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???

Naples: Pizza, Pizza, Pizza

I am sure Naples is a lovely city with a great deal to offer, not least the National Archaeological Museum which holds many of the household objects and treasures unearthed in Pompeii. However, with only 3 nights in Naples, and two full-on daytrips, the most we saw of the city was its various stations and its pizzas. But what pizzas!

On our first night we arrived fairly late from Rome, hungry and not in the mood to deal with the metro system. The very friendly and extremely talkative host of the flat we were renting recommended a local pizza place that she claimed had some of the best pizza in Naples. We followed her directions down a street that somehow combined looking run down and slightly dodgy with some very swish jewelry shops. We nearly missed the restaurant, as there was just a small sign with the name of the place. Inside, tables for 6 were laid, and it was already heaving and chaotic.

We sat down where indicated by a rather gruff potbellied waiter, and I studied the menu. The waiter let me plod along in my pseudo Italian (mainly just Portuguese with an Italian accent and more hand gestures) until I tried to order extra chilli for Lauren (she wanted red peppers, google translate let me down), at which point for her sake he switched to perfectly good English. Drinks were served in disposable plastic cups, tables were covered in paper tablecloths, and single customers were wedged in among the groups wherever there was a chair. Payment was cash only, based on the system “tell the guy at the door what you had”. Eating protocol was very much head down, focus on the food.

Most of the customers seemed to be manual workers or office workers having a quick dinner before heading home, but there was a sprinkling of families too.  Most seemed to be content with a margherita, which I’ve always felt a bit wet ordering before, but I guess with pizza this good, why disguise it with fancy toppings?

Lauren had a margherita (of course!) and I thought I ordered Bolognese sauce on mine but it turned out to be some sort of tiny curried peas with possibly some meat flavouring … it was yummy but odd. The bases were amazing, with big fluffy crusts slightly blackened on top, and incredibly thin centres. They were the size of coffee tables. Neither of us managed even half, and we ended up eating the leftovers for the next 2 days!

I’ve no idea whether Naples would have been worth exploring further if we’d had more time, I’m sure it would, but I can confirm that the pizza was the best we had anywhere in Italy, and at 6 euros for a margherita that fed Lauren for 3 days, a bargain too!

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This is not a trick of perspective, it really was as big as it looks.

 

 

Pompei (by Lauren)

Written by Lauren 

Pompeii is an ancient city from the time of the Romans. It was once a busy town. There were lots of shops and bars and takeaway restaurants (thermopolium). It was buried by Vesuvius, it’s next door neighbour. Vesuvius is 5 miles away from Pompeii!! There are lots of paintings (frescoes) on the walls and mosaics on the floors. There is one mosaic I couldn’t take my eyes off, it has an inscription saying beware of the dog to scare away robbers. Most houses had one in front of the front door whether they had a dog or not!

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It took years to uncover all of this amazing city of Pompeii in fact they are still excavating. The story of how Pompeii was found is that one day some people were digging a tunnel and they came across some painted marble slabs. They investigated no further but then over 100 years later one of the rich people wanted to decorate his house with ancient treasures of the Romans so he commanded his servants to dig some more of the ancient things they had found 100 years before. It was hard because the lava and ash had hardened so it was really hard to dig through. After that they started excavating properly.

I definitely liked it but that is just because of my uncle Richard who is a historian, if he was not my uncle I probably would be interested but not as much as I am now. If you are not interested in history there is probably not a lot of point going unless you like gruesome stuff because in Pompeii they found the holes that dead bodies made when the lava hardened around them when they were trying to escape then the bodies rotted away but left the holes. Then they filled the holes with plaster and made statues. Babies and adults were killed so it is beautiful but gruesome.

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We saw lots of villas and also the amphitheater and the Forum and the temple of Isis and bars and the baths which were very cool. Lots of the streets had stepping stones because the poor people didn’t have bins in the streets like they have these days so when their bins got full they threw their waste onto the street and used the stepping stones to cross the street so they didn’t stand in the rubbish.

It was great fun and if you are in the area I think you should go!

