Train to Turkey - Leg 7 - Belgrade to Sofia

It’s fair to say that this is the part of the journey we were most worried about. The daily train between Serbia and Bulgaria is the one which we have invested the most research and nervous phone-checking during our trip. We even had the staff in the hotel double-check that the train is actually a real train and contacted people online who had been on it before.

We woke early that morning and taking no risks had the hotel arrange a taxi to drop us off, there is no Uber here in Serbia so it was conventional transport methods only. The driver seemed to be completely clear about our destination, but after 10 minutes we arrived at the wrong station, luckily it was on the way to where we needed to go, which was just another 10 minutes or so away.

The train to Sofia departs from a different station to the one which we arrived, I’m guessing that this is because following the closure of the older main station trains were moved elsewhere while construction on the newer station (where we arrived from Zagreb) is completed. The (presumably temporary) Topčider Station was a much smaller station seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in a big park. In our taxi we passed several backpackers who were walking, I’m glad we weren’t because the weather had now turned and it was tipping it down with rain.

Now at the right station, we paid the taxi driver in what remained of our Serbian Dinars and made our way to the station building. We were at least 30 minutes early, keen to make sure we had time to take some pictures too. Topčider is a confusing station, it doesn’t have any departure boards, it doesn’t really even have any platforms and it didn’t have many other passengers either. A few locomotives were standing in what is more of a railway yard than a station but none of them looked much like what I had seen online. A very Serbian man seemed to ask where we were going and understanding Sofia signalled us to wait here. So wait we did, in the rain.

Several other trains passed through, one magnificent blue train with steamed up windows arrived and dropped off some passengers before making its way on. The man at the station reiterated his sign language for us to remain standing where we were. Another train shunted some empty wagons around, they appeared to be vehicle carriers, a little like those used in the channel-tunnel, just much, much less fancy. Finally, our train arrived and the man at the station pointed for us to go and get on it. I’m still unsure if the man worked for the railway or whether he was just a man at the station. To our relief, the train had some paper stickers which confirmed it was ‘The Balkan’ with a destination of Sofia, Bulgaria.

We walked up and down the train, there weren’t many other passengers at this stage but they all soon started arriving. There were two carriages behind the locomotive, one was an open layout and the other was made up of compartments, much like the train from Zagreb. One of the compartments we walked past had a policeman laying down and fast asleep. We decided that we’d play it safe and sit in the open carriage. There were a few local passengers but it was mostly backpackers, there were some guys from Germany and two people from Norway (I think).

Without much fanfare at all and right on time, we got moving. Owen settled into his seat and we prepared for the long day of travel which lay before us. We slowly passed through the park and then through the suburbs of Belgrade, we were surprised at how hilly the outskirts of the city were and how quickly that it changed from city to countryside. We stopped at a local station just outside of town which again looked more like a railway yard than a station, there were old wagons, locos, cranes and all sorts. A few locals got on and a few got off, I don’t think this stop was on the schedule but I wasn’t able to note the name of the station.

Continuing on it didn’t take long before we were in the full-on countryside, the train line was effectively a straight line down to Niš in the south-east, right through the centre of the country. We passed through small villages and occasionally stopped at a station where a smartly dressed station manager would greet the train, the proceed to bang something under the carriage with what looked like a hammer on a long handle. Very few passengers on the train changed, occasionally people would get on at one remote stop and then get off at the next.

There was a conductor on the train, a very stern looking lady who shortly after leaving checked everyone’s tickets. Almost everyone has an Interrail Pass and she diligently verified that we had updated everything correctly and stamped it with her special Serbian railway stamp. After the one ticket check we never saw the conductor again, I assume she stayed on the train, but I can’t be certain. The rules on this train were a little different to those which we’d travelled on up to this point, this was the first train where smoking was acceptable. Only in the vestibule mind, but still, that’s a little unusual. Whether it’s permitted or not we weren’t sure, but it wasn’t particularly bothersome.

The landscape changed as we travelled across Serbia, there was sometimes a town with a factory of some kind, many fields and small rural villages which don’t look like they’ve changed in 100 years. We held out until 12 for lunch and then tucked into our nice cool sandwich from the cold bag. The beers were too nice and cold, we were certainly the only ones with a cold beer and I was very smug about it too. The only problem with drinking was that the toilet on this train was absolutely the worst toilet I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t far away from “The Worst Toilet in Scotland” from the movie Trainspotting. How it is possible for a toilet which is just a hole in the floor to smell as bad as it does is beyond me.

