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Eastern European Rail Travel

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Traveling by train in Eastern Europe is unpleasant. At best. It’s slow. It’s inconvenient. It’s loud. It’s bumpy. Take the bus instead.

From Budapest to Zagreb I took the train. Meant to be a leisurely 5-6 hour affair, it was closer to eight. After the first hour we were 20 minutes late. I’m not sure how that’s possible.

And we spent about an hour on a bus, going between train stations. Apparently they were working on the track? So we boarded a pair of busses to go this distance. The one I rode on was a real throwback. I could imagine old Tito being proud of it, but since then it had definitely seen some hard times.

But the rail is still good for night trips when you want to nap. It’s cheaper and more comfortable than the bus for that. I was on a night train from Belgrade to Skopje and it was delayed approximately an hour. That gave me more time to sleep.

Again, it was a car that probably saw pretty heavy use under the Marshal’s mid to late term. It had a sink, but it was corroded, rusted and stained. The beds were uncomfortable and old. The sheets were so heavily starched they didn’t fold so much as stack like wood. But I got a night of sleep for less than the cost of a bus trip alone and less than the day train and a hostel.

I suppose the lesson here is that you should know when and whre to use the trains here. Only use them when you want a slow, leisurely stroll through the country. And a cabin that smells like smoke. And a thirty year old mattress.

Into Greece And Athens

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I caught the train to Thessaloniki at about 5:15 in the afternoon. It was to take around 5 hours to get there. Then I was to take a train to Athens and arrive around 7am.  I caught the first train and was on my way. Hopefully the Eastern European rail system could get me there in time to catch my connection.

Just before the border most of the horde that was on the train got off – students, I’m told. Then it was on to the border where the Greeks came on board, dressed in civilian clothes and asked us all to surrender our passports for them to take off the train. In 10 minutes, they said, we were to come to the Police station to collect them. Quite sketchy. Fortunately I’d read about this being SOP so I wasn’t as suspicious as I’d have been otherwise.

After 10 minutes I had my passport and we were underway again. We got to Thessaloniki pretty much on time. I went down to the ticket office and picked up a ticket for the sleeping car of a night train and went to catch up on my email. It was 10pm and my train left at 11:30 so I had time. After firing off a few emails I was just getting comfortable. That’s when it dawned on me that there’d been a time change. I looked at the time – 11:30.

Pick up my stuff. Put my pack on my back. Run. Platform 1. Platform 2-3. 4-5. 6-7. Up the stairs. Train is still there. Get on board. Heart pounding. Barely made it.

But I suppose Greece is on the Eastern European rail system. We finally departed from the station at around midnight. I made my bed in the six-sleeper compartment and climbed into it. 7 hours to Athens. The long train. Time to get some rest.

A Day Trip To Matka Canyon

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I arranged a day trip through the proprietors of the hostel where I stayed. It’s a friendly, family run-place that has about a dozen beds for rent. And a couch for guests they like but don’t have room for elsewhere – party crashers like myself.

There were eight of us going to the canyon, which meant two taxis. They arranged everything and we were on our way.

Our party consisted of me, a Portugese guy, a German couple and two young couples from Minnesota. We became friends quickly and unofficially elected the Germans tour leaders since they had a guidebook which mentioned Skopje. And the taxi driver spoke more German than English – but only by about 3 words.

We strolled down the road a bit from where the taxi dropped us off and made it over to the Church of St. Andrew and one of the restaurants. Ordinarily these sit right on the lake. However, the lake was down for cleaning so only a small, shallow creek trickled below.

We began walking around the canyon walls, following a trail. We hugged the walls, as our narrow ledge was about 2 feet wide in some spots, with a 20 foot drop off to the mud flats below. We hiked on until we came to a slight clearing. I suggested we might want to turn around and head back another way. But the intrepid Germans pressed on.

When the ledge had gotten thinner, the overhangs lower and the drop higher, the Germans finally conceded defeat. The trail had beaten them. We turned back and decided to take a different route. We’d go up a couple of marked trails to a scenic overlook.

These trails were possibly made for billy goats or rabbits, but not for people. They went straight up the mountain at greater than a 45 degree angle in some places. It was difficult for me, being the fattest one of the group. But eventually I made it and the view was worth the hike.

