Porcupyn's Blog

August 7, 2018

South Africa Trip – Day Fourteen

Filed under: Family,Travel — Porcupyn @ 3:09 pm

The next morning, we walked a couple of blocks to near that obelisk that Baab and I had walked to soon after we arrived at our lodging. From here, our host had informed us, we needed to take one tram that would take us to the foot of Mt Vitosha. The plan was to get there by 10 am, hike for a couple of hours then take a tram back to here. Then walk to the closest train station and take a train to what we understood as the downtown, so we could join the free food sampler walking tour slated to start at 2 pm.

On the above three photos, unless you are a native, your guess is as good as – or maybe even better than – mine. One thing that was a real turn off all around Sofia was the ubiquitous graffiti 😦

The woods were lovely, but family was too tired and hot. So, once we got out of the tram at the last stop and we climbed a few steps right behind a very excitable group of school kids – they decided to stay put and gave me two hours to go wherever I wanted to hike up to and come back.

The hiking path was well defined and moderately maintained. Within about 25 minutes of walking, I got a very nice glimpse of Sofia from the mountain. I had wanted to go up as far as I could to get a good clearing to take photos from. Under the given time constraints, I didn’t really get a spot that was much better than this one.

This is how far I got to. Our host had said that after a couple of hours we would be able to reach the top of the mountain. Either there had been a misunderstanding or we had not really gone in the right direction or … whatever. I did ask a few folks I met along the way who could speak English and the answers were nearly unanimous – it would take much more than that to get to the top. Either way, I got to this point, and noticed that cars were driving up to this point. So, my assumption now is that maybe perhaps there is a higher starting point on the mountain that can be reached by other means of transport (not trams) from where it might be feasible to reach the top in two hours. But it had taken me nearly an hour to get to this point. The heat and the climb – and previous tiredness – took their toll. I had had to stop ever so often to either take a breath or take in the scenery or ask someone my questions.

The hiking pathway – well defined. However, there were a few of them and I was unable to really tell one from the other. Fortunately, while coming down the mountain, I managed to stick to the one I had taken on the way up and didn’t get lost!

Grouchy dude on Mt Vitosha a few flights of steps above the tram station

Trams ran along (by the side of) or on surface streets. In some places, like this one, there was a fence separating the tram lines from the road. At other places, there was not as much of separation. And yet other places – like the photo in the previous post, the tram line was on the road for cars and other automobiles!

One of the tram stations. This is on the trip back from Mt Vitosha. I was able to stand/sit at the rear of the tram and take photos and videos 🙂

Trams passing each other. I even noticed trams belonging to different lines sharing the same route, one a couple of minutes behind the other!

Back at the original park we visited, I wanted to take a photo of this lion statue that I had taken a fancy to!

It was Baab who noticed this, and informed us – all of the underground metro stations have a distinctive unique design

After doing a great job throughout the trip with directions and being on top of all the research, Baab finally dropped the ball this time. We were supposed to be going for a 2 pm food sample walking tour. He had researched where the meeting point was, and that we needed to be there by 1:55 pm. As we were at the park, we quickly got to the station and were ready to board a train in the general direction we needed to get to – in plenty of time. However, the train frequency was not that good, so we got out of our destination stop right around 1:52 pm. We walked fast though, and got to the meeting place right at 2:00 pm … to find construction work going on and no one there at that location. We frantically walked back and forth trying to see if we could find the group. Nothing doing,

So, we decided to wait at the first stop on the tour (we had the map and the locations). When we enquired within, we were informed that the guide had not yet called – typically, the guide apparently called ahead informing how many folks were in the party so the restaurant could prepare that many samples. Finally, after about 20 minutes, the tour folks finally showed up. But the host reluctantly informed us that she could no longer take us on as they had already got substitutes; besides, she had called ahead to the restaurants. Also, apparently, they had sent us an update on a different meeting place (which we either never got or got missed by Baab) and that we needed to be there at least 15 minutes before the meeting time. We were, like, surely they could’ve accommodated us – she could still call ahead to the remaining restaurants. But anyway, I did realize that we should probably have come at least 25-30 minutes in advance – we got spoiled yesterday because that tour had taken on folks who had come in even after the tour starting time.

