03/07/2011 at 7:00 pm Leave a comment

There is no train station in Dubrovnik. The train line which used to go there was closed in 1976. Not sure why. As a result it is not the easiest of places to get to, unless you are travelling by aeroplane.

The journey from Sofia to Dubrovnik is just over 700km. A similar length journey would be to travel from Truro to Newcastle. Unfortunately the shoddy infrastructure of the Balkans makes the whole experience somewhat frustrating.

Act 1: Our first task would be to get from Sofia to Belgrade. Based on previous experience of what is now known as the “informal Serbian train network”, Chris and I were not particularly looking forward to this stage of the journey. On most international trains it is a requirement that you get a seat reservation, which I assume is to avoid overcrowding. They only cost a couple of Euros so it isn’t a big deal. Unfortunately the Europeans have no idea how reservations work. They just sit anywhere regardless of what the tickets say which renders the whole thing a complete waste of time.

Anyway, we did get a seat on the train although it was not the one we had been assigned. Even the ticket inspectors don’t seem to care. We shared a cabin with an American who was also travelling around Europe and a German who was returning to Belgrade where he worked. Long boring train journeys are an excellent way to meet people. It’s not something you could ever do in England though. Start talking to a random stranger and everyone else on the train would think you were mad. You’d soon be carted off and thrown in the loony bin.

After about 12 hours we arrived in Belgrade. We had booked a room for the night at the Backpackers Lounge where we had stayed on our previous visit. By the time we checked in it was close to midnight so we pretty much went straight to bed.

Act 2: The next day would prove to be even more fun than I could have hoped for. The train to Bar (in Montenegro) was at 10am so we had a reasonably early start in order to get to the station on time. Much to our delight when we got to the station the train was already there waiting. More impressively it actually left on time. Unfortunately this was about as good as it got.

In my previous post on Belgrade I commented on how “uninspiring” the countryside is. Turns out that it is just the northern part of Serbia which is dull. The further south you get the more spectacular the scenery gets. Unfortunately the rolling hills, mountains and thick forests don’t quite make up for the heavy train delays. Part of the problem is that large sections of the track are a single line meaning that you have to stop to let other trains go past. I’d call it bad planning. Other times you seem to stop for no reason at all. At this point all the Serbs get off the train and have a cigarette break, walking along the tracks like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Although thinking about it Serbian trains only travel at 20mph so you’d probably be OK if one hit you.

The border crossing into Montenegro is also one big hilarious joke. The Serbian authorities seem hell bent on ruining everyone’s day and causing the biggest delay possible.

By the time we got to Bar train station it was midnight. A total journey time of 14 hours had covered a distance of just 473km (similar to travelling between Bournemouth and Leeds). Ahead of us we had a 3km walk to the hostel. Getting around in the Balkans is not easy.

Bar is a tiny town in the ass end of nowhere. Population just 13,000. Quite why we had decided to stay there is beyond me. Granted we were walking around in the dark but there seemed to be absolutely nothing of any interest.

It was close to 1am when we rocked up to the hostel finding the place to be pretty deserted. Fortunately at that point two Swedish guys, who were also staying at the hostel, turned up and let us in. Apparently the hostel staff had all gone out drinking for the evening and wouldn’t be back until late. Chris and I stayed up for an hour or so talking to the Swedish guys about football and our travel plans. Eventually we decided that it might be a good idea to get some sleep as we had another days travelling ahead of us. One of the dorm rooms had been left unlocked so we went in and crashed out for the night.

Act 3: Wake up. Finding someone to pay proved to be our first challenge of the day. We also didn’t have any cash so we headed into town in the hope of finding an ATM. Bar is even worse in the daylight. At night you can’t see how crappy and concrete it looks. The night before the Swedish guys had told us that there was a beach somewhere which was apparently OK, but apart from that there is nothing else to do. Fortunately we found a cash machine at a nearby supermarket, withdrew €80 and then headed back to the hostel. Having packed up our things we found a member of staff who we paid for the nights stay and enquired about the best way to get to Dubrovnik. We were told to take a bus to Podgorica. From there we could get a bus to Herceg Novi and finally a bus to Dubrovnik.