The day went quite quickly and before we knew it we were approaching the outskirts of Niš. This city was not like Belgrade, it was much smaller and clearly not as visited. To our surprise, the train hung around in Niš for about 20 minutes or so. The group of Germans which has been on the train since Belgrade had somehow managed to arrange a rendezvous with some locals who had bought them beers (the 8% variety). I don’t quite know how they achieved this, but it was pretty impressive and I was a little jealous. We were joined on the train by two french girls who appeared as if they had been travelling for several months (they needed a shower) who promptly proceeded to fall asleep. The train got moving again and to our surprise, we were reversing out of Niš, this was good news as our carriage was now at the rear of the train.

As we kept moving we passed through the stunning Sićevo Gorge where the train followed a narrow track along the Nišava river, it was absolutely brilliant! I stood by the filthy rear window to try and get a few pictures, almost all of them are completely unusable but the view was fantastic nonetheless.

As we were passing through the conductor reappeared and woke the two French girls who it turns out had no ticket and no money. I can’t quite remember what happened but I think they sort of handed over whatever they had left - a very strange situation which left the conductor quite cross.

Passing through the gorge we were on the final leg through to Sofia. About halfway through, we reached Dimitrovgrad which is the border town between Serbia and Bulgaria. We stopped at the station and were boarded by Serbian officials who collected up everyone’s passports while briefly checking the photos. Everyone on the train waited in a rather confused state hoping that we would see our passports once again. After about 15 minutes or so the men returned and in reverse order to their collection redistributed the freshly-stamped passports to passengers.

The train continued into Bulgaria where we promptly stopped once again for another passport check. Rinse and repeat of the last encounter except for this time we weren’t blessed with any ink as we had returned to an EU member state (although not in the Schengen area). At this point I think the driver swapped with the train on the other line, presumably he was from the Bulgarian State Railways rather than the Serbian counterpart.

The journey through Bulgaria to Sofia was quiet and uneventful, the train continued on and we arrived right on time, 20:30 EEST. Our 11 hour and 20 minute trip had taken us 203 miles as the crow flies from Belgrade, our longest day time train yet and we were quite tired despite having done nothing but sit down for an entire day.

Belgrade, Serbia

After spending an entire day on a train the day before we woke ready to explore the city of Belgrade. Weather was in our favour and pulling the curtains we saw everything for the first time in daylight, Europe was truly behind us, we were now in a place that neither of us were familiar, with another currency and another language - one which we had no chance in deciphering!

Outside the window of the Mercure Excelisor we were presented with the House of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, a huge building which during WW2 is was used by the German High Command for Southern Europe - quite the building to pick! The view from the hotel was certainly better than the Ibis Budget, despite booking the cheapest room available. There were many cheaper hotels, but we thought we’d play it safe expected we’d need some proper rest.

We got ourselves ready and enjoyed the luxury of being able to leave our things in the hotel room, taking just what we needed for the day. That doesn’t sounds like a big deal, but after lugging a backpack around it really is liberating. With the confusion of the train station now behind us we thought it’d be worthwhile to walk to where we thought we were going to end up yesterday: The Main Railway Station. Turns out that is very closed and had been for the last year, the station building was in a much more central location, right on the banks of the Sava and easily accessible from most of Belgrade. The station was surrounded by plenty of traffic and of course, trams which clinked and screeched their way along the waterfront.

We headed North keeping the Sava to our left and absorbed the sights and smells. This part of the city is clearly under regeneration, there is a mix of construction and abandoned buildings, many seemed very historic but all were covered in graffiti and overgrown. We later learned that there is a significant government-led project to regenerate the waterfront, there will even be a St Regis hotel! Presumably this is the reason for closing the train station, perhaps why so many buildings were vacant too.

Continuing on we found ourselves at Kalemegdan Park, Belgrade’s most significant monument - the park is absolutely huge and takes up an enormous amount of land on the tip between the Danube and the Sava. Walking up to the park we were able to see the rivers and the two islands which split the Danube. The park itself was very well kept, with gardeners pruning trees and cutting grass, an interesting contrast to the derelict buildings we were walking past just a few minutes ago. There was history everywhere, from pieces of old wall to mounds it was a very interesting place.

Owen and I realised at this stage that 1. we had not done enough research for where to go, 2. we hadn’t brought enough water and 3. we should have brought some local currency. It was beginning to get pretty warm and the few places we passed that were selling water didn’t accept credit-cards. We soldiered on and found ourselves at a Military Museum which was located between the fortresses walls. This place was enormous! I’ve never seen so many tanks, howitzers, AA-guns, torpedos, boats and whatever the rocket thing is in the picture below. We wandered around all the exhibits and were able to identify several WW2 German and Soviet tanks. It was an absolutely fantastic display of military engineering, oddly most of it was just sitting in grass as if it had been dumped. Disappointingly though, we weren’t able to visit the inside of the museum as they didn’t take card. Whoops.

