It was 3 o’clock in the morning just North of Skopje, when the door to the compartment was pulled open and my girlfriend and I, together with an American couple, were told to step outside immediately.
Still half asleep we looked at each other when one of the police officers jumped onto the seats of the railway carriage and produced a long screwdriver. Within minutes the ceiling of the compartment was disembled and realising what was happening, I wispered to my partner, that we would be in for the Grandmother of all troubles if someone had planted anything there….
A few minutes later and after thankfully nothing had been found, we were again allowed to return to our seats and without a word of apology the officials left, heading for their next unsuspecting victims….
Hard to believe that this is now nearly 40 (!) years ago and at that time I had just finished my first year at vet school. Together with my Norwegian girlfriend I had hitchhiked from Hanover to Salzburg, where we boarded a train, that was carrying us over the following 36 hours from the North of Austria through Yugoslavia to Athens. The train ride was all but comfortable and the rudeness of the Yugoslav police and border guards was not only a nuisance, but the knowledge that we would also have to return that way, hung then like a dark cloud over our heads while we were spending our holidays in the sun on the beaches of Paros and Antiparos.
Once again I am standing in the center of Belgrade – not only my university course, but also a few decades of work are behind me, my then girl friend is now a respected lecturer in animal welfare at the vet school of her native Oslo, the state of Yugoslavia has ceased to exist and has been replaced by a handful of smaller, independent nations and somewhat disappointingly, there is no longer a train allowing this form of travelling….
There is apparently a night train that connects Belgrade with Thessaloniki, but if at all, it only operates during the summer months and as it is just the first day of May, I have come too early.
The views from the train journey have remained with me though and my plan is, over the following weeks, to learn more about the people of the Balkan, to walk across their mountains, to eat their food, to drink coffee, wine and raki, to listen and to talk.
I want to visit my friends and colleagues here and – hopefully – make a few new ones.
If all is going well, my route will take me from Belgrade to Thessaloniki in Macedonia, to Ioannina and the Pindos mountains, then through the whole of Albania and pass Tirana to the mountains in the North. From there I hope to cross into Montenegro, visit Dubrovnik on the Southern tip of Croatia, before heading North into Bosnia Herzegovina to travel pass Mostar and Sarajevo back to Belgrade.
Without access to a train, but being determined to cover the distance by land, the even more uncomfortable alternative of an overnight bus journey is the second best option…..
Having reduced my necessary belongings for the next month to whatever fits into a backpack, that can be carried with not too much effort over mountains, I am finding myself in the not very inviting surroundings of Belgrade’s central bus terminal and after an involuntary tour of pretty much the whole site, I arrive just in time at platform 5 where my international carrier turns out to be a somewhat worn mini bus that looks as if it had a former life as a busy airport shuttle. Slowly I am starting to understand the puzzlement in the faces of my Serbian friends, when I told them what I was planning to do and their subsequent question why I wasn’t flying….
Well, now it is too late anyway to turn and I enter the nightbus to Thessaloniki….
What follows is certainly not the most comfortable night I had in my life, but despite us covering over 600 kilometers and two border crossings in just under 11 hours, it doesn’t involve unfriendly border guards and thankfully no screwdrivers or any other household tools get involved.
At just before 6 am the next morning I am sitting down in a small cafeneon in Thessaloniki and order my first Greek coffee on this new adventure……