Touring the Balkans

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This is a continuation of ‘why not travel when you have nothing smarter to do?’. Part 2:)

After a short planning and after a very long desire and itchy feet and day from day growing desire to go, move and do something, and avoid simply sitting, waiting and checking emails and job ads…I decided for yet another travel..this one being more spontaneous, adventurous and exciting than Albania travel. (of course earning some money is a must, so after month and half of substitute teaching I set on another trip.)

This time I went to Istanbul! This is a post to all future travellers who wish to explore Balkan better but don’t manage to find sufficient information on all those train and bus sites.

As I was travelling alone, the plan was to travel as much as possible during the day or if during the night, then take the bus. I took a night train from Zagreb to Belgrade (return ticket 35E). I had a great and unexpected farewell. I climbed into the train and tried to find a seat next to someone who was also heading towards Belgrade. I never heard that somebody got robbed or that any other mishap occurred on this train, but just for the safety and also sleep issues I wanted to be on the safe side. I sat next to this older couple that were heading towards Croatian Serbian border. By the time they left the train it was already dawning and so my anxiety and fears of travelling alone by train have dispersed.

Belgrade was my first stop and first change in plans occurred there. Initially, I was planning to continue with Balkan plex train (goes directly to Istanbul and you can hop on/off five times which would allow me to visit Sofia and continue from there to Istanbul). The lady at the counter informed me though that the train has not been running for the last three months! I was confused and shocked and a big question mark appeared above my head asking ‘ what should I do know?’ and ‘How will I get to Sofia?’. The next train was about to leave only in the late evening hours and that meant spending the whole day in Belgrade. I knew that I had to be prepared for these slight changes in plan..it just always happens, but still ..it would be nice if everything would run smoothly?!!:)

I went to the bus stop and checked for the buses, had one leaving to Sofia at 12h and passing through Niš where we had to change to another bus. Return ticket Belgrade-(Niš)-Sofia was 4600 dinari (40E).

‘Everything solves in the end’, I thought to myself and I decided not to upset from now on this journey and just to embrace shifts that occur in planned route as they come, and to deal with them when they appear. It turned out to be a good philosophy as it really turned out to work for me. Somehow the whole trip went smoothly, without any major shifts, without any unexpected and undesired situations.

I spent one night in Sofia. First encounter with Sofia bus terminal got me thinking ‘how will I ever manage to meet my friends here??’. Nice lady working at the Metro buses counter gave me her telephone to ring my friends. Very, very thoughtful of here since it was 22h already and Sofia bus terminal is not the prettiest place to be at night. I managed to meet with Ruslan and Vicky and we headed towards one pub to catch up on all the things that we had to tell each other.

Next morning around 9h I caught the bus for Istanbul. If you are planning on going to Istanbul by bus from Sofia, take Metro buses. It’s Turkish bus company. Return ticket costs 98lev (50E). Make sure to come to Sofia bus station early enough to find your way around cause it is a bit like a maze. Each bus company has its own stand, so you’ll spend some time walking around and looking for the one you need. Another problem you might encounter is of course language barrier and Cyrillic alphabet. I got by using Croatian. English wasn’t very much of the help in Sofia.

Exciting but also nerve wracking…especially after ten-hour drive in a bus and having to look for the bus company to make a reservation, and nobody has the slightest idea where that company might be…it took me one hour, just walking around, knocking on different doors (information office was of no help, the lady didn’t even speak basic English) to find the bus company on Sofia terminal that took me from Belgrade to Sofia, to make a reservation for return trip. (Reservations are must do, once you decide on your date of return).

Was very happy when I met with Ruslan and Vicky and when I could turn ‘switch off’ button and just let be led by them.

It took us 9 hours to reach Istanbul. The trip went without any troubles. The bus even had a hostess and the passengers were offered tea, coffee, muffins…definitely go for Metro buses. The bus arrived on time to Istanbul. We made a few short stops and had no problems when crossing the border. All in all it took us hour or so to cross Bulgarian and Turkish border and then we had 15 minutes to spend in duty-free.

I was happy to be in Istanbul! Already then a series of happy events started happening…(I was/am really thrilled with the kindness and hospitality of Turkish people).

I was waiting in the line for the toilet. It was one of those toilets where you need to have a coin to be able to enter it. I had no coins, had dinars, levs on me, Euros in notes, but had no coins of Euro. I kind man behind me, just pushed 1 Euro coin in my hand and said shortly’ take it’. It was such a simple gesture but the one that really knocked me off my feet and as it turned out later, I experienced many situations like this one in Istanbul. It was either an offer for a free čaj (tea), or a free coin to pass Bosporus, or an invitation to go on a free ride along Bosporus…Turkish people are truly great hosts.

I met with my Turkish friend at Byrampasha bus stop and this great Turkish adventure had begun. Of course it took us half an hour to find each other. We drove off from Byrampasha bus stop, European side, to Asian side. It is really exciting to pass from one continent to another.

More on my Turkish adventures later on…to be continued.

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