc2003 01:16 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

I made it!

rain

Here is my shortest entry ever, because I'm using a flatmate's computer.

I made it to Bulgaria after thirty some hours of straight traveling through Bosnia and Serbia. I have somewhere to live, I am safe, and I start work tomorrow.

I have several fascinating stories from my journey, but I'll have to leave you on the edge of your seats...

Posted by MegMc2003 02:42 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

The end is near...

For Porter at least!

rain

I apologize for the delay in updating the blog...after my exhausting (and very, very writing intensive) senior project, it appears that my brain is reluctant to keep working...

So, we're now in Dubrovnik, which is cheerfully dubbed the 'Pearl of the Adriatic'....one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We arrived about fourish days ago (I think?) and have been thoroughly enjoying our stay. Before Dubrovnik, we spent a lovely two days on the island of Hvar. We intended to do some diving, but the phone lines were down due to rain, and we were unable to call ahead and make a reservation. Feeling lazy, we walked around the town, marvelling at turquiose water that never seems to get old, drinking wine, and searching for an off-the-beaten track beach.

After a bit of walking (up and down, up and down...the entire place is built into a mountain, just like the rest of the country. My gluts are screaming sore!), I spotted a couple occupying a rather tantalizing and spot next to the water. We spent about an hour there, I even had my first topless sunbathing experience (so chic, so european...she was doing it, so I thought I'd join). It was invigorating...until a boatload of tourists sputtered by and a couple of people blatantly 'snuck' a few pictures. If I end up on the internet...sheesh! I put my clothes back on and we spent the rest of the evening enjoying life.

The next day, we headed to Dubrovnik by bus. The ride was 5 and a half hours short, with a twenty minute stop in part of Bosnia. I bought some ice cream and that was about as exciting as it got. We were utterly swarmed by 'private room' touts as soon as we arrived in Dubrovnik...I finally felt like I was in more familiar territory, after my experiences in India and Africa!

We settled on a room/apartment with a cooky old woman and her cookier old son. The apartment is fine, it just reeks a bit of mildew and we share our space with several resident spiders and a load of pesky little flies. We're not complaining :) The woman is just too jolly...

The entire part of the old city is surrounded by hugely impressive walls built around the 17th century. For a mere 20 kuna, we walked the walls (no easy physical task, I might add) and enjoyed gorgeous views of the ocean and the red-tiled city around us. We were even treated to a suprise air show by five planes of some kind (I know my brother and dad would have been more appreciative).

The next day, we decided to splurge on one of the many boat tours offered here...there are three popular islands nearby and we (well, porter) wanted to do something besides walk around the city. Unfortunately, we made a very bad choice...and the entire experience was laughable. First, we expected to be boarding the large, stately boat promised to us in the brochure. Instead, we were nearly left behind, because we didn't see the glorified dingy we were actually using. Stuffed beyond legal capacity I'm sure, we were hoping to transfer to something more respectable sometime soon. Alas, no such luck.

The captain was a large, sweaty, greasy toothless fellow, and our boatmates a wide variety of nationalities. Hell, there was even a dog aboard. I think my jaw hit the floor when the captain had porter do a bit of the driving while he served us some crappy soda and juice.

The rest of the day was progressively worse, though adventurous to say the least. We didnt stay on any of the islands as long as promised, we were taunted by the other groups enjoying their time on the nice boats, and we were furious to find that our 'real boat' apparently blew a pipe the day before, and the company had blatantly lied to all of us.

We were even more angry to find that we had to pay for our drinks at lunch, even though the brochure proclaims drinks are included. Luckily, the third island was quite beautiful and the beach helped me to forget my frustration.

For awhile at least. The boat broke down about a half mile before we made it back to port. I'd even made some sarcastic joke about the smokey engine...it was so bad, it was laughable!

To say the least, they didn't give much of our money back...we were able to get refunded for the drinks at lunch...but the ticket hawker who had done all the lying was conveniently absent upon our return.

Alas, buyer beware. Porter and I bought ourselves some cheap and wonderful wine to make life a little better. :)

The day after, we finally went diving in a very wild sea. Some of the waves seemed taller than I, and the current was strong enough to toss us around a little violently at the surface. Upon leaping in, we were lucky not to be bashed to death against the rocks. Once we were fairly deep, it wasnt so difficult...but swimming against the current was certainly a workout. We did two dives, both quite lovely. Shhh...it was porter's first open water experience.

