MACEDONIA – DAY 9 – THESSALONIKI – SOFIA

Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.), Stories, Travel

My phone rang and almost instantly Sasho’s too. It was dark in the room and we were exhausted. About two hours after I fell asleep a mosquito (or four as we found out) had an absolute feast on me, to the point where I couldn’t sleep anymore from the itchiness. I got up and went to the toilet to see the damage… my legs were minced by those flying piranhas! It was really warm in the room, the windows were open and along with the mosquitos there was a constant wave of noise coming from the relentless traffic outside. Lovely.

Not long after Sasho woke up with the same issue. He had been eaten alive. We spent about forty minutes chasing those bastards and killing them one by one. At the end there was only one left, but he knew our game and hid… However, I devised a plan, covering myself entirely and just exposing my legs I was the perfect lure for the trap. Sasho sat in the corder armed with some paper laying in waiting. Apparently, I was such a good piece that the last-one-standing couldn’t resist even seeing our obvious trap and come out for a bite…SMAAAK and that was it, we went back to bed.

Well, it wasn’t long after when those phones rang and we were absolutely destroyed after about four-five hours of actual sleep. It was 5:50 and we got dressed and ready. The train was leaving at 6:30.

Ready to go

We rolled down the hill and onto the train station. It was not more than five minutes away on the bikes and we knew the way from the day before.

Sasho went to get some coffee and breakfast while I looked for the platform.

Well, the platform wasn’t shown on any of the five screens (or shall we call them panels as they were mechanical). I went to ask which platform the train was leaving from (it wasn’t on the ticket) from the same desk where we got the tickets. The guy (it was the same as the one that sold us the tickets) replied with “one”. Such a warm person, I shall invite him for a drink next time I pass by Thessaloniki.

We ran towards the platform with food and coffee. There were about fifteen minutes to departure. A woman actually held Sasho’s coffee while he climbed the stairs with his bike.

We arrived at the platform. The conductor was there too and he saw us and asked to check our tickets. “Oh no no, this not good.” “What??!? Why? What’s wrong with our tickets?” “They no have bike”… “What? No one told us that we need to buy a separate ticket for the bike, we specifically asked to have tickets with bikes included and we actually paid the price for them – two euro per bike!” “No good, need ticket for bike” O,o …

I held the bikes, while Sasho ran down the stairs and to the tickets desk to check W.T.F. we had paid for.

I was checking my watch, the minutes were just draining as sand does through a sieve. There were less than five minutes to departure, but I knew that if someone can do it in time, it will be Sasho (he generally considers the last two minutes before departure as if it were two hours). And I wasn’t wrong, he ran up the stairs. He explained that we had paid for the bike tickets, but hadn’t received them. Apparently, we should have gone to the desk NEXT to the one where we paid for the tickets (and got our regular ones) to specifically get the bike ones issued… However, the lovely person at the desk didn’t mention that yesterday. And now the desk that could issue the bike tickets was….closed.

We explained to the conductor and he looked puzzled. Then he made a call on the radio and a woman came running up the stairs. He had a paper stack that she filled while the conductor was rushing us to get the bikes on the train. The woman was running after us.

The problem was that the conductor didn’t tell us where to put the bikes, so we ran to the other side almost and when we realised there’s no space there we turned and saw him shouting at us to go back to the opposite end of the train. And back we run (with the woman following us like a puppy). We got the bikes up in the wagon, but then the conductor came and asked us what the hell we were doing? We couldn’t keep the bikes in the carriage, we were supposed to put them in the storage space, at the other end of the carriage… Down the bikes went (this is not like in the UK trains, the carriage was about a meter and a half higher than the platform, so we had to lift the bikes to get them in and out). We ran to the storage door. I should have taken a photo of this (but couldn’t for obvious reasons). The door was literally without any stairs, a meter and a half up on the side of the wall of the carriage. The same as the others, but without stairs… Sasho jumped in first, I lifted the first bike and passed it to him, then got mine and lifted and passed again. Then I jumped in myself. The woman standing on the platform had just finished writing the tickets and passed them to us. The conductor came from somewhere (on the carriage) and closed the door. The train left the platform.

Breath in, breath out… The conductor made us tie the bikes so that they don’t fly around and finally we went and sat down. Then, he asked us for the tickets 😀 “But we showed them to you?” “Need to see again”… “Here you go” “Thank you”. We were working with machines, but the train and the bikes weren’t the ones.

Finally, we caught our breath and had some delicious pastries and some milk.

After about four hours the train arrived at Strymonas train station. This was the last stop for the train. Now, if you look at the map, you will realise something:

The last train stop in Greece is not really anywhere near the next trains top in Bulgaria. It’s in fact fifteen kilometres away. We had to get off the international train.