Back in Skopje we were told that there were other monasteries in close hiking distance and that they were better than the one we actually visited. Score another win for unmarked tourist spots in Macedonia.

A Couple Of Days In Skopje

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Just across the stone bridge, first built by the Roman ruler Justinian over 1500 years ago and since rebuilt several times, from the main pedestrian square lies the old market area. Narrow streets built with large, pave stones (instead of cobbles), smoothed by the feet of generations. It could have been here 100 years, 1,000, or more. The place bustles with buyers, sellers and strollers.

This is the heart of Skopje. Cultures, regligions and races congregate to do the things they have always done. The Romans, Greeks, Slavs and Turks have all laid claim to the city and left their mark on its people and culture. And don’t forget that Alexander the Great was actually named Alexander III of Macedon.

I strolled up the terraced Teodocig Gologanov street and ducked into an obviously touristic shop marked simply “Antik”. I looked around at the relics – some old and some made to look that way – and landed upon some old post cards dated pre-WWII. The shop keeper asked 10 Euro for them, one in a frame, but I said it was too much. In clear but pleasantly accented English he told me that the owner doesn’t sell them but instead uses them for examples of clothing to sell the costumery in his shop. But he’d probably be willing to part with them for that price to an American – correctly guessing my nationality. Aha – a sales tactic! So I politely declined and said that I understood. He handed me one, saying “This is from me. It is a duplicate anyway.” I’d get used to that kind of friendliness during my stay.

At the top of the street is a nice little cafe without a name and I stopped in to review my map and to get a quick caffiene lift. Then I headed off to walk around a bit more. Several mosques peek above the skyline of the city, with their towers, and I wanted to photograph and maybe visit one of these places. But whenever I’d approach with my camera, someone would come to wave me away. One time it was a guy from a repair shop. As I’d learn, photography is not readily permitted here.

As it got close to lunch I stopped at a small restaurant with its awninged tables squeezed into the space between the buildings. The menu was in English, marking it as a tourist place, and the prices corresponded. So I sat and ate an excellent dish of sausage, ham and beef. No greens on the plate.
As I was finishing up, three locals sat across from me and started up a conversation. Only one spoke English, but he did so very well. He lives in Lund, Sweden now – a place I’ve been before. He invited me to sit with him for a beer and we talked about their city, their country and my travels. The Swede vacations here every month and the friends he had in tow were his brother-in-law and his cousin. Very warm and welcoming people.

I recognized some lost tourists by their maps, guidebook and lost look and approached them. They were Polish and were touring the Balkans on vacation. I helped them find the stone bridge and bid them farewell. I ran into them again coming back from more sight seeing and then again later in the day. Skopje is a small town for tourists.

After that I walked up to the Kale area and its predominant castle. The place was obviously not set up for tourists, though heavy construction is ongoing. It’s a nice place to spend a little time walking around and offers excellent views of the city. At the top of the hill sits the art museum as well as the US Embassy. The two virtually share a building.

On the far side of the bazaar from Kale sits the old clock tower. This was the first erected in the Ottoman empire and was used to signal the time so that Muslim shopkeepers could stop work to perform their prayers. It’s in a bit dirtier and sketchier part of town, up on a small hill. And again, I was shooed away from taking pictures there. But my motto is shoot first and ask questions later.

Just a couple of hundred meters from the main square is a church built in a similar style to the mosques. A large dome shape with a tower to the side. I went in and was greeted by a stunningly simple church. It’s not as ornate as many of the other Orthodox churches which is refreshing. And there is a magnificent fresco on the ceiling.

Sitting atop Vardna mountain sits the Millennium Cross. This was supposedly erected to celebrate 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia. However, I think they got their math wrong a bit. It seems, instead, to be a display of religious expression by the Christians, as if to remind the Muslims that they are here. It’s not too far to hike to the cross, and along the way is St. Pantelejmon monastery. I hear it is quite nice to see. I tried to find it and walked all over the mountain without luck owing to the lack of street signs and names.

For dinner I had a dish called Polovana Vechalitsa. It, again, was all meat. But it was basically two or three different meats, with onions, baked and stewing in its own gravy, served in a ceramic dish with some bread on the side. It was excellent.

