Venice, Zagreb, Belgrade

Trip Start Sep 06, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, September 13, 2010

I arrived in Venice about noon and immeditately bought a ticket for a night train to Zagreb in Croatia.  I had the day to spend in Venice and spent it wandering for a while before sitting in a Piazza watching the world go by and reading.  Venice is how I remember it; lots of canals, alleys,  tourists and a laid-back charm.
When it was time I got on the train and was sharing a compartment of 3 seats facing each other with a Canadian guy who was also going to Zagreb to visit family.  We chatted a bit then slept across 3 seats each before being woken by our alarms, getting off and parting ways.  I decided not to stay and decided to but a ticket for a train that left in a few hours to Belgrade.  Again on that train I had 3 seats to myself and shared with a local guy who didn't speak any English.
As the train started to enter Belgrade it looked very drab and poor as there was lots of Soviet style tower blocks and gypsy camps setup next to the railway.  Arriving in Belgrade I had no idea where to stay so tried to find an internet cafe to get some recommendations.  I had to ask for directions lots of times but people seemed very friendly and obliging.  I ended up staying in a hostel opposite the station.  I intended to spend about a week in Belgrade practicing yoga and getting to know the city but I struggled to find a yoga centre, and the ones I did find were on the edge of the city and would have been difficult to get to.  Because of this I decided to only stay here a night and go to Sofia in Bulgaria instead where I'd found a good looking hostel and yoga centre close to each other. 

From what I saw I really liked Belgrade.  There was lots of young people, good looking women and the city seemed to have a buzz about it.  There was two sides of the city separated by the Danube River, the new city was the drab looking soviet side and the old city was the historical and more modern side where I was staying.  There was big pedestrian areas with lots of trendy bars and cafes that could have easily been in a Western European city but were a fraction of the cost. The city also seemed pretty safe.  Although, I was warned by a local
women (in broken English) to be careful because on a recent family
outing someone stole her gran.  I assume she meant robbed her gran. 
I particularly liked the Kalemegdan fortress which is a 3rd century castle which overlooks the city and the confluence of the Sava Rive into the Danube.  It was a great place to watch the sunset and had a good atmosphere with lots of people congregating to drink and chat.
In the morning I noticed that it was quite common for Serbians to drink beer at breakfast.  Despite this I saw no signs of drunkenness.  Later in the day I got on the train but wished that I had more time to get to know the city and culture.  On the train I was sharing a compartment with 3 Serbians which meant we couldn't lie down.  After a few hours one guy got off and a Gypsy family got on with lots of luggage.  They didn't speak English and after a short while a guy took out a screw driver and started undoing screws from a panel by the window and putting them in his pocket.  This seemed a bit odd but I thought, 'It's true they really will steal anything.' It soon became apparent that this was more organised than a bit of casual screw theft.  The gran stood outside the cabin to keep look out and the man continued undoing screws to pull a panel off the wall.  It turned out that most of there luggage was 5x5 packs of cigarettes laid next to each other and celotaped together.  The kids were hurriedly passing them to the man who was filling the cavity between the panel and train wall with them.  I was becoming a bit concerned but sat there trying to act as if nothing was happening.  The cavity soon became filled and the wife (in gypsy) tried to get me to put the remaining cigarettes in my bag.  When I said 'no' she shouted at me but in no time the husband hand removed another panel and they put them in there.  The panels all got put back and looked as they did originally.  I assumed they were doing this as Bulgaria is now in the EU and the price of cigarettes is higher.
We all waited nervously for the Bulgarian customs.  I considered moving but new from prior toilet trips that the rest of the cabins were full.  When we got to the border the big customs guy got on and asked us to leave the cabin.  It was all pretty tense.  I'm not sure if he'd been tipped off or if he spotted something suspicious but he went straight in and ripped off the panel concealing most of the cigarettes.  He took out all the cigarettes and dropped them out of the window onto the platform.  He didn't care who put them there, he just wanted the cigarettes. 
When the train pulled away the family sat around me and some cried and some argued whilst they all chain smoked. 
I arrived in Sofia having having not slept at all and feeling as though I'd smoked lots of cigarettes.

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