Athens to Thessaloniki to Skopje

Wednesday morning.  Our last day in Athens.  After a sumptuous breakfast, we headed for the train station to check on the suitcases.  On the way back we got off the subway at Panepistimeou, where, they said, you could get tickets for foreign countries. Well, of course that wasn’t in the subway station, but the ticket seller gave us excellent directions.  We found Sina Street with no difficulty and soon located the train offices.  Once there I stayed outside in the heat while David went in to the stifling office to buy the tickets.  He was able to get tickets from Thessaloniki to Skopje on Friday morning.  Theoretically, we would arrive in Thessaloniki on Thursday at 6:30p.m. and, because we had our tickets for Skopje at 6:02 a.m. on Friday, we would be able to check our baggage through and not have to deal with it.  Theoretically. Afterward we stopped in a shoe store across the street from the hotel (I thought I’d lost my Birkies) to buy me (Elizabeth) a pair of comfortable walking shoes.  The ones I got felt so good, I wore them all day.

So with that taken care of, it was back to the subway to go to Kolonaki and the Cycladic Museum.  I’d seen it (a mere 31 years ago–but some things stick in your mind), but David hadn’t. (David says) The Cycladic Museum is a strange and mind-bending place in a well laid out and lovely building.  For some 2000 years a small population on resource-poor islands produced almost nothing in the way of buildings or artifacts that remain. But for this entire period they carved human figures of varying sizes of translucent Parian marble in pure, minimalistic, modernistic style which influenced later artists from Calder to Brancusi, to El Greco. They left them primarily as grave goods and as the only record of their existence.  Over the centuries the styles changed in almost imperceptible ways, but it would take an expert to distinguish the differences.  There are a few fairly well known figures–the Harper, the Flautist, the Drinker–which are unusual. but the museum is essentially room after room after room of almost identical figures, each with a well-written scholarly dissertation, but they seem identical to the untrained eye.  I think each individual figure is lovely, and I’m glad to have seen the museum, but I doubt if I will visit it again.  Much better for the amateur is the top floor exhibit of daily life in ancient Greece where they take actual artifacts and show them in dioramas, murals and clever videos showing how they were used by the Greeks in everything from weddings to shopping to dinner parties to preparing for war.

We were so close to the Plaka when we came out of the museum that we decided to try again to find the swordfish place.  Well, we couldn’t find anything that looked the same, but when we stopped at Aleksy’s the owner assured us that the only place that fit our description was the pretentious place that called itself the best taverna in the Plaka, where we had stopped to look at the menu. Don’t care how good the fish is, 64 euros (about $90) is more than I will pay for any fish dinner.  And that was only for the main course.  Aleksy said that the old man, now dead, had built the reputation, but his family didn’t really match it.

Anyway, the fish we had was lovely and we sat on the roof with a view over the entire world including the Acropolis.  And of course the air was that soft, perfect temperature, light breeze that I always associate with Athens. Then we got back to the hotel.  When I took off my shoes I discovered that the buckle on the right shoe had a hook on the inside.  The shoe was all bloodstained, and I have a stigmata.  I never felt a thing with all the walking we did.  Later we bought bandages which I put on the inside of the shoes.  Maybe I’ll find a shoemaker in Skopje who can put a leather patch over the rough spot–or I’ll have bandages in my shoes until I get back to Alameda.

Leaving Athens was simultaneously a heartache (we were just getting to recognize it and enjoying it more each day), a delight (this was actually moving forward toward a new adventure in Skopje) and a clown act  (again managing too many suitcases to believe) We had left some in the coin-operated lockers, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There was a baggage car, so we just turned them over to an efficient staff, grabbed our carry-ons, and found elegant first-class reclining seats.  A protective father delivered an attractive young woman, looked us over and appeared satisfied, and delivered an obvious fatherly lecture. Five minutes later, two young men appeared, and joined our cabin – obviously much more interested in the young woman than in us. They had a marvelous time talking; I’m sure the father would have been appalled.

