An Incomparable Inertia: Skopje to Saloniki by Rail

By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2006)

Unless you take the other one, in the dead of night, the train arrives in late afternoon and by that time you just want to sit down and sleep against the window. But usually the press of people, all pushing and clamoring to board (grandmothers with glass jars and double-wrapped boxes can be surprisingly fierce) forestalls this luxury.

Meanwhile, the cleverer young guys have already jumped down into the gravel and skipped across the worn steel rails, ripping open the opposite door like a ripe orange and bounding up the narrow stair first. So you stand in the corner of the entranceway, with somebody else’s luggage piled up besides you, and gaze out the window at the melancholy concrete of Platform 4, with its disappearing stairs and benches and satisfied policemen and orange soda and snacks for sale.

By the time the train arrives in Skopje it has already swept up many stories in its wake. And, with great triumph, it has also negated others. Its very arrival means that this time there was no strike or technical failure or bomb placed on the track in the wilds of the Albanian north. The positive stories include transnational heartbreaks in waiting, family reunions rewarded with blocks of cheese or fiery rakija. There are the elderly without a car and the young without a care. In summer, there is the happy chatter of Belgrade students bound for vacation in Greece. In winter too there are pretzels and Coke and chocolate passed around, but the smoke lingers in lazy circles longer then, because the frosty windows are kept closed. This bothers no one save the odd lost American who is already launching indignations about the rough-handed border police and is vowing to never come back to Macedonia once he can escape it for good and all.

Very few have come all the way from Ljubljana, where the lumbering Yugoslav-era train originates two times a day, every day of the year. The trip might last less than twenty-four hours, but in reality it is a million years from smug Balkan émigré Slovenia, perched on the doorstep of Central Europe, to the humble (yet happy) Macedonia, in the heart of the Balkans.

Having left Slovenia and Croatia behind, the train must also have crossed the length of Serbia, with stops in every hamlet of crumbling houses and smoke curling up from the rooftops. This is the part that really kills travelers. The wiser ones (there are inevitably only a few; it is always dearer to display wisdom) have already occupied the more expensive sleeper cars. They are left alone. The others just darken the cabin and close the grimy curtains and brace the sliding door in an attempt to keep out the Skopje rabble.

The cars must be at least thirty-five years old. When the clock face of the Skopje train station froze at the moment of the 1963 earthquake, they were no doubt top-of-the-line. But that was another time and another station across the town, where the clock is still frozen above what is now the city museum. The taxi men who prey on ignorant villagers and foreigners have their own dreams and they know as well as anyone the difference between the old and new train stations, as they are still known; at the former you might find old pictures of new train cars, while at the new station you will just find old train cars.

But now it is loaded up and the blue-coated old man on the platform has waved his hand and with a warning whistle you’re off. But still you can’t see inside the cabins. There is only the dirt beaten into the parchment-colored floor sometimes visible, the narrow hall thronged with standing people, the cardboard boxes and black trash bags and nylon sacks brimming with forgettable items stacked high and their ostensible minders cracking cans of beer and carrying on amongst themselves.

Most of the people usually get off at Veles, some forty-five minutes later, and then you can sit. But first there is the conductor. He pushes through the throng, displaying a heavy shopworn coat attesting to former authority, with a beaten leather bag slung across the shoulder and over the chest, little ticket-book and change in hand, and then it’s dobre vecer… billet?

At this point the occasional gypsies, but not only them, will try to negotiate free or discounted passage, especially if the train is so full and you are in the last car and Veles is practically a fait accompli. But it’s debatable whether one’s chances of success at mild corruption are better when the train is full or when it is empty. When the train is full and there are many people and also the train is classed medjunarodna (international), it seems more unlikely that the trainman will have any sympathy for pocketing a few multicolored ten-denar notes in exchange for not giving you a ticket. That’s something more likely on the meditative 10:35 PM Kumanovo-Skopje local which not many take – and then, only if he likes you.

