What transpired to be an incredibly long day, started in Thessaloniki before dawn. It was raining hard and John and I took far too long getting off the train, so we found ourselves shunted into the goods yard and having to walk the five-hundred meters back to the station like a pair of divs.
I had a few hours to mooch about, say hello to the Aegean Sea and drink an overpriced coffee (I needed the toilet and McDonald’s was closed) before returning to the station to hop on the train to Skopje (pronounced Skopia, by the way). Incidentally, on the off-chance that the girl from Canada with the hotpants – whom I helped get the coach to Athens because no domestic trains were running – is reading this, when you ask for somebody’s help and they give it, try saying thank you next time, then people won’t think you’re a cow.
Skopje is the capital of Macedonia, or to give it it’s full crazy title, The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (keeps the Greeks happy) and the train was supposed to be a two hour affair – just enough time to grab a coffee and attempt to watch Lost on YouTube.
HOWEVER, the Macedonian border guards had other ideas and soon I found myself waiting in a freezing cold doorway with a fellow unfortunate (an American called McClane who was also heading towards Kosovo) because we were Johnny Foreigners and they wanted a doctor to come and make sure we weren’t dying of the bubonic plague, or swine flu as they are now calling it.
The train left on it’s merry way to Skopje without me – the next one wasn’t for five hours – and so after a doctor came and asked me if I was dying (the answer was no), we had to go and get the bus to the capital. Which was annoying.
But what was good was the fact that there was a bus to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, pretty much ready to go as soon as we got into Skopje. I just had time to stuff a burger-and-fries-in-one-huge-bun into my mouth before jumping on the bus and getting Kosovo ticked off my list of countries that aren’t really nations, but I’m counting them as nations because I like nice round numbers.
Arriving into Prishtina, I was then dropped into a little bit of a quandary. I bought a ticket for the bus into Serbia, but the driver wouldn’t let me on. Luckily, an American K-For guy was on hand to translate the situation. Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo as an independent state and since I entered ‘Serbia’ (ie. Kosovo) from Macedonia, the guards on the Kosovo/Serbian border will want to know how on Earth I managed to enter ‘their’ country without getting a passport stamp and consequently not let me in.
Confusing I know, but the upshot of this was that there was no way I could get on the bus to Serbia.
Never fear though – as long as I’m not trapped on an island, there is always plan B. I got the bus to Montenegro instead.
The bus dropped me off in a nowhere town in Montenegro called Rozaje in the middle of the night and I waited in the freezing cold (it was comparatively warm in the northern Europe) for the late bus over to Belgrade in Serbia. I got through the border control okay – the only funny thing was that the Serbians stamped “Annulled” in Cyrillic over my Kosovo stamp – kind of childish when you think about it, but there you go – you go around ethnically cleaning areas of your own country, you can’t really complain when they decide they don’t want to your mates any more.
Strangely enough, they also ‘annulled’ a stamp from Thailand that was put in my passport three years ago.
This event has obviously meant that Thai-Serb relations are at an all time low. Or maybe the guy with the stamp was just having a really groovy time STAMPING THINGS. WITH HIS STAMP.
I like stamping things too.
I got off at the first town over the border, Novi Padar, only to find they had not dropped me at the bus station. It was now 1am, there wasn’t a soul around and I didn’t really have a clue what to do. Luckily, a battered sign pointed the way to the bus station, so I started walking. It was a good kilometre away and when I got there, I was greeted by a nothing but sleeping tramp, who promptly farted so loudly that the walls shook.
Luckily, a bus soon pulled in – I asked the driver if there was going to be any more buses back to Montenegro tonight. He didn’t speak much English, but I got the impression that there were no more stopping at the bus station tonight, but if I went back to where the bus I was on had dropped me off, I could flag a passing coach down from the road. My gesticulation skills are currently at an all-time high.
I walked back, pursued by stray dogs, and waited in the dark beside a huge puddle on the main road. Would I be waiting here all night? Will it ever stop raining?
After twenty minutes, a bus came by. The sign in the front said ‘Podgorica’, the capital of Montenegro. I practically threw myself in front of it just to make sure it stopped – and it did. I’ve haven’t been this relieved since I found out that everybody else on the planet finds bananas as hilarious as I do.
The ferry ploughed head-first into the Greek port of Igoumenitsa at around 6am (it was still 5am for me) and speedy disembarkation was encouraged… mmm… no passport controls… nice! Whilst sleepily trudging across the car park I noticed that there was a bus marked “Istanbul” waiting picking up passengers off the ship. Must be some sail & ride scheme or something. Not wanting to waste a minute, I knocked on the door and asked for a ticket. The driver’s mate asked for €80. I offered €50 and that seemed to work. Lucky it did, the bus took off before I got to my seat.
No time for love, Dr. Jones…
Igoumenitsa is not the most attractive of towns, so it wasn’t too much of a heartbreak to bypass it and head straight towards Thessaloniki through some of the most scrumptious countryside in the world. Not wanting to sound too much like somebody who skips without the rope, the wild flowers of Greece are the envy of Europe, where we’ve murdered them all with herbicidal crop-spray. The first colours of Spring were making their presence felt and I couldn’t help but feel like the rest of us are damn well missing out on something here.
The day seemed to fly by and before I knew it I was approaching planet Istanbul. I was last in Istanbul on the 3rd of February, so that’s over a month just to go to two damn countries – Libya and Algeria. I hope this isn’t an omen for what is to come over the next few months. But it probably is. Welcome to the chapter of this adventure that I’m planning to entitle MY VISA HELL.
My drivers were exceedingly keen to get us to Istanbul on time, so much so they actually swapped over whilst doing 70mph on a freeway. A little terrifying, but even so the bus still was late getting to old Constantinople. I felt a little bad turning up at my prospective CouchSurf host’s house in the middle of the night, so instead I made my way to the Oriental International Hostel in delightful doontoon Sultanahmet, the UNESCO World Heritage Area and home of the famously Blue Mosque. There I met Greg, an American guy who was doing the old travel/work type thang and helping out in the hostel in return for free board and beer. I ended up having a little to drink before crashing out in my bed at some ungodly hour of the night.
In the spring of 2004, when The Odyssey Expedition was still a pipe-dream, my girlfriend Mandy and I took a trip to the mainland of Greece. We visited the Oracle at Delphi, the monasteries of Meteora, the walled city of Ioannina, the slate villages of Zagoria, the Perama Caves, the forts of Corfu and the Acropolis and old Olympic stadium in Athens.
These two videos are not really ‘travel’ vids as I usually make them, they’re more like personal photo albums (ones that move!), but I hope in these two short videos we managed to capture a taste of mainland Greece that is all too often ignored for the beaches of the islands.