Wednesday, 2 May 2012
After the stresses of getting from Athens to Sofia I was looking forward to getting back to the relative simplicity of the trains and my nicely scheduled and pre-booked itinerary. After a couple of days in Sofia I was due to take the midday train to Belgrade that connected with the night sleeper to Budapest, my next and last stop. I had the ticket from Sofia to Budapest already and the sleeping car reservation from Belgrade to Budapest, but what the nice man at Eurorail had not been able to do in advance was get me a seat reservation for the first leg. "Not a problem" he said "just go to the station when you get to Sofia and they will be able to do that for you". This afternoon, I dutifully trek out to the station and after the usual round of being passed from pillar to post because i am in the wrong queue I finally find myself a the international rail desk. "I need a seat reservation to Belgrade" I say, "11.55 on Friday". "Ah yes" she says, "That train no longer runs"... "But I have a ticket" I say, she shrugs.... So there is no train for me. At this point I am really beginning to wish I had flown from Athens to Budapest.... This has got to be the most convoluted way of getting anywhere that I have ever experienced.... Fortunately the bus station is right next door and so I stomp over (it's 30 degrees and I am really, really hot and really, really annoyed, I am allowed to stomp...) and look at the bus schedules. Fortunate there is a bus to Belgrade on Friday at 9am and its only £18 and they have space.... Thank God for Eurolines. According to the lady on the bus counter it takes five hours. Looking later at he map I was sceptical as its looks much further than Thessaloniki which took 5.. I did some googling and found it was actually more like 7-9 hours.... Joy. Still that should be ok as my train from Belgrade doesn't leave until 10pm... So as long as we don't get stuck anywhere I should make it..... Interestingly, I looked at the website where I got the idea for this journey from, the man at seat61, to see what he had to say for himself, telling me to catch trains that no longer exist... And see that he has changed the route to and from Athens in the last few days and now suggests routing through Bucharest.... Clearly i am not the only person to have discovered that the Belgrade route is no longer viable by train.... I must admit his new route takes longer and Bucharest is quite along way out of the way... And to be honest if I had seen the route he now proposed I don't think I would have done it.... So even with all this hassle in the last few days I count myself very fortunate that he had not updated his advice before i booked as I wouldn't have wanted to miss this trip for the world... It's amazing!
Well getting to Sofia was eventful and not quite as I imagined it... A travel conundrum that's set to continue.... More of which later! It used to be that you could get a train direct from Athens to Sofia but in these straightened economic times that's no longer possible so I had to take it in stages, none of which could be booked in advance (always my preference) The first part was straightforward.... I bought a train ticket to Thessaloniki at Larissa train station in Athens. It was a lovely 7 hour journey, particularly the climb up through the mountains which gave wonderful views... I think I saw Mount Olympus... But my Greek geography being pretty ropey I couldn't be sure! I mean I was sure I saw a mountain, but which one it was? I arrived at four and set of to sort out the next stage of my journey, the bus to Sofia. My guru for these kind of journey, the man in seat61 (www.seat61.com) said that a bus departed from outside the train station each day at 8am and it was this I was planning on catching he following day.... However after a few false starts I managed to find the office of the bus company which was closed. It had its timetable on the door though which showed there was indeed an 8am bus everyday except Tuesday... Which of course was the day I needed it for! Not being a lot I could do about it there I headed for my hotel (which was lovely, and more importantly had good wi-fi) to try and hatch and alternate plan. It has to be said that Internet information about Thessaloniki to Sofia buses is not at all easy to find on the web, Sofia to Thessaloniki no problem but not the other way around.... In the end i managed to get the website up of a company who ran a service and with the help of Google translation (the site was in Bulgarian) managed to get an office address the other side of town. I duly headed over there only to be told they didn't handle the bookings anymore and was given another address of someone that did, back across town where I had just come from. As you can imagine by this point I was a less than happy bunny! So I tracked back and eventually found this second office, which was staffed by a lovely lady, who sadly though didn't speak any English... She tried German, I tried French but it seemed we has no languages in common.... But not to be deterred from a sale she takes out her mobile phone and rings someone.... Queue a great deal of Greek and then she hands me the phone where I am told that they have a bus leaving the next day a 2.30 and I should go to yet another address at 1.30 to buy a ticket and catch the bus....result! Though I never did discover if the person on the phone had anything to do with the travel company or was just some person she knew who happened to speak English! I resolved to go to this other office first thing in the morning just to check that this information was correct and to buy a ticket... But as it was now nearly 8pm there was little else I could do that evening apart from get some food and go to bed. so I wake the next day to an eery silence... Looking out of my window I see hardly any traffic, which given how busy the road was the day before, seemed a little odd. It was only as I went to check out after breakfast I discovered why... It was May 1st. Now before you think I am really dumb, I was more than aware of the date, what I hadn't realised though is that in most European countries this is a public holiday where everything, and I mean everything shuts down... Great, I have several hours to kill and I am in a ghost town! I went to the address i had been given the day before which turned out to be a travel agency but unsurprisingly it was firmly shut along with everything else... So I just had to trust that there would be a bus there a promised later in the day and I wandered off in search of something to do..... ......which turned out to be pretty difficult. Thessaloniki is one of those places that clearly has had some history at some point as there are a few bits of roman wall and some Byzantine churches dotted around but it seems that any history has been well and truly squashed by the mass of concrete hotels, shops and cheap eateries that have sprung up everywhere.... This town was a whole heap of ugly and I cannot say I warmed to it a all... It reminded me of Torremolinos... I that there was probably a nice village somewhere in its history that's got totally obliterated in the surge of mass tourism..... So as you can imagine I was not in the best of moods mooching around looking at the outside of locked up churches and shoe shops... When who should turn up but several thousand Communists... Oh yes I kid you not, just when I though it could not get any more odd, I find out that the town has been taken over for political demonstrations for the day and that the police have closed off half the roads to contain the demonstrators!! Deciding at this point to cut my losses, and not knowing the words of "workers of the word unite" I decided to head back to the bus stop and wait. Fortunately the bus did eventually arrive as promised and I happily beat a path out of dodge! After all the drama of getting a ticket the journey itself was surprisingly enjoyable, took around five hours and I had a front seat and so had a panoramic view which was great. The coach was modern and as comfortable as coaches can be..so all in all not bad, though there was a rather strange Bulgarian woman who clearly felt she should have my seat, to the point of which I got off at a rest stop and when I got back on 10 minutes later she had moved my stuff to a seat further back and plonked herself and her numerous bags right across the front row. Myself and the lady I was sitting next to expressed some surprise at this wherein the driver started trying to shift her, much loud exchange later she finally did move but boy was she not happy about it! I finally made it to Sofia just after seven and headed to my hotel (which is lovely) glad that from here on in I would be back to the relative simplicity of the train... Or so I thought!