If you are not from Macedonia and you are going to Thessaloniki then you have already bought the long white stapled ticket with blue letters and the destinations scrawled across the inside of it by one of the ladies behind the glass downstairs. But this is a mistake. It is a better idea, because you will save enough euros to buy a beer or a phone card upon arriving in Thessaloniki, to buy a ticket to Gevgelija, the last town on Macedonia’s southern border. Then you can just stay on board as the train silently crosses the border and buy another ticket, a tiny cardstock chip with the price still inscribed in drachmas, at the border crossing. But that is not for a few hours and you don’t need to worry about that now. Still, it is better not to forget to do so, because the price for buying on the train (the Greeks always think you are trying to trick them) is steep.

So to make sure you’ll remember, you can write the word ticket in whatever language you wish on the back of your hand with a pen someone lends you. And don’t forget to be nice to them, because you will need the pen back when filling out the white card for the policemen at the border. But again we are getting ahead of ourselves.

In summer it is hot and there is still light for a good long ways after Veles; in winter, the cabins might or might not have heat, and the darkness falls quicker too. Veles is a damned town but its people are kind. It is famous for the purity of its Macedonian, spoken without the interference of harmful dialects, and the pollution of its old lead smelter. High up, there is a beautiful old section of the town with an unusual church and steep streets small enough for old Yugos and Zastavas and not much else. But the railway traces the course of the Vardar far below, and you can see only the steel bridge over the river and the miniature church in the rock cleft on the right, as the train starts up again.

All the way south you follow the river, which eddies and twists around rocks and small trees in the froth. Fishermen with their pant legs pulled up to their knees wade in at different points, casting lines for the occasional fish or plastic bottle. Almost every summer one or two children will drown while swimming in this tricky part of the river, where the water swirls and there are plenty of roots and the banks have collapsed and there is nothing to hold on to.

Meanwhile there is the measured clicking of the rails and slow chug of the ancient motor. You become acquainted with the soft, sagging seats, of deep blue or red or even green, the color always conveying a lost regality heavily soaked with the smoke and dirt and ash of its passengers and their memories, with the headrests made of some imitation leather and cool to the touch. The curtains of the high pull-down windows that take up the whole breadth of the cabin were originally off-white and are always filthy. Unless the sun is so bright and you are trying to sleep, you just try to push them behind the inside corner of the seat where they can be less malignant.

For all that, it isn’t really so bad. Your mobile loses reception for a few minutes as the small canyon walls come and go, but someone offers you a candy or a conversation and if you know the language it’s even better. And there are many things to hear. A swarthy fieldworker with a tracksuit and jug of firewater might tell you with feeling that his grandfather was Aleksander Makedonski (Alexander the Great) but that his cousin Goran lives in Detroit.

Then he might ask what the salaries are like in America, but you feel he already thinks he knows the answer. And an old man with carved wooden staff and sweater adds that everyone in America is rich. Except those poor black people, did you see how that Bush treated them in that hurricane? What kind of a country is that? And they think they are the best! For shame!

Still, Goran’s cousin would like to move there. This Macedonia is such a stupid country; the politicians are all corrupt. The elder’s wife, who has lived through much darker times than has the cousin of Goran, curtly reminds him to remember who his grandfather was and are not the Macedonians actually the best people in the Balkans, or at least the world? He agrees and they drink and the train chugs on.

It passes the small villages, stopping in some for twenty seconds or so though rarely does someone get on or off. At Vinicani, the Bregalnica River – a tangled ribbon dropped onto the map, winding from near the border with Bulgaria and then up and down – emerges, emptying itself into the Vardar.

At Gradsko there is almost nothing. But it is the beginning of the wine country, and the soil starts to change to the color of rust, like the buildings and loading docks in this forsaken tiny town. If it is summer, and there is still light, there is a wonderful view of the undulant vineyards rolling south in staked rows through Negotino. This is the Macedonian heartland, where the water is rationed in summer but the heat is limitless, making the horizon shimmer and sharpening the buzz and croaking of giant crickets and bullfrogs. It is a place of magical storms; last year, a woman was struck by lightning and died while harvesting her fields during a brief frenzy of rain for which many were thankful.

