We have a couple of big days of travel on this holiday as we move between countries, and today was one of them. It was an early start to the morning in Ohrid, where the owner of our apartment had kindly volunteered to book us a taxi for 7am to get us to the station on time for our 07.30 bus. We don't often take taxis when we are on holiday, preferring to walk, but we were particularly grateful for the help in booking this one as it meant we could have an extra half hour in bed.
It didn't take long at all to get to the bus station in a taxi, so we had arrived and were buying tickets by 07.10. Imagine our surprise when, upon examining the newly purchased tickets, we discovered that the bus was due not to leave at 07.30 (as the timetable on the internet had said) but at 07.15. Aaaargh!! We made it across the bus station to the correct platform just on time to stow our luggage and jump aboard. Another lesson learned: do not rely on Macedonian internet timetables without corroborating them at the relevant station! If we hadn't been in a taxi we would probably have missed the bus and thus our onward connection to Serbia.
Disaster successfully averted, the journey from Ohrid back to Skopje was very pleasant. We drove alongside the lake for a while before heading into steep mountainous countryside. It had been quite a sunny morning when we left Ohrid, but as we climbed further into the mountains it became increasingly wet and misty, until we really felt like we were driving through the clouds. Although the bus seemed to be travelling very slowly, we didn't make many stops and ended up arriving in the Macedonian capital before 11am, giving us over two hours to kill until we needed to catch our bus to Niš.
That was good, because it gave us an opportunity to walk to the nearby shopping centre where we'd had coffee in the rain on Tuesday and use the last of our Macedonian denars buying some lunch. We were nice and relaxed when we arrived back at Skopje's bus station just before 1pm, and totally unprepared for the chaos which was about to follow.
Because it was really important to us to catch this specific bus, we had already purchased our tickets when we were in Skopje on Tuesday and knew that we had seats reserved, so we weren't initially too concerned when we saw the horde of people waiting to board the bus. I know that other European countries have different ideas about queuing but I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like the rabble in front of this bus as people pushed and shoved each other out of the way as if their lives depended on getting to the front of the queue to purchase a baggage ticket and deposit their luggage in the hold. Several elderly Albanian gentlemen successfully outmaneuvered us but we got there in the end and - more by luck than anything else - had enough denars left to pay for our bags. We then joined the queue to board the bus where, to our consternation, we realised that the seats had no visible numbers on them. Oh dear.
We knew that we had seats five and six reserved and there were a couple of seats free near the front of the bus which seemed like they might plausibly be those. One of them had someone's shopping bag on it, but we moved it and sat down and no one challenged us. We began to feel a little nervous, however, when an argument started kicking off at the front of the bus between the driver and three men who seemingly had tickets but no seat reservations. The problem seemed to be that the bus station had sold more tickets than there were seats on the bus, and the driver wasn't prepared to allow more people than there were seats to board; the aisle had to be free of people standing for the police to walk down when we got to the border. The men seemed to be proposing that they could stand on the bus for the time being, then get off at the border and try to get a different bus with spare seats to let them on temporarily, but the bus driver wasn't having any of it!
As the bus finally pulled away from the station in Skopje we heaved a sigh of relief. There were no seat belts, no arm rests and the seat in front of us was seemingly stuck in a reclining position and couldn't be made to fold upright, but at least we had a seat and we were on our way. A few minutes into the journey I finally found the seat numbers in a very obscure location underneath the window and established that we were actually sitting in seats three and four, with an unknown man and his bag occupying our reserved seats across the aisle, but it didn't seem to matter.
We were somewhat unnerved, therefore, when a few minutes later the bus pulled into a bus station in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo, where another horde of people were seemingly waiting to board our bus. There were a few tense moments as it became clear that there definitely wasn't enough space for everyone who had a reservation, but luckily we weren't asked to move and eventually we were on our way towards the Serbian border.
According to the internet, the bus was due to arrive in the city of Niš at 17.07, a journey of just under four hours. I assumed that this timetable had calculated into it the time it would take to cross the border, but it later transpired that either this was not the case or - for some unknown reason - the border was unusually busy today. Arriving at the Macedonian side of the border, our coach joined a long line of other coaches and proceeded to sit there, inching forward occasionally, for over an hour. Given that both countries used to be part of Yugoslavia, they seem to take their border surprisingly seriously. We had plenty of opportunity to watch lorries being searched by customs officials and people dragged out of their cars to be questioned about their documents. When our bus eventually got to the front of its lane, a policeman boarded and collected everyone's passports to take away and examine. Fifteen minutes later they were returned, very efficiently all in the correct order.
We passed the sign to inform us we had now arrived in the Republic of Serbia... and promptly joined another queue to have our passports examined all over again. This took another hour, although when we finally got our documents back we did find that we had got passport stamps, which was nice
It was already 4pm by this point and we were curious about whether, after so much waiting, we really would arrive in Niš as promised within the next hour or not. It turned out to be "not", as we soon saw a sign indicating that there were more than 100km to go. Oh. Another two hours and five stops at small Serbian bus stations later, we eventually arrived in Niš at 19.00. Wow, that was quite some delay! The journey was quite an interesting one though; the countryside had become less mountainous as we travelled towards Serbia, but it was still very hilly with lots of forests.
Twilight was falling in Niš so we made our way to the apartment we had booked as quickly as we could. It turned out to be quite easy to locate - right on the main street in the town centre - although having found the building we then had to climb three flights of stairs with our suitcases in order to track down the owner. When we found her she turned out to be a lovely lady who spoke to us the whole time in Serbian and, by a bizarre coincidence, happens to have relatives in the same suburb of Birmingham where my family live. She showed us round the apartment, which was nice and spacious, and was happy to accept payment in Euros, which was good as we hadn't changed any Serbian money yet. She even gave us some tips on where to change money for the best rates
After twelve hours travelling we were pretty exhausted by this point, but we were also rather hungry so we headed out to see what Niš had to offer in the way of restaurants. First impressions would be 'not much' but we chanced upon an Irish pub with a pasta menu(!) and while it did seem a little surreal to be eating spaghetti carbonara in an Irish pub in Serbia, it was actually very pleasant. Tomorrow we will hopefully be less tired and able to explore Niš properly. I already have my eye on some bookshops to stock up on some Serbian reading material