Monday, September 17, 2012

Belgrade, Serbia – The Final Frontier

These are the voyages of the Backpackers Wokich… our continuing mission. To explore new lands, to reach out and touch historic civilizations, to eat weird foods that we’ve never eaten before!

Belgrade is one of the world’s great frontiers. The Sava river joins the Danube in Belgrade at the magnificent Kalamagden Fortress. There have been over 100 recorded battles for this fortress as well as evidence of neolithic camps inside the fortress. At times in it’s past, it’s been the southernmost border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the northernmost border of the Ottomans, the edge of the Roman Empire and many have considered it the edge of the Christian world. It was the end of the Greek alphabet and the beginning of the Cyrillic alphabet, with letters like ? and Π entering into street names. We are reaching the end of Europe.
And which of these unique nd interesting cultural experiences did we come to Belgrade to enjoy? Why the floating hostel of course!
We found ArkaBarka Floating Hostel on as they were in the “rare and unique hostels” list. When the opportunity presented itself, we just had to give it a shot.
The day didn’t start for us so well though, as we got onto the 7:55am train from Mostar, Bosnia to Belgrade, Serbia and realized we had packed no food, nor was there any sort of dining cart on the train. We did our best to stoically wait out the ride, but when some nice Serbian ladies came into our cabin and offered us some snacks we just couldn’t say no. Just to be polite, of course.
Once again, it was dark by the time we exited the train station in downtown Belgrade. A young woman named Tara helped us find the right bus and before long we were on the 83 heading towards “New Belgrade”. We got off by the Usce city park and walked across what seemed like a really sketchy parking lot, only to find a well-populated and well-lit trail going up and down the Danube. We turned right and walked 3/4 of a mile in the wrong direction before turning around. If we had turned left, we would have been right on top of it. Oh well.
The hostel itself was a two story houseboat floating right on top of the river. The common room downstairs had glass windows looking out over the river and towards War Island. I have no idea why it’s called War Island because it’s a bird sanctuary.
Unfortunately, when you have a houseboat, you have mosquitoes, so we spent the evening hunting down mosquito repellant.
The next day saw us take a trip into the Old Town of Belgrade, walk the streets and end up at Kalamagden Fortress. It was quite interesting to see the different additions that have been made over the years as the core of it is a large stone defensive wall overlooking where the Danube and the Sava join. Nevertheless, people have been building on it, upgrading it, leveling the ground and whatnot since the beginning of recorded history. There’s archealogical digs going on right outside the fortress and others that are likely to begin to discover more about every inch of the old building.
Not to worry, there’s still plenty of modern uses for it as well. Next week there will be a huge concert inside.
For dinner we went to Skadarska, which is the “Bohemian Part” of Belgrade. Cobblestoned streets and restaurants lined the car-free zone which was dominated by white table-cloths and waiters in slacks. Even though it looked to be a bit of the high-rent district it was still pretty reasonable, with full dinner plates available for $7. One of the things that surprised me was the wandering musicians. It truly reminded me of Mexican restaurants at home where the mariachi band comes and sings at your table while you smile at them awkwardly. This was very similar. The instrumentation was different, as there was a stand-up bass, guitar, violin and accordian. We still smiled at them awkwardly.
I ordered a chevapi and Leslie ordered a stroganoff, but the thing that really stuck out to us was a shopska salad. Tomato, cucumber, a tad bit of onion and some shredded cheese. I think it was sheep cheese, but whatever it was, it was really good.
The second day saw us wake up and get close to going out on the town. Then we thought, “wait?” why did we come here? We spent the majority of the day hanging out on deck at the floating hostel. Sure, we missed Tito’s Mausoleum, but we had some floating to do! I think we were also worn out from the adventure with Bata in Mostar in the last blog.
That night we made it back to Skaparska, and took care of the important business of figuring out our next destination. We were looking for an overnight train to Istanbul, but none existed, so instead, we bought tickets for the overnight train to Varna, Bulgaria, which is a coastal city on the Black Sea.
The night trains in Eastern Europe have been much more pleasant than the Western European ones, but I think that’s because we’ve actually sprung for proper sleeping accomodation in Eastern Europe. By day, there are second class private cabins that comfortably sit 8, but at night, beds fold out of the walls and six people can squish into the bunks quite well. You get an opportunity to meet your bunkmates and it’s always an adventure.
When we boarded the night train we found an empty cabin, six beds already folded out and four with two sheets and a ratty, disgusting pillow. No pillow case, no blanket. We put one sheet down, wrapped a sheet around the pillow and hopped into our bunks right before a couple young ladies from England joined us.
We had the two middle bunks, they had the bottom. Unfortunately, one of their bunks was broken, so Katie made the climb up to the top of the bunk using a small metal ladder. Once she was up, we took down the ladder and she was stuck.
Pillowcases were a must, so Leslie went and asked if we could have some. No dice. Then I tried. Still no luck.
Leslie than snuck into the linin cabin and grabbed four more sheets for the lot of us. (Don’t tell the Serbian train people). Later, as it was getting cold she went back and grabbed full blankets.
We slept pretty well, which is to be expected on these night trains. Unfortunately, the other thing you can expect is to be late. We rolled into Sofia, Bulgaria at noon, four hours after we were due to arrive. As you can guess, we missed our connection. In fact, we missed the next train to Varna as well. Our ticket was still good for the train leaving at 10pm, which would have meant back-to-back night trains. Yuck.
We learned our lesson (don’t book onward transportation when traveling internationally), decided to eat the $40 on the train to Varna and grabbed a bus. We were supposed to be in Varna with our train about 3pm. Instead, it’s 8:12pm and I’m writing this blog on a bus traveling through the Bulgarian countryside.
At least we’ll make it to Varna today.

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