Thessaloniki to Istanbul aboard the ‘friendship express’ train

Outside the train window, night has not yet fallen in Thessaloniki. There isn’t much to do on the train, with its five carriages, 52 double bunk compartments and a narrow corridor. Each compartment has a double seat that converts into a single bunk, another bed that opens out above it, a table, small refrigerator, sink and mirror. There is no dining car or separate seating area. Just people, who for different reasons have decided to share the train journey to Istanbul. Train trips are great conversation starters and attract a wide variety of people; everyone wants to say something about the destination – some are happy to be discovering a new place, others because they are going home to a place they miss. Some want information about where to stay, what to do and not to do. Night falls before before we get to Kilkis. The passengers have settled down and are relaxing, nibbling at food, reading or listening to music. The smiling Turkish train stewards, Bulhran, Jaafer and Naji, are readying the compartments for the night, making beds. One of our fellow passengers, 25-year-old Lila, is an old hand. Nearing the end of her two-year postgraduate course in Istanbul, she often travels back to see her family in Larissa. She says there is never a dull moment on the train. Once a group of Spanish tourists had taken out guitars and entertained the other passengers with songs, another time the heating system broke down and the passengers shared a bottle of brandy to warm up. As for her destination, she is enthusiastic. «When I first arrived in Istanbul I was astounded at how beautiful it was. Then I got used to it. What you notice is that it is never quiet. No matter where you are, you hear noise, the noise of that huge city,» she says. Maria and Constantinos Drazos were born in Istanbul 85 years ago and have never moved away, but their children and grandchildren live in Thessaloniki. «We go and see them whenever we can, and they also visit us often. We used to go by bus but the train is much better.» Past midnight, most of the passengers have been asleep for a while. The wind whistles outside as the train rocks on the old rails of northern Greece. We enter the station at Pytheio, the last stop before the border, where our passports will be checked. Officials tap politely on compartment doors to wake passengers. Then we are off again, with a new engine and a Turkish driver. Shortly afterward, we cross the Evros River, in whose waters a half-moon is reflected, seeming to underscore the symbolic nature of this train, the Filia-Dostluk («friendship» in Greek and Turkish respectively) Express that links the two countries, two cultures, West and East. After the Turkish passport control, some of our fellow passengers get up to stretch their legs. An Italian couple, 23-year-old pharmacy student Maria Grazia is in Thessaloniki with the Erasmus exchange program and Angelo, 27, is a veterinarian in Sicily. «Life in Thessaloniki is wonderful,» says Maria Grazia, «I was used to the quiet in Catania and the pace of life in Greece impressed me.» Naji is patrolling the corridor with tea and coffee. Tim and Lisa, two young Canadian women, are on a tour of Europe. Tim, a literature student and Lisa a teacher, have just come from Athens and are happy to leave it behind them. «We didn’t like Athens at all. Only Plaka, where our hotel was, was lovely, but again, everything was very expensive.» They took the train to Thessaloniki and after Istanbul are heading for Sofia, Bucharest «and then we’ll see.» The City Istanbul creeps up on you about an hour before you see it. As we arrive on the platform that used to welcome the historic Orient Express, there is the sense of arriving in the East, that another journey is about to begin. Tayfun Akbulut, director of Sirkeci station, offers us Turkish coffee and tells us proudly about his work. The beautiful, imposing building opened in 1890. Outside it is nothing like a European train station. Inside, underneath huge clocks, the light plays tricks. The station restaurant, once the haunt of writers and journalists, is now called the Orient Express Restaurant and usually caters for tourists. The walls are decorated with posters of the legendary train and from the film «Murder on the Orient Express.» The station is believed to have inspired the novel written by Agatha Christie while she was staying at the Pera Palace Hotel. A railway museum next door displays small objects from old trains – stationmasters’ caps, tools and maps. Five or six stopped clocks hang in a corner. An hour before departure, Bulhran, Jaafer and Naji greet us like old friends. Going home again is always the most difficult part of any journey. But for the fifth-class pupils of the Zappeion primary school in Istanbul, the trip is a beginning. The three teachers accompanying them explain that they have been invited to Edessa, northern Greece. «It’s the first time the children will hear Greek spoken in the street,» they say. As Istanbul recedes behind us in the sunset, the nighttime routine begins all over again. That is when we meet Miua, 41, from Tokyo, who is traveling through Europe with his collapsible bicycle. «I am a designer and to do my job well I have to look at things,» he said, as he pulled out his mini-computer and showed us photographs of his twin 8-year-old daughters. As the train pulls into Thessaloniki, the fatigue is mixed with just a little nostalgia, as we wave goodbye to our fellow passengers. This article appeared in the May 27 issue of Kathimerini’s color supplement, K.

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