Athens to Skopje by Train and Bus

The was to be a 13-hour journey if everything went smoothly.

I was given to believe that this was unlikely.

The guy who sold me the ticket in Athens asked if I wouldn’t rather fly, and then told me that part of the journey had to be done by bus and that he could only ‘unofficially’ reserve us seats for the second train, so he couldn’t promise we’d actually have seats. I had images of us standing between the carriages well into the night, on a cold and decrepit Balkan train. This wasn’t helped by my friend Elspeth in Skopje who emailed me to say that ‘no one I know takes the train or has ever heard of anyone taking the train’ and ‘Macedonian trains don’t have a good reputation’.

Oh well, it’d be an adventure, right?

The train from Athens left dead on time, and was perfectly comfortable. Our rail passes allowed us access to the first-class carriages, which had old fashioned compartments of six seats. Despite the big fuss made about seat reservations and the many apologies from the guy who sold the ticket for ‘only having middle seats left’, we shared the fiercely air-conditioned compartment with a lovely teenage brother and sister from Larissa who immediately shifted from their reserved window seats as they said they’d seen it all before and ‘you should be able to see the countryside’. The only other passenger in our compartment was a middle-aged guy who spent the whole journey with his eyes closed, praying with the help of a rosary. I chose to believe this was not a reflection of his views on the safety of Greek trains.

The window seats were a real bonus, as once we got out of the urban, graffiti-rich sprawl of Athens the countryside we passed through was spectacular. Craggy mountains, with lush green foothills and deep rocky gorges eventually gave way to plains and distant views of the Aegean Sea as we trundled north through small villages and a couple of larger towns. At one point the train stopped in the middle of nowhere and we were told we could get off for ten minutes while they changed engines, which was fun to watch in itself.

The train also had a ‘creche’ two compartments down from ours, with little child seats and mats on the floor and some soft play equipment. Lauren spent the vast majority of the 6-and-a-half-hour journey in there with a little Greek girl, alternately playing games on her tablet and playing Uno, for which is seems no common language was required.

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Eventually we arrived at Thessaloniki, where we had been told to ‘immediately go to the desk and confirm seat reservations’. The guy in Athens had made this seem just slightly less important than life and death, but when I tried to do so I was met with a very Greek ‘huh?’ and a shrug and was told ‘all is OK, no problem, no need’. Whatever as Lauren would say.

We had a couple of hours to kill in Thessaloniki, so we had dinner at the station (more pork gyros) and then bought a few bits and pieces from the incredibly well stocked pharmacy. Thessaloniki has been a major transit point for refugees from Syria and Iraq, and many are still stranded in the city. The toll this took is still visible. We were warned to ‘be careful’ (although it did not seem at all unsafe), the toilets had clearly been overwhelmed and have been left in a grim state, there was a significant police presence and there was a scattering of ‘NGO types’ around.

We were supposed to catch the famous ‘Hellas Express’ night train from Thessaloniki to Belgrade, via Skopje, but due to the increased border checks and difficulty in stopping refugees boarding trains illegally, the part from Thessaloniki to the other side of the Macedonia border is currently done by bus. When we asked where this bus would go from, the woman at the information desk waved her hand limply in the direction of ‘outside’ so we joined a few other lost-looking people who were also, it turned out, hoping to catch the bus.

Among this nervous group was a young German couple, backpackers, who struck up a conversation with me (Lauren was off running around the forecourt of the station and charming old men who would grin and chuck her under the chin). When I told them that I was travelling with my 8-year-old they told me I was ‘totally badass’ – I’ve been called many things in my time but I don’t think I’ve ever been a ‘badass’ before!

Around ten minutes ‘late’ (at least by German standards, the backpackers were starting to freak out) the bus turned up, and the driver jumped off, demanding our passports, which he stored in a thin plastic bag. We all piled on, and as the sun set over the mountains we made our way to the Macedonian border. This was uneventful, and after completing formalities on both sides, the driver returned with his plastic bag, and gave it to the person seated in the front row, so that it could be passed around and everyone could retrieve their passports.

After a 15-minute drive into Macedonia, the bus dropped us all off at the tiny station of Gevgelija. During the mad confusion of reclaiming all the bags, which had been dumped on the pavement, we didn’t really realise that the bus had left. The station building itself was closed, no lights on, but we could access the platform through the side. There was no train there, and seemingly no officials. By this point it was pitch black and around 9pm. Given that this must happen every single night, I wasn’t too worried, and Lauren just took it as an opportunity to run up and down the platform, letting off steam. After about 20 minutes, a train emerged incredibly slowly out of the gloom – it wasn’t clear at first if it was even moving, as it moved so slowly, it was quite eerie, as if it was a ghost train, but it pulled up and we all piled aboard. Lauren raced ahead to find our (possibly contested) seats, while I struggled with the two bags. It turned out that not only were our seats fine, we had the entire compartment of 6 seats to ourselves. The only downside seemed to be that the light wasn’t working, as it emitted only a very dull glow, but we were so relieved to have seats we were perfectly willing to do the journey in the dark! How stupid did we feel when some kind Macedonian chap came along and flicked a switch, bathing the compartment in bright light?!

