Category: Greece

Having entered Greece in rather strange circumstances, I was a little concerned as to what might happen should I travel back to Скопје through the same border point, just in case the frustrated waving me on was under some sort of “Well, he’s only a stupid tourist and he’s unlikely to be back any time soon” belief. So I decided to travel up to софия for a few days, and then go back across that way. Eager readers may remember that that’s how I entered Macedonia in the first place, but that time I only got to spend a few hours being driven around the back roads of софия, rather than actually getting to experience the city.

As Greece and Bulgaria are both in the EU these days, I expected the border crossing to be a relatively simple affair. In this I was completely mistaken. The train sat for well over an hour and half at the border. As best I could ascertain there were only about 10 passengers, so I’ve no idea what was going on, especially as I was tucked away in a compartment in the first class cabin with no other passengers. I didn’t actually buy a first class ticket, but somehow the train station in Thessaloniki managed to allocated me a reserved seat in the first class cabin on a second class ticket. Both of the ticket inspectors who examined it during the journey did a visible double take at this, but as I was sitting in the correct car/seat combination there wasn’t a lot they could say.

I’d pre-booked an apartment for a few days in the centre of софия, and there was meant to be a driver waiting for me at the station on arrival, but the delay at the border meant that by time I got in it was after midnight, and the driver was nowhere to be found. I rang the woman I’d booked it through (although I’m pretty sure I woke her up), and after she’d ascertained that the driver had gone home for the night, she offered to pick me up herself. She explained she was nearby, and so would meet me outside the McDonalds at the station in 10 minutes.

This sounded much simpler than it actually turned out to be. I walked the whole way around the outside of the station, and couldn’t see a McDonalds at all. The one remaining taxi driver claimed not to know where it was (although if I were feeling particularly suspicious I’d think he was trying to sabotage my lift so that his hanging around waiting for the last train wouldn’t have been a complete waste of time, particularly as his price also dropped by €5 at this point…)

With a time restriction in place, I couldn’t just keep wandering around on my own hoping to find it, so I tried to find somewhere else who could tell me where it was. Of course, after midnight that’s not a trivial thing to do either. There had been some workers down where I’d gotten off the train, so I tried to retrace my steps back in that direction, but got hopelessly lost by virtue of all but one of the entrances to the station being locked for the night. Eventually I found the right combination of steps to descend, back into the bowels of the underground part of the station, and the right steps to ascend again, back to the track where the train was. However, by now there was no-one to be found. So I went back down into the station and wandered around hoping to find someone. Eventually I found some cleaners, but they spoke no English. I hoped that simply looking lost and asking “McDonalds?” should suffice for them to be able to at least point in the right direction but the looked completely confused. Over the next 5 minutes, growing increasingly worried that my lift would disappear again, I repeated the charade with a variety of night workers, all with the same result (or lack thereof).

At this point, as I passed the bottom of a stairway that led up to one of the tracks, my mobile phone managed to get a signal, and helpfully informed me that I’d missed 4 calls. Checking my messages I discovered that the woman picking me up had arrived at the station to discover that it was all locked and so couldn’t even get to the McDonalds, even had I been able to find it, and she was waiting for me outside by the front entrance. My next adventure was trying to find my way back to there. In my quest for anyone who spoke enough English to understand the work “McDonalds” I’d gotten completely lost underground. Eventually, after about a further 15 minutes of increasingly panicked wanderings, I found my way to the front entrance: but, unfortunately, the wrong side of it, where the heavy duty chains made it clear I wasn’t going to get out that way any time soon. The woman picking me up, on the other side of the door, looked remarkably exasperated and she berated me for not knowing that her suggestion to meet at McDonalds made no sense if the station was locked and just waited for her outside instead! She had no suggestions for how I could manage to find out which sets of stairs and doors would lead me back across, down, round, up, and around again to her side. So I set off on further exploration on the understanding that if I hadn’t found my way out in 10 minutes she was calling the police to come get me out.

Thankfully I made the right guess fairly quickly, reached somewhere that looked familiar, and made it out in just over 5 minutes this time. As we walked over to her car, the lone taxi driver, visibly deflated, clambered into his, and drove off. And I still had no idea where McDonalds was.


I recently had my first awkward border crossing (other than entering the US where immigration staff are notoriously amongst the most aggressively obnoxious in the world), crossing from Macedonia to Greece. Interestingly it was on the Macedonian side of the border, rather than the Greek. As with most border crossing by bus in this part of the world, the driver collected everyone’s passports and took them to the security checkpoint, whilst we all waited onboard. 5 minutes later he came back to get me off the bus as the border official wanted to talk to me. Shortly thereafter I learned one of life’s great lessons: Never interrupt an immigration officer to explain you only speak English without at least triple checking that they’re not already speaking English!

With the language confusion out of the way and both of us speaking somewhat slower for each other’s benefit, we got down to the meat of the matter. He wanted to know where I had been staying in Скопје:

  • I rented an apartment
  • What is its name?
  • You mean its address?
  • No, its name!
  • Erm? The name of the agency I rented it from?
  • No! The apartment’s name!
  • Ummm. I don’t think it actually had a name.
  • Well, where are the papers?
  • What papers?
  • From the apartment!
  • I don’t have any.

This went on for quite a while, with neither of really having a clue what the other was talking about, before he eventually got completely frustrated and just waved me through in despair.

From talking to a few people afterwards it seems that the problem came about through my failure to register with the local Police within a few days of arriving in the country. For most tourists this isn’t an issue, as the hotel they’re staying at takes care of it all for them, but because I rented my own private apartment I needed to do that myself. But the border guard was assuming that when I said “apartment” I meant one attached to a hotel, and wanted to know which one so that someone could take issue with them for not filling in my forms. It seems to have been beyond his experience for a shortish term tourist to actually rent like a local. I’ve no idea what might have happened had he realised it was actually my fault I hadn’t registered, rather than some sloppy hotel clerk.

After that the Greek border checkpoint was remarkably simple. Of course it helped that I have an EU passport, so they barely gave me a second look, unlike the Macedonians on the bus who were all treated with grave suspicion and their visas double checked. Relations between the two countries are so bad that even a Schengen Visa isn’t accepted for entry to Greece if you have a Macedonian passport.

Humourously one of the first things you see once you actually make it over the border is a large “Welcome to Macedonia” sign (remember, this is going from Macedonia into Greece!) The dispute over naming is, of course, the primary fight between the two countries, with Greece even threatening sanctions against Canada recently for officially recognising Macedonia under that name).

Unfortunately I wasn’t expecting the sign and we were past it before I could get my camera out. Please leave a comment if you can find a photo online!

White tower