A short trip through the Balkans! Day 12 of my trip around the world.
I open my eyes and it is still dark in the rocking coach. The bus driver says over the intercom that we are about to arrive in Venice. I slowly wake up and look through the window as we drive through Mestre and Venice. I remember back in about 2010, when I first rode my bike together with my buddy Ingo over the Alps and arrived in Venice.
But that is another story, which I will tell you at a later time. After that, I remember the second time I was here in the city with my then partner. Now I'm here a third time, but not to visit the city, because I'm just changing buses at four in the morning in the dark and I'm already going on to Zagreb. I revel a little in these memories and look back to this time with a slight smile on my face. This trip was the first such self-planned trip and was the beginning of my many future adventures. While still waiting for the bus, I recognize in the darkness outlines of other tired figures who, like me, are waiting for a tour bus to get to their next destination. I watch two Japanese men trying to dismantle their trekking bikes in the dim light of their headlamps so they can be stowed on the bus for the onward journey. I freeze a tiny bit, as I was dressed for a sunny day in Rome and not a cold, dark night in Venice. It wasn't quite 30 minutes before a big green tour bus came by the square of weary figures and made a U-turn. I check the three-digit number stuck on the windshield with the bus number of my online reservation on my cell phone and now know that this is my next bus to Zagreb. The heavy and bulky equipment moves back into the undercarriage and I climb the steps up into the coach. I sit down in any seat I like, because I don't think there is a seating system on this trip, make myself comfortable and fall asleep again on the spot. While I sleep, we continue on to Croatia via Trieste and Ljubljana in Slovenia.
It's a shame to just drive through Slovenia without visiting the country, because I can tell you, Slovenia and especially the national parks are beautiful and definitely worth a trip.
On the Slovenian flag you can see a mountain with three peaks in the upper left corner. This is the so-called Triglav and the Slovenians say that you can only call yourself a real Slovenian if you have climbed this mountain. Triglav absolutely fascinated me at that time, I was almost alone on the Bamberg via ferrata and would visit this country again at any time.
There are two prevailing thoughts in my mind at this time. On the one hand, I would like to take my time and travel by bus, train and/or hitchhike through Eastern Europe and get to know our eastern neighbors even better via Couchsurfing. Because at that time I was only for mountaineering in almost all European countries and left the cities and culture rather left. This trip would now be the ideal occasion to do so. At the same time, however, I feel an enormously strong urge to get to Istanbul quickly and make my further travel plans and preparations, because this would be a completely new experience for me, since I already know Europe very very well. In Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, most passengers get off and a few join them.
It goes on to Croatia and I close my eyes again, because I am still dog-tired. Half an hour before Zagreb I wake up again and am glad that I can stretch my legs soon.
Finally arriving in Zagreb at the bus station, I strap on my backpack and head to the train station to find train connections to Belgrade or Sofia. Why do I want to travel by train so badly all the time? Because I thought train connections are cheap and convenient. I take a quick look at Google Maps to see where I am and the best way to get to the station. I see that there is a streetcar that could take me directly there. However, I've been sitting long enough for my taste and I can't wait to finally get my body moving again and put one foot in front of the other. I therefore set off on foot to the station and explore the city a little on the way.
After a short walk, I arrive at the station and am already happy that I can go part of the way by train to get a change from the uncomfortable coach. Full of expectation, I enter the station building and look for a ticket machine or counter, because online you can find almost no information or information about the schedules.
My hope to find a connection to Belgrade or Sofia was in vain. I search at the vending machine and ask station employees for connections, but unfortunately do not find anything. Except for Budapest, there are almost no IC connections from Zagreb to the surrounding countries. There is definitely a need to catch up in this area in Europe, we have over 27 different rail networks and providers and the networking of information is really poor for the technical possibilities in 2022. A functional, transparent and efficient rail system for Europe would really be an added value for many people and travelers and an alternative to air travel. In reality, flying or traveling by road by bus or car is much less complicated than traveling by train across Europe. Just imagine wanting to travel from Lisbon in Portugal to Athens in Greece by train, that would probably take some organizing skills. By car, it's also exciting, but not particularly complicated. The fastest, easiest and cheapest way is actually by plane. Budapest would of course be a great option, as I've only heard positive things about the city and a visit is definitely on my list. However, the city is located further northeast, whereas I would like to continuously head southeast. As already described, I am drawn out of Europe to Asia for various reasons and I give in to the urge. Somewhat disappointed that I have to take the coach again, I discard the idea with the train. There is another night bus from Zagreb to Sofia, which leaves the bus station at 10pm in the evening. So I decide to eat a little something and then explore the city a bit and look for a cafe again to continue writing and to work on the laptop, because there is still a lot to do.
I spend the entire rest of the day in this cafe, working non-stop on the laptop and writing down my thoughts. Back at the bus station, I book my next ticket to Sofia and in the evening I get back on the night bus that takes me there.