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3 seats each! 

I texted Elspeth (she of the ‘no one ever takes the train’ emails) to say we were not only on the train, but had seats, and the train was actually moving. I was stressing a bit about time, as it was already after 9, and we had to cross most of the country to get to Skopje, where Elspeth would pick us up. Elspeth and her lovely husband Paul and two girls Ana and Isabel are friends from our Maputo days, and they would be hosting us, but I was on edge about ruining their evening and having Elspeth hanging around the station in Skopje for hours as our train bumbled slowly towards the capital. I didn’t see how it would be possible to arrive on time at 22.15, as this was hardly an intercity express we were on, but I had stupidly not factored in the fact that Macedonia is an hour behind Greece, so it turned out that the train was exactly on time, much to the surprise of Elspeth and all her Macedonian colleagues!

It was lovely to see a friendly face and while the journey had been far smoother than expected, it was still a relief to arrive and relax over a glass of Macedonian wine (not bad actually) and catch up with friends.

The next few days in Skopje promise to be great fun.

 

Athens

 

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I get the impression I would really like Athens if I got to know it. It’s hot, chaotic and a bit rough around the edges, not immediately charming or easy in the way Paris or Rome are. It doesn’t seem to want to convince you to like it, it’s really not trying very hard. It’s got its own life. Athens feels like a person you see in a bar who is scruffy and short with the waiters, but after a few drinks you discover they actually have hidden depths and are a fascinating conversationalist.

Anyway, the heat must be getting to me. And boy is it hot. 37 degrees, humid and no wind at all yesterday, only slightly less today.

We arrived easily from Patras, despite the train being replaced by a bus for most of the journey. I had planned to organize onward travel to [the republic of] Macedonia when we arrived, but the ‘international’ counter at the station closed at 3pm so we had to return the next day.

When we did, promptly at the 8am opening time, there was already a long queue of confused and anxious foreigners, including a couple of German backpackers who needed tickets for a train leaving fairly soon who were doing their nut at the glacial movement in the queue, and a couple of very confused Chinese ladies who kept saying ‘we don’t understand Greece’ to me.

For once my Mozambique training paid off – we had all the time in the world to wait, Lauren stuck her nose in her book, and when I did eventually get to the front, I was ever so patient with the endless phone calls and intense consultation of heavy ring binders that booking a ticket to Skopje seemed to require.

After much debate, and nearly an hour just dealing with me, the guy behind the counter asked if I could go another day, as he had already sold his quota of seats for the proposed date of travel. There would be seats available, but he could only ‘unofficially’ reserve them for me. This did not mean what it would in Mozambique (!), but rather that he would allocate some seats under the jurisdiction of Serbian railways, and then send an email to Serbian railways asking if they could please not allocate them to anyone, so that we could have them. I wasn’t keen to change the dates, so I now have a handwritten ticket with some seat reservations written in, and have to confirm these with Serbian railway representatives in Northern Greece, when due to it being a major transit route for refugees, the train will be replaced between Thessaloniki and the border with Macedonia by a bus. Let’s see what happens.

By the time we had finished with booking tickets and got downtown, on Athens’s modern and efficient (and air conditioned!) metro, it was way too hot to consider climbing the acropolis, so we spent a very pleasant few hours in the acropolis museum, learning about ancient Greece, the construction of the Parthenon and other temples, and having an ethical debate about the Elgin marbles. Lauren declared herself ashamed to be British due to the initial looting and current refusal of the UK to return them, and I had to agree, although I did point out the majority of Brits also believe they should be returned (well, according to the Guardian anyway…).

We had dinner at a place recommended by our Airbnb host, in our local neighbourhood and I must say the prices are a relief after Italy. We both had Chicken gyros (chicken in pitta with salad and chips) for just over 6 euros. Another nice thing in Greece has been that every cafe or restaurant immediately plonks a glass bottle of chilled filtered water down on the table, for free, as soon as you arrive.

This morning we were up super early to be at the gates of the Acropolis for 8am, in order to get up there in the cool and ahead of the tours. This was such a good decision. It wasn’t a terribly hard climb, but it is fairly steep and would have been hard going in the heat. We raced up, so that we could be some of the first on top, knowing we could take our time exploring the slopes on the way down. It was good having been to the museum first, as it meant we knew what we were looking at, as there is precious little in terms of information up there. The views were amazing, with Athens spread out below us and the sea in the distance. The Parthenon and other remains are impressive, but somehow much less evocative than Pompeii, Ostia and Rome. Of course, there is less preserved and it’s all temples, with less focus on ‘everyday life’ which might be more relatable. So, while I am glad we did it (and having brought breakfast, it was a lovely setting for a picnic), for me, it was less moving and less interesting overall than Italy. The early start paid off  though, as on our way down we could barely move for tours.