The fields are heavy with the grapes that make the area famous. Numerous small wineries lie tucked away in the areas of Negotino, Rosoman and Kavadarci. The farms also produce glistening purple aubergines, plump tomatoes, knots of garlic and more; and the people here are friendlier, if slow, and all the more so if you consider the poverty and hard labor.

But there is a winter here, a real one, and it does not produce oranges or grapefruits. So on the train in December and January you might find men and even teenagers hoping to get a couple of months of work in warmer climes, on southerly Greek farms in Crete or the Peloponnese. Invariably they have opened a Skopje newspaper and dialed a number listed in a minuscule classified ad, next to the ones from alleged lonely twenty-five year old girls looking for friendship and, possibly, marriage. Both groups are locally organized but you won’t see anyone from the latter riding anything like a train.

As for the former, a Macedonian collaborator generally organizes the trip for these aspiring illegals on behalf of the Greek landowner, by train or by car. They are picked up from Thessaloniki and taken to the farm. It draws all kinds. You might find a half-Croat, half-Serb injured in the latest wars and unable to make enough money to support his Macedonian wife and child, shepherding gently a teenaged Turkish Muslim from a mountain village where everyone else is working in Italy.

On the border, money alone discriminates. “You a tourist? What are you going to do in Saloniki with twenty-seven euros, boy?” scoffs the Greek guard. And he is put off the train to wait for the next one back to Skopje. But with still more than an hour to go, that is still only an unrealized fear.

But most of the passengers aren’t on a mission. Boisterous university kids going home for the weekend, or older people traveling between relatives, off-duty-policemen, mothers with their babies: these are the usual sorts. By the time you pass through the wine country and into the iron gates of the Demir Kapija Gorge, the most breathtaking part of the trip, it is no more than an hour to Gevgelija. Here, with these stripped canyons circled over by graceful hawks, is undeniable proof that territory has indeed been gained, though the hypnosis of the rails had compressed time to one weary instant.

And you are also now in the Mediterranean scrublands. In the tawny dusk of summer you can see the floating heatbaked rock outcroppings, a cowboy country once full of dust and bullets and undisturbed veins of marble, where one-hundred years ago scores of bandit gangs and saddlebagged revolutionaries roamed the mountains in search of tribute and Turks to kill.

In all the small villages the conductors stand outside tumbledown station houses, paying careful attention in their crisp caps and faded old uniforms to the overhead wires and the red and green lights, making their tiny contribution to the continued order of the world by waving the train on with such simple integrity that you feel like crying for the simple beauty of it. But the moment is gone in a second and so is he and there you are again with the wind flowing and outside it becomes open country once more.

And then the methodic lethargy of the train is overridden by the euphoria of the last stops. At Udovo, the Vardar makes its final determined turn straight south. By little Marvinci, when the happy foul-mouthed youngsters disembark, you have been invited to come another time to a disco which no outsiders have heard of but whose immorality is gospel for locals.

Finally there is Gevgelija and the train comes to a halt. Those passengers depart who will depart and then you can see who is going all the way. There are almost never any Greeks; it is now only the laborers and vacationers and occasional foreign tourists and only in summer are there enough of the latter to make you late. The police come aboard, first the green-suited customs officer and then the blue-coats who stride more energetically than they need to through the corridor. It is better to have asked for a pen by now because the little white cards are being handed out and you must quickly scrawl your name and place of birth and nationality and passport number and vehicle registration number (except you don’t have one) and place of residence and then hand it back.

Sometimes the Macedonian police are difficult, but usually not so much. The funniest is when they peer for whole minutes over your visas and stamps as if the passport was some book of revelations. Consider it the pretense of professionalism and authority that prefigures the definitive slamming of the metal stamp down onto the page. But despite their vigor, there is never enough ink to find the stamp afterwards.

