The Balkans: surreal Serbia, bright Bulgaria and majestic Montenegro. A trip of ups, downs and a lot of climbing up and down.
Day 1, our arrival, with a full Christmas belly and an empty hangover head.
After a wonderful Christmas with Senna’s parents in Limburg, we depart for Sofia, Bulgaria. We have no forward plans, but in the airport, we find a return flight from Sofia for cheap, so it looks like we will do a full circle, whichever way we decide to go. After the flight we land in Sofia, with the mountains to our right. The bus was relatively easy, and only one euro for the 45-minute journey to the center of Sofia. We are told to depart in the middle of nowhere, and thus, the adventure begins. Our hostel (hostel 44) is close to the center and we have the dorm to ourselves for two nights, which was also clean and relatively quiet. Setting off a little late to the bars, we constantly run into architectural masterpieces, lit up in the night with Christmas lights and spotlights. A few beers and some Raki, which I must admit has a stark flavor to it, we head to bed to freshen for our first day. No amount of toothpaste can rescind the Raki flavor, it burns my throat like petrol to the flame.
An early start to climb a mountain in Boyana and view its waterfall wakes us from slumber. We decided to walk from the hostel to the mountain, which took two hours, and see the fringes of the city. The Boyana church is hidden quite well, but that is the direction point you should be aiming for before you ascend the mountain. This small village (Boyana) has an old school ghetto fencing, riddled together between gates and fashioned chaining. These contain some of the angriest dogs on gods green earth, Cerberus himself would be quivering. The long climb comes with amazing views and spectacular backdrops of the entire city. Its December, so after a few boulder climbs, much to Senna’s despair, we come to an impasse. The ice was too thick on the mountain ledge to pass, to our disappointment. We therefore, inevitably, had to turn back and decided to take a different route back passed Boyana lake. This large pond is rather unimpressive, although it was frozen solid. We started back with no general direction, GPS had abandoned us, just basically aiming back down the mountain. there were plenty of paths to choose from, and ours arrived into an old rustic village with a rather nostalgic looking restaurant called Pectopaht. This little spot is wonderful. The food was incredible, the staff were warm and comforting and the cost was astoundingly cheap for such a place. For two beers, two meals and two shots of Raki we spent maybe 12 euros. I think, in retrospect, this was quite a posh restaurant. After the two hours walk back (an eight-hour total) we took a well-earned nap, well, Senna did. After booking the only hostel available in Sofia for the next evening and a log cabin in the mountain for New Year’s Eve, we finalized our bla bla car to Belgrade on the 1st of January, we travelled the short distance to the main stretch of bars on Vistova street. You can have a good swallow here and its rather pretty if I do say so myself. The street is scenic, and the bars are plentiful. We started in ‘Social club’ then onto a few other places to sample the local tipple extensively. Each bar has a heated smoking area indoors, like a big tent, and the prices are roughly one and a half euros per litre. Zagorka seems to be the cheapest. To bed and ready to chance the only hostel left in town.
We set off early to leave our bags at the new hostel, Alex 1, which seems like a dodgy idea at the time. It turned out fine and the hostel wasn’t ‘that’ bad, I have stayed in worse in Australia. We wandered around pretty much all day drinking and eating along the way, taking in the city sights. Sofia university is an astounding main building, quite roman and imposing. We also visited the art museum, with a varying collection to enjoy, especially the wooden carved pictures. We wandered around for a while, drinking in the bars but we had to turn in early as we had a four-hour hike in the morning, up a mountain, to our New Year’s Eve destination.
