After the home comforts in Skopje, it was time to hit the rails again, this time getting back on the same train we’d arrived on (and I think it is actually the same train) that runs from the Greek border to Belgrade.
Lauren was excited about the prospect of a real overnight journey, I was too but tempered with anxiety about who we might share our compartment for 6 with and if I’d be happy falling asleep with strangers near my kid. Travelling with Lauren certainly brings out the mother bear in me. I nearly decked someone who jostled Lauren on the metro in Athens.
We got to the station way ahead of schedule, and the train, against all predictions, was pretty much on time. There was the usual moment of panic as we boarded – where’s our carriage, I can’t see any numbers, just get on anywhere, what if it goes after one of us gets on and the other is still struggling with the bags, is it better for Lauren to get on first or me…. None of which is ever remotely necessary as no train, ever, has left without plenty of warning. This one certainly didn’t. In fact, it had a good three attempts at leaving.
We did our big goodbye thing to Elspeth, calling out last minute messages and invitations to visit us in Portugal, and thanks for everything etc etc … then the whistle blew, and we were off!!!
In the wrong direction, and only about 100 metres.
Then we stopped for a few minutes, still in sight of the station. I wasn’t worried. Lauren was hyper, climbing up the ladder to the top bunks, spinning around in the confined space of the carriage we still had to ourselves, opening and shutting the window, wanting to get into bed immediately.
Then, we set off again, this time (bonus!) in the right direction. Then we stopped again. Back at the platform. Suddenly there was a sharp tapping on the window, which made me jump half off the bed. It was Elspeth, who despite it being nearly 11pm, had waited to make sure the train was actually going to leave. Apparently, they were trying to attach another carriage. We had another chat for a bit, through the window and this time when the whistle blew we moved in the right direction – then stopped again after about 300m. We sat there for a good while, perhaps 20 minutes, before eventually leaving for good, and rattling through the night towards Serbia.
Once it was clear we were definitely underway, we made up our beds – much to Lauren’s annoyance we had been allocated bottom bunks – with the rather grim and hard sheets and pillow cases, which were clean but full of cigarette burns. Smoking is still huge in the Balkans, and while there are ‘No Smoking’ signs everywhere, they are routinely ignored.
Despite all her excitement, Lauren fell asleep within minutes of getting into bed. Or maybe she passed out from the fumes after her trip to the toilet – let’s just say, the train didn’t have water.
I struggled to get comfortable and by the time I was dozing off we had reached the border with Serbia. This involved two sets of border police boarding the train and working their way methodically along it, shining torches into the compartments and taking away passports for inspection. They were generally polite and kind enough to not wake Lauren, who slept through the whole thing, including a torch shone directly on her face to check her identity.
The train creaked and jolted its way north, stopping occasionally for no apparent reason; people joined the train at various places, shouting down the corridors, but no one disturbed us in our compartment and we made it to Belgrade about an hour behind schedule, Lauren well rested and excited to be in yet another country, and me desperate for some coffee and a shower.
Next up: Belgrade!