I say adieu to my father and head to the Istanbul otogar (bus station). My next destination is Dubrovnik, Croatia, and unfortunately there are several Balkan states in the way. Ethnic and national divisions run deep in the Balkans, and as a consequence there is little demand for bus service, so I prepare for a long, uncomfortable journey.
Istanbul to Sophia
I leave Istanbul at 23:00 on a bus operated by Metro Bulgaria. The bus is reasonably comfortable, but I find it hard to sleep. At 2:00 in the morning the bus stops for two hours at the Turkey/Bulgaria border. 8 hours later, we roll into a small bus station in Sophia, Bulgaria.
I climb off the bus, grab my luggage, and shuffle off in search of an onward bus ticket. There are several dozen stalls selling tickets to all sorts of places, but unfortunately all of the signs are written in Bulgarian, using the Cyrillic alphabet, and I have no idea what anything says. To make things more difficult, many places have different names in the local languages. For example, Greece is Yunanistan, and Montenegro is Karadag.
An agent in one of the booths takes pity on me and asks, in English, if she can help. She is wearing shiny skin-tight leggings and a revealing white blouse, and a waterfall of curly black hair cascades down her back. She issues me a ticket on the next (and only) bus to Niš, Serbia, which leaves in 5 minutes, but there is a problem; she will only accept payment in Bulgarian lev (the local currency), in cash—no credit cards, and no dollars. I rush to a currency exchange booth to change some Turkish lira into lev at an extortionary rate, sprint back to the agent to pay for my ticket, and without waiting for change, vault onto the bus just as it pulls out of the station.
When the bus reaches the Serbian border, I am singled out for inspection, and am told to bring my luggage to the customs building. The agent searches every pouch and zipper, spilling the contents of my bag onto the stainless steel table like a dog tearing fluff from a stuffed animal. Once he is satisfied that I am not carrying drugs or guns, he leaves me to reassemble the wreckage. Back on the bus, another passenger whispers to me that I could have avoided the hassle by folding a five-euro note into my passport.
A half-day in Niš
Several hours later, my bus arrives in Niš, Serbia. After a trip to the tourist information office, I learn that my next bus leaves in the evening (payment only in local currency cash, of course), so I have half a day to explore the city. Neither the tourism office nor the bus station has a left luggage service, so I strap on my backpack and start my whirlwind tour.
I get around the city on local buses, which are decades out of date and cost practically nothing to ride. In a throwback to communist times, the fare is still collected by an attendant in an apron who wanders up and down the aisle. Most of the passengers evade the fare by waving her off. Nobody seems to mind or care.
For a city that I’ve never heard of, Niš has a lot to offer. The Roman emperor Constantine was born here, and many ruins from that era still survive in a large central park. In fact, Niš is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and at one time it was a central meeting place between East and West. Unfortunately, this also placed it on the warpath in the endless battles between East and West, making it a target for occupation by, among others, the Romans, Huns, Slavs, Greeks, Ottomans, and Nazis. Most were not kind to the city; the Ottoman army even built a tower studded with the skulls of its vanquished foes as a poignant reminder of what happens to resistors. The Serbian government has since built, for unclear reasons, a second, windowless, tower around the skull tower, and when I visit it is inexplicably locked shut. I guess I’ll try again the next time I have a layover in Niš.
With several hours to spare, I decide to treat myself to a nice meal in the city’s café and nightlife district. I am amazed by the variety on the menu. Pasta! Steak! Salad! Seafood! Pages of cocktails, beer and wine! After spending more than a month eating off the limited menus of Central Asia, Iran, and Turkey, I feel overwhelmed. I’m unable to decide on a theme, and end up ordering a huge plate of pasta, a beer, an Irish coffee, and tiramisu.
Stuffed and happy, I wander back to the station to catch my next bus, this time to the seaside town of Herceg Novi, Montenegro.
The road to Herceg Novi
The journey to Montenegro is cramped and slow, and it takes over 15 hours to follow the honeycomb of small roads that link the various Serbian cities. The path is not as direct as it could be because Kosovo is in the way. The bus itself is old and in disrepair; water sloshes around in the broken seal between the panes of window glass, and one of the overhead bins keeps popping its latch and crashing down. The spring mechanism in my seat is broken, dooming me to a very upright night’s sleep. A couple of passengers in the back surreptitiously smoke cigarettes throughout the trip.
Despite the discomfort, the landscape is beautiful. The steep hills are covered in deep green forests, and there is little sign of the environmental degradation that I have become accustomed to seeing. Red-roofed villages peek out unexpectedly from behind the hills, only to disappear when we drive around the next bend. I feel like I’m alone inside a fairytale forest. At the border crossing with Montenegro I’m not even required to get off the bus. Afterwards I fall into a fitful sleep
I wake up several hours later to a breathtaking view. The town of Budvici is below me, and as we wind down the bluffs I see an expanse of sparkling blue water—the Adriatic Sea. A few hours later, part of which is spent waiting in a disorganized jumble of vehicles to get on a ferry that connects two sides of a narrow bay, I arrive in Herceg Novi. I stumble off the bus, tired and agitated, and into a tiny paradise.
Welcome to the Adriatic
I arrive in Herceg Novi two hours behind schedule, and as a consequence my onward bus to Dubrovnik is just about to leave. I flag down the driver and try to buy a ticket, but, once again, he will only accept the local currency in cash. I am surprised to learn that Montenegro is in the Euro zone, and I curse myself for not packing a small stash of euros. The bus leaves without me.
With five hours to kill, I wander down the footpath to the town center to grab breakfast. Quaint stone buildings are built around several small and welcoming squares. A handful of tourists sit at an open-air café, enjoying the flowers and birdsong. I sit down for a cappuccino and pastry in the square and instantly feel rejuvenated. It is absolutely enchanting. The setting is so perfect that I even feel inspired to start reading one of the many I-should-really-read-this-one-day novels that I brought with me.
After eating a big bowl of delicious stew, I wander back to the bus station, euros in hand, to buy my ticket to Dubrovnik. For no particular reason, the attendant refuses to sell me a ticket until one hour before the scheduled departure time, and there is no left luggage. The enchantment is broken, and I realize that I’m still in the Balkans after all. I flag a taxi and negotiate a rate of 30 euros—half price—to take me across the border to Dubrovnik.