Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sofia, Bulgaria

A series of three exhausting bus rides carried us from Dubrovnik, Croatia, to Sofia, Bulgaria, where we are now spending our final day.

Along the way, we stopped off in a picturesque, laid-back seaside town in Montenegro, called Herzeg Novi, and the rough-edged but friendly city of Nis, in Serbia.  The trip required numerous frustrating waits at border checkpoints, and a dizzying change of currencies, which affected everything from our ability to use pay toilets, to buying onward bus tickets.

Over the space of two days, we went from the Croatian kuna to the euro (Montenegro) to the dinar (Serbia) to the lev (Bulgaria.)  At one point, I had four different currencies in my pocket, and literally did not have the right change to pay for a bathroom visit. (Nearly all public toilets in the countries we have visited charge a small fee.)

Our first and only near-disaster occurred when we arrived in Montenegro, where we immediately went to an ATM to withdraw euros, and found out our bank had shut off our ATM cards.  No problem, I thought, I'll just cash in some U.S. dollars I had stashed in my money belt for just such an occurrence.  Unfortunately, that particular Friday was a bank holiday.  A friendly local smiled as we tried the door in vain.  "Monday," he said.  Herzeg Novi also had no money changing bureaus, so it looked like we were stuck.

We showed up at the local tourist office, sweating like longshoremen and a tiny bit desperate.  Ana, a kind woman who worked there, took pity on us and withdrew money from her own bank account to exchange for our left-over Croatian kuna, a real life-saver.  Luckily, we were able to get ahold of our bank via Skype and quickly resolve our ATM card problem.

We spent a hot, dusty day in Nis, Serbia, awaiting our afternoon bus to Sofia.  We checked out a local mall (mostly for the AC) and visited the "Tower of Skulls," the biggest local attraction.  The 200-year old stone tower was built by the Turks, who incorporated the skulls of killed Serbian soldiers to intimidate the local population.

Rolling into Sofia, we saw Gypsy slums of tin-roofed shacks, which didn't bode well.  But the center of Sofia is very nice, with its museums, monuments, and tree-shaded pedestrian promenades lined with upscale shops and cafes.  Our hotel is great, with AC, a restaurant built around a greenhouse, and very friendly staff.

Tonight, we board a sleeper train for Bucharest, Romania.  When we asked the ticket agent if the train had AC, she said "maybe," and shrugged.  "It's a Russian train," she said, as if that explained everything, even the lack of a dining car or locking compartment doors.  Her colleague said to tell the conductor where we wanted to get off; otherwise, she said, we might end up in Moscow, the train's final stop.

Here are photos of a street near our hotel, Sofia's Alexander Nevski cathedral and the Rila Monastery near Sofia.

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