We walked back down through backstreets all the way to our accommodation, about an hour’s walk through streets lined with cafes and small shops, and full of cats.  We stopped off for a delicious iced coffee (everyone drinks them, all day and night here, it seems) and a late morning snack.

This afternoon was dedicated to schooling. We still haven’t got the French materials but Lauren has been doing an hour or two a day from the British curriculum, or from my head or things that come up in conversation. It gives me a great excuse to dodge her endless questions and make things into “research projects”.

Yesterday she had made a comment about how she would love to have a shop as she could help herself to whatever she wanted. I countered that actually she couldn’t, at least not without paying, due to the need to keep business and personal income separate, for tax reasons, which led to a whole discussion on taxation (and tax avoidance and why its wrong), so this afternoon I taught her the basics of profit and loss statements. This is what I love about “homeschooling” – it came from a real-life example, and I managed to personalize it (you own a steak restaurant, you have to pay waiters, buy food, pay electricity etc – work out your revenue, gross profit, profit after tax etc.) and she loved looking at the different impacts of different ‘business decisions’ (including nicking some of her own produce and the impact on tax).

Ancient Greece in the morning, Profit and Loss statements in the afternoon. A good day.

Next: A 13-hour (we hope!) journey to Skopje.

 

 

Italy to Greece by Boat

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There is something so romantic about travelling from one country to another without the stress and artificiality of flying. We were both super excited about the prospect of crossing over from Italy to Greece by overnight ferry.

We pottered across from Naples on the west coast to the east coast of Italy on the train, through some beautiful mountains, and down the coast to just above the ‘heel’ of Italy. We stayed the night in the port town of Bari, which didn’t seem to have a lot to recommend it. There is a pretty ‘old town’ by the port, which is clearly either thronged with cruise ship tourists, or dead, depending on whether there’s a cruise in port. Being used to travelling in Africa, I probably overestimated how much of a margin we needed for everything and we could easily have got the train down the same day as the ferry, as instead we had a day and half in Bari, which was about a day and a quarter too much.

Anyway, it gave us a chance to stock up on vegetables after all that pizza, and we made a huge vegetable stir fry in the hostel – I think we fed half the backpacker community of Bari with the leftovers.

It was finally time to embark, and again, I had built in far too much time, as the checking in process took all of 5 minutes, and then we were on board hours before sailing. Mind you, this gave us ample time to scope out the best viewpoints and stake a claim to a table on the deck. Lauren was fizzing with excitement but after 4-5 full tours of the boat, she was happy to settle down on deck.

We also got the chance to watch the loading of all the trucks carrying goods (and live animals in a couple of cases) across to Greece, which was actually really interesting, seeing how the trucks were manoeuvred backwards into spaces with centimetres to spare.

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On board there was an interesting mix of tourists (mainly young Australian backpackers travelling in a huge group and getting drunk on cheap booze and freedom) and hardened truck drivers (also getting steadily drunker on the cheap booze, ultimately ending up in a punch up in the restaurant later, much to Lauren’s amusement and my alarm).

Our cabin was tiny but functional, with a pull-down bed for Lauren above my bed and a teeny weeny bathroom. It was about the size and set up of the cabin we have booked for a 30-day crossing on a cargo ship from London to Montevideo in December, and given that within 2 minutes our possessions were liberally scattered over every surface and bit of floor, it did cross my mind to wonder how on earth we will cope on a longer voyage.

As we are currently working our way through the Corfu Trilogy by Gerard Durrell, Lauren was keen to see Corfu when we passed it. Luckily the woman at reception told her there was no point waking up at 5am to see it, as it would be dark and we would be too far away. I should have slipped that woman a tenner. Anyway, when we did wake up closer to 7, we were threading our way between beautiful outcrops and islands, and it was a pretty idyllic start to the day.

We docked just before midday in Patras, and again, I had planned a night here “in case things go wrong” and while it was a lively little place, surrounded by mountains and with a lovely vibe especially as it was Sunday and the whole town seemed to be out for Sunday lunch and a stroll, it would have been easy enough to get straight on to Athens the same day. Instead, we went for a late lunch (kebabs, of course) and then hid inside doing schoolwork for a few hours as it was nearly 40 degrees. We went for a stroll in the evening, enjoyed a beautiful sunset and a G&T worthy of my father (for me) and an early night, happy to be in Greece and excited about Athens the next day.

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Next: Athens – The Acropolis, the Parthenon and will the Souvlaki be as good as mine???