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Brian's Balkan Trip, Part 2

Day 13 – Zagreb to Belgrade
Arriving in Belgrade is like a page out of a novel! The train situation there is absolutely scandalous:
- “Main Station” now exists only as the shell of a classic station building. Not a single train runs there: all the train lines have been torn up and the whole area is one huge development site under construction because it is prime waterfront land. Someone is making a bomb, and the tourists and the environment suffer! A single ticket window is still open...
- “Central Station”, known locally as Prokob, is planned to become the new main station. It's way out of town and difficult to find. But I should not be surprised if the powers that be have decided to do away with trains altogether! EDITED TO ADD: A guy has made an interesting video of it, and there are others: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5znzozo_dg&feature=youtu.be
- The third station is Topcider, an even more difficult-to-find station out of town from which the famous scenic trip to Bar in Montenegro can be taken.

Now unbeknownst to me, my train from Zagreb arrived in Belgrade at Prokob station, after dark! Outside was nothing: just an ordinary empty road with nothing on it and no traffic. I climbed some steps on the other side to find myself in a high-rise housing estate, and there I met my next Guardian Angel (GA), Maria the English teacher (!), who told me how to walk to the main road, how to buy a ticket at the kiosk, and to take the bus 31 to a crossroads in town called London. But of course I didn’t have any local currency (dinars) and the lady at the kiosk would not accept payment in euros. A young student couple accepted to change 5 euros into dinars for me and I was able to buy the ticket. At London, a man seeing this old man with his large backpack spontaneously asked me, “Can I help you?”. He walked me all the way to Bongo Hostel, which I had booked in advance. Another GA, his name was Mirko, and he lives in Peru! Bongo Hostel is great.
Maria met me in town a couple of days later and told me how the natives regretted the modernisation of the centre. What used to be a charming area has become a glittering, loud, overcrowded tourist trap, but apart from that the city seems to be running to seed. There are no more commuter trains, and people have to go to work in more expensive, less ecological buses.
A Gay Pride manifestation paralysed the city (that is to say the police did) that Sunday and there were no trams to Topcider Station, where I needed to buy a reservation for my next trip down to Bar in Montenegro, much vaunted in the Forum. The manifestation was contested by the church, which turned out in numbers too. I was told that the police were present to prevent violence between the factions, but it seems they themselves taunted the Orthodox priest in charge, pulling his beard. Basically, I saw very little action. I had waited for hours for a tram, but on my return to Bongo Hostel Guardian Angel No.5, Filip, simply ordered it by phone for me and I picked it up at the lone ticket window in “Main Station” the next day.

Day 17 – Belgrade to Bar
I booked a taxi to Topcider Station, but the taxi driver had never heard of it! He first took me to Prokob, which with my “experience” I recognised as the wrong one, and had fortunately left plenty of time for such a contingency. At Topcider (just a little out of town station, nothing special) we were put into a bus and driven for an hour to the Montenegro border, where we took a train at Vrbnica. For someone like myself who lives in the mountains the trip was not that specially spectacular, and in mid-September the final and most interesting part of the journey was after dark.
In a word, there ain’t many trains running in Serbia these days!

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Brian's Balkan Trip, Part 3

At Bar, Namaste Hostel is a pleasant country-type walk from the station. A great rural hostel, with the possibility of camping too.
This “middle area” of town had a few good local restaurants and a supermarket. At “Montefish” one could buy the fish of one’s choice and take it a restaurant to be grilled and garnished. Wonderful!
Above that area is the old town, which I found too tourist-oriented, but certainly worth a visit if you are there.
A 20-minute train ride to Virpazar takes you to Lake Skadar, a national park on the Montenegrin side. From Virpazar station, a walk up the road brings you to the riverhead, with a large choice of tours on the lake. Very highly recommended for the scenery and wildlife. (NB When, later, I was in the town of Skadar, on the east side of the lake in Albania, the difference between the two countries was shocking: on the Albanian side the lake - here not a national park… - is polluted and littered and best avoided.)
From Bar I also made a day trip to Ulcinj down the coast, a typical tourist seaside town. Enough said. I early made the choice not to travel north up the coast to the Dalmatian marvels, wanting to avoid the crowds, which where doubtless still around.

From here on, no trains were available, and I continued my tour of the Balkans by bus, paying my way as I went. During this part of the trip, I was managing to average about 25 euros a day for board, lodging and travelling. Not bad! I bought very few presents, also because of lack of space. On the road, people seem to be able to flag down a bus anywhere, even on the motorway! No ticket tends to be given: I had the feeling that the bus was a private affair between the driver and the conductor, and all money that came in went to them. And above all, I found people in the Balkans extremely honest (as well as kind), and I never felt threatened or seriously worried.

Shkodër (Skadar, Shkodra), Albania
First, a very hilly ride into Albania, all passports collected on the bus at the border. First impressions: shoes, shoes, shoes on sale everywhere, much litter, lots of people with MacDonald bellies. I found the North Hub Hostel off the pedestrian area in the middle of town with the help of a friendly passer-by. A good place with very helpful staff. The town is a pleasant location for a couple of days stay.

Tirana, Albania
A very interesting town, and one of the most interesting hostels – Tirana Backpacker Hostel – occupying a very old Italian-style villa with a big garden/courtyard. Several volunteers were always present for all one’s needs, offering an included great buffet breakfast, and also a delicious evening meal for 3 euros, from a different country each day, depending on the nationality of the volunteer preparing it: Spanish, Russian, Brazilian, etc.....

(That's all for the moment: To be continued)

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What a helpful trip report! Your descriptions bring each city to life. I especially appreciate your comments about Belgrade. I have heard many negative reports about Belgrade but never with such clarity. My husband and I are just a few years younger than you and are putting together our own great adventure: following the journey of my ancestors along the Danube from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. Belgrade was one potential stop but now we are convinced to just pass through and stop in Novi Sad instead.

I look forward to reading your remaining reports.

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Thank you for your appreciation, Charlene. Just today I added Parts 4 and 5! I haven't quite mastered the art of serialisation in the Forum, but they shouldn't be too difficult to find. Here is the URL: https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/82-year-old-s-budget-balkan-trip-part-4.
Merry Christmas! Your comment gave me an opportunity to read the texts through again, and I have made some small amendments to the above, nothing important.

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I'm so sorry to be late to the party (so to speak) but I enjoyed every word you wrote. What an awesome trip report!