With it getting ever-hotter we thought it sensible to properly try and find something to drink. we continued to walk around the fortress walls and eventually came across the very impressive, mid 15th century Zindan Gate. While the gate was lovely, just around the corner was a pizzeria and what would be our oasis in the desert. It was hidden down a really rather spooky set of stairs but opened up to a beautiful terrace with views across the river and down into what looked to be a Zoo(!). There was nobody else in the restaurant but we sat down and soon enough we had a drink in our hands.

We enjoyed an impossibly large £5.70 pizza and plenty of delicious, fresh cold beer. It was absolutely perfect. We sat and enjoyed the view, soaked up the sun (well, I did - Owen had a fleece on) and for the first time on the trip laughed about how far we’d come on the train, all this way, to such a different place in about 36-hours. It felt very different having arrived over land (and under the channel), we felt like we had earned our right to be sitting where we were - we hadn’t cheated by jumping on a 3-hour flight.

Fed and watered we made a deal with the Pizzeria to let Owen leave his fleece behind the bar, promising that we’d return later in the afternoon for more beer. It was time for us to hit what we were now sure was a Zoo. Despite the blistering heat it wasn’t a long walk and luck was in our favour because the Zoo accepted credit-cards! I’ve been to many-a-zoo in my expectations were that this would be a rinky-dink operation with a couple of goats and a parrot, perhaps a monkey or two. I was wrong. We learned during our visit that I am an idiot and don’t know anything about zoos because this zoo had plenty crazy-critters to go around, almost 150 different types and what’s better is after our visit I learned that Belgrade Zoo is kind of a big deal and has very some cool history. My two favourite facts are: 1. It holds the worlds oldest alligator, Muja who was born in 1936. Regretfully we spent all of 20 seconds looking at him, because we just thought he was a regular old-ass alligator. 2. In 1989 after his visit to Belgrade for the 9th Non-Aligned Movement Summit, Muammar Gaddafi donated six Arabian Camels which he travelled with in order to ensure he had fresh camel milk. I can’t corroborate the later fact, but I thought it hilarious regardless.

The Zoo did have some very cool animals and we spent a lot longer than we expected walking around and enjoying our time. We were absolutely the only visitors who spoke English and it made it kind of fun because all of the signs were in Serbian Cyrillic and impossible for us to even attempt to understand. My favourite animals were the Balkan Lynx (which is critically endangered), the Black Leopard and African Ostrich (because I find them hilarious). Joking aside, the zoo was good, but it certainly doesn’t receive the best funding and in comparison to Western-European zoos the animals really do have tiny enclosures, which is kind of sad.

We headed back to the Pizzeria and had another quick beer and drew up our game-plan for getting back to the hotel and getting some food. The strategy was simple: Walk back to the hotel and have a rest. Walking back took us through the main part of Kalemegdan Park which had even better views of the river than where we were in the morning. There was a very cool vibe around the park with people doing archery, some chilling with a picnic, some people doing slackline and others exploring the ancient walls. We continued our walk and eventually made our way back to the city, we were both very exhausted but before long were back at the hotel, very sweaty.

The following day’s travel plan was the sketchy bit of the trip. We were to take a train from a station on the outskirts of the city to Sofia in Bulgaria, it was a full-day train ride and all of the blogs I had read suggested bringing plenty of food and drink. If the train wasn’t working or delayed, we would be pretty screwed for the rest of the trip so it was pretty important that we were ready. After a quick shower we headed to the store downstairs to stock up for tomorrow. We bought plenty of beer, water, Haribo and snacks. On the train to Belgrade we learnt that some cheese, bread and salami makes for quite the cost effective the meal so grabbed some essentials for this too.

The construction of the bread rolls was kind of difficult, the hotel room only had a spoon in which to slice open our rolls. We used some British ingenuity and dismantled a disposable razor and fashioned a knife which worked surprisingly well. In the below picture you can also see our improvised sock/underwear drying rack which also worked very well indeed. I assure you that is the genuine reason for it, we weren’t trying to flag down Belgradian talent from our fancy hotel.

