Given a combination of the weather and our limited time, Bulgaria will probably not feature highly on our list of memorable places. Plovdiv, the second biggest city in Bulgaria, looked like it would be a lovely place to wander around in the sunshine, and we made this observation as we peered through the driving rain. Consequently, we spent a considerable amount of time watching movies back-to-back on our host’s 44″ screen TV while he was at work… Sometimes on a 9 month long trip you have to have those days. Incidentally, Milk is a fantastic film and Sean Penn is brilliant. Our host was a strange man who seemed to live entirely off chocolate bars and who chatted almost non-stop from the time he got home to the time we escaped to bed. He did, however, introduce us to Ken Robinson who speaks about the destructive nature of the education system and the way it destroys creative and independent thought in children so that they will be willing workers in later life…

Sofia was virtually as uneventful as Plovdiv, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that we only stayed for one night. We managed to fit in a visit to the stunning Alexander Nevsky cathedral in the centre of Sofia – it is modelled on Russian churches, and made Josh re-evaluate his previous judgment that mosques are often really interesting whereas churches are generally boring. The square in the centre of town was filled with bear statues which had been decorated by artists from all the different countries which are recognised by the UN (basically everywhere) to represent ‘Unity’. There were designs which ranged from the relatively tasteful to the standardly stereotyped – a bear dressed as a leprechaun, guess which country… The night consisted of our hitting various eclectic bars, one of which featured music videos for Korn, the Bloodhound Gang and Outkast. A quality evening’s entertainment.

From Sofia we took a train which reminded us of being in India, where stray dogs can run faster than the train, to Belgrade. It was supposed to take 7 hours and arrived 3 hours late…

Belgrade is not a particularly interesting city – rather it seems that people go there for the night life which is basically what we experienced. Food and booze were the features of our stay: there is at least one place in Belgrade that can pour a Guinness properly, and blueberry beer tastes remarkably like a lager and black… Unfortunately, within two minutes of us arriving we were joined by a bunch of Israelis – this would not be a problem in itself, but the next element was certainly an issue – whom it became very clear were Zionists. The guy had the audacity to come out with comments such as, ‘Israel is too scared to retaliate to bombs from Lebanon, because they are worried about killing children and inciting the international media’! Given that we had not even had time to make a first impression on our hosts, we bit almost through our tongues as he spewed racist and often frankly stupid bullshit to his captive audience.

One day we walked along the Danube to Zemun, a town near to Belgrade. It is fairly picturesque, but the walk is what you go for. There is a humungous Orthodox Church – the biggest in the world apparently – which was under construction when we saw it. Churches that will be grand but are currently covered in scaffolding have a certain charm. Other highlights were the fortress, which offers great views over the city and the Danube, and has an enormous park around it. Lots of children chasing pigeons. We also visited Tito’s grave, which is remarkably hard to find. For a man who seems to be loved and admired by everyone you meet in former Yugoslavia, his final resting place is not well signposted..!

We caught another bus to Novi Sad (home to the Exit festival which is apparently just full of people from London…), where the weather finally relented. We met Marija and her incredibly energetic (some might call it extremely annoying, although she was quite fun) dog Bisa, who hosted us for those days. We explored the military tunnels beneath the fort, which apparently extend 16km underground and even under the river. Of course, there are rumours that they stretch even as far as to borders with other countries to allow the secret exits of generals under siege.

Marija encouraged us to hitch-hike to our next destination – Sarajevo. She shared her tips on being a single woman hitch-hiking – learn how to say things like ‘my dad is a policeman’ and ‘I’m a very religious girl…’ in the language! She also told us how she knew someone who hitched round Spain with a sign reading ‘Tokyo’. He never made it to Japan, but he did have quite a lot of success in Spain!

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