There were plenty more things to see in town, but I was out of time and wanted to take a day trip before I left. For example, Matka canyon offers excellent hiking and several monasteries, as well as some dining facilities. And it’s only about 15km from the city.

Skopje was starting to grow on me after my first full day in town. Friendly people, inexpensive, relatively safe, unspoiled by tourists and it’s someplace that very few have been or even heard of. That’s a welcome combination in my book. So I decided to stay one more day.

Welcome To Skopje

In between Belgrade and Athens is the country of Macedonia, and its capital Skopje. I could either go straight through to Greece or stop over for a while. Guidebook says nothing about it so that’s where I want to go.

I took the night train from Belgrade. It was supposed to take less than 9 hours, but this being Eastern European rail, I knew it’d be more. More than 10 hours later we arrived. I walked down the platform and was greeted by the familiar “taxi” call of the drivers. I ignored them. I changed some money and went to look for some info.

The window marked “information” had no information about the city. Nor did they know where I could get any. Train info only I suppose. So I asked around the shops for a map of the city. Nothing. But one shop keeper figured that “maybe  guy over there have map. He open at 8:30.” 30 minutes to kill.

I went for breakfast and noticed the universal ‘i’ meaning “information”. Walked over to the place and it was empty inside. No desks, no chairs, no people, no maps. “Closed for lack of interest” it might as well have said. At 8:45 the map guy was still closed. I learned quickly that in Macedonia, signs mean little. Which is fine since there are so few of them.

Actually, people seemed to try to spite them. Nobody waits for the “walk” signal, but risks death as often as possible. Some wait for the “don’t walk” sign to pop up before scampering across the street. Same thing with sidewalks. They’re not just for walking, but also for parking and driving! Even at the train station, some people line up on the wrong side to wait for the train, even if there’s room on the platform!

And things get more upside-down, still. I was at a restaurant and was surrounded by flies as I sat there wondering what to order. I was preparing to defend my bounty from them, but when it arrived they went away. Twice a fly approached and was easily shooed away. The third time I didn’t try to shoo him, but he turned away anyways. After that I didn’t fear them trying to share with me again.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, trying to find any kind of tourist information I could. Well I’d seen a map of the city and I kind of knew where some things were. I knew where a hostel was and where the center was, roughly, compared to each other. As luck would have it I found a sign for the hostel so I followed it. Until it came to a dead-end with no indication which way to go.

I walked one way for a while and then another and felt like I was close, but not close enough to risk getting lost. I knew what street the hostel was on, but none of the streets are marked so that’s a crap shoot. If Belgrade was difficult to navigate even with a map, Skopje would be impossible without one.

OK, time to seek out some fresh Internet. And some coffee. I hoofed it toward where I thought the center was and ran across a park. Free Internet. Nice, but no coffee. Fortunately there was a mall just up the road where I found both.

I pulled down a map of Skopje to my phone and checked out some things to do on my laptop. (Google really let me down. According to their map, it’s only a highway with a dot beside it. Actually I just checked and they’ve added a bit more detail in the last day or so, but still not much.) I also found a great travel site with information about Skopje.

Then I set off toward a hostel to check in and drop off some of my stuff. I got settled into the place – very reminiscent of the Communist-style housing I was accustomed to by now – and headed back out to explore the city. But first, I was given a photocopy of a tourist map and had some of the places pointed out to me there. Finally.

The main sites I wanted to hit were the Old Market, Kale Castle, some of the mosques, the Stone Bridge and others. There wasn’t anything particularly spectacular about the places except that they were not at all touristic. The castle was undergoing reconstruction, but the rest of the places seemed to have remained the same for decades or centuries. But more on that later.

This only scratches the surface of a place like Skopje. And it puts it in a bad light, but this is the first impression I got. I’m happy to say that impression was not the whole story.

Riga Hostels

There are two hostels in Riga with the name “Riga Hostel” which is confusing. Apparently, some guy named Juan used to work at Riga Hostel and then left and started his own place. He has apparently told all of the websites and his guests that the place changed names and moved locations. I didn’t stay there so I don’t know if it’s true or not, but there was quite a bit of confusion on the Internet about it when I was reading. I am just repeating what I heard at Riga Hostel from one of the employees. So if you’ve booked one of the two of these hostels, make sure you know which one you’re going to.