Night Train to Belgrade

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.

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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.

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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!

School in Skopje (by Lauren)

The trip has been amazing so far! Skopje was one of the best places because we spent time with our friends. Skopje is a weird but good place!!

There is one thing that I did which was unexpected but nice. I went to school!! I was a bit nervous at the beginning but everyone made me really welcome and I enjoyed the first day so much I went back the next day!!

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Most kids think school is boring, but the school I went to is small and so not boring. Maybe its just because I love school, but I think most kids would like this school, it is lovely and the teacher Isabel had (Miss Alison) made learning fun.

They had 4 small turtles and one big one, and lots of geckos and when I was there I saw one of them shedding its skin.

For those of you wondering what good a small school can give you, well here is the list:

  • The teachers pay more attention to you so if you need to say something, put your hand up and she or he will see you.
  • In a day you already feel like a family because it only has about 80 kids in it.
  • You get much more attention from your friends.
  • The canteen is less crowded and you can talk to your friends without having to shout.
  • You get to have more cool classes.

I made some friends, including Rita, Laura and Miss Alison’s daughter.

We had these classes in the two days I was there:

  • Library and reading class
  • Science and experiments class
  • Sports
  • Music
  • Drama
  • Normal class, the one with all the tests and maths and stuff like that.

I HAD A GREAT TIME. THANK YOU ISABEL AND TEACHER ALISON.

Skopje

The few days we spent in Skopje have been wonderful. Staying with our friends Paul and Elspeth, and their lovely girls Anna and Isabel, not to mention the two dogs and the cat, it’s been a real treat to be in a family environment after a series of apartments and hostels. The family have been so welcoming, Lauren and Isabel got on particularly well being a similar age, and it’s been so nice for me to spend some quality time (in fact, far more than we ever had time for in Maputo!) with Elspeth.

Skopje is an odd place. A mixture of brash nationalistic kitsch and old winding streets, the centre feels like two different cities from two different centuries.

The former government had a highly nationalistic agenda, and in a deliberate two fingers at Greece, who contests ‘ownership’ of Alexander the Great (as well as the name Macedonia and various bits of territory) with Macedonia, everything that could be seems to have been branded Alexander the Great.  A number of new bridges and buildings were built, as part of the ‘Skopje 2014’ project, at huge expense, in pseudo neoclassical style, with elaborate columns and windows and domes, but they are really just concrete facades. A vast number of new statues of Macedonian heroes (seemingly, all men – many on horseback) have also been erected, including an odd one of Alexander the Great and his mother at different stages of his life – in the first she is pregnant with him, and then others show him as a small boy growing into a man. While the aim was to promote and highlight ethnic Macedonian history and culture, the result for an outsider is a surreal landscape of bright white ‘old style’ buildings and statues, making it feel a little like ‘old europeworld’ at Disneyland. They even have their own Arc de Triomphe!

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A 2-minute walk from the riverside where most of this new development has taken place, winding streets lined first with tourist tat and then with wedding dress shops, jewelers, cobblers, cheap electronics and tea houses, make their way up a hill sprinkled with mosques towards a huge local market. With the old guys sitting out on small stools drinking tea, the smoke from cooking meat and the odd lazy cat, this feels more back streets of Istanbul than Europe, and it’s a bizarre contrast to the riverside.

 

I found the capital really quite bonkers, but it’s clearly attracting tourists like never before, with cheap flights, good food and the contrasting styles to get your head round.

Another day we travelled out to Matka gorge, a beautiful canyon through steep mountains not far from Skopje, where a dam has created an artificial lake. We had a lovely lunch overlooking the lake, the food was fantastic – to start a selection of salads and warm homemade bread, accompanied by the absolutely delicious Macedonian speciality Ajvar, a mix of roasted red peppers, aubergine and olive oil, and to follow I had chicken stuffed with prosciutto in a pistachio sauce, and Lauren had tagliatelle in white wine and cream, with salmon and caviar.

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To work some of that off we headed up the trail that winds around the side of the mountain, clambering over (and sometimes through) the rocks. While there was never any real danger, the girls skipping ahead along the narrow path that only sometimes had an adequate handrail gave me nightmares later that night.

For our last couple of days Lauren went to the lovely international school that the girls attend in Skopje, and had a great time. It’s been so good for her to be able to have some ‘girl time’ and they have got on really well.  We will be sad to leave, but we hope they will visit us in Portugal next year.

For now, the night train to Serbia awaits.

 

 

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.