London to Athens by TrainJanuary 20th, 2010
What better way to come to terms with turning 30, I thought, than spending the best part of 3 weeks travelling alone through Europe by train. So off I headed to Athens, on the way to Crete (home of my mother and stepfather) just a couple of days after my birthday celebrations, armed with a good book, a handful of tickets and the hope of some late November sun!
I sped out of St Pancras at 10.30am to Paris where I had a spare hour, and time for a quick beer and baguette before I boarded a high speed TGV at the Gare de l’Est, bound direct for Munich. As I passed through Strasbourg and the sun began to drop behind the Black Forest, I settled into my book. I often think it must be a secret ploy of rail companies, but it is probably just the soothing, repetitive sounds of train travel, but after just a few minutes I had drowsed off as I always manage to do, waking to find us rolling into Munich not a minute late. My connecting train was not for a couple of hours, so I had plenty of time to enjoy what the immense Munich Hauptbahnhof had to offer. As I’m sure you might imagine, beer and sausages were at the forefront of my mind, and after a plateful of ‘Currywurst and Frites’, washed down with a stein or two (when in Rome…), my first sleeper train had arrived and was ready for boarding.
With all the overnight journeys I was to take I had made twin berth reservations, in the hope that the train would be quiet enough to have a cabin to myself, which was the case on this train as what appeared to be me and only a 3 other passengers were ushered to our cabins by the pleasant, English-speaking guard. I handed him my tickets and he requested my passport and my preference for coffee or tea in the morning, before leaving me to bed down for the night, free to chose between the top or the bottom bunk. The cabin was more than comfortable: a bottle of drinking water, washbasin, power sockets, reading lights, clean sheets and a good pillow, plus more than enough storage space for 2 people.
I locked the door and was out for the count as soon as my head hit the pillow, only to be awoken suddenly by the sound of a banging at my door. I noticed my phone read 2am, as I quickly jumped down from the top bunk, flicking on the main light, while the rasping continued: ‘open up, open up!’ Startled, I opened the door without thinking and found a bearded gentleman clutching my passport, a badge on his green jacket reading ‘Bundespolitzei’ which with my little German knowledge I understood to be border police.
“Police.” he said, “You understand?”
“Yes” I replied a little unnerved as he suspiciously scrutinised my passport photo.
Now, my passport is only a year old, so I struggle to believe that I have really aged that much. Or perhaps turning 30 is not just a big mental change – insofar as reaching an age where I can no longer perceive myself as ‘young’ – but also a huge physical change, and over my birthday my face had changed so much, that it was now unrecognisable from the images of me, fresh faced and under 30. Either way the questions kept coming.
“From where in Britain are you from? What is your job? Where are you going? Where have you been?”
All of which I answered, unsure of why I had been singled out for such intense questioning.
“Do you smoke? What do you smoke? Let me see in your bag” he asked.
“Erm, I smoke cigarettes, but not all the time. I only have a few with me, for emergencies,’ I answered, slowly smiling at the thought that he took me to be a student, ‘Nothing else!”
After a quick look in my bag, the officer apologised sheepishly, and after quickly looking me up and down he closed the door behind himself, leaving me alone to realise the extent of this whole embarrassing situation. I had opened the door in such a hurry, I had neglected the idea of dressing myself, and had stood answering these questions in nothing more than my comedy black boxer shorts with ‘Proper Cornish’ emblazoned in Gold across my bum. Needless to say I spend a good few minutes wondering who was the more embarrassed by this wholly unusual border crossing.
I slept soundly until another knock at the door, (and believe me, I took a great deal more care of my appearance before answering this one!) where the kind guard handed me back my passport and informed me that we would shortly be at the border between Slovenia and Croatia, where I will need my passport as identification, before arriving in Zagreb where this train terminated. The Slovenian border control were happy with my likeness to my photo, despite me being in the middle of brushing my teeth this time, and I had just enough time to finish my coffee and croissant before we arrived into Zagreb where I hopped across the tracks for the train to Belgrade.
The train was spaciously modern but with no frills. It appeared to consist of just two carriages of 6 seater couchettes, and I shared one with a lovely old lady who spoke no English but insisted on sharing her coffee flavoured sweets with me. The endless open green arable land and vast blue sky seemed to be endless, and we eventually arrived into Belgrade just as the sun was setting. After roughly 36 hours travelling I was ready for a shower.
