By train from Greece to Northern Macedonia
From Thessaloniki (Greece) to Skopje (Northern Macedonia) there is currently one train per day. In the direction of Skopje in the evening, from Skopje to Thessaloniki very early in the morning. This is the night train "Hellas-Express", which travels the route Belgrade-Thessaloniki and is particularly popular with interrailers. In this blog, I will only report on the journey to Skopje and explain how the current rail replacement service works. The journey from Skopje to Belgrade can be found in another blog (as of 2019, on rail.cc) of mine.
Timetable/traffic days: Check timetables!
Currently (2021) it is unclear whether the train is running at all. If so, the departure from Thessaloniki might be 1823 hrs in the evening, for me it was still 1851 hrs - that's exactly the time the regular train left, but currently you have to get on the bus first. This will take you to Gevgelija, the first station in northern Macedonia. According to our knowledge from rail.cc, this station is reached by 1948 hrs (Macedonian time), where the train continues to Skopje/Belgrade at this time. The SEV bus does not stop in Idomeni. You can also find the possible times on rail.cc.
The train appears on the display in the station. Even if you have to take the bus here
Departure tracks at Thessaloniki station
In Gevgelija you board the train to Skopje/Belgrade. Arrival in Skopje is 21:54. On my journey, however, we were 50-60 minutes late, on the Skopje-Belgrade journey the train even arrived in Skopje with +100 and continued with +85 (it was able to catch up a little by shortening the stop).
In the opposite direction the train leaves Skopje at 04:55 and arrives in Thessaloniki at 10:08 according to the timetable. However, as you get on the bus in the morning, the arrival time is not reliable, as the bus waits for the train, even if the train is delayed. In addition, there are border controls in both directions.
Traffic days: According to information from Deutsche Bahn (as of 2020), the train runs in the direction of Skopje from 13.6. to 21.9. The Serbian stops on the route are even displayed in the DB app.
Tip: at Thessaloniki station, I asked if I could already buy the couchette reservation there for my journey to Belgrade 4 days later. Unfortunately, that was not possible. You can only get a couchette reservation on the train from the couchette attendant.
Main hall in the station: on the left, under the large display, are the ticket counters.
At the international counter I ask for the couchette reservation.
Through this portal I go (or will go) to the tracks
Note the time difference at the North Macedonia/Greece border. Skopje and Belgrade are in Central European Time, Greece in Eastern European Time, +1 hour compared to CEST (Central European Summer Time)/CET (Central European Time). In the direction of Greece, set the clock forward (time loss), in the direction of Serbia, set the clock back (time gain).
As already mentioned, this train only runs once a day. If the departure time doesn't suit you, you can also travel to northern Macedonia via Florina and Bitola. Mimara has already written a blog about this.
If you find the departure time to Thessaloniki too early (that's how I would feel), you have 3 options according to Flo from rail.cc ;)
A) take a bus instead
B) you go via Bitola/Florina
C) you turn the whole tour around, so that you come from Thessaloniki. That's how I did it. :)
Tickets /Interrail / Eurail
With Interrail/Eurail you use the seat car of the train for free in both directions. The couchette costs 6 EUR extra, which is really not much. A sleeping car will certainly not be available again soon.
Normal tickets cost 33.80 EUR for a one-way ticket and 54 EUR for a round trip in the seating car (basic price). For the couchette car, you will probably have to pay the same surcharge as for Interrail.
Rail replacement service
As already mentioned: From Thessaloniki, the journey starts by bus, as the train does not leave until Northern Macedonia due to the refugee crisis.
How do you find the bus? There are two possibilities.
1) First possibility: you go to the station a little earlier and ask at the ticket office, then they explain it to you.
2) Second possibility: you know beforehand! Friends of mine took the train a few days before me and told me where to go. I'll try to describe it as precisely as possible:
First, you look for the main entrance of the station. This looks like this:
Main entrance of Thessaloniki railway station
Then look for the right corner (when looking at it). The green pharmacy cross is prominent there.
Go around this corner
Wait for the bus at the shops next to it. Optionally, it may already be there, or, as in my case, it may be in the square on the other side and drive the few metres to the crowd as soon as the staff are ready to direct boarding.
Then you can usually already see the bus
The bus has 50 seats, like a normal coach. What happens if more people come, I can't say. In any case, there are many interrailers.
When you get on, they check your ticket or your Interrail passport, and also your passport, which you need for the border.
I make sure I get on the bus as quickly as possible, as I don't know how many people there really are. In any case, the bus is almost full.
Many people in front of the bus to Gevgelija
The recline seats in the bus
We start with a slight delay. First we leave the suburbs of Thessaloniki. On the way to northern Macedonia we see the railway line again and again on the left. Around seven o'clock (according to the new= North Macedonian calendar) we reach the border. It gets more mountainous.
We leave Thessaloniki
The bus is really full
As we approach northern Macedonia, mountains come into view
We are at the border: you have to wait here for a while
Then it's our turn at the passport control
The passports are collected in the bus and then handed out again while the names are called out. The whole thing only takes about 30 minutes, which I think is pretty quick. I sit next to Jean-Pierre on the bus. It should be a very interesting ride. He comes from Belgium and has already been to Georgia and the hinterland of Turkey on his journey, from there to here by train and bus. The stories he tells are incredibly interesting. After maybe ten more minutes, the bus arrives at the station in Gevgelija at around 7:45 pm. You can't miss the station, by the way. But there is still a long wait ahead of us...
