I caught trains and buses across the UK, flitting between friends with a final stop off in Norfolk before getting the overnight ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland. Not quite in the right place for hitching, I then took a tram and a train and a short walk to a petrol station on the motorway just east of Rotterdam where I could start hitchiking, destination Albania.
This is a list of the people who picked me up:
1. Eric, The Dutch salesman, acting as the middleman between clothing manufacturers and shops that sell in small amounts.
He told me he was in an open relationship, that many people are doing the same in Holland nowadays. He touched my leg, squeezed my shoulder and would probably have given me an uncomfortably long hug goodbye if I’d let him.
2. Gjorge, the Bulgarian lorry driver, spending months at a time away from his wife and three children, driving endlessly around Germany, watching Friends dvds on a laptop, sending his money home. He pulls into a rest stop for the night but it’s only 4pm and I get out to carry on hitching. Half an hour later he calls me back to the lorry to share a meal with him. He says I can sleep in the lorry if I need to and when I point to his wedding ring and ask if I will be safe with him, he says he respects the ring and his marriage promises.
3. Yalçin from Turkey picked me up so I didn’t have to test Gjorge’s fidelity. Settled in Germany for 25 years he spoke English with a German accent. He was relaxed and friendly, a good open hearted man, and we passed a few hours comfortably together, down to mid Germany, just north of Frankfurt. He fed me fresh salad and burek, teaching me that this Balkan food is of Turkish origin.
I’d identified a gas station to be dropped off at but when we got there, about half an hour before sunset, Yalçin drove past it, saying there was time to get to another one. He wasn’t taking my camping time into account and when we got to the next big rest stop it was very close to dark.
I was in the danger time, not wanting to be watched or noticed in this transitory place where humans are anonymous travellers and maybe less accountable. There were trees across the road from the car park and I ducked into a worn pathway leading into the woods. It seemed that here was the place where people came to defacate when they didn’t want to pay 50p for the toilets. I walked quickly further in, past the smell, where the paths dwindled to nothing, looking around me, worried that I didn’t know what I was walking into; no idea what these woods bordered, the way they were used, which, if any humans might be in there. Nothing else I could do, it was almost full dark, just the faint shining of the last rays of sunset gave me light to navigate. I put out my kit under a tree and sat for a long time, listening to the forest. Listening for stick cracks and sounds of humans. Satisfied eventually that there were none, I drifted into uneasy sleep, waking regularly to the more usual animal rustlings.
4. Serkan is a clean, crisp professional man. With a Masters in automation science, he designs and maintains robots for use on production lines. Another Turk with a German accent. He shows me a video of the machine he’s going to visit, 6 mechanical arms aligning rolls of tape on a conveyor belt, plucking them in sets of 12 and swooping them cleanly into boxes. 1.8 million euros this machine costs, it does the work of 12 people non stop over a 24 hour shift and, unbelievably, it will pay for itself in 1.5 years. He’s in a company car, an Audi, and I hold quietly to the arm rest as we power up to 140mph, heading past Frankfurt and taking me another hour along the road.
The next tankstelle has another hitchhiker waiting, Luca. He’s been there since late last night, he tells me, isn’t having much luck. We commiserate, swap stories. He’s come from a reggae festival and has dry cracked lips, only an apple left to eat and no money for food from the expensive gas stations (4.50 euros for a sandwich). He tells me that he advised a new hitchhiker, recently, told them to smile more. When the hitcher said he had nothing to smile about, he told them to think about boobs. It’s annoying but he’s young I suppose.
It’s not too long before a car stops in front of us as we lean against the concrete barrier at the station exit. Luca speaks to the driver but it’s not going in his direction so I jump in instead. I give him some more apples and bombay mix and we have a quick hug before I leave him to it.
5. A German man, young, with a sharp haircut and a silver earring. Project manager going to visit a building site. He spent a couple of years travelling, hitchhiking around Europe and further, the Caribbean and Canada, so he stopped for us in solidarity. He doesn’t speak great English so we talk very little, instead he puts on a techno set between business calls and we drive in silence, tapping our fingers. I sit back and enjoy the sensation of being driven along in a fast car, listening to music designed to elevate the senses.
6. Nico. Dutch. He stops in a beat up Volvo and says he’s going to Austria but first he has to stop in south Germany. In the end we spend 7 hours in the car together talking about all kinds of things. He is a director of a staffing agency that provides specialist people to work on short term building projects, mostly in the energy industry. Slowly I question him until I understand all the details of what he does and why it’s important. It’s a hot day and his air con isn’t working. He stops for half an hour to answer some emails and I sleep for a short time, waking up sweaty and uncomfortable. He’s a personable man, as someone working in recruitment would be, able to chat effortlessly, his English means that he has difficulty expressing himself clearly and simply but I give space for the fact that it’s one of 3 languages he speaks at a high level.
At first I think I will stop at a big service station near Passau but I decide to go a little further…which turns out to be a bad decision. My final option before the turnoff in the direction of Slovenia, is a miserable lay by, with a single line of six lorries. I can’t stop here, it would be like being shipwrecked. So I accompany Nico north east to Vienna, where he leaves me at a much bigger gas station which puts me on my journey heading south again. I walk away into the fields and put my tent up in the dark.