Picnic prepared and continuing our theme of improvisation we emptied the hotel mini-bar of it’s treasures and carefully filled it with tomorrow’s food and drink, so that it is as cold as possible in the morning. We dressed ourselves up and headed out on the town for some farewell food and beers. The concierge recommended that we head to Skadarlija which is a trendy street of bars and restaurants. Once we found it, it was completely as advertised, a trendy, hip cobbled street, which was just about off of the tourist path, but only if you didn’t speak to the hotel concierge, but it was certainly no La Rambla and had a good vibe. We found a decent bar, checked the train times for tomorrow a couple more times and watched the world go by. Wanting to keep things simple (and to satisfy Owen’s desires) we grabbed a Serbian McDonalds for dinner and headed back to the hotel. A long, hot, but very fun day. Onwards east! …and back to the EU, briefly.

Train to Turkey - Leg 6 - Zagreb to Belgrade

With an hour before our train we didn’t have much time to spend in Zagreb and we were very keen to make sure we don’t miss the train. We left the station and headed towards to city in search of supplies for the trip ahead. We failed, but probably went the wrong way or something. The parts of the city we did see were good, a very different Croatia to that in Dubrovnik. Giving up on our quest for food we walked back to the station and managed to find a small convenience store, there were a few other backpackers here too which was a good sign. With limited options we stocked up on beer, bread, cheese and salami.

After a short wait on a buy platform a train turned up which looked like it could be ours, it was longer than I expected. We were waiting in the wrong part of the platform, all the rear carriages were on their way to somewhere in Austria and only the front two carriages were headed to Belgrade. We figured this out after seeing our two Canadian friends boarding there. Also boarding were a 30-strong female dance troop, much to Owen’s dismay.

On the train we found ourselves searching for a compartment, both carriages consisted of 6-seater compartments with a sliding door - very old school. We settled into a cabin with a Slovenian guy who had bagged the best seat, facing forwards and by the window. The group of girls were frantically searching for somewhere to sit until about 10 minutes in they decided that they had reserved several of the compartments and kicked people out. Our friends who had sat in an adjacent cabin were among the victims and ended up sitting with us.

The train set off under electric power with a big red locomotive at the front and before we knew it we were out of the city and heading across Croatia. It was quickly getting pretty warm, and we opened the window to get some air in our small compartment. The bloke who was already here wasn’t too happy and insisted that we only have a small part of the window open. Owen was pretty hot and made a bit of a cake of it, sure it was warm but it wasn’t like we were in the Sahara desert or anything. As the countryside passed us by we saw sunflower fields, corn fields and rapeseed oil plants too. It was field after field after field, the land was flat and the track felt like it was built by the romans, straight as an arrow. Thankfully this meant that the engine got some speed up and there were times where it was recalling making some pace.

It was a long journey, we managed to enjoy it for the most part, drinking some beers, eating our sandwiches which we constructed on the train and of course smashing out some blogs too. We spent time sharing stories with Tony and Helen who we later learned had taken a similar journey in the 1980s where before they had met had even crossed paths(!). The best story they told was during a camp when a black bear had stuck his snout on their tent, which was a frightening thought!

The train itself was good, the journey was nothing to complain about and made good headway. The toilet wasn’t ideal but we had some water so were able to wash our hands. Since it was a straightforward drop onto the track there wasn’t much to go wrong, although I wouldn’t have wanted to be a girl! Seats were comfortable and the cabins covered into three beds, the girls in the adjacent cabin had a bit of a party in theirs and were having the time of their lives! The music could be heard when the door was open but otherwise wasn’t a problem.

At the Serbian boarder we had a ‘Papers please!’ Situation, a Croatian policeman checked passports as we left the train then moved into Serbia where we were boarded once again for another check, this time we were stamped but again a very painless process. We had accumulated late-ness on our way and arrived into Belgrade about 60mins late, which wasn’t really a problem. The last stretch into Belgrade was painful, it was slow and since we knew we were close took an extra long amount of time.

We pulled into Belgrade Centre Station which still seems to be under construction, mostly by China Railways. This wasn’t the station I was expecting and with no mobile data proved to be a bit of a problem. Luckily there was a city map printed on the wall so we were able to find a route towards the hotel. A Hot and sweaty 4km walk later we found ourselves at the hotel. It was a pleasant sight, we were tired, hot and in need of a shower!

This was the first decent hotel of the trip, we were staying at the Mercure Excelsior at 70 euros a night wasn’t too bad either. We dragged ourselves out in search of food and walking down the main shopping street found lots of small bistro restaurants. A beer was £1.30 the food was equally cheap and we had no complaints. We had made it to Belgrade.