Traveling by train provide opportunities to discover the scenery along the way, as well as to get acquainted with locals and other travelers. It is exactly for these people that Interrail program is made for. The basic idea is simple: for a fixed price, you get unlimited traveling by train, all across Europe, for different periods of time, up to one month. It is entirely up to you to plan your time – which places will you visit, how long will you stay at each place, and will you book a hostel or simply spend the night on a train.
As I was feeling particularly adventurous last month, I decided to do exactly this, just in an even more unconventional way: I bought a Balkan version of an Interrail ticket – Balkan Flexipass, and set out on an epic journey from Belgrade to Athens, mid-January, all alone. Apart from the obvious difficulty – the distance and the length of the trip – there is an additional obstacle hidden here. The trains in the Balkans have such a bad reputation – for being late, in bad condition and full of thieves and smugglers – that everybody takes the train only if there is absolutely no other way to get somewhere. Moreover, the golden rule says: trains from Belgrade to the north will be acceptable; trains from Belgrade to the south are the devil’s invention and are to be avoided at any cost. Before leaving for Athens, I have heard a million stories about the trains being quite a few hours late, wagons with no heating and people smoking everywhere. This all turned out to be very true! However, since I had all this in mind before starting the journey, and having embraced it all with an open heart, I enjoyed both of my 24 hour train rides greatly, with all the delays and wonderful warm colourful Balkan people that passed through my compartment.
I got to Athens just a few days before the elections. Coming from a part of the world where politics play an extensively important role in everyday life, and everybody is interested in issues of this sort, I can still say that I have never witnessed this kind of general spirit as in Greece at this time. It was all everybody was talking about – including my hosts, three immigrants just arrived from Tunisia with almost no connection with the country, let alone its government. The young people, the old people, students, workers, parents, passers-by, everybody had their own vision of what should and what will happen; and there was a distinctive hopefulness in the air that I found inspiring and priceless. Consequently, it was moving to witness the celebrations following the elections’ outcome, and the already historical removal of the fence separating the Parliament building from the neighboring Syntagma square, symbolically eliminating the barrier between the government and the people it rules over.
In this atmosphere, it was refreshing to tour through the ancient history of Athens. Visiting the Acropolis, ancient temples, theatres and countless other sites, and seeing a limitless ocean of tourists doing the same thing, made me see that this is what Greece should be – and is known for; this is, alongside its marvelous seaside, what comes to people’s minds when you mention the country, and not its recent inglorious debts and political turmoil.
To sum up, Athens is everything were used to, and more. It is a European capital, a cradle of history, culture and democracy itself; then it is Balkans, passionate and explosive and fervent; and then it is more Eastern then the Balkans, with its traditional music and food and drinks and a distinctive Mediterranean mentality. But above all, I value being there at the right moment; this is an aspect of every journey that is often wrongfully neglected. I am confident that there is a lot of upswing and optimism to be found in Athens today as well; so if you want to be carried away with the positive spirit of a changing country, this is the right place – and time – for you!