Unless there is some electrical problem or maybe another train coming from the other direction that must be awaited, in twenty minutes you are on your way- or not – for sometimes they inexplicably untether the final train car. If you’re in it, just hope that they inform you in time to jump up and onto the next car, or you will be left behind in Gevgelija. That is not really the end of the world, however. Gevgelija is hot, the hottest town in the republic, with a casino frequented by Greeks from across the border. The town has pleasing restorative springs near Vardarski Rid, a hill on the outskirts with half-dug ancient ruins. As in the wine country, there is a hearty pastoral spirit, and eating and drinking hold a place of high honor. Before the building of the railroad in 1873, barges had been used, Mississippi-style, to float goods down the Vardar to Salonica and the sea.

So again the train heats up and you leave the long yellow station to the right behind, moving slow and easy into the uninhabited dark of a two-kilometer border zone that was once militarized. And so you leave Macedonia and enter Macedonia.

Even if you aren’t aware of that paradox, don’t forget that the time changes now and it is one hour later than it was a minute before. Time, like everything else, moves forward on the Greek side. After five minutes there is the station at Idomeni, and the train slows down and stops precisely with a shudder and you wait.

Once again the same ritual, but with different police. Passports are taken and – after ten minutes – please come down to the window to wait to get them back. You survey your new environment, the long, low building with innumerable doors and old writing and the sun of Vergina, of Alexander the Great, painted defiantly across the middle wall precisely to point out the illogic of the Slavs. And there are the strains of the bouzouki wafting up from the delicious smoke of an outdoor grill, where you can get grilled sandwiches of pork souvlaki or beef soutzoukakia with ketchup and old chips and a liberal handful of salt the bald old proprietor throws in. It’s only two euros, and comes with a napkin too.

Behind the grill to the right is a duty-free shop that is sometimes open. On the other side is an uncomplicated café shop which is always open and populated by overweight or mustachioed station men employed in one capacity or another, and an elevated TV in the corner animating the room with the rapid-fire staccato of passionate Greek football announcers shouting about the match that’s happening then. The middle-aged wife of the owner is blonde enough and from Russia or the Caucasus and she smiles and rings up what you select from inside the old glass counter, filled with soft drinks and profiterols and Greek yogurt and Greek beers like the ones the fat sedentaries are they gaze at the screen through the smoke.

If you remember to look at the back of your hand, and if you haven’t licked it off along with the stray ketchup from your sandwich, there is the word ticket inscribed on your skin and you are reminded to follow the walkway to the ticket office, past the card telephone peering from the wall and before the other one with it’s guts ripped out and just wires showing.

The ticket office is a big room with a small egg-shaped window you have to stoop down to see through and which is blocked by a wooden slab that must be removed from the inside. But there is usually no one behind the window and you have to go around to the other side of the office, all lit up and ask the old man to please come. But if he’s not inside, you have to ask the policemen sitting at the picnic table under the little chalkboard where the train timetables have been inscribed to please find him. The ticket to Thessaloniki costs six euros and sixty cents and try to have exact change because they might protest that they don’t have any. The ticket itself is a small rectangle of yellowed cardboard, the printed black letters still in drachma prices, and the ticket man on the train punches a hole through it with a metal punch to void it.

Also there is a bathroom and it is always funny to watch the people come back from it for the first time. It is straight back in between the buildings in a concrete pillbox usually unblemished by the honesty of lighting. There are swinging doors like in an old Wild West saloon and you can bluster through them, take a few steps and indiscriminately open fire, because there is no one there and the floors and walls are soaking wet already. In terms of cleanliness the Idomeni toilets rival those of the train itself, except that at least the water from the tap is potable here. Still it is better to wash off or fill a bottle at the spigot outside, set up right before the bushes. At least you can see what you’re doing there. The spigot has fierce water pressure and the water is very cold. It doesn’t freeze, even in the dead of winter.