7. Fam and Axel were a friendly, twinkly eyed young couple on their way to go fishing. Fam had bought Axel a BBQ smoker for his birthday and they were on their way to pick it up and then go fishing to stock it up for the first time. We talked about how time is more important than money, how priorities can change as you get older, what kind of books we like. They were enthusiastic and appreciative and dropped me another 60km towards Slovenia.
8. It’s a tough place to stand and I’m tired. I have regular periods of sitting down to read my book as unsuitable cars full of glossy couples who would never in a million years pick me up go past. The exit to the services is closed and there’s an unclear diversion in place. Someone calls from a car, Graz? I point him in the right direction and then flip my sign at him, which says Graz. “I need to know the way to Graz” says the elderly man driving. “It’s that way” I say, “will you take me with you?” OK, he says, so I get in. He is Alfred, a very old man who moves in slow motion and, once begun, will not be distracted from a particular train of thought. He begins a conversation about the Welsh language but is interrupted by a phonecall…which he pulls over onto the hard shoulder to take. The car shakes as traffic passes us. He is 76. I’m faintly terrified. I could get out after 100km and head south at Graz but I decide to stay with Alfred as he drives for four hours, across Austria, looping into Italy and then down towards Croatia. It’s not a direct route but it will leave me further south and I’ll have entered the balkans, which feels like progress. Alfred is on his way to attend a conference on marine biology. His family own a small island in the Philippines and he is intending to restore the reef that surrounds it, damaged by unscrupulous fishing practices involving cyanide and dynamite. He is an extremely intelligent man with a slow, measured way of talking, who takes my words very literally and asks me questions to deconstruct things I say. I have to talk in a loud voice for him to hear me over the noise of the car. We like each other and swap contact details at the end of the ride, interested in each other’s lives.
9. Roldo picks me up from a terribly unfriendly service station outside Trieste, a thin strip on the side of the road in a built up area, where I stood nervously, worrying about where to spend the night. He’s Italian, heading down to Croatia where he lives and runs a restaurant. We talk in Spanish, a language we speak equally badly, and he smokes cigarettes that smell like cigars. He’s the paunchy kind of clean shirted man who I worry will be sleazy but Roldo is perfectly fine. He gives me his card and tells me to call him if I need anything. Unfortunately, he also drops me at a terrible spot, right at the start of the Croatian motorway, where there is a sign that says no hitching. I walk away to a roundabout, on a fast corner. It’s also a terrible spot and I am saved by
10. Mariela, a happy German hippie, with blonde hair in a rough plait and gappy teeth. She’s working on an Italian campsite, happily settled there. She tells me stories of her travels in post war Balkans, and kindly takes me further past her exit to drop me at a better rest stop.
11. Ladislav. They’re few and far between, the rest stops, and there’s hardly any traffic. I’m in a backwater. This isn’t the right road, it loops down into a peninsula in north west Croatia. I should have kept waiting back in Trieste, turned Roldo down, but I was feeling desperate. I stand for a while in the shade of a tree, moving into the sunlight for cars, so they can see me clearly at a distance. Ladislav stops, a Croatian tile salesman, heading home for the day. I consider my options. It’s 6.30pm. I’m tired. We look up hotel prices, bus timetables. I could get a hotel in Pazin, the town that Ladislav is heading towards, for £35. Don’t want that, it’s too expensive. I’ve been spending too much money on expensive gas station food anyway. £3 for an espresso. How about a bus to the next town, an hour away. Cheap hotel there and I’ll be back on the main roads, out of this peninsula. So I do that. I don’t have any kuna for the bus but Ladislav pays. Then presses another 50 kuna into my palm, 7 quid. I shake his hand, say thank you.
I take a taxi from Rijeka bus station to the cheap hostel, which turns out to be a beautiful place in an old building on the edge of town. A high ceilinged, rich house, built in 1896 by an Italian shipping magnate who was forced to give it up after the first World War to a Croatian hotel owner. Then split into apartments during communism, the descendant of the hotel owner has only managed to get part of it back and now it’s a delapidated hostel, being slowly restored while hippies drift in and out of the shared kitchen.
The kind owner told me where to hitch out of the city and I walked a kilometre along hot streets to reach a corner at the end of the houses where the road turned and the cars had to slow down.
12. A man and his son in an Austrian car picked me up from this fast corner and took me 5km further. Of Croatian descent, they lived in Austria now and were just down on holiday. I didn’t have time to catch their names.
They dropped me at a bus stop with plenty of room for cars to see me and pull in. It wasn’t the motorway, but a winding road along the coast that would eventually join with the main road south. A few people stopped but they were only going 2 or 3km, not worth compromising the good spot for an unknown one only a short distance ahead. I waited there for three hours, getting hot and bothered. I gave up and went to the supermarket across the road but wasn’t allowed in by the security guard because my rucksack was a security risk. He didn’t know what was in it, he said. He was a cigarette smoking muscle man, dressed all in black including military boots and a paracord bracelet (which I’m pretty sure are worn mostly by those who ride high on their own sense of toughness).
