29.09.2012 - 02.10.2012 20 °C
Episode 14: Lviv to Belgrade 29 September 2012
Scrappy cats, lost train, wonky streets
They have a funny rule in Ukraine about train tickets in that you cannot book an international train seat more than 48 hours ahead of the time of departure. They hold to this rule so rigidly that when I got to the train station in Kiev to buy my ticket, I had to wait nearly 1 1/2 hours so that I did not get my ticket earlier than the allocated 48 hours. It was fortuitous that I did get there early as a long queue formed quickly and, as I later discovered, there were a very limited number and choice of seats.
Train 015, Seat 43, Second class, 24 hours 23 minutes via Budapest on a train which had started in Moscow and was therefore very full and space challenged. The cabin consisted of three bunks stacked on one side of the cabin which itself measured no larger than a postage stamp. Roughly two feet of space between bunks so you couldn’t sit up. It was hot. The good news was that I did not get the top bunk, but rather the middle one. The bad news was that one of the two ladies was travelling with.......a cat. A white, long haired cat, sans cage, which ruled the cabin both in terms of its presence, its smell and the fur it left everywhere. I was surrounded by cat paraphernalia - container with kitty litter, water and food bowl with fishy smelling cat food - and heaps of baggage as it turns out one of the ladies was on her way to a teaching job in Serbia and therefore moving her entire household. To put insult to injury, the Cat decided my bunk was the best level on which to perch during the night. A judicious nudge of my foot resulted in the feline creature finding itself on the floor. Shame I couldn’t do the same through an open window.
It was a challenge finding space for my backpack and still leave some wiggle room. It was also very apparent that the two ladies were not too happy with my showing up, one being the owner of the cat and telling me that I will need to fit in as best as possible and she could not help me with my bunk because she had a bad back. Good start to a wonderful short term friendship.
Ukraine immigration occurred at three in the morning, Hungarian immigration at five in the morning. Ukraine customs asked me to open my backpack. Hungarian customs scrutinized the Cat's passport and unfortunately all was in order.
We had a one hour stop in Budapest so I decided to take the opportunity to de-fur my lungs and stretch my legs by walking around the outside of the train station. I return to the station and……there is no train. Not even a little whiff of smoke or skid marks from the train. Why my first thought was how I was going to track down my backpack in the lost baggage department in Belgrade I don’t know. Second thought was how did I manage to mess up the time so badly? It wasn’t like I was in Russia where everything runs on Moscow time so it is almost understandable why you can miss a train. To compound my confusion, there was no sign for the train to Belgrade on the notice board. I asked someone who appeared to work at the train station about the train to Belgrade and the best I got out of him was “no train”. Off I go to find an information office and in my dashing around, I hear my name being called out. I found the source and there are my two cabin mates (plus Cat) hanging out of the window of the train which had most inconveniently moved tracks. There was not only no entry on the notice board, but there wasn’t even a train number on the train at that point in time which was why I could not find it. Lesson learned: stay close to your train unless you are into adrenaline rushes.
I passed through the Hungary- Serbia border at more civil hour...about 5 in the afternoon. Hungary customs took the longer of the two countries as they electronically scanned each passport, checked your face and finally stamped the passport. Serbia manually checked your picture and passport expiry date and then stamped your passport. The Cat, unfortunately, again passed all inspections and didn't become a rat catcher at the train station.
I did not like Belgrade. I don't know why. Maybe it was the dull weather, its history, the dark, heavy buildings or not being able to orientate myself well as none of the streets even remotely ran in a straight line. I do admit there was something quite neat seeing window displays with products that looked like they dated back to the 1940s and 50s. Finding the shop (which turned out not to be so much a shop but more a booth squeezed in like a second thought) where I could buy my bus ticket proved to be very challenging as some areas of Belgrade are like a dense rabbit warren of tiny shops with no identifying number or name. I read somewhere that Belgrade was the new capital of cool. I certainly did not get that vibe. I made the round of the suggested tourist sights and non-suggested sights but found no real enjoyment in my wanderings.
I did take the bus to Zemen which is to the northeast of Belgrade and is now a municipality of Belgrade. I enjoyed Zemen. It is very much an ancient city having been inhabited since deep Neolithic times of about 5,000 years ago. When you read about the history of the town, the names of many long gone people and cultures get mentioned: Baden, Bosut, Celtic, Scordisci, Romans, Ottoman. As with many towns and cities in the Balkan states, it was subjected to the political struggles of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Zemen is a lovely cobblestoned old town with an open market that lies on the banks of the Danube River. It was red capiscan season and there were boxes upon boxes of red capsicans for sale. Never go to a stall with boxes and boxes of red capsicans for sale and ask for 1 kilo. The laughter will not stop. Gardos Hill is in the center of the town and gives a rather nice view of the city. My highlight was finding the ruins of the medieval tower and surrounding wall left from the 1521 Ottoman siege. My second highlight was lunch in a restaurant which was located in one of the old houses. I was the only person in the restaurant so I could not fault the intimate, but subtle, service given to me by the waiter in the nicely starched white apron. I sat on the terrace overlooking the Danube River and the old town. The restaurant had an extensive menu but the only dish on offer at that time was fish soup or goulash. Goulash it was, and it was yummy.
When my friend I was going to visit in Podgorica suggested I come down earlier than I had planned, I decided to do this.
Next stop, Podgorica, Montenegro.