It is an interesting spectacle. At the border it seemed like it was about to get dark, but in Gevgelija it was light again. That was because the sun was behind the mountain first, but not yet behind the horizon. The first picture was taken before the second. You can believe me!
Sunset at the northern Macedonian border
The bus stops right at the station: in Gevgelija it shines bright again
Waiting at the station in Gevgelija
Stage 2: on the train to Skopje
Well after eight o'clock, a locomotive is finally put on the track. Then three old wagons follow. It's a pity for such a prestigious train connection. We leave shortly after 9 pm, already 20 minutes late. But on holiday you shouldn't look at your watch so often. You can't change anything anyway. Nevertheless, I am aware that we will be more than half an hour late and my feeling is that the train will not be able to catch up.
Finally the locomotive is brought to the track
Then three wagons arrive
Boarding please! Into the night train Thessaloniki-Belgrade via Skopje
Opening window on the train to Skopje: but we are still standing!
As compensation we get to see a great sunset! The ride through the mountains is also quite beautiful, although it is unfortunately already getting dark. By the way, the windows can be opened! Much to the delight of the travellers and the locals. The only disadvantage is that I find the ride quite noisy.
The windows can be opened. You don't find that so often nowadays!
Right after boarding, I had a not very friendly conversation with the couchette conductor. I had already wanted to ask for a reservation for the onward journey (4 days later).
Immediately afterwards, I took a seat in one of the two seating carriages. One of them is a compartment carriage, it looks a bit like the former first class. The second is a high-capacity carriage. As an interrailer, you don't need a reservation for either of them, which many people here take advantage of. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend the couchette car for a night journey.
By the way, the toilets in all carriages are quite poor. There is no paper to dry yourself and you should observe the following rule: Before going to the toilet, check whether the tap is working!
my compartment on the Thessaloniki-Skopje train
a former 1st class compartment
Large seating car on the Thessaloniki-Skopje train
Berth car for onward journey to Belgrade
Toilet on the night train Thessaloniki-Belgrade
Fortunately, two other events on this evening are rather positive: First, there is the conversation with a Serb in my compartment. He is on his way back from China, where he works, to his family in Belgrade. He tells some stories, some of which are interesting and some of which are difficult to follow. Sometimes he is difficult to understand, which is due to both the accent and the open window.
Jean-Pierre from Belgium took a seat next to me in the compartment. Together, each equipped with a camera, we photographed the sunset.
Sunset in the mountains of Northern Macedonia
The darker it gets, the more often the lights of the settlements pass by. The train stops twice before Skopje.
Later, I get the idea that I could once again put my travel luck to the test. On the map (downloaded beforehand - highly recommended - as there is no internet in northern Macedonia) I had already seen that it was a two to three kilometre walk to my Airbnb, where the Swiss I had met in Thessaloniki were already waiting for me. I ask Jean-Pierre how he will get to his accommodation. "Taxi - I'm sure it won't be expensive!" he replies, speaking good German. Let's put his travel luck to the test! I ask where his accommodation is. He knows the address exactly and lo and behold! 400 metres from my AirBnB. When I ask if we want to share the taxi, I get a friendly yes! ;) Jackpot! A young lady from Skopje had already explained to us exactly how to proceed when taking a taxi.
When we arrived in Skopje (about 55 minutes late), she escorted us out of the station and organised another taxi for us.
Arrival in Skopje in the late evening
down in the station the long-distance bus terminal
Deserted main station of Skopje in the evening
She refused a man who offered "Taxi?" right on the stairs. Even after asking several times. I felt a little sorry for him, as this tourist train in the evening is certainly one of their best sources of income of the day, maybe even the only one.
If you know how it works, then surely you could have easily accepted his offer. Because I know:
How to: Taxi in Skopje
There is really only one trick: you have to agree on the price BEFOREhand. Our taxi that night even had a meter. We didn't make out the price beforehand, but the whole thing seemed innocuous. At JP's accommodation he let us out, I got a free ride that late evening. It's not bad to have the money handy, just in case. The next morning, four of us also took a taxi, this time without a meter in the car. But it worked without any problems when I stopped the taxi, said 200 or 250 and the driver immediately agreed. That shows that it is a good price for him too. At that time, one euro was about 60 North Macedonian dinars.
Even the ride in the evening only cost about 3.50 EUR, maximum 4 EUR. JP had withdrawn money at the station and could already pay in local currency. Otherwise, euros are also accepted. If the driver is very cunning, he can claim that he has no change and simply keeps the large note. But that's just a guess.
The whole thing may sound dangerous, but it's really not. You just have to know how. In our case, we had enough money the next day, so if the driver should ask for more (happened to me once in Montenegro), just be persistent. But he was friendly and we even rounded up or gave him our remaining money. For 4 people, the taxi ride was cheaper and less stressful than the bus (also because we didn't know where to get tickets).
Skopje station: the track level one day later in daylight.
Staying overnight in Skopje
Either hostel or AirBnB. AirBnB are accommodations or guest rooms run by private individuals. You can book them easily here. Most of the time it's worth it, especially for several people.
On your own, you can also choose between many great hostels here. I had good experiences with this in the Balkans, as the hostels tend to be small and familiar instead of large bed castles.
I hope you enjoyed my report! If so, feel free to recommend us! See you soon, back on RailDude.com !
Posted 6 months ago