There is now nothing to do but wait with the other people in front of the police window, a little further down. The windows are long and you can see the men inside at their desks; curved metal black bars in front of the glass keep them safely away from the barbarian supplicants to the Greek state clamoring in a collapsed circle outside. The policemen stack the passports in opposite piles like Tarot cards, handing them back first to those with the good fortune to be Greek, followed by whatever EU nationals there may happen to be. Then are returned passports issued by traditional ally Serbia. At the penultimate moment the ill-fated Macedonians are processed, their passports filled with the painful full-page inserted visa that took months to acquire. Finally, the ‘others’ of the world take their passports back and now it is only a matter of time.

Back on the train, if you didn’t have a compartment to yourself already, you do now, unless you’ve met someone promising and have forgotten all about the pleasures of solitude. Eventually comes the double chime of the intercom and the announcement that the eight-forty train to Thessaloniki is about to depart. And so begins the final push to Thessaloniki. Most of it transpires in blackness, with few villages along the way. It is almost haunting, this absence of life, especially when considering the traumas of the twentieth century that thrice uprooted whole peoples and forged a brand new Macedonia out of its oldest region. The fledgling states that emerged out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire saw huge forced migrations. The Turks of Macedonia were sent to Turkey, the Greeks of Asia Minor taking their place. The Bulgarian and Macedonian Slavic populations were sent north to Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, respectively. By the 1940’s, when Hitler eliminated the Jews of Thessaloniki and the Greek Civil War did away with thousands of Macedonians identified with the Communist side, the process was complete.

Sometimes, just when you can see the far-off shimmering lights of a city the train comes to a dead stop in the middle of nowhere. It waits for a few minutes. Why? It goes backwards. Again, why? If you didn’t know that there was another train coming from the other direction and they were waiting as a precaution you might feel with dread that you are leaving Macedonia after only thirty minutes and going back to Macedonia again.

If you don’t know this, you might ask a Greek policeman on the train and he might explain. But when the conversation arrives at its unfortunate truncated conclusion the border policeman has made it abundantly clear that he would never visit up ‘there,’ because those people from ‘Skopia’ had tried to steal his history. In any case, it’s probably better; visiting a country one names after its capital city usually ends with one getting lost. And what if they were to steal not just one’s history, but one’s wallet? A sobering thought. You talk about Greek beaches instead.

Coming in to Thessaloniki is always the same. Stealthily, you cross first through the urban peripheria, the industrial stretches, disused railway cars and agricultural pallets to the right, to the left the first real streetlights and thickset buildings of white along straight city roads. If you feel beat, it’s a good kind of beat and Jack Kerouac would certainly have approved. Things start to look less industrial and there are more cars on the streets and pretty soon there are more empty tracks running along with you too, like well-wishers giving support at the end of the marathon. And the people have already clutched their bags and started to amass in the hallways and, now that it’s almost over, you wish you had a little longer to talk with your new acquaintance.

It’s a strange sort of longing, considering that you have by now endured the whole five hours without heating and with the thin metal panel guarding the precious fuseboxes and antiquated electronics knobs flapping open and shut at the end of the hall. And you’ve faded in and out of sleep innumerable times, like the dull cabin light that makes someone’s tongue click every time it dies out and interrupts their crossword puzzle, gazing upon the very essence of weariness as it stared back at you from the cracked mirrors above the seats. And then there were the very old warnings written identically in Slovenian and Serbian and Italian and German that you respectfully noted on the way to the bathroom, a foul cupboard at the end of the car, where the connecting rods grind and twist underneath and you sometimes find both the outside doors were left unclosed and there is a whole exhilarating whoosh of frenetic wind from all directions and that wakes you up again.

But then the train gracefully alights and there’s no time for that. For now is Thessaloniki and out the window you can see people there excitedly waiting for other people to jump down, and you jump down too and it’s time to buy a phone card or take a bus and begin the next part of the adventure and even you’re on the Aegean coast. But always first you must thank the old train for having the decency to not give up and somehow make it back home after all.