Today, unfortunately, it's pouring rain. We were hoping to go to the beach, but we're taking care of errands instead. Porter leaves for the states tomorrow, and I've been frantically attempting to arrange my departure for Bulgaria. It seems that my plan to go through Macedonia is only possible in the summer months (it's spring, apparently), so I'll have to go to Sarajevo, then Belgrade, then Sofia. *Sigh*...at least it will be an adventure? I'm trying to be optimistic!

Overall, we've had a wonderful trip together, and it will be hard to say goodbye for the next two months. I am increasingly nervous about my time in Bulgaria, but it's an excited sort of nervous I suppose. I will write again soon!

If you want to seem some pics, here's the URL to porters site:

http://personal.utulsa.edu/~brian-porter/

Posted by MegMc2003 05:22 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Even rainy days are beautiful.

From Plitvička National Park to coastal Split

rain

Greetings again, I apologize for the delay in writing. Until today, the sunny weather certainly discourages indoor activity :)

We left Pula fairly reluctantly, our homestay was very comfortable and we made a visit to the beach our second day...which was certainly enough to encourage anyone to stay forever. It was not the same sort of beauty as Zanzibar (stiff competition, to say the least), as almost all beaches in Croatia are far more rocky and rugged. The water in Pula was a deep blue fringed with turquiose and bright green; we stretched out on a fairly flat bit of the rocky beach, soaking in the sun and scenery...entirely content and wonderfully lazy. The rocks may not be the most comfortable, but the beaches seem utterly pristine, and the water is absolutely crystal clear. *sigh* After seeing such beautiful beaches in my life, how will I ever live in landlocked oklahoma again???

I was absolutely set on seeing the out-of-the way (but totally worth it) Plitvička National Park, near a hub called Karlovac. We were unfortunately unaware that Karlovac was so tiny...with no internet, no public transportation, no reasonably priced hotels, and no tourist office after 12 in the afternoon. We arrived, exhausted, at five. Damn.

Karlovac was fairly charming; I was hoping to get in some rafting (too cold, and unfortunately the off-season), or to visit the Medieval faire at an actual medieval castle just outside of town. But time was flying, so we went ahead and left for the park.

In a word, AMAZING. In two words, COMPLETELY BREATHTAKING. Here's the website for a sneak peak of just how beautiful this place was:

http://www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/cpage.aspx?page=default.aspx&pageID=87

As the most-visited national park in the country, we were suprised to find that all the tourists were Croatian. In fact, our host family said we were the first Americans they'd encountered in over three years...(I hope we made a good impression!)

The park is an awesome natural wonder of several lakes connected by lliterally hundreds of waterfalls and turquiose lagoons. Every bit of water was intensely blue-green and totally pristine; we could see to the bottom of nearly every lake! I think Porter is working on posting the pictures to give you a better idea. I've never seen anything quite like it. We walked all afternoon, opting for the 4-6 hour route around most of the park. Absolutely worth the trip!

The next day, we caught an early bus to Split, the largest and oldest coastal town in Croatia. Even more interestingly, this is considered one of the earliest 'resort' towns, as Roman Emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace here, (which now makes up 'old town', with much of the structure still standing). We were exhausted upon arrival, because the bus ride was about 2 hours longer than it needed to be due to unusually lengthy stops in random towns, (I suspect the driver was a pack-a-day kind of guy, there was no other justification!).

After settling in, we explored a bit of the town - totally in awe of the many ancient pillars and remnants of roman civilization throughout the town center. We spent most of today lounging on the beach, enjoying the cool adriatic and a very warm sun. We were hoping to do a bit more exploring of the actual city once we were sufficiently sunkissed, but it is now torrentially pouring for the first time in our trip. Thus, because the city is still beautiful regardless, I imagine we'll find a (covered) terrace cafe, sip some wine, and wait away the rain.

We hope to visit Hvar tomorrow and do some diving...weather permitting. If worst comes to worst, I suppose I could do some shopping instead... ;)

Posted by MegMc2003 07:37 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

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