I was staying in the modern 3* Hotel Excelsior, which was a 15 minute walk from the station and near to the Grand Parliament building and the numerous government buildings which still show the scars from the NATO bombings during the late 90s. It is something of a strange sight to see missile sized holes in the sides of large buildings with all the windows blown out as life continues as normal all around. After freshening up I went out to stretch my legs in search of a good dinner. My first impressions of Belgrade at night was how busy it was, and I was thankful to find numerous restaurants to choose from. I dined on a traditional Roštilj mixed grill, and then sleepily made my way back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
The next day my departure on from Belgrade was not until 2100 so I had the whole day to enjoy the Serbian capital. After gently pottering through the shops I explored the historic fortress which guards the city at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, then I decided to cross the Sava and follow the Danube for a few kilometres to the picturesque but a slightly underwhelming suburb ‘Zemun’. As I made my way back after lunch I was quickly swallowed in an eerie blanket of thick fog, with only the path a few feet ahead of me visible, I slowly made my way back over Brankov bridge and so on to the station.
The train to Sofia was an interesting affair. I easily found the correct train number in the small station, and sat on the platform with some other passengers awaiting the rest of the train to arrive, as there were just two graffiti covered carriages at the station; one with seating couchettes, and another with 6 berth sleeper cabins, which was locked. It soon became apparent that there was no more carriages of this train to arrive, and the seating carriage was getting extremely busy. After showing my ticket and sleeper reservation to a guard I was instructed to sit down, whilst he wagged his finger in the direction of my ticket and the sleeper carriage.
It honestly seemed as if I was the only sober passenger aboard the train, and any non-smoking laws that might have been in place were ignored. Needless to say I was far from impressed. Once the train started going and the guard had been through checking tickets, and waving what seemed to be an elite few through to the sleeping carriage, I made my move. I walked through to the sleeper carriage where 4 guards were sat enjoying coffee. It appeared that the problem lay in my reservation being for a 2 berth cabin, not 6. Not completely convinced about the logic in this decision, surrounded by the empty bunks, my stubbornness was eventually rewarded when a steward swung open the door of one of the cabins, slinging a pillow and sheet in whilst waving me in. I slept soundly.
The first thing I had to do in Sofia was to make a sleeper reservation for my journey the next day. This is of course a necessity, the importance of which was reinforced by last night’s experience, and the ‘International Rail Desk’ at the station was more than helpful, even with my lack of Bulgarian and their lack of English. After an early check in at my hotel I walked through the city enjoying the sunshine, exploring the numerous historical sites such as St Georges Retonda and the excellent archaeological museum. I was lucky enough to visit the huge St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral during the morning service. The Church itself was built as a token of thanks to Russia. Think Big Beards, Big Gowns, lots of icons and lots of incense. Outside the church is little market full of Russian dolls and old Soviet hats. In fact the coach load of Russian tourists could have easily fooled anybody into thinking they were in Moscow itself!
After a fine Goulash style stew for dinner and some very Greek style filo pastry wrapped cheese pastries for lunch the next day whilst museum visiting, it was time to take my last overnight train of this trip, to Athens.
Again the train was modern, clean and functional, and after a quick passport check at the border, and stop at a small station on the Greek side where passengers can nip across the tracks and purchase a small sandwich to make up for the lack of provisions onboard, I bedded down and attempted to sleep through the incessant rattling from the bulkhead.
The train pulled into Larissa at shortly after 6am and I easily found my way down to the modern metro station. The underground system is clean, spacious, very cheap and incredibly easy to use with all signs in both Greek and English. I headed straight to ‘Monastiriaki’ station, in the centre of the city where I left my luggage in a locker for the day, costing me €3, then had the whole day to enjoy Athens.
It really is a fantastic sight seeing the Acropolis lit up in the dark morning sky. A full day is nowhere near enough time to visit all of the major sites, so I made the decision to take it easy that day as I was returning to Athens for another day on my return from Crete. So rather than rushing these global treasures I enjoyed the late November sun with some gentle shopping, and a wander around the great Benaki museum. I was lucky to pass the Parliament in time for the colourful changing of the guard ceremonies, with the Pythonesque amusing walks and Pom Poms which put our Bearskin hats to shame. It is an important photo opportunity for any visitor!
To be continued…
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