Welcome to Day #6 of 100 Days of Travel. It’s a new world and a new type of traveling. For the next 100 days, I’m exploring Macedonia and Albania as safely as possible. After semi-isolating in Skopje for the past two weeks, I’m ready to leave the capital city and see what else Macedonia has to offer.
Taking the train anywhere in Eastern Europe can be an experience. And because online information is sporadic, to say the least, I frequently am not sure what type of train I’m riding. Will it be a private cabin that is both equal parts comforting and creepy? Will there be air-conditioning? Will there be air-conditioning but the windows are open because the older folk don’t know how it works and then a young girl will finally snap, yell at everyone in the train, and slam shut every single window? When the train is running hours late, will the station master bring some leftover boiled potatoes from his dinner? Will the train even show up?
All these questions and more were answered on my first trip from Skopje to Prilep. First up, we have the Skopje train station, an aggressive exercise in minimalist brutalism. The main hall is deserted when I walk in, shadows stretching up into the darkened ceilings. The ticketing agent seems amused that an American would want to take the train.
With a few hours to kill, I wander around the neighborhood. I see a few interesting things like this tribute to the world’s most famous couple.
And whatever is happening here.
The train arrives and it appears to be almost brand-new. My seatmate, a college student on his way home to Prilep estimates that the train is only a few years old. “China gave us five new trains,” he tells me, which makes sense as China has not only been heavily investing in the Balkans but all over central Asia in a bid to rebuild the famous Silk Road.
I’m riding the Skopje to Bitola route, which runs three times a day. My choices for departure were either seven in the morning (too early), eight at night (too late), or two in the afternoon (just right). After an hour, we pass through the city of Veles, and the section from here to Prilep is breathtaking. It’s estimated that 75% of Macedonia is covered with mountains with 34 peaks higher than 2,000 meters and the fifth-highest average elevation in Europe (741m).
Quick Tip: The only correct schedule I could find for trains is on the official website. There is no English version, but you should be able to figure it out with Google Translate.
The undisputed king of the region is Solunska Glava (2540m), a dramatic peak with an insane 1000 meter cliff face. As we spin past the tiny Bogomila station, I start furiously bookmarking everything on my mapping app. You should get off here sometime. I mark in my notes.
We pass through a long tunnel and emerge into the high plains of the Pelgonia Valley. It’s a completely different ecosystem here, with peaks that remind me of Utah and New Mexico, craggy rocks with few trees. The whole valley is filled with tobacco crops, and in a short time, we arrive in Prilep.
Tips for the Macedonia Train
-There doesn’t seem to be a way to easily purchase tickets online, so just buy them at the window.
-Seat reservations don’t seem to exist either.
-See the official schedule here.
-In theory, there are routes via Skopje to Belgrade, Pristina, and Thessaloniki. But with COVID-19, some of these routes may not be running.
-There are no trains to Ohrid, Tirana, or Sofia from Skopje.
Overall, I found the two-hour train ride to Prilep to be a comfortable and easy trip. I did wear a mask the entire time and estimate that about 50% of people on the train were correctly wearing one as well. I did eventually end up returning to this spot for hiking, but that’s another story.