Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Cheap Taxi

I arrived in Sofia yesterday morning. The first thing I needed to do was find a hotel. James, whom I had met on the train already had one booked so we decided to go to his hotel and drop the bags there. If they had an extra room free for me, that'd be ideal, otherwise I'd go looking but without having to lug the bags around.

The first thing we did was have a coffee and pull out the map I had bought in Belgrade to have an idea where his hotel was. We found it easily right in the centre and estimated it was about 2 kilometres from the train station. That was easily walkable but we decided we really didn't want to carry the bags and we'd take a taxi. So once the coffee paid for, we went to the taxi rank.

As soon as we got to the taxi rank, we were approached by a guy who asked if we wanted a cheap taxi. Smelling a trap we asked how much it would be to the address we wanted to go to. He immediately answered 10 Euro, pulling his it's-very-far-away-you-know face. Even in London, they wouldn't attempt to charge you that much for a distance you could walk! We thanked him and went to an official taxi. We were in front of the hotel some 10 minutes later and got charged 4 Leva: 2 Euro.

Moral of the story: unlicensed taxi drivers have an interesting understanding of the word cheap.

Linguistic Gymnastics

If you ever want to learn Serbian, the good news is that it is a phonetic language: if you can read it, you can speak it and vice versa. The bad news is that is can be written using either the Latin or the Cyrillic alphabet so you may see signs in both scripts. For instance, Thank you can be written Hvala or Хвала. It can get very confusing when you have a map that uses the Latin alphabet but the street signs are all in Cyrillic. Then the even worse news is that Serbian extends both alphabets with extra letters that don't exist in the standard versions of either, such as Đ in the Latin script or Љ in the Cyrillic one. And then comes the practical question: what dictionary order is used? The Latin and Cyrillic alphabets have different dictionary orders so does it mean that when you buy a dictionary, the order the words are in depends on the alphabet it is published in? I'm not sure I want to know the answer.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Impossible Connection

Sometimes you meet someone in the weirdest of situations and realise that you have the most unexpected of connections. Last night at the Belgrade Beer Fest, I met a couple of Serbian guys when we started discussing the blueberry flavoured beer I had just bought. Of course, they eventually asked me where I came from. When I said France, one of them asked me to be more precise. So I said I came from Brest, fully expecting to have to explain where it was. To my surprise, he said that he had been there. But the most surprising is the reason he went there: he just loved the poem Barbara from Jacques Prévert and wanted to see the town the poem was about so one day he was in France visiting family, he went all the way to Brest. How cool is that?

Off the Map Again

I thought that being unable to find maps of Belgrade when in Budapest was weird. Well, the same happens in Belgrade: nearly impossible to find a map of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, even though Serbia and Bulgaria share a border. You can easily find guide books and maps to go to the other end of the world or to war zones like Sudan but you can't find a map of the capital city of a neighbour country. I eventually succeeded in finding what I think was the one map in town after visiting half a dozen book stores.

When I questioned this state of affairs in Budapest, I was told by a friend that nobody ever went to Belgrade. Having now been there, I can confirm that Hungarians are very misguided: Belgrade is definitely worth visiting! So is it the same problem here about Sofia? Nobody ever goes there? And if yes, are Serbians misguided about their neighbour? I shall discover that tomorrow. Or is this attitude just the remnants of old conflicts between those countries that share a complex history?

Also, just for the record, Google Maps doesn't fare any better in providing a map of Sofia than it does in providing one of Belgrade: you just get a big grey blob labelled София.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Serbian Border Controls

I got a fairly harsh reminder last night that Serbia is not part of the European Union. I was travelling on a night train from Budapest to Belgrade and there were six of us in the compartment, including a Greek couple who were going back home from Vienna. On the way out they had flown so no problem there. On the way back, they missed their flight and decided to travel by train rather than pay for a new plane ticket. To do this they needed to physically travel through Serbia and Macedonia. When Serbian border guards came on board they asked for passports. The guy had his but the girl only had a national ID card, as it is enough to travel all through the European Union. Unfortunately, that didn't cut it with the Serbian officials and they were asked off the train. I hope they found a way to get home and are not stuck in the middle of nowhere. So, when travelling to the Balkans, take your passport with you.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Off the Beaten Track

You know you're heading off the beaten track when it starts becoming difficult to find information on your destination. I am taking a night train to Belgrade tonight. That was easy: there are two trains a day from Budapest and it is easy to buy a ticket. You would expect a few more trains considering Serbia and Hungary share a border but two is better than nothing. Now finding a hotel was quite a challenge. has as choice of 4 while doesn't even have Serbia (nor Yugoslavia) listed in its list of countries. I eventually found one through a Serbian booking site (thank you, Google). I then wanted to have a look at a map of Belgrade so went to Google Maps to find... er... a big grey blob with the word Beograd in the middle of it (no thanks, Google). So 10 minutes ago, I stopped at a large bookshop in the hope of finding some sort of guide book or at least a map. They had one map. And when I say one, it's one copy. Now that I bought it, nobody can find anything on Belgrade in this shop anymore. They actually had more info on Baghdad! To top it off, my Lonely Planet phrase book for Eastern Europe is tellingly missing Serbian.

The next stop in my travels may prove interesting.

Blogger Languages

Blogger detects the preferred language of the computer you are using when presenting you with the main page. That's nice. However, even after you log in to write a new post, it keeps using the same language. It would be a tad more user friendly if it switched to my preferred language at that point. Luckily, the interface is not too complex so I just learnt that Publish Post is Bejegyzés közzététele in Hungarian.

Update: There actually is a drop down box on the main screen that enables you to choose the language but it's not that obvious.


You have to give it to the Hungarians: they know how to organise a major music festival. Reserve a whole island in the middle of the Danube for the event, organise boats to take visitors there, put lots of stages, organise a camp site, invite lots of artists, make sure there's enough beer and food for everybody and last, but not least, sell the tickets cheap enough that people don't think twice about buying one. 8000 HUF (20 pounds) for a whole day when you can see dozens of groups live is nothing. When the main act of the day are The Killers, it's peanuts!

Monday, 6 August 2007

4 Weeks at Sea

Århus, Kotka, Stockholm, Szczecin: I've been sailing on Sørlandet for the past 4 weeks and loving it. Unfortunately, it will be time to leave later today, to take a train to Berlin. It was a fantastic month. Photos and more comments will be forthcoming as soon as I can.