Quick Tip on Train Travel in Bavaria
To save some money traveling by train in Bavaria, get a Bayern-Ticket. Get a few folks together and take advantage of the 29€ ride all day pass – good up to 5 travelers. Don’t know 4 other people? That’s fine just hang out by the ticket machines and ask folks. Seriously! Regular fare is 30€ or so, this way it’s only 6€. that’s for the local not the express trains. Express is about 50€ and saves only 30 minutes or so from Nürnberg to München. But for 10% of the cost it’s definitely worth it!
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.
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.