It was us, the dogs and a few other clearly lost souls sitting on the train station puzzled. The international train would now become a bus for the next fifteen kilometres. The problem is that our train from the next train stop would leave in two hours and the bus would arrive in one hour. Well that wasn’t the problem, the problem was that the bus driver could tell us to get lost with our bikes and lycra shorts. We couldn’t risk it also because I had to catch an early plane from Sofia the next morning, so we decided to just cycle the distance. Hence now the “international train” looked like this:

And it wasn’t using rails anymore, but in fact the motorway.

We wondered, why would the train terminate where it did. The motorway was running right next to the train line. We were cycling and looking at the rail tracks next to us. So the problem wasn’t that there wasn’t a route built for the train, we were looking at it. We wondered.

After about forty minutes we were at the border crossing.

Getting close to the Bulgarian border

At the crossing the Bulgarian customs officer was a woman and she greeted us super friendly and with a smile (because of the bikes most likely). She chatted with us for a bit and really had an ever expanding smile while listening to our story of us being the international train.

She continued explaining that the train actually runs once per day on weekends, but not during the week, because the Greeks didn’t want to pay the fee necessary for their train to cross the border and come on Bulgarian land. Oh well, we were a better train anyway.

Fifteen minutes later (and a few failed attempts on my side to withdraw cash from a casino’s ATM – yes, there was a casino at the border area…) we arrived at the Kulata town. The first town after the border on the Bulgarian side. It felt entirely like home. We went through the centre and then to the train station to buy our tickets.

The guy at the desk was using something that resembled Windows 3.11 and had to enter commands on a black and white screen that brought me back to my early childhood experiences of computers. Eventually we were holding our new tickets (with the bike fees paid) and I decided to utilise the well maintained loo at the station while Sasho went to get some snacks for the road (another five – six hours).

On the platform I met the conductor and asked him where to put the bikes. He we super cheery and friendly and told me to place them anywhere in the carriage and that there wasn’t any bike dedicated area. I expressed my concerns of blocking the way and he said that just now they had six cyclists on the train and they managed to make it work.

On the train to Sofia

Sasho came back too, so we got his bike on board and unravelled all the goodness that he had brought for the road.

“Snacks” for the road. Notice the conductor in light blue shirt talking to two policemen in the distance on the platform

A fresh set of grilled sausages, tomato and feta salad, fresh bread, two slices of pizza and of course some beer.

We were all set and the train left. It was time to enjoy the views, the fields, the mountains. The train was almost empty.

After a few hours we made it to Pernik and the train started to fill up with people going back to the capital for work.

Soon we were entering Sofia. There was no mistaking it.

I know it looks like the closest-to-the-audience cinema screen ever, but in fact this is a window looking at the friendly garbage around the train tracks on entering an European capital. It’s just about the perspective. Maybe the cinema option is better.

When you enter Sofia from the South the railroad runs through the gypsy neighbourhood Falkulteta. The train slows down to around five kilometres per hour, because if it is faster than that, the gypsies come out and throw stuff at it. Both sides of the train are walls of garbage and trash as if to say “Welcome, and… deal with it”.

After arriving we got ourselves a coffee each and made a plan for the rest of the day. I had one last major obstacle to overcome – I needed a bike box to prepare the bike for the plane.

Ilina (Sasho’s sister) had reserved a box for me, but the shop was on the other side of the city and it would take me about three hours to get there and back. We called a few places that were closer to ask for boxes, but they didn’t have any. We decided to cycle back to Sasho’s flat and look on the way there.

Stopping at every other bike shop and asking didn’t prove fruitful. We got back to the flat and after calling a few more places we found one which was about twenty minutes on the metro. Quick showers, clothes put to wash and we went out. The guy from the shop actually waited specifically for us to give us the box as he was already closed.

My only concern was that the box looked a bit smaller than the previous one I had used on the way in, but he reassured me that he has had large bikes in similarly sized boxes. The options weren’t many, so I went with it.

Waiting for the metro back to the flat with the box

I went back to the metro and Sasho went to meet his girlfriend.

It was time to get busy. I had to pack the bike and get ready for the 6:30 am flight (who even allows these early flights).

I spent the next two hours trying to ram pack my bike in the tiny box. Twisting, pulling, pushing, disassembling more and more. At the end I had removed the real dereilour, the pedals, the mudguards, the handlebars, the wheels, the saddle, everything into as small pieces as possible and stuffed them in as best as I could. Then filled the empty spaces with bottles and other little things.

Done

The only thing left were the electronics and a few clothes to take as hand luggage.

Hand luggage packed

That was it, I was ready. We called a few taxi companies to make sure we get an extra large taxi. Then I went to meet Sasho, his girlfriend and her friends for dinner. It wasn’t long after that I collapsed in bed, knowing that I had not more than three hours to sleep (as I had to make sure I am at the airport early because of the bike). What a day, what a week, so many memories, so many experiences and an array of people, characters, personalities. It felt like I had filled a little treasure-chest full with a priceless currency – life and the experiences that it brings shared with a friend.

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