Day 13 / September 13th 2022 / Sofia
That night I am woken up more often, because we cross the border from Croatia to Serbia and from Serbia to Bulgaria, which brings us back into the EU.
Accordingly, the checks were more thorough and we couldn't just drive across the border without any problems. This means that I keep falling asleep for a few hours and then wake up for the passport control. We have to go out in the dark into the bright neon light while it is already cold outside. I looked around a bit and realized that the surrounding area is a bit more mountainous and that's possibly why it's so cool here. The control goes sometimes faster and sometimes slower, depending on how exactly, conscientiously or arbitrarily the border official carries out his task. So far, I had only ever shown my plastic card, i.e. my identity card, and never needed my passport. Some officials scrutinize me very closely, some just glance at me briefly to identify whether I am indeed the person on the ID card. Often they are surprised that I am of German origin and are asked about my roots. Those who are particularly familiar with the area immediately recognize the apparently obvious Arabic contours in my face. Especially the Bulgarian border guard asks me many questions, but I sense a benevolent interest and no interrogation. She asks if I have any friends in Bulgaria. I answered, "No, unfortunately not yet". She replied, "but now you have many friends in Bulgaria". She smiled at me and gave me back my identity card. Smiling inwardly, I got back on the bus, closed my eyes and tried to get some sleep during the rest of the ride.
Once in Sofia, I check my further travel options from the bus station to Greece, Thessaloniki and Athens, because the plan was to explore Athens for two days before going to Istanbul, and then possibly even travel to Istanbul by ferry. But again, the trip to Athens seemed more costly and time consuming than I would have liked. I had hoped that there would be an easy and cheap way to get from Athens to Istanbul by ferry from there, but there again my wishful thinking was too great and I could not find a suitable and cheap connection from afar or online. Flight connections can be found easily, but the ferry connections really leave much to be desired. Athens to Istanbul I thought, but is a brilliant connection by ferry, why does no one serves that. I immediately thought of my absolutely brilliant ferry crossing from Dublin in Ireland to Holyhead in Wales.
I had imagined this, but unfortunately it was only a dream.
At the same time I learned that there was a quite favorable possibility for the continuation of the journey by night bus from Sofia to Istanbul for 25€. Of course, this sounded very tempting. Therefore, I decided to go for the latter because, as I mentioned before, I feel a strong urge to get to Istanbul and leave the European continent. There are probably many reasons, first of all I already know Europe very well and Istanbul represents a new chapter for me and the real beginning of my adventure. At the same time, the cost situation in Istanbul or Turkey is simply much more favorable and grants me greater room for maneuver than the expensive cities in Europe. So it is decided, I pay at one of the counters, to a very bizarre Bulgarian woman, my ticket for the night bus from Sofia to Istanbul. She fills out a handwritten ticket and hands it to me after I pay 50 Lev in cash. This was quasi "old school" and not like the previous bookings via app. I leave my luggage with her and set off to explore the city during the day until the night bus leaves at 10pm. My first order of business, as is so common, is to find a nice cafe for breakfast, as I'm a bit hungry that morning and haven't eaten anything yet. So I go down to the metro and am amazed when I see the surprisingly refreshing "anime style" graffiti art in the catacombs.
I walk a bit further along the underground corridors and arrive at a station of barriers and counters. Apparently you can't pay with credit card anywhere here and, since I don't have any cash with me, I decide to walk into the city and explore it. First, I like the movement and in addition, you see more of the city than just the dark tunnels of the subway. So I walk along a big wide street leading to the city center and notice that the numerous chestnut trees along the way are already starting to shed their autumnal brown and yellow colored leaves. I look up into the treetops and marvel at a green, brown, yellow constellation of colors against a contrasting blue sky that rounds out the picture along with the strong shining morning sun. This image is enhanced by the city skyline, the buildings, churches, palaces and monuments that can be discovered everywhere. The perfect, finalizing accent is given by the approximately 2000 meter high mountain range in the south of the city. The combination of strong sun and cool air give this summer-like autumn day in Sofia an insanely great feel-good atmosphere.
Those of you who have already had the opportunity to get to know me better know that although I enjoy the sun, I also have a strong affinity for the cold. My relationship with the cold is a strange one, due to my past, which I may discuss in more detail at a later date or in another story. However, I believe that every high-altitude mountaineer, as I would call my discipline, must enter into one or another relationship with the cold. Whatever this relationship may be. The fact is, the cold is after our lives not only, but especially in the mountains. It gnaws at our mental and physical resilience and is mercilessly constant at high altitudes. Your only true adversary during mountaineering is our own flame, rather than our clothing, equipment, or a warm stove. Clothes certainly help, but they are useless without our own energy to warm them from within and thus keep them continuously warm. Oh... I realize I'm rambling again. I guess I'd better save these remarks for my "mountaineering book" or tell you more about it when I try to climb Mount Elbrus in Russia this fall/winter. I think this is a more suitable time to report about the "cold". Now on to the city center of Sofia. I observe again how the already awakened city has arrived in the morning or morning and performs its daily spectacle.
