Crossing the Border to Serbia

So my last night in Bulgaria turned out to be an all nighter. As I’ve mentioned in my previous entry, we were looking for my missing room mate until sunrise until I decided to head back to the hostel. Since the bus to Sofia leaves at 8:30 in the morning, I figured there was no use sleeping. I might even miss the bus if i dozed off. I informed the hostel owner about the situation and he told me he’ll report the incident to the police if my room mate does not show up during the day. Just when I was about to walk out of the hostel, he showed up on the street with a black eye and red marks on his face and neck. And he was smiling. In spite of the pain, it looks like he had a fun night. I didn’t know if I wanted give him a man hug or punch him in the face. I guess it was a little of both.

After 5 minutes, I was already at the bus station. Too early, especially since the bus wasn’t there yet. We ended up leaving at a little past 9 in them morning. The journey to Sofia would be about 5-6 hours, with a short stop in Plovdiv. I slept all the way to Plovdiv, woke up up for a bit because the person beside me had to get off, then I immediately slept again. When I woke up we were already at the bus station in Sofia.

I thought my problems with buying bus tickets were over. Not quite. I checked the bus schedules on Bus Radar the night before and there were two buses daily from Sofia to Nis in Serbia. If I wanted to head elsewhere in Serbia, I had to take another bus from Nis. The afternoon bus leaves at 4 PM so I had plenty of time. There are two buildings in the central bus station in Sofia. One was for buses traveling within Bulgaria— this was where i took the bus to Plovdiv. The other was for buses running international routes— this was where i was dropped off when I took the bus from Greece. So to confirm, I asked the lady behind the information counter. Thank God she understood me. Yeah I was correct, if I wanted to go to Serbia, I should head to the other building. Now the weird thing was, when I went to the other building they said i should go back to the other bus terminal. I asked several ticketing offices and they told me the same thing, which didn’t make sense. I figured it’s the language barrier rearing its ugly head again. I had to count my blessing though— I’ve asked 5 ladies in total, and none of them shouted at me yet lol. Rather than go round and round in circles, I posted a question on an online travel forum. Kind of a long shot that someone would give me an immediate answer, but I might as well give it a try. Miraculously, someone did answer after 10 minutes. The guy said that the bus company that runs those buses from Sofia to Nis is called Matpu, and yeah the ticketing office is at the international bus terminal. It’s one of those offices in a row outside by the coffee shop. Now it won’t be easy to find since all signs were written in Cyrillic. But I’ll surely find a sign in Cyrillic that kinda looks like “Matpu“. And yeah i did find it eventually… there was only one sign that looked like Matpu, and it looked like this:

Матпу

The funny thing was, I went to that very same office a few minutes ago and the lady directed me to the other building. And i did specifically utter the word Nis. I probably pronounced it wrong that’s why the lady did not understand me the first time. Anyway, I managed to buy a ticket easily once it was understood that I wanted to go to Nis. I still had enough time to eat lunch before the bus arrived. The bus line is actually Nis Express, which seemed to be the leading bus line in Serbia.  I guess Matpu was just handling their ticketing operations in Bulgaria.

The journey lasted for more than three hours. I suppose it could be shorter, but we got held up for a bit by the border. They were extra strict in checking our bags for some reason. Nis doesn’t seem to be a very popular destination. A lot of the travelers who were on the bus were heading to Belgrade. They plan on buying a ticket to Belgrade as soon as we arrive in Nis, they have no plans of spending a night there. Belgrade was my eventual destination too, but since we’re already stopping in Nis, I might as well spend a night or two to check out the sights. From the central bus station, I knew that the hostel I was staying at was quite far so I intended to take a bus after I withdrew some local money at the nearest ATM. To those who plan on heading to Nis, take note of this: There are no ATMs at the bus station. I figured I’d start walking in the direction of the hostel and just take a bus after I’m able to withdraw money. After about 20 minutes or so of walking, I was able to withdraw money. I then looked for the nearest bus stop. I’d still have to walk for about 5 minutes according to my map app. Then after getting off the bus, I’d have to walk for another 5 minutes. From my location that time, it would only take another 20 minutes if I walked so i just decided to walk all the way to the hostel. It wouldn’t be tiring anyway since it was almost dark. I ended up walking for 50 minutes. For some reason that has become the ongoing theme on this trip. lol.

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First thing I noticed about Serbia? Everything is so damn cheap. Even cheaper than in Bulgaria. I noticed this at first when I had dinner in one of the few remaining restaurants that were still open. It seemed like a fancy place, so I expected it to be quite pricey. And looking at the menu, it did seem expensive. But then I converted the prices to US Dollars. I couldn’t believe how cheap everything was! Serbian Dinars aren’t high in value. So if you see something that costs 500 Dinars, don’t fret. That’s a little less than 5 US Dollars!

