Touring the Balkans by Bus, Part 1: Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia

Caught between an olfactory Scylla and Charybdis: diesel exhaust and dust on one hand, boiled ham and dandruff on the other. To open the window and let in the reeking night, or to keep it shut tight and endure the putrid bus interior? I vacillated.

I simultaneously loathed and admired the driver as he texted while doing 80 km/h over pothole-marked mountain roads. Life is meaningless, I thought, and it all spirals down to an entropic catastrophe in Serbia. Might as well end right here on this nameless road to Skopje. What the hell.

The driver passed a bicycle, a tractor, and a Datsun pickup pulling a trailer full of cabbages in one go. All while sharing a joke with a passenger over his shoulder, his lit cigarette bobbing up and down with the telling. The man was a lunatic demigod with a death wish, and I desperately searched for a relatively still point in the distance. A tower light or a tree in silhouette. A focal point to settle my queasy stomach and distract me from the lady chewing her egg sandwich with an open mouth.

These are the words I wrote while we were actually on the bus, bouncing our way at breakneck speed through the Balkan states. I include them here because they are the unadulterated truth of the moment, a raw glimpse into the often less-than-glamorous reality of world travel.

We had planned to complete a self-driving loop of the Balkan states, renting a car in Athens and taking our time venturing from one scenic town to the next. Then working our way up through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina before turning west and south through Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia to arrive once again in Greece.

Angela and I grew increasingly excited about the national parks, mountain lakes, and coastal fortresses on our immediate itinerary as we were wrapping up our time in Athens. Then I checked the details of the rental agreement and discovered that Greek rental agencies don’t allow their cars to be driven outside of the country. Uh-oh.

It was a problem we had encountered before—in Latvia, in Romania, and again in Georgia—but we always managed to find a workaround that allowed the driving loop to continue as planned. Not so in this case. With the Balkan driving loop, we were forced to punt. Which is how we ended up in Thessaloniki and, just a few days later, riding a bus with egg sandwich lady.

For the entirety of this bus adventure, we relied almost exclusively on the website Rome2rio.com, finding it particularly helpful for planning bus, train, and ferry routes when getting from one place to the next requires a combination of transport modes.

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Our bus route through the Balkans

Bulgaria

Although we spent a night along the way in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, the capital city of Sofia was our first real stop after leaving Thessaloniki. Our original plans had included a visit to Pirin National Park along the way. But this time we had to settle for a bus ride through the foothills.

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The Pirin National Park that we didn’t get to see (image via Lonely Planet)

And, even from a distance, the sun playing along the mountain tops was magical. The kind of sight that makes you miss a place even though you are looking at it right then. I vowed to arm myself with adequate knowledge of rental car policies and return for an extended exploration of Bulgaria’s mountains someday.

But our consolation prize was still beautiful. We arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, road weary but full of the need to make the ride worthwhile. We booked into the Budapest Hotel just on the outskirts of the city’s historic center yet conveniently located within a five-minute walk of the central bus station.

Following our practice of seeing the city on a ten-mile walk, we meandered through the old city, remarking at the eclectic mix of Soviet-era monuments standing alongside the churches and cathedrals of Bulgaria’s deeply religious past. With gaudy casino façades and humble gambling houses gracing every city block, like the prolific street art, almost in defiance of both religious temperance and the lingering Soviet history.

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And weaving through it all, like a current of electricity connecting the elements of the past to a future of possibilities, was a healthy dose of entrepreneurship and capitalism. Small shops and popup markets filled every available space with bustling optimism. It is both regrettable and extremely fortunate that I didn’t have room to spare in my luggage. Otherwise, I would have blown the budget on Soviet military badges and coins.

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Serbia

We were treated with a brilliant sunset over the Nišava River as we rolled into Niš, Serbia, just catching glimpses of it between the low buildings. Perhaps the most frustrating part of traveling by bus instead of car is the inability to stop on a whim when the sunset demands it. But Angela is fast on the camera shutter and often manages to catch the beautiful things before they disappear.

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We stayed at the Garni Hotel Zen, because, well, we needed some zen. Although the estimated travel time between Sofia and Niš was listed at three hours, it took nearly twice that long to make the trip due to long queues at the border crossing between Bulgaria and Serbia. And with this, our third bus on the Balkan adventure, we had already started noticing a disturbing trend. The buses were getting older, smaller, and less reliable.

But the hotel was a lovely oasis in what is an otherwise grim city (sorry, Niš). As main attractions, they have a fortress, a former Nazi concentration camp, and a tower made out of human skulls.

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Image via visitnis.com

The skulls are those of Serbian rebels who were defeated by the Ottomans at the Battle of Čegar in 1809. The tower was erected by the Ottomans as a warning to others who dared to oppose their rule. Once the Ottoman empire came to an end, the Serbians enshrined the tower and payed homage to their countrymen by building a chapel over it.

I love a good war story, and this is an excellent one, if you would like to read more.

Macedonia*

Long before we were prepared for it, Angela and I had to board yet another bus, this time bound for Skopje, Macedonia. I’ve already related the travel experience through my opening words for this blog post, so I won’t go into any more gory detail here other than to say it was a nightmare.

And at the conclusion of a nightmare, all you really want to do is sleep. Peacefully.

So we booked a night at the surprisingly comfortable Hotel Super 8 and, instead of walking about Skopje, chose to sightsee from the comfort of our balcony. With views of the Millennium Cross in the distance, Kale Fortress at our back door, and a sorely-earned scotch nightcap in hand, we took in a tiny bit of the city before saying goodnight.

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The view of Kale Fortress from our balcony

Our bus bound for Tirana, Albania, left early the next morning, providing us with just enough time to scarf down some breakfast and catch a cab back to the central bus station. As we had already done so many times on this trip around the world, we had to sacrifice a full experience with a place just to make it to the next one on time.

Sorry, Macedonia; you get the short stick this trip. We’ll be back though. You can count on it.

Up next: Touring the Balkans by Bus, Part 2: Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina

* Some people get offended by the reference to Macedonia as anything other than FYROM (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). While I appreciate the discussion and the need for acceptable nomenclature on both sides, referring to Macedonia as FYROM makes for sloppy writing. But that’s just my opinion.

 

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