 

 

 

 

 

Vesuvius!

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One of the things Lauren has really *really* wanted to do is visit a ‘real’ (as in, not dormant for centuries) volcano. So naturally, when she heard about the possibility of hiking up to the top of Vesuvius, she was all for it. I read that a bus takes you most of the way, so agreed. How hard could it be?

Then I started researching it properly and kept coming across all of these posts about ‘hefty Brits’ or ‘unprepared tourists’ failing to make the summit. Having once, many, many, many years ago, been the type to hike up Ben Nevis, spend weeks in the Scottish highlands wild camping, and hike the Lairig Ghru, crampons, ice axe and all in the middle of winter, I am familiar with that certain level of disdain ‘proper hikers’ have for unfit amateurs.  These days, after pneumonia wrecked my lungs, a spinal fusion, constant ankle pain from a torn ligament last year, dozens of extra kilos and a mislaid gym card, I can only accept that this is what I now am.

I spent last night having nightmares of letting Lauren down, or making her remember Vesuvius not as the cool exciting day when she got to the top of a volcano, but rather the day mummy had to be airlifted off the top having collapsed !

So in the absence of the ability to lose 50 Kg overnight, I prepared as best as I could – up early, decent breakfast, plenty of water in the bag, hiking boots….. we were at the base by 8 o clock. Only problem was, the shuttle didn’t start til 9. No problem! 9 o clock came and went, then 9.30 and it became apparent the shuttle went when it was full…. so we waited a bit longer, me fretting about the heat, Lauren doing pirouettes in the square, and playing an endless game of I spy.

Eventually we set off, up the incredibly narrow winding road up to the ‘top car park’. The typical Italian driving caused one woman to actually scream in panic as another bus careered round a corner and missed us by centimeters on the bend. Every bend after that the driver slowed to a crawl, exaggeratedly beeped his horn, and killed himself laughing.

The guides all say that it should only take a ‘fit’ person 30 minutes from the ‘top car park’ to the crater and ‘moderately fit’ 45. They never mention ‘unfit’  but the bus driver waits 90 minutes, so surely if I went slow and steady we’d be OK.

It was really not that bad at all, and I was possibly being a little paranoid. Grannies were going up there in their ‘sensible shoes’ and people far bigger than I made it. I powered up there in 30 minutes, head down, totally ‘mind over matter’, and yes, I could barely breathe the whole way up, it *is* steep, and yes, I did a couple of times tell Lauren to “stop asking so many bloody questions!” because I needed the oxygen to breathe not to enter into a debate about squirrels, or forest fires, or the impact of human beings on nature…. but we made it. Lauren of course barely broke a sweat.

It was definitely worth it. The views across the bay of Naples were beautiful, and it was definitely cool to see the odd wisp of steam coming up from the crater. Free briefings of about 10 minutes are included in the price of admission, and we learned a lot, including the fact that when Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii, it was twice the height it is today. So at least some good came of it, I can’t imagine I’d have made it up the original!

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The white stuff is actually steam rising from the crater….

 

Tomorrow – Pompeii!

 

 

 

Ostia Antica

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Ostia Antica is a fairly well preserved Roman town which once served as a port for Rome. It’s also a lovely day trip when you feel the need to escape the heat and crowds of Rome. Thanks Denise for the recommendation, we had a fab day 😊

We packed up and left our little Air B&B and jumped on the tram to Termini station, where we would later that day catch a train to Naples. We left the bags at left luggage, which was a total mess and had huge queues, so I paid the extra 12 euros to ‘skip the line’ and have the ‘concierge service’ that would deliver the bags to the platform of our train 15 minutes before it leaves. Haven’t quite got into backpacker mentality yet!

The ruins are pretty impressive, although you do have to use your imagination. Best preserved is the amphitheater, a number of mosaics, the men’s latrines (seating only, with a specially shaped hole adapted to the male anatomy), and some villas, temples and bars. There are also some pretty impressive big round container things that I am sure my brother will be able to name – they stored grain in them and transported all sorts in them by sea.

Next – High speed to Naples!