Oh well… now we had two hours that we had not planned anything for. We decided to walk around the central area that we had walked through yesterday. But as we had not been really looking at the GPS maps, we were unable to exactly figure out where we were and which place we wished to visit. There was one synagogue that Katya wanted to visit, but we decided we wouldn’t have enough time to do it justice, as we had also planned to go up to the bus station to check it out in preparation for our evening departure to Budapest. We had read some unflattering reviews of the FlixBus that said that some drivers don’t wait for passengers to show – if the passenger is not in the designated location, the bus just leaves them there. So we wanted to be absolutely sure of where the bus would depart from.

Beautiful fountain

I had to take a photo of this lovely flower arrangement

Lovely sculpture and nice fountains around it

Another beautiful sculpture

Opera House I believe

This is what I was referring to when I wrote in the previous post about trams sharing right of way with the roads

Ugly graffiti defacing some nice photos on the wall

More graffiti

Serdika bus stand for out of town buses

So anyway, after finding the Serdika bus stop area and talking to the Flixbus agents as to where exactly the bus would be available later that evening, we decided to spend some time at Sofia railway station. When I say “we” I really mean Baab and myself. Katya and Mrs. Porcupyn were captive audience at this point, and did not really express any interest to do anything there as they were tired. So, we let them take rest inside the station atrium while we went out to the platforms.

One thing I am unhappy about European train stations is that there are no overhead crossings for the most part – instead, one needs to take the subway to get to your destination platform. In our case, as we didn’t really have a destination platform and were trainfanning, we had to depend on the signboards to figure out which platform would have the next train arriving on it (or departing from it). And any mistake in reading it – or if the train wasn’t on time – resulting in us staring as a train arrived or left from a platform far away from where we were – in India, for instance, with the overbridges, we could have hung around there, then headed straight for the appropriate platform if we saw a train arriving. We ended up checking out a few mostly commuter trains.

When it was about 4 pm, we headed back to our digs to freshen up and come right back. This time, our host was nice enough, for a small fee, to drop us back at the station in his car. Once again, Mrs. Porcupyn and Katya were not keen to participate in the trainfanning – besides, we had the luggage that we wouldn’t have wanted to move around. So, they stayed with the luggage at the bus stop inside the shopping complex (which was closed now) with a few other motley passengers waiting for their buses.

Again, we didn’t see a whole lot of long distance trains – the train I was interested in seeing was the one arriving from Belgrade (remember, I had originally wanted to go on this train’s twin). As it turned out, this train was delayed and though it was slated to come in before we left on the bus, we were not too keen to hang around there when Katya and Mrs. Porcupyn were at the bus stand. However, we did manage to see quite a few graffiti laced trains most of which appeared to be local commuter trains. There was only one train that appeared to be a long-distance overnight train. I managed to use sign language and learn that it was headed to what I heard as Sinistra. The only similar sounding town is in northeast Bulgaria (and I am still unsure if that train was destined for that town). By now the shadows were lengthening and we decided that it was time for us to get back and wait for the bus. So, we went back to the bus stop area – but not before getting some munchies at the local grocery store “Billa”. I did get tricked twice during our stay in Sofia – getting buttermilk instead of milk. There was no way for me to figure out what was plain milk and what was buttermilk. The writing on the packaging was not helpful; the pictures even less so #facepalm

Here are some more photos …

A statue in front of the station – we couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to signify

The facade of Sophia Central Station

Local commuter train the likes of which we saw quite a few

Talk about graffiti!!

You can say that again – graffiti, that is!

No comments

A little engine to shunt around the coaches

OK here is a much more neat and clean looking rake

Almost deserted platform

The sun set at about nine pm IIRC

Waiting area at Sofia’s Central Bus Station, Serdika

It was about past 8 pm when Baab and I decided to head back to the bus stop. By this time, the activity had increased in the area. A few more passengers had shown up and there were a couple of buses that came and departed (not ours). We were secure in the knowledge that we were in the right spot, especially after a couple of other passengers also showed up who were headed to Budapest.