So, to the best new years eve ever. Reading a lot of blogs, everyday seems like the best day ever, but this really was truly remarkable. The hike took four hours with a beer break in the last village before the small climb. Our destination was the saint George family hotel, not to be confused with saint George hotel in the center of Sofia. We walked form Sofia central station and although it was supposedly -2°c it was sunny and warm enough. As we approached the final winding road to the hostel we ere surrounded by ice and snow. The hotel is alone, standing proudly amongst the trees in the stark woodland, only noticeable once you arrive upon it. The room was the poshest place we have stayed together but only 22 euros for the night. We settled in and took a short hike towards a vantage point of the city. The sun glistened through the trees, hitting the ice and sparkling the landscape as we walked. Half way to the vantage point we turned a corner to the greatest spectacle I have ever happened upon, a frozen waterfall. I cannot describe how this made me feel, a warm happiness washed over me on that frozen mountain side. The pictures do not look anything like what I saw, maybe a go pro isn’t the best option for evening photography. We continued to the viewpoint which is also a spectacle to behold, with the two mountains at each side, Sofia underneath and another mountain behind. Walking back, I decided to scare Senna with pretend apprehensions about noises in the trees, and a made-up story about the amount of wolf packs in the area. This amused me until we arrived back at the hotel. At the reception one of the staff asks if we would like to join for the new years festivities, which we gladly accept, and are told it would begin at 8. A varying starter of meats, cheeses and strange pastes, which I have no clue as to the ingredients, and a bowl of fruit. Wine, beer and Raki flowing freely on request, we quickly (we meaning Senna) fell into degradation. A main of delectable lamb cutlets in red wine sauce and desert a caramel and chocolate roulade thing (my culinary expertise is incredibly limited, I’m not even sure what a roulade is, or if that was one). Music, Balkan dancing and champagne with a fireworks display end the evening. The crack of the fireworks echoing across the mountain side, as every explosive blast of light brightens every tree, leaf and snow drop. We took a bottle of champagne to the room early in the morning, or late at night, which ever you prefer. After a small amount of vodka and a pointless mumbled conversation about god knows what, we fall into slumber. Now, I don’t want to go into too much detail, but at some point, during the night, Senna expelled whatever she had consumed throughout the evening. Four am cleanup, pounding headache and a three hour walk at eight am to meet our bla bla car to Belgrade. Hello 2018, we have arrived, barely.
We awake, dreary and tired, but raring to go to the next destination, Belgrade. We clean the room and go downstairs to check out. There was no one in sight anywhere. After much knocking, discussion and deliberation we set off walking down the mountain, leaving contact details for our payment of the meal and champagne. Going back down was far quicker, and treacherous, but we hastily make good time despite the hangover. Senna ‘zombies’ pretty much all the way, until we find a petrol station and book a taxi to take us the remainder. Sitting at central station we recovered slightly and boarded our bla bla car. Vaylo picks us up and we drive to Belgrade. We chatted about his home, family and the usual sorts, but mostly about his job as a pharmaceutical drug tester in Germany. He has a small vineyard in Bulgaria on the border of Greece. Our charming driver drops us right at our hostel, in what seemed a very dodgy area. Our room was down an unlit alleyway and was awful. We climbed three flights of urine drenched concrete stairwells carefully avoiding the piles of rubbish on each floor. We had no sheets on the bed and none provided and there were mysterious stains on the walls. The area was dark and run down, graffiti and gangs everywhere, with mostly broken-down buildings. First impressions aside, or maybe just our area, Belgrade is quite beautiful. We took maps me to the center and found a lovely restaurant that was bustling with life. It had the most attentive waiters I have ever had the pleasure of being served by. Finding a local bar and drinking the night away, we get drunk to avoid going back to the room. Our hostel, museum propido, had a 7.4 rating on booking.com, and I am not posh or even slightly stuck up. This place was awful, and I can guarantee the reviews were a propagated lie. I happily stay in some dank places, but at 26 euros a night, no bed sheets, no lights and no water to the toilet or shower (not a joke), I was pretty pissed off. We slept in our clothes and kept everything else away incase of bed bugs. No toilet roll, or water to flush meant for another early rise and walk, leaving the keys in the door as no reception existed.
Montenegro express, from Belgrade to bar, through Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia a little bit. We took the train to Uzice, with little to see on the way, just a few small villages and towns on a very uninspiring landscape. The final forty-five minutes were rather nice as the mountainous regions take precedence. Upon arrival taxi touts are waiting for anyone with a backpack and we negotiate a price of 20 euros for the hours drive to a mountain top cabin we have booked for the evening. We learn the area for the firewood off our host and the landmarks for our very short time available, a very gentle man running the Tara apartments on mount Tara. We were well into the afternoon by then but decided to brave the snow spattered winds to trek to a viewpoint before dark. Walking amongst snow and yellow warning signs for bears in a desolate place makes for a fearful excitement and sense of adventure. The view was clouded, and we saw what we could before making it back before dark. Back at home for a day, we cook, eat and drink. I basically spend all night tending to the fire we had to build, it gave me the greatest sense of tranquility as the snow fell out of the window, covering the stump used for splitting wood. Heaven.
