After toying with a trip to Tuzla (Tuzla-Tulsa?) but deciding against it, i needed a plan. With a few days to use as i saw fit, I decided to head south instead of via Nis and Timisoara as I had originally envisenged. So i took a bus to Beograd. I had the first ticketing hiccup of the trip when despite asking - in my best Srpskan accent of course - for a ticket to Beograd and paying for it, i was actually given a ticket to Prijedor. Always helpful that, especially at 5.30am, written in cyrillic and only a few mins before bus left, so I didnt even check it.
Of course, on the bus when i realised, it was too late. Had an interesting discussion with the conductor type person (and rest of the bus, looking for any people with 2 words of the same language) and no Bosnian cash which lasted a while before we came to an agreement that i would get some cash when we crossed the border and they would make a special stop for me to exchange stuff. WooHoo!
And, as i have a feeling certain people who may read this would worry too much about it, i won't go into details about being shot at on leaving the country. It's a long story, and one probably best left to the imagination...
Bus went through Croatia for a bit and then i finally got my trips first passport stamp on entering Serbia, when i also managed to get enough money to pay the bus driver (with everybody watching me as though i was a convict), and a currency import certificate which said i was carrying 4500usd, so that i could export the same amount. Even though I had maybe 200 bucks.
On arrival in Belgrade, i did the obvious thing. I took pictures of the waiting RML [old style London bus for the unitiated, non-colleagues, non-interested or simply the normal people amongst you]. which will be passed on to all those that it is important to. Realised by looking at the blinds that i've been away from work too long. I can't even recall details of the route "Daisy", although the routeing of Marble Arch, Notting Hill and Oxford Street to Trafalgar Square suggests the driver may have been just as confused as me, hence why he ended in Belgrade (although you can help thinking that you would have thought that one of the passengers might have said something as they rounded Maidstone)
Took a 1 hour circular walk - i have some serious blister issues at the moment - to get to the ATM, which i discover 20m away from where i got off the bus, and a similarly long and winding walk to find the cheap hotel suggested which was just opposite and then full anyway, and then set off in search for a second place, a small hostel down on the river. A looong walk with feet REALLY not liking me and the only place within 300sq km not accessible by bus. Got kicked off a boat (the wrong one) and chased off a second one by a large frothy dog before getting lucky. The place was mostly empty, the owner dodgy as hell, but i'm not fussy and it worked for me.
Belgrade mean't I was back in depressing civilisation - lots of mcdonalds (bosnia has NONE!!) and no cevapi. Still, the now normal collection of broken arms, vw golfs and buses donated from Japan meant it wasnt completely over.
Spent a couple of days trying not to walk too much, and also dodging the now familiar Huuuuge black rain clouds which follow me - i'll actually miss him when he's gone - around Trg Republike, kalemegden, skardalija, the old castle district and up to Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) stadium to revive some old derby memories (another story which involves me being shot at. Can you spot a theme yet?) and randomly into the suburbs looking a buildings with big holes in the side.
Took the night train to Sofia (7 hours, delayed 5 hours and with 6 passport checks on the way for a jny of barely 350km), and spent a couple of days there getting very wet. In order to avoid ghetting quite as wet on the outside, an American guy Mike and I spent a good few hours getting wet on the inside instead, and playing some of the worse darts you have ever seen. And as anybody who has had the misfortune to watch me play before, you know how bad my average is...
Sofia is a strange place in that it doesnt really seem to know what it wants to be. It lacks any sort of central focus - no main street or square to draw people - and whilst its a very pleasant city, it doesnt make any great effort to bring out the few monuments and genuine attractions ot does have. Its the sort of place i tend to like because it is a real city, with none of this disney-esque fakeness that i think places like Praha tend to have.
Sofia is also marked by the huge number of Montreal size (allegedly) potholes, poor drainage/sewers not helped by the rain and also has a number of - normally friendly and well fed looking - stray dogs which add to its odd feel, as well as police boxes perched precariously over many road junctions to use as a spotting place.
On this trip, Sofia was marked out by just 3 things really. Firstly, the Japanese guy Keiko who managed to miss his train 3 times trying to get to Budapest and failing, and kept returning to the hostel with a sheepish look on his face and staying an extra night (or in one case, not getting up in time because his alarm clock was still an hour out after crossing the border). Secondly, by the sheer inability of myself and Arek, a polish guy i met, to find the Natioinal Museum, or even manage to locate it on the map, and finally by one of the daftest nights out i'd had in ages.
It was a wednesday evening, and the hostel owner, a lovely lady who's name i don't remember, decided she fancied joining Mike and I in going out. And having a local to show you where to go is always the best way. So we left about 12.30 and it started promisingly enough - lots of rain and a taxi journey of about 10mins to get about 200metres away (one way systems are great) to a tiny and cool wine bar, totally hidden away and seemingly in somebodies shed, where i sat under a drip in the roof. Then things started going wrong, funny and farcical in equal measure.
We were looking for people. The owner weas positive each time that she knew where the people would be. But something like 7 taxi rides and 9 bars later, we still hadn't found people. And we didnt even have a drink in any of them. And had got progressively wetter. We probably spent 2 hours, finding places which were either empty, closed, not admitting anybody except Police or forensics, or utterly out of place, during which time she was getting more and more annoyed with the world and Sofia! We ended up in another taxi going to a place deep in the suburbs which she was 100% certain would be busy, as a band had been playing, but we got there just in time to see the band drive off and the last 3 patrons close to leaving. Eventually, she called it quits, P1ssed off with a rainy Wednesday night in Sofia and a last taxi took us home. She went to bed, whilst Mike and I needing a drink, wandered into a quiet but open 24hour place and had a couple of scarily cheap beers (a litre each cost under 50pence). And then headed home to discover we had been carefully locked out, and the key left in the lock on the inside...