The other walkers I went to meet, Jan in Greece and Nil and Marie in Kosovo, all had a pretty low impression of Croatia. They said it was unfriendly and sometimes hostile. The supermarket bouncer certainly soured my positivity, even though I’d met other lovely Croatians.
I returned to the road but I was tired and fed up. I looked up buses, £35 for a night bus to Dubrovnik, almost on the border with Montenegro. I’d arrive on the outskirts at 10.30am, perfect for a final stretch of hitchiking. I gave up, booked it. Try again tomorrow.
I spent 13 hours on that bus, in seats that were not designed for sleep; first waiting until nightfall in a couple of bars around Rijeka town then, once on the coach, rotating through a series of uncomfortable positions, none allowing more than fitful sleep. We trundled down the Croatian coastline, which was way more built up than I expected. Huge hotels in every bay, a ribbon of development to serve the holidaymakers who come from across Europe to relax at the edge of the ocean. The sun rose on the winding roads and I watched the beautiful light illuminate islands, small boats at waters edge, dozens of peninsulas and inlets and coasts, sometimes impossible to see what was island and what was inlet, the peaks of numerous islands rising away, jagged, behind one another.
We disembarked in Dubrovnik in front of an impossibly huge cruise ship that rose mountainous, straight behind the bus station which is at the northern tip of the long straight town that runs 5km down the coast. I’ve checked the map for a good spot to access the road again, to hitchhike onwards, and it’s 8km from here. The name of the point is Parc Orsula so I take it as a lucky sign. Dubrovnik’s old town is the main attraction here, held behind city walls in the far curl of the harbour it’s a 10 euro taxi ride from the bus station, the drivers are obviously at liberty to charge whatever they like to the lazy and confused. I walk a section of the road then find a map that shows I can take a bus to the edge of the city for 2 euro. First I pop into a bar to use the loo, then buy a coke as toilet tax (2 quid) before going to the bakery next door.
There are roughly the same pastries I recognise from Serbia, but the price is more than double. I think longingly of burek breakfasts in Serbia, pastry and yoghurt for 80p.
It’s incredibly hot and I am sweaty, tired and confused. The bus takes me as far as it can before turning back into the city and I am left facing a 1 mile climb up a very steep hill to the main road above.
It’s slow and steady, with many pauses to ‘admire the view’ but eventually I arrive up there, to a pull in that is only for the traffic on the hill next to a fast road for the passing traffic. There’s also a Croatian man waiting in the layby, holding a laminated sign saying ‘rooms’ in multiple languages and trying to get the attention of passing cars. He doesn’t like that I’m there and keeps hinting that I should go somewhere else. He points out a layby on the main road and I go to try it but it smells of wee and the cars are passing too fast to stop anyway. I rest there for a minute in the shade to try and cool myself before going back to the first layby and ignoring the annoying man whenever he comes over to touch my arm or stare at me.
It’s hot and I can’t escape the heat, cars come straight up the hill from Dubrovnik centre and whizz past me without stopping. They’re tourists who don’t want to break their holiday bubble or locals who look down on tourists. It’s a tough place and I feel stuck.
13. I wait for two hours before Zoran stops for me. I kept my umbrella up to try and avoid the sunshine but I was still pink cheeked and sweating by the time I got into his car, holding my hands against the welcome cool air from the vents. He was going home from his job as a tourist guide, only a couple of kilometres but at least it was some sort of progress. “People in Croatia don’t really pick up hitchhikers” he told me, “they see it as begging, trying to travel without money”. I guess in an area of the country that is so strongly geared towards tourism, the freeriders are unwanted.
I didn’t feel too positive about trying further, it was 5pm and I’d managed to hitchike no more than a couple of miles. But I stood at the bus stop on the main road in this small village just a few miles south of Dubrovnik and watched the cars pass and pass and pass. I didn’t know where I would sleep and felt fed up, searched for hotels nearby. It seemed like every village had at least 5 or 6 apartments to rent, something that would lead to cheaper prices you’d think but when I finally gave up, walked a few hundred metres down the road and enquired for a price, I was stunned to have to pay 45 euros for a bed that night.
I lay in the half light of the hot room, freshly showered, and let the air conditioning slowly cool me down, ate my reconstituted meal and watched the tennis. This was annoying now, this journey, too long and too bitty, too complex and slow to be enjoyable. This small piece of safe space in the whirl of traffic and heat was too expensive to be sustainable. I was only 200 miles from Albania but it seemed an unattainable distance.
Next morning I came fresh to the road, hydrated and stomach full with oats and dried pineapple. The optimism didn’t last long, I stood there as 100 cars passed me, none slowing down or waving or giving any sign that they saw me. A bus went past saying Kotor, a destination in Montenegro and that was the final straw. I crossed the road and went to the bus stop, heading back to Dubrovnik. I’d take buses from now on.