Having stocked up on food and drink we made the walk back to Bar station where we would be able to catch the bus to Podgorica. Annoyingly the train we had taken the previous day had passed through Podgorica. If only we had planned things a little better we could have spent the night there and saved ourselves some effort.

Turns out the buses in the Balkans are a lot better than the trains. They run more frequently, are on time and many of them have air conditioning. The connection to Podgorica only took one hour.

Next challenge was to get to Herceg Novi, another crappy town, but conveniently located just 48km from Dubrovnik. Although it took us about 4 hours to get there it was one of the more enjoyable parts of the journey. The views of the Montenegrin coast are wonderful especially around the towns of Budva and Kotor.

At the hostel in Bar we had been informed by the receptionist that buses from Herceg Novi regularly run to Dubrovnik. However we arrived to find that there are only two buses per day and we had already missed them both. Perhaps in the Balkans this is considered a regular service.
As we didn’t much fancy hanging around in Herceg Novi for the night we jumped in a taxi and headed off to Dubrovnik. It cost us another €40 but at least we eventually got there.

Dubrovnik: We had booked three nights in the Begovic Boarding House situated on the top of a big hill. It was more of an apartment than a hostel, but it was good to get a decent nights sleep after all the travelling we had done.

Although Dubrovnik is one of the smaller cities we have visited with a population of just 43,000 it feels fairly spread out along the coast line.

Dubrovnik Harbour

Before Chris and I embarked on this tour of Europe Dubrovnik was one of the places I was really looking forward to visiting. All the hype suggests that it is brilliant and I was worried about being let down. Fortunately Dubrovnik does not disappoint. It really is a beautiful city.

The main attraction is Stari Grad (The Old Town) and the Harbour. Unfortunately it was shelled by the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) during the 1991 Croatian War of Independence. The siege lasted for around seven months killing 114 people and leaving thousands more homeless. Repairs to the city were done in the original style and completed by 2005. Apparently if you stand on the hills above the city you can tell by the colour of the roofs which buildings have been recently repaired.

The only problem with the Old Town is the number of tourists. You can hear every language other than Croatian, and personally I don’t blame the locals for staying away. Dubrovnik is certainly a city I would visit again, but perhaps next time I would do so out of the main holiday season.

Too many tourists.

To get away from the crowds Chris and I stopped for something to eat and drink. Although it is more expensive to eat in the Old Town it isn’t unreasonably priced and the food and service was very good.

Having eaten a sufficient quantity of food we decided to head to the supermarket and pick up some bits a pieces for the morning. I have developed a serious addiction to Ice Tea and hadn’t had my fix for the day. Three litres seemed like an entirely reasonable amount. Going back to England is going to be an issue as Ice Tea seems to be quite hard to come by. I guess I’ll have to start importing it.

In the afternoon we headed down to the beach for a swim. Unfortunately it is a pebble beach which meant that I couldn’t build a sandcastle or dig a massive hole for people to fall in. I’m not one of those people who can just sit on the beach and sunbathe, partly because I would just get burnt but also because it is excruciatingly dull. Taking the Kindle down to the beach was also a big “no no” as I’d almost certainly get salt water on/in it. Bobbing about in the sea with no intent or purpose is much more interesting and an excellent location for people watching.

View towards the pebble beach.

I realise that most of this blog just consists of a list of things that I have eaten, so just for a change here is another restaurant recommendation. Buono is a fine eatery away from the main tourist attractions. It seemed to be very popular with the locals which is always a good sign. The menu is extensive, possibly even too large, meaning that you might accidentally order everything. I hadn’t eaten a lasagne since Copenhagen and decided that it was the right time to give in to the cravings. It was definitely a good choice and proof that you can never have too much cheese.

I can’t really fault Dubrovnik itself, the only problem for Chris and I was getting there in the first place. Beautiful town, lovely people and good food. Good first impression from Croatia.

Next destination, Split…


Entry filed under: Croatia. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Sofia Split

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