At this sight I feel as part of the human collective that belongs to the scenery and yet different, because I have decided to escape the everyday cycle of daily acquisition to discover another life model for me, which I hope to find on this journey and which is in harmony with my nature and my being. In the end, when I have found something for myself, I will probably also return to some form of cycle in (m)one home. Who knows what that may look like by then. For now, though, I'm opting for a forward, undefined vector that I allow to surprise me day by day. In short, while everyone else is striving to build regular routines and provide constant certainty in their lives so that everyday life seems easier to you, I've decided to do just the opposite. Every day something unplanned and unforeseen with an uncertain outcome that wants to be mastered over and over again. This is exactly what I need at the moment, because some routines at home have crushed me and taken away my breath. After a while I arrive in the center of the city. I remember those cobblestone streets lined by government buildings and palaces. I see myself in my mind's eye driving through these streets already three years ago in 2019 during my trip to Europe in my old, red VW T4 bus. At that time, I was on my way to Musala, the highest mountain in Bulgaria, which I climbed the following day.
At a nearby park, I find an appealing cafe where I want breakfast. I order a large coffee, a chocolate donut, something that looks like a piece of Oreo cake and a croissant. I sit down with my booty outside in front of the cafe and enjoy the previously described spectacle of the city and the atmosphere.
Following my breakfast, I sit there for a while and doze off again and again on the chair in the sun, dropping my head and eyelids. I jerk up two or three times, startled, and decide to take a nap on one of the many benches in the beautifully landscaped park next door, with its fountains, water features, and large, mighty, shady trees.
I drink my usual freshly squeezed orange juice. Shortly thereafter, I immediately fall asleep contentedly and doze off. The events of the city and the people around me continue to take their course and are hardly interested in me, as I lie there and try to compensate for my lack of sleep. After about two to three hours I wake up and feel something like hunger in my stomach area. A bit sleepy, I sit up and start looking for a suitable restaurant. Near the park I find a rather posh restaurant, which I had seen earlier on the way. I sit down at one of the tables and order a vegetarian quinoa mushroom risotto.
I can hardly believe it, because I finally manage to feed my body some vegetable proteins. In my home country, this classy restaurant would probably cost me a fortune, but for me it is exceedingly cheap due to the income discrepancy between Bulgaria and Germany.
Well fed, rested and invigorated, I am finally able to explore the city. I walk from the Bridge of Lions to the Rotunda of Saint George and Saint Petka Church, wander through green spaces and delight in the Russian Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski Church.
Passing the Crystal Garden and the Central Military Club, I walk towards the impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Before that, I marvel at the detailed King Samuil Monument and continue walking toward the church as I pass the Lion Sculpture and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral stands on a large round square of cobblestones surrounded by many fascinating buildings and the street runs around it in several lanes. It stands impressively in the center with its large golden dome and the light-colored masonry that massively and immovably supports the many roofs, towers, columns and domes. The large central dome shimmers golden above the other smaller round roofs below. These are light green, almost jade in color. At all four corners of the building, smaller golden domes are found at each of the entrances to the church.
Upon entering the church, it suddenly becomes very quiet and dark. There are a few candles lit and the interior appears very spacious, as there are no benches inside. The walls are also very dark and shimmer golden. The center, with the massive dome towering over it, reaches high with an impressive fresco inside. I walk respectfully through the church, as befits any holy house, regardless of religion, and marvel, as I do every time, at the craftsmanship and dedication of man and society to build such structures.
Full of recognition I leave the church, stroll further through the city lost in thought and slowly but gradually make my way back towards the bus station. I buy on the way back something to nibble and drink for the trip and discover again and again some misery in the form of homeless people and beggars. When I see something like this, I always wonder to what extent this life is freely chosen or lived this way due to unfortunate circumstances. I guess there are many stories and reasons behind it. My thoughts wander back to me and I arrive at the bus station. There I meet four French climbers , who are also on the way to Istanbul and Turkey. Somewhere in the center of Turkey they want to climb a multipitch tour on a 3000m peak together in two groups of two. Sounds like a great plan and I am amazed when I hear that one of them has the ability to climb a 9+ according to the German scale. That's way beyond what I'm capable of. My best climbing probably doesn't get above a 7+. But then, I'm not a climber, I'm a mountaineer. That's something completely different, so to speak. You ask me if I would like to go into town with you and have dinner together. But since I have just come from town and am not hungry, I gratefully decline the offer. In the surrounding stores of the bus station I spend my last Bulgarian cash and get on the night bus to Istanbul at 10 pm. Once again, I put my headphones in my ears and listen to a short audio book about the Ottoman Empire, ancient Constantinople and Byzantium. Reveling in thoughts of the Orient and admiring the low, large, orange-yellow waning moon, I unconsciously close my tired eyes and fall asleep.
It's an uncomfortable, often interrupted sleep. Not really soothing or restful, but at least it's some sleep and rest.