It’s early again. Darren is awake. “You’re up early ?”, “I haven’t been to sleep”. Delighted as I am that Darren is enjoying himself so much he cant even close his eyes, I am concerned that this mode of operation isn’t sustainable.
We are in the mountain range known as The Balkans, from which the region takes it’s name. It’s rated as a world class ride through limestone gorges into the heart of Bulgaria. It doesn’t disappoint.
We arrive. Sofia is the highest capital in Europe, a real mountain city. The huge constructivist mural dominating the station concourse is punctuated by the golden arches of consumerism. There’s a tube system!, brand new!. We take it several stops and then walk with bags to the wash stop I have arranged.
Originally, the timetable dictated that we would have to ditch for the night in Sofia. Then the ghost train from Kiev turned up and so I could keep everyone on-board for another night.
The hostel I booked in Sofia is £8 each. I elected to keep it as a wash stop and emergency crash pit should we end up turning up in the middle of the night on a bus. It is a master stroke. We are all able to take a rapid and most welcome shower and have a few coffees. Darren is able to sink into the 90 minute coma he so desperately needs. Burek, the staple breakfast food for everywhere within a 1,000 km radius, is discarded. Perhaps it’s a good job we aren’t actually stopping anywhere really between here and Sarajevo. Culture shock and sleep deprivation is being exhibited by most of the group now.
The pre-arranged bus turns up to take us by road to Skope, the Macedonian capital. We have a nice shot gun tour of Sofia, and perform a now well drilled raid on a supermarket before setting off for the border.
“We’ve come on holiday by mistake”
At the road border between Bulgaria and Macedonia, Paul is required to submit his preposterously heavy suitcase for intensive examination. Passports are submitted, and eventually returned, and submitted, and, eventually, returned. And we conclude the process with a visit to what is the worst bog on the entire trip to date.
Most of the group had never driven through a border control before today. We are standing in the bottom end of the bits and pieces that once comprised Yugoslavia. Our next country will be Serbia. Narvik was less than a week ago. It feels like a lifetime.
The scenery on the drive to Skopje is pleasant enough across a plateau. As we arrive, a giant crucifix is noticed positioned on a mountainside overlooking the city. It appears to be confronting this openly liberal but Muslim city. We get taken to the tiny Old City area. It’s deserted. All the shops are shut tight. They are tourist shops. Its a Sunday. It’s summer. Where the fuck are the tourists ?
I locate the little square with the kebab restaurants. I don’t know if I chose the wrong one or if they all serve super greasy ćevapčići . It is stupendously cheap though.
We return to the station. The greasy kebabs were the last straw for most of the group. Macedonia is facing a hammering in the press already. And now this station. I present myself at the ticket office. I have booked this, without paying yet, via the internet from a contact I got from the Serbian railways lady. I am greeted as “Lester” by the bloke. I peer over and see my name scrawled across a print out and the number 10. Relax.
The station at Skopje makes Sofia station feel like Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. Seriously. The bogs are a genuine challenge to the ones at the border. There aren’t even place name signs on the platform. If you are unlucky enough to find yourself here you presumably don’t want reminding how careless you’ve been. A mild panic starts to build among the group. A rumour has spread that there isn’t a train to Belgrade. We could be stuck here, indefinitely.
It arrives. All three carriages. Oh! how cute, I think to myself. We spend the evening covering about 10 km. We have to leave Macedonia and enter Serbia. It takes time. We get a passport stamp, at last. And it’s got a train on it!. Drinks are had, a picnic is made. A supplement is paid to the manager to secure exclusive tenure of our two cabins. Bucharest was the most easterly point, Narvik was the furthest, but Skopje certainly feels the most distant.
Lisbon will be both the most westerly and southerly city on the trip.
Start: In the Balkan Mountains
Train 18: continued sleeper from Bucharest to Sofia
Bus 2: Sofia to Skopje private hire
Train 19: 20:10 Skopje to Belgrade
Finish: Preševo valley, Serbia
Also on this day
Paul’s Photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/sets/72157634634335458/
Lloyd’s Blog http://www.lloydshepherd.com/2013/07/14/day-9-on-william-gladstone-street/ and http://www.lloydshepherd.com/2013/07/15/day-10-graves-trains-and-mountains/
Darren’s Blog http://blog.darrenf.org/2013/07/are-we-there-yet.html
Dave’s Blog http://disorientateddave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/cyrillic-zone.html