Exploring the Balkans: Bulgaria and Serbia

September 18, 2012

The Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe is home to about 50 million people. This peninsula is bordered by the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Aegean Sea and Adriatic Sea. The Balkans comprise the countries of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, European Turkey and Bulgaria. While here, we visited the countries of Bulgaria and Serbia and targeted one destination in each country to explore.

In Bulgaria, we chose to visit Veliko Tarnovo, as it is one of the country’s oldest and most picturesque cities. We traveled to Bulgaria from Romania and found it difficult to find a train that would get us there. In fact, the only train going to Veliko Tarnovo from Romania was one bound for Istanbul, Turkey. This train contained only sleeper cars, so even though we would only be traveling on it from about 1:00 pm to 7:00 pm, we had to pay the extra cost for the sleeper ticket.

When we boarded the train it seemed like we had stepped into a scene from Murder on the Orient Express. The sleeper car had dark wood carriage corridors with individual antique compartments, complete with doors that swung open and comfortable beds inside. Most of the passengers were on holiday and traveling all the way to Istanbul so they were in a lively mood. Each compartment had only two beds, which meant that we had an entire one to ourselves. Taking advantage of the beds that we paid for, we both took leisurely naps as the train made its way through the northern Bulgarian countryside.

About an hour before we were scheduled to disembark in Veliko Tarnovo, the conductor moved through the entire train letting all the passengers know that we would soon be transferring to a replacement bus, due to track work ahead. This was not the first time we had transferred to buses as we have traveled by train through Europe. In Norway, Sweden, Hungary and Romania we have been through the routine of getting off the train, on to a bus for some duration (anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour) and then back on a train again.

When we disembarked this train a short time later, we discovered that we were in the city of Gorna Oryakhovitsa, about eight miles / 13 kilometers north of Veliko Tarnovo. All the passengers filed out to the front of the train station and waited… and waited… and waited. After about 30 minutes had passed with no sign of the replacement bus, we decided to look for a taxi to take us the rest of the way since we were so close to Veliko Tarnovo. Since there were several taxis parked in front of the train station it was no problem to find one that would agree to drive us there for the equivalent of about $10.00 USD. A few minutes later we were at our hotel in the heart of the old city.

Veliko Tarnovo is known as the City of the Tsars and was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire between 1185 and 1393. Located on three hills in the Balkan Mountains on a gorge above the Yantra River, the city has a castle fortress complex, built between the 5th and 12th centuries, which contained a royal palace, more than 400 houses and 18 churches. We visited the complex the next day and then watched a 20 minute light show that night from the roof of our hotel which illuminated various portions of the fortress to a dramatic soundtrack being played by the hotel next store. It worked well together: the lights and music were amazing and made the fortress and hillside look spectacular.

After Veliko Tarnovo, our next destination was the capital city of Belgrade, Serbia, about 400 miles (640 kilometers) away. To take a train the entire distance was not feasible, so we made the switch to bus travel for this portion of the journey. To split up the 10 hours of bus travel, we decided to break our journey in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, for one night. Sofia is located approximately in the center of the entire Balkan Peninsula. During our short time there we had an opportunity to walk around the city of 1.2 million and see the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is one of the symbols of Bulgaria. Built in the 19th century, the church can hold about 10,000 people inside.

At sunrise the next morning we were at the Sofia bus station to board our coach to Serbia. It took us a little over an hour to arrive at the border between Bulgaria and Serbia. Here, as has been the case for all the countries outside of the European Union’s Schengen Agreement area, we first went through immigration to leave Bulgaria. When this was complete for all the passengers, the bus drove a short distance to the immigration stop for the new country of Serbia. We were one of the few people on the bus who were not Bulgarian or Serbian, so our passports were taken off the bus with the agent, and then returned after a few minutes later with the appropriate entry stamp.

After changing buses in the city of Nis, Serbia, we arrived in Belgrade in the middle of the afternoon. We drove across a bridge over the Danube River as we entered the city. This was now the third time we had seen the Danube River during our travels, the first being in Budapest, Hungary, and then again when crossing the border from Romania to Bulgaria. Belgrade’s strategic location on the convergence of the Sava and Danube Rivers is probably one reason why it has passed through so many rulers throughout its history. In fact, one count has the city being battled over in more than 100 wars and rebuilt over 40 times!

Belgrade translates to White City in English and has an impressive display of buildings, representative of its time in the Ottoman Empire and as part of the Habsburg kingdom. It was in Belgrade that we had the privilege of speaking at the International School of Belgrade about our journey. We met with about 30 6th graders to talk about geography. It was a pleasure to show them pictures and video from our trip and acquaint them with the countries that we have visited thus far on our expedition. In the process we learned about these students’ favorite subjects, which ranged from math to science to humanities to design technology (computers). They also take part in a wide variety of after school activities and hobbies, including soccer, tennis, swimming, dancing, singing and gardening.

We will return to train travel as we move to our final Balkan destination, which is the country of Croatia. We will visit three places in Croatia in the next week before continuing on to Italy and our final stops before Africa.

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