Our Hungarian visas were expiring, and we were not keen to have another encounter with Alien Control officials, so we hoisted our backpacks and boarded the train for Athens. The route passed through communist Yugoslavia, which in 1983 was in crisis after president-for-life Tito’s death and well on its way to civil war, and it was not permitted to disembark although foreigners were allowed to travel straight through. On the other hand, we already knew that this particular train was going to terminate early in the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade, where we hoped that we could get a connection through to Athens without officially crossing the border into Yugoslavia, but the immediate problem was to get out of Budapest. Concerning our route further South, all we knew for sure was that the Belgrade-Athens run was infamous for being the worst train journey in Europe.
From Hungary to Yugoslavia on the Pushkin-Athens “Express”
The Belgrade train pulled out of Budapest, and we dropped into a deep sleep, only to be awoken by the ticket inspector wanting to see our reservations. In the early hours of the morning, it was the turn of a suspicious Hungarian Passport Control officer who compared and re-compared our faces with our photographs, before grudgingly returning our passports and leaving, but not before a final check under our seats for stowaways.
Shortly after that we were awoken once again, this time by a Yugoslav ticket collector, who merely glanced at our tickets and said “ock”, which we inferred to be a phonetic rendering of “OK”, and thus marked our passing from one communist country to the next.
Our next visitor, a laconic uniformed official of some kind, woke us up for no readily apparent reason and then moved on to the next compartment. We were just drifting back into dreamland when the Yugoslav Passport Control officer arrived. For reasons known only to himself, he stamped my currency control page and David’s US visa before continuing on his way.
We were jolted out of our slumber once again when the train made an apparently unscheduled stop to let what sounded like four hundred excited locals aboard. Fortunately the tide of humanity flowed past our little compartment to another part of the train, leaving only a thick fug of cigarette smoke.
When we finally awoke naturally, it was cold and foggy outside and we had no idea where we were, except that the train was clearly running several hours late. The carriage was bucking violently from side to side, and we inferred that at least some of the delay was down to badly laid tracks. Be that as it may, we did eventually rumble haltingly into Belgrade Central Station.
From Yugoslavia to Greece on the Belgrade-Athens “Express”
The Athens Express should have left an hour before we arrived, but it was still standing at the platform so we jumped aboard. It was comprised of two parts, the forward carriages going all the way to Athens and the rear carriages stopping short in Thessaloniki. The Athens end was crowded and the Thessaloniki end was not, so bearing in mind that we would be on this train for the next 24 hours and didn’t fancy sitting in the already packed Athens-bound corridor, we joined some other Interrailers in a relatively empty compartment to the rear.
The scenery passing our window was picturesque and somewhat bucolic. The train was passing through small farms, apparently worked by couples, who got around in WWII trucks, bicycles, horse-traps and ox-carts. I tried to take some pictures but the light was bad and the train was shaking around a lot.
Yugoslavian soldiers were patrolling the corridors, and one saw my camera and came into the compartment and indicated that taking photos was forbidden. He then stood on guard to make sure that I didn’t do it again. Presumably these were secret cabbages, unsuitable for decadent capitalist eyes.
At lunch, we discovered that the litre bottle of apple juice that we had bought in Budapest was in fact apple wine. Since it had a crown top, once it was opened we had to drink the whole thing there and then, which took our mind off our silent guard who was still carefully watching our every move.
The day wore on. The scenery became more hilly and scrubby. So far, despite a certain amount of tedium, and the fact that all the toilets were blocked and there was no tap water, the train thankfully seemed not to be living up to its bad reputation, and our journey was reasonably pleasant. Perhaps the ticket inspectors hadn’t bothered us because our travelling companions were genuinely stopping in Thessaloniki, but at any rate they did not ask us to move from the compartment. We did take it in turns to wander down toward the Athens end, just to see what was going on, but it was difficult to get into even the first carriage as it was stuffy and crowded.
At some time in the late evening we crossed the border into Greece, and the Yugoslavian soldiers were replaced by Greek Customs officials, who gave us some forms and stamped us in. Just before midnight, Andrew found three seats available in one of the Athens carriages, so we hurried down there and installed ourselves before anybody else discovered them. It was a relief to know that we were now at the right end of the train, and, blocked toilets notwithstanding, conditions didn’t seem as bad as we had expected.
A few minutes later we stopped at a station. The ticket inspector shook his head and ejected us onto the platform, because this part of the train wasn’t going to Athens after all. We had a few moments before the train left the station, so we ran up and down until we located a genuine Athens carriage, and climbed aboard.
It was at this point that we realised just how lucky we had been. The floors and seats of the compartments were completely packed with travellers and their luggage, and we only just managed to squeeze our way into the corridor, where every inch of floor space was already taken up by bodies and sleeping bags. The toilets here were not just blocked, they had backed up and effluent was slopping out of the doorway and down the corridor. The odour competed with the thick fug of Russian tobacco, and at least one person was quietly throwing up.
We wrapped towels around our heads and curled up into the tiny space left to us, and thanked our lucky stars that we hadn’t been stuck on this carriage for the whole of the previous day.
We had dropped off into an uneasy sleep, when at some time in the small wee hours, the train jolted and stopped. There were some muffled bangs – presumably the disconnecting Thessaloniki carriages – and the train started to move again. We started to drift off again, but were disturbed by some guards who came trampling through our prone bodies, demanding that we all stand up and follow them. We did, and like rats following the pied piper, trooped through the rattling carriages, collecting ever more suffering souls along the way.
At the end of the train, as if by magic, there was a fresh new empty coach with working toilets. We all piled in, got comfortable, and finally fell into a proper sleep. The train was by now running two hours late, but nobody cared.