We woke early to catch the sunrise at the same point the previous evening, and it was a lot clearer and bright. After packing back up, we headed for a bus we were told about, and ended up making it back to Uzice for two euros each. Back onto the Montenegro express, which was one hour late, with snacks and no plan of action. After a five hour ride we chanced at a decision and departed in a place called Kolasin, as we couldn’t find a travel blog written about it and it looked rather charming. It’s a ski village between a lot of mountains and a wonderful central square and small Christmas market around the fountain. Our accommodation, Sejo rooms, was twenty-five euros per night for a double room and was nice. We hit the bars, which are also very welcoming and one euro for half a litre. After dinner, two courses and maybe six beers each, came to fourteen euro, we went to bed. A long day of travelling.
Climbing a mountain after breakfast was a great way to wake up, especially as the only footsteps in the snow belonged to us, following our breadcrumbs back down after the easy climb to the top. The entire day was fantastic. We had free beers at two bars, bought by locals for no reason whatsoever, just to be kind. Montenegrin people are awesome, cheerful and accommodating. It seemed we were the only travelers, apart from Russian skiers. Continuing in true form, we drank the entire evening away, all in local bars. Kolasin is a must in Montenegro, if you take the express, make a stop here. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. I feel I may live here someday, and I haven’t, until that moment, ever felt that.
We leave our incredible hostess and room, and spend a few hours looking for Christmas presents (which is on the 7th of January in Serbia and Montenegro) and drinking early on. We decide to take the train to Bar, which is surprisingly on time, even though Senna got the times wrong and we freeze for an hour and a half. The ride would have been better in the daylight, it was winter after all, so we could barely see what I have read is a spectacle. Arriving in Bar, it took us a very long time to find our place, Jasmin apartments, but when we finally do (it was in the middle of nowhere) we spend the evening on the balcony drinking wine and Raki. We washed our clothes in the sink and hung them outside.
We explored Bar which, after Kolasin, left no real impression. We walked eight km to the Tvdjava Tabija, with Ratac abbey ruins on the way. One is a ruined castle and the other the abbey. On the way there was nothing open, no life or pulse to speak of. It is a summer beach location and it seemed as if it completely shuts for the winter. We return to Bar rather disappointed and decide to get a big Christmas eve meal to rekindle our spirits. On the way to the Italian we walked past the church of St peter. There they had the church, with an incredibly colorful interior, church bells, fireworks, loudspeaker prayers and a huge fire with all the locals burning dead branches on it as a symbol of the birth of Christ. That gave us the Christmas feeling. After around an hour or so, we continued to the restaurant FIT. The place was covered in Christmas lights and decoration, but rather pricey in comparison to the rest of our trip. Hey ho, its Christmas we decided. We had a three-course meal and plenty of booze and Raki. We slept with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads.
Leaving the apartment, the weather was amazing, 18c, so we bought our tickets to Podgorica and stopped at a bar filled with antiquities to drink. Afterwards to the beach bar, with a small rooftop area to chill, called Kraljeuski, basking in the sun in our t shirts and hiking boots (smellier feet do not exist). We were starting to slightly appreciate Bar, and then we left for Podgorica. After an hour’s bus ride, we arrived to discover the bus to Skopje was cancelled, contrary to the information on the internet, which makes me wonder how interesting and chancing traveling must have been pre-internet. So, an evening in Podgorica rises from the ashes of our Skopje plans. We book tickets for the following evening and wander around the city sampling different bars and booking a last-minute hostel. The bars are rustic and quiet, most of them, and as always, the Montenegrin people are wonderful. We sleep with an anxious 15-hour trip to Sofia ahead to catch our flight.
Our time was nearing its end, and we had to do Podgorica in a day, which was easily accomplished with such a small city. There is a castle, the millennium bridge and a few other statues and monuments. It took all of four hours to see, and we stopped for a beer and a rest in the park. Our afternoon is relaxed, and we drink and reminisce of the week previous, with a soft sadness in our hearts. We arrive for the bus and spend two laborious days; two bus journeys and a seven hour stop in the twilight of Skopje. To the Balkans, a final beer in Sofia, Kolasin, we will see you soon…