When I walked around the next day, i was glad I chose to spend a couple of days in Nis. It’s a modern city, but it’s not that large so the atmosphere is a little laid back. And just like many cities in Europe, a lot of old buildings and monuments are kept intact. It’s one of the oldest cities in Europe so it’s rich in history. One of its claim to fame? Nis is the birthplace of Constantine the Great. If you’re planning to see the attractions, the most logical first stop is the Nis Fortress. If you walk toward the center of the city you’ll eventually find it because it’s massive. The southern Stambol gate and the western Belgrade gate are well preserved. It’s free to walk around inside, are there are several attractions of note that you can find within. It’s such a shame though that a number of those old buildings inside were vandalized. You see a lot of graffiti here and there. It would make a huge difference if they closed off the area at night or if they keep it guarded. I observed that even at night there were a lot of people passing through.

Around the fortress you can also see a lot of monuments and structures of note. The museum is also close by. A bit far from the area is perhaps the other famous attraction in Nis— the Skull Tower. When I checked out the map it seemed too far to walk so decided to take a bus. The public transport system within Nis is very organized. It’s easy as long as you know which bus to take. Since most locals don’t speak much English, it would be best to ask the hostel or hotel staff for instructions. If you’re coming from the Fortress, head out from the Stambol Gate and cross the bridge. You’ll find yourself at King Milan Square which is dedicated to the liberators of Nis. Continue walking south and cross the street (Generala Milojka Lešjaninaright in front of the square because you need to head west. There’s a bus stop a couple of feet to the left. Wait for bus number 2. Now it gets tricky because as I’ve said earlier, most locals don’t speak English. The bus driver and conductor couldn’t understand where I wanted to go. Mental note: next time learn how to say Skull Tower in Serbian. Now unlike in Bulgaria, these folks didn’t get angry. In fact, they were smiling the entire time. The conductor told me to take a seat and she went around the bus asking for anyone who understood English. Lucky for me there was one lady who did, and she told the conductor where I wanted to go. When we reached the bus stop near the Skull Tower, she told me that was where I needed to get off. And even though she couldn’t speak much English, she tried her best to direct me where to go from the bus stop. When locals go out of their way to help you out, that really leaves a good impression. A one way bus ticket only costs 60 Dinars by the way if you remain in one zone. That’s only about 50 US cents!

Before you head to the Skull Tower, you need to buy tickets at a separate building. I looked inside the ticket window but there was nobody there. I tried calling for someone but there seems to be no one inside the entire building. I was wondering if they were closed, but they wouldn’t leave the ticket window open if that was the case. I waited for 20 minutes, still no one showed up. I decided to head to the Skull Tower, maybe there’s someone inside who can tell me how to get tickets. Just when I was crossing the bridge, someone went out of the chapel where the Skull Tower was located. He was the guy manning the ticket window, he apologized immediately when i told him I was looking for the person selling tickets. He said they usually didn’t get any visitors that time of the day so he just hung out with his co-worker. That response was something I expected. I wasn’t seeing many travelers in Nis. At the hostel, there were only three of us. When I went to the fortress, everyone looked like locals. I ended up talking to one vendor and he asked me what I was doing in Nis, they don’t really get many visitors. And that day, the guy selling tickets told me I was only the second person to visit the Skull Tower… It was already past 1 in the afternoon. Many travelers to Serbia don’t spend much time in Nis, and I really think they are missing out.

If you’re expecting a high tower made up of skulls, you’ll be gravely disappointed. So the original tower is housed inside this chapel. It’s not a huge tower to begin with. When I first heard about it I thought it would be several stories high. Turns out it’s only about 15 feet high. And you also won’t be seeing a lot of skulls— from 952 skulls, only 54 skulls remain. a lot of the skulls have been stolen through the years, while some were taken by relatives thinking they could identify their loved ones. Just by looking at the tower, some might be underwhelmed. But once you get to know its history, you’ll learn to appreciate its significance. Way back during the first Serbian uprising in the early 1800’s, one of the Ottoman rulers ordered the tower to be built from the skulls of fallen Serbian rebels to instill fear among the people. There’s a guide inside the chapel and he would gladly tell you about the history of the tower as well as answer any of your questions.

I was glad I spent a few days in Nis. It’s a city rich in history, it’s really such a shame that a lot of travelers coming from Bulgaria just head there to transfer buses on their way elsewhere. If you’ll be passing through this city, spend at least one day to see its attractions. It’s a city with its own distinct charm. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt if you decide to stay a bit longer.

 

 

 

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