The train was not particularly fast, but stopped at few stations. It quickly became rural as we left Athens, then became unpopulated hills, then slowly climbed into real mountains with gorge-ous views. It almost felt that we wouldn’t make the last climb, through numerous tunnels and atop sharp cliffs, but once we passed the crest, we sped down the other side as the view opened up and the Aegean sea came into sight. We had been in communication with Heinz and Sylvana, who were coming from Turkey to meet us at the station, but they ran into a trucker’s strike blocking the road, so we told them to just meet at our hotel.

Arrival was another mad scene. We collected our bags from the luggage office, but found that our train the next day to Skopje left at 5:45 am, and the luggage office opened at 6:00am. No problem, we thought – we’ll just shove them into the coin lockers. Unfortunately, when we found them, there was only a single working locker. Every other one had been used to store things long-term, and the locks had been taken off. We shrugged and stuffed the biggest bag into the almost-too-small locker, and manhandled the remaining seven through the station to the taxi stand. Three cabs rejected us, but one man agreed to take us -luggage filling his trunk, filling half the back seat (room only for Elizabeth). I got into the from passenger seat with a bag in my lap and he chugged off with all out worldly goods. Two blocks later, we were at the hotel – but he was satisfied with his tip.

The Anatolia Hotel was elegant, with all sorts of extras – drink discounts, meal discounts, free breakfast, and the staff was quite disappointed when we told them we were leaving at 4:30 a.m. the next day. We thought we only had time for a shower and freshen-up, but Heinz and Sylvana finally appeared at about 9:30. We suggested a meal in the Hotel, but Heinz was determined to impress us – so off we went on a tour of the city (I think if there had been light we would have been impressed). After a swoop around the entire city to reach the ring road, we found ourselves at about 11:00 on a sand spit looking back across the bay at the city. This may have been exactly the same place we camped at, en route to Iran in 1976, but if so, it was unrecognizable – rows of restaurants, cafes, clubs and more restaurants as far as the eye could see. The place owned by Heinz’ friend was a long walk down the beach, but we got a warm welcome, a table on the beach (about one foot from the lapping waves), a magnificent view, and a host-selected cornucopia of everything in the house. Wine flowed, laughter soared, eyelids drooped (at least ours did.) A memorable meal.  We got back to the hotel about 12:30, facing the magnificent prospect of 3 ½ hours to sleep before we schlepped the bags back to the train station. But we did it, and we got on the train to Skopje.  With all our suitcases.  Somehow, we made

David looks for space to sit en route to Skopje

it. With no baggage crew or baggage car. It wasn’t too difficult because the platform was on the entrance level (for the first time ever) so we could just roll the bags to the edge.  Pitching them up the stairs was something else, and when we got to our compartment, we took up all the seats, four with luggage and two with us.  When we got underway and the ticket taker came by, he muttered something to his associate about how we should have paid for more seats.  Fortunately, the higher ranking official told him to forget it, so we continued in peace to Skopje.

The cabins were somewhat ‘faded splendour’ but scrupulously clean and comfortable. Needless to say, we had no-one sharing the cabin with us. We both fell asleep, to be awakened at the Greek border, where they took our passports but eventually returned them, and then after five minutes, we were at the Macedonian border, where they required us to fill out forms which said “Do not surrender these until you are leaving Macedonia”, but which were collected as soon as we filled them out. Then we started to climb a lovely valley along the Vardar River, with glimpses of horse-carts, McDonalds, brand-new factories and Roman bridges alternating on both sides. It was a four hour ride with lovely countryside all around us.  We went up mountains and into long narrow valleys and passed villages and farmhouses.  It is a lovely ride, especially when you get to watch the sunrise.

Arriving in Skopje, in a railway station which is a triumph of “Bulgarian Modern” brutal architecture (and no elevators/escalators), we got taxi drivers to manhandle our bags down the steep stairs. (When you have no command of the language, how do you reply to a refrain of ‘Where you want go?”)  Dozens of taxi drivers were willing to help us if we would only tell them where we wanted to go.  The front of the station didn’t sound reasonable.  Finally, three of them agreed to carry our bags down the stairs and out to the front of the station. We borrowed a phone from one of them to call the University, and our friend and contact Viktorija showed up in an SUV, and spirited us away to our lovely apartment – five floors up, walls mostly windows, overlooking tree-lined streets and parks and surrounded by mountains. We had made it to Skopje. Let the adventure begin!

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