Finally, right on time (maybe 15 minutes before departure, I think), our bus came in and there was a quick formation of a queue and folks started boarding the bus. In the meantime, the driver and conductor had opened the luggage hold underneath the bus and folks were stowing their luggage away. I took our stuff and added them to the baggage as well. By this time, my family had boarded the bus and I joined them.

Baab realized that folks had boarded and occupied seats arbitrarily (just like on Southwest flights); however – and I had been slightly unaware about this – he had taken the trouble to get three window seats between the four of us and though the windows were huge and it was going to be a mainly overnight journey (we were expected to get unloaded in Budapest at about 8:30 am), he wanted us to take full advantage of the reservation. So, as best as we could given the language barrier, we informed the driver and conductor of the situation – ours were the rare tickets that actually had the seat numbers printed on them as everyone else had purchased random seating.

While the conductor and driver were considering their course of action, I realized that I was missing my camera bag! I looked all around, jumped off the bus and looked at our waiting area seats – the bag was nowhere to be found. At my wits end, I realized that there was only one place that was left to be searched. So, again I had the pleasure of trying to explain to the driver and conductor that I needed attention #facepalm

Fortunately, the conductor was an amicable pliable individual, and he opened the luggage hold. Sure enough, squarely on top of our luggage was my camera bag looking snug and comfy. It must have fallen off my shoulders as I was shoving our bags in – or maybe I might have removed it and placed it there for more freedom of movement. Either way, I was delighted at having gotten my camera back.

In the meantime, my family had their seating sorted out (2A was occupied by Baab and 3A/B by Mrs. Porcupyn and Katya) but a couple of guys were in my seat and the one next to it (4 A and B). They refused to move from there. I was sitting in 5B with a girl in 5A and they were suggesting that they wanted to be together and the girl should move to somewhere back and let me have 5A. Somehow they managed to convince the conductor; however, when he requested her to move, the girl refused to do so (and I absolutely saw her point). Finally, the conductor managed to convince the folks to move on back and they did so.

Shortly thereafter, we were underway and not really delayed. The bus picked up speed and in no time, we had left Sofia behind and were approaching the Serbian border. Now, I had not really been worried about border crossings thinking that they were just a matter of formality. I was rudely jolted during the trip!

My office buddy is from Serbia and – I think I wrote this before – if I had had my way, we would have travelled by train and overnighted in Belgrade instead of Sofia. With that in mind, I had planned to stay up as long as I could so I could at least be awake when we passed Belgrade (again, I didn’t know much about how border crossings worked – for some reason, I thought they would be seamless), the smooth roads and the late hour made me drowsy. But shortly, the bus started slowing down and halted. That woke me up – looking out, I saw a lot of cars and buses stopped around me. Why, I wondered!

The answer was quite evident once I looked ahead – border crossing. I hadn’t realized that Serbia is not part of the Schengen countries; ergo, we would require to go through customs and immigration inbound and outbound of Serbia.

Welcome to Serbia!

Gullible me failed to realize what needed to happen – only when the passengers started filing out of the bus did I realize that we would have to take our passports and each one be individually – kids too – interviewed by the border authority. We formed a queue at the entrance of immigration and – after each person was processed – formed a group outside on the other side (as the bus was yet to be authorized to cross). Fortunately for us, everyone on the bus passed with flying colours and the bus was permitted to cross as well, and we were enroute once again within half an hour. A short rest stop ensued for those who needed to use the restrooms or purchase something or – more importantly, it being Europe where practically everyone smokes – light up!

There was a small toilet in the bus that was just about adequate for males – I have no clue how any female would be able to use it without throwing up (or maybe I am one of the too squeamish, fastidious, OCD travellers, who knows?). So I used it a couple of times on the trip – didn’t wait for stops.

– trip to Mount Vitosha
– missed the Free Food Tour
– visit the bus stop and eat baklava
– take the Flixbus to Budapest

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