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.
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?!
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.