ROADTRIP SOUTHERN SERBIA & MACEDONIA
For car rental in Sofia, I recommend Savoy Rent a Car near metro station G.M. Dimitrov.
In this itinerary, I cover Southern Serbia. Border crossing is at Strezimirovtsi, right near the Vlasina lake. I went for a weekend and saw a lot. You would need a car to see all of this, or at least twice the amount of time to do it hitchhiking. Don't count on public transport in these remote areas. Friday evening I crossed the border into Serbia and then got to Vlasinski Vrtovi Apartmani. The place is absolutely fantastic, with homemade food and some fine hospitality. The rooms and apartments are well-equipped. This was by far one of the best places I stayed throughout all of my travels. There are bike trails around the lake and Lidija, the host, will certainly love to inform you all about the area.
Historically speaking, Bosilegrad was Bulgarian until 1944. It then became part of Yugoslavia. This means there are still quite a lot of Bulgarians in Bosilegrad (and much of Southeastern Serbia). This made it easy for me to get in touch with some locals in this very historical part of the Balkans. And even though I was only about 80 kilometres west of Sofia (still over 2 hours by car), it was like a different world. Yes, people spoke Bulgarian, but it's noticeably different. Like time stood still for much longer and traditions are still held very high. Just like the motherland Bulgaria. And so I met Venka Dimitrova and Dimitar Dimitrov. They invited me in their home, as you can see in the Youtube video above, on the right. Turn on the subtitles if needed. These people are incredibly friendly and even took me to the church in the village Izvor, which is one of the biggest of Bulgaria (even though Izvor village now lies in Serbia). Venka and Dimitar explained that the region is largely forgotten by both Serbia and Bulgaria, which makes it hard to live here. But they praised themselves with their large and successful family, all studying and working hard. They are proud people and it shows in their incredible hospitality. They also run a little guest house in their yard, which can host 7 people in total. All amenities available. Feel free to visit, even just to see their historical house. Ask for Venka and Dimitar when in town, they are well-known.
Božica village is a typical rural place in Southern Serbia. I saw the chappel Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (Свети апостоли Петар и Павле) from the road. I parked in the village and walked up there. A really good view over the surrounding fields. It's a very rural place, little to no changes since many years. It's where time stood still. And just standing near the chappel, overlooking the rolling hills, gives a real tranquility. No stress,no noise, no pollution. Do stop by and take in the scenery. There's nothing much else to see but it's worth it walking around a bit. The fields are full of insects, butterflies, bees and flowers. Some goats and sheep. Just a beautiful place to be for a while.
From Vlasina Lake I went to Bosilegrad. Then I had to get all the way back to the north, then southwest through Surdulica to get to Vranje. Quite a detour, but most roads connecting Bosilegrad and Vranje are unpaved as of 2018. At least some parts are and you're unlikely to be able to pass through Dukat, unless you have a big 4x4. In Surdulica I had a coffee in the center and was suddenly surrounded by some curious guys willing to practice their English. They said I was the first person they'd actually spoken English with! Friendly people are all over Serbia. Then I got to Vranje taking the B-road, I always avoid toll roads to see more of the countryside. Serbia's roads are mostly fine either way.
I was surprised by Vranje. I stayed in the Bed & Breakfast Park Gate. A fine hotel with a pool, although that was closed. The breakfast was included and all in all it was a very comfortable and affordable stay. The place is right in the center. It can get crowded in the streets at night so it helps to take a room at a quiet side of the building. Just request that with the booking, especially on the weekend. Vranje is a student city and there are young people everywhere in the evenings, enjoying themselves in one of the many bars. If the weather is good, the streets are really packed. Totally unexpected for a relatively small town in a remote corner of the country. I got invited for a drink with some guys and they explained me about their lives there. All in all a good place to visit, like most cities in Serbia. It's the people that make the place.
ON THE ROAD
From Vranje I made two trips into the mountains, by car. One to Donji Stajevac and another to Trgovište. I then wanted to cross the border with Macedonia but it's closed. Besides, both roads turned unpaved. I could reach Trgovište by paved road but couldn't go much further and had to go back. I then visited Prohor Pčinjski monastery and crossed the border into Macedonia at Starac. I drove to Kriva Palanka, the Joakim Osogovski monastery. I made a quick stop at restaurant complex Park Ginovci. All in all a nice drive. I took some monastery wine and enjoyed the sunset at this place. I'm definitely tempted to see more of Macedonia as well. This was by far one of my best weekends and roadtrips. Highly recommended to the adventurous traveler.