A tale of four cities (Zagreb, Sofia, Belgrade and Ljubljana)


Zagreb was actually the first place we visited in the Balkans, but it seems appropriate to group it with the other cities. We spent a day here wandering in the bright sunshine overcoming our 46 hour trip and resetting our biorhythms to the new time zone. It was a very pleasant way to do this, as we both liked Zagreb, with its classic French-style architecture, lush green parks, colourful street markets and bright blue trams - a busy city, but not one in which traffic and noise were overbearing.

Zagreb made us feel welcome to the Balkans - lovely architecture aside, our favourite memory is of sitting at an outdoor cafe at the Dolac markets, sipping coffee and eating juicy fresh strawberries as we watched the world go by, people chatting or buying from the range of brightly coloured fruits, vegetables and flowers, beneath a sea of red and white umbrellas. Hopefully the following few images do Zagreb justice.

Spires of the Zagreb Cathedral

Early morning in Ban Jelačić Square

Old cathedral clock - stopped at the time of the 1880 earthquake

Medieval walls of the Cathedral

Statue of the Blessed Virgin in Kaptol Square

The 13th century Lotrščak Tower

Fruit stalls at the Dolac Markets

Opatovina Park

St Mark's Church (roof constructed in 1880)

Zrinjevac Park

Zagreb Art Pavilion


Sofia was our base while doing some walks in the Rila Mountains and we took the opportunity to explore the Bulgarian capital from our hostel just next to the colourful Ladies Market (selling fruit, vegetables and clothing, not ladies). Some enterprising young professionals, proud of their city, have set up Free Sofia Tours, which offers exactly what it says, twice daily in English - no strings attached. It was highly recommended and, despite my aversion to following someone holding up a flag or card or umbrella, there we were following Radina around the streets of Sofia. Radina, in fact, was an excellent guide and showed us the history of Sofia through its architecture, ancient, medieval and modern - from early christian basilica to ottoman mosque to imperial palace to former communist party headquarters. It was a fascinating tour given with passion and humour - thanks Radina.

The 10th century St Nedelya Church

Banya Bashi Mosque (16th century)

Sofia Public Mineral Baths (now closed)


The Largo - old communist party headquarters

The Church of St Nicholas the Miracle Maker
(Russian Orthodox)

The 4th century St George Rotunda and ruins of the old Roman
city of Serdica

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The 6th century church of Hagia Sophia (the right Sofia)


French-style architecture on a yellow brick road

Statue of St Sophia the Martyr (the wrong Sofia)
Sofia was named after the Hagia Sophia church to
the left, not the 2nd century saint

Finally it was time to move on - this time taking the night train to Belgrade and on to Ljubljana. However, it appeared everyone else had also decided to head out from Sofia on this Monday - the little two-wagon train was full and we found ourselves booked into a 6-berth sleeper with two German girls and a Turkish couple. Although it shared the same track as that famous train of past times, this clearly wasn't the "Orient Express". After the initial shock, horror, at the cramped set-up, we could all see the humour in the situation and climbed into our narrow triple-bunks - travel makes for strange bedfellows. The train pulled out from Sofia station and slowly rocked its way through the night across the Bulgarian and Serbian countryside. At 6.30am, we woke up in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.


Belgrade, at 6.30 in the morning was a very quiet place. We had a several hours before our connecting train to Ljubljana was due to depart, so we headed out into the streets of the Serbian capital to buy ourselves some breakfast, stretch our legs and see a few sights. Minus a map, but with my GPS (to avoid losing the station), we wandered about, finding some interesting sights, including some of the grand old buildings of state, the huge by unfinished St Sava Cathedral, pedestrian malls and fresh food markets, and some buildings wrecked during the NATO bombing campaign of 17 years ago. Amongst other claims to fame, Belgrade is the last European city to have been subject to an aerial bombing campaign - an ignominous title.

It clearly wasn't enough time to do this large city justice and we got the impression that Belgrade had a lot to offer, but the following images may give a glimpse into its character.

Serbian National Assembly

Building damaged by NATO missiles

St Sava Cathedral

An interesting yellow brick building


All aboard! We were off again, somehow ending up in first class with second class tickets, but the conductor didn't mind. Once again, we found ourselves slowly rocking along as we crossed the Serbian countryside, a flat rich plain, patterned with crops of wheat, corn and potatoes. As we crossed the Serb-Croat border, the only perceptible change was the quickening speed of the train (better rail infrastructure?). The hours whiled away and we eventually reached Zagreb, thus completing our grand Balkan loop. Shortly after, without leaving the train we were off again to cross yet another frontier, this time from Croatia into Slovenia (and the longest wait). The countryside was now starting to change, becoming hilly and then more mountainous, as the train rolled through a long gorge to reach the central Slovenian plain and the capital of Ljubljana, where we finally disembarked after more than 24 hours of travel.

Zmajski Most (The Dragon Bridge)

A dragon on Zmajski Most

The Franciscan Church

Looking between two spans of the Triple Bridge

The walls of Ljubljana Castle

It was off to our hostel overlooking the Ljubljanica River and into bed for some catch up sleep. We had two nights here, and got up next morning somewhat refreshed to commence our exploration of the Slovenian capital. Ljubljana is a small city, quiet compared to the the other Balkan capitals that we visited, but with an air of sophistication. For these reasons, we liked it and its colourful old centre, rich in baroque architecture and dominated by a medieval castle perched on a hill above.

The National Museum of Slovenia

The red rooves of Old Ljubljana

The one downside was that we had now re-entered the euro zone and, with that, the low prices that we had become used to in non-euro Balkan countries had suddenly disappeared - it was a bit of a fiscal shock! We also spent time in the fresh food markets, tasting the new season's cherries, relaxed at an outdoor cafe by the river and that afternoon watched a series of thunderstorms roll by from our hotel window. I do like a good thunderstorm.

View over the courtyard of Ljubljana Castle to the city and mountains beyond

Houses along the Ljubljanica River

View over the city from Ljubljana Castle

Our four city / four country crossing of the Balkans was complete. It was time to do some more walking and the lakeside town of Bled and the Julian Alps were just a short bus trip away.