I should have taken the bus. I would have been there by now. I would be showered, rested, well fed and exploring Belgrade, Serbia’s capital city and the former capital of Yugoslavia. Instead, I am standing on the side of the road in bloody Dimitrovgrad, a small town most Serbians have probably never heard of, nor had any desire to be stranded in.
While I am waving at passing cars my mind is in overdrive, reassessing my situation and creating contingency plans. Belgrade is over 300kms away and there is no way I am going to be sleeping there tonight. It is approaching 4:00pm, I am out of food and my water if running low, having just walked 7kms from the Bulgarian border in an unrelenting sun. The only thing I have a good supply of is back sweat, from carrying 15kgs in my backpack.
One hour later I am in the town of Pirot, eating baklava and sipping turkish coffee with Milan, a 34 year old father of one who works with computers and lives in Nis. I have also gained an hour, due to the time difference between Bulgaria and Serbia. How quickly things change. Milan has some work to complete in Pirot and if I am happy to wait 2 hours he will take me to Nis, where I can stay for the night. I had no plans to visit Nis, but I will soon learn that it has an incredible history, including being the birthplace of Constantinople, a strategic battlefield for Serbian independence against the Ottomans and the site of a Nazi concentration camp in WWII. For now though, it’s troubled history is just that and the most excitement to be found in Nis is shopping at weekend markets or strolling through the central park, entering through the remains of an 18th century Turkish fortress.
This is what makes it all worth it. Sure, I could have taken the bus, rolled safely and comfortably into Belgrade and ticked off the sights. But hitchhiking is so much more of an adventure. Full of surprises, an everchanging itinerary and the generosity of drivers. It is why Nis happened and why Serbia has started so memorably.
Hungary, 3 weeks earlier
I am going to hitchhike, that’s what I’ll do. That’s the best way to travel around Eastern Europe. It’s free, adventurous and the distances aren’t so great. But I’ve never really done it before, so where do I start? Well, like everything these days there is an app for it. Spots are rated and I pick a ‘successful’ one, at a gas station on the edge of Budapest. Two hours later I’m still standing there, getting hotter and hungrier and more frustrated. This sucks. Hitchhiking worked before apps were invented, there must be a beter way. I pick up my bag, swing it onto my shoulders, click the straps and head for the bus station. I’ll get to Romania and try again there.
The only female driver, so far, was Ili, who found me waiting outside Aiud in Romania. I spent the previous 2 nights staying a converted sheperd’s hut, in the mountains outside the village of Rimetea. Florin, my host, cooked mushrooms that he picked from the mountainside and told me how after 14 years living in Italy he is addicted to cheese, which he finds a place for in every meal. I have also found my hitchhiking groove.
Ili speaks excellent English and tells me she always picks up hitchhikers, but I am her first Australian. Along the way we discuss family, work and travel stories. At Sebes we seprate, as Ili is going west to Timisoara and I east, to Sibiu. We stop at a fruit stand on the outskirts of town. Ili asks the owners for a piece of cardboard and she writes ‘Sibiu’ on it, assuring me I will have more luck this way. The owners, an elderly couple, give me a pear for my journey. Who needs an app when you have a piece of cardboard and a pear.
Couchsurfing is another great way of getting through Europe on the cheap and for a week I stay with Dimitar in Sofia. With a liking for rakia (the regional homebrew) and a penchant for getting around the house in his underwear, I soon know Dimitar more than I perhaps need to. But what he lacks in subtelty, Dimitar more than makes up for with hospitality, cooking delicious Bulgarian food, inviting me to his family’s holiday home and even offering to make some calls, if I felt lonely sleeping alone at night. Thanks, but no thanks Dimitar.
The Rila Lakes is where I spent my final day in Bulgaria. A series of rides from Dimitar’s holiday home in Ithiman and a little bit of walking in between, sees that I sit atop the summit shortly after midday. Excellnt timing. After relishing the spectacular sights of the seven lakes, some still frozen from winter, I have to find a way back to Sofia. Cue amazing luck. Not only do I find a non stop ride from Sapareva Banya to Sofia, but the driver’s wife owns a cake shop, Tita Cakes – and would I be interested in trying one of her cakes? You bet I would. Cheesecake and a coffee to finish the day is the perfect ending.
Serbia, Monetengro, Albania
I eventually make it to Belgrade after my night in Nis, with a little help from the police. I also hitch to Novi Sad and back and after Uvac National Park, Montenegro is next. At 4:00pm, I could stay here in Nova Varos or try and get as close to the border as possible. So far, borders have proven to be tough, through Romania/Bulgaria and Bulgaria/Serbia I have had to walk across. That has meant hours in the sun, back sweat, blisters and sore knees. So it can’t hurt to try and get close to the Montenegro border, the worst case scenario is that nobody picks me up and I stay in Nova Varos for the night.
Not long after finding my spot, a maroon Tarago pulling a caravan stops on the side of the road. Bobbin, in his 60’s, with round glasses and long grey hair, tells me he is on his way to Berane in Montenegro. I have no idea where that is, but it’s over the border, so that’s good enough for me. Bobbin is part of what he calls an ‘old timers’ club and for the next little while he will be camping with friends in Montenegro, Albania and on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria. He also tinkers with old cars and collects automobile badges, he is most proud of the one from Togo.
Berame is 50kms from Albania. Not for the first time and probably not for the last, my luck with hitchhiking has changed my route. Albania, which wasn’t even on my list is now my destination for the weekend. I’ll be back Montenegro, in a few days. Just over the border is Shkoder, home to several mosques, churches, a river and a fortress on top of a mountain. After a night in Berane I hitch a few rides to within 5kms of Albania and begin walking. Soon enough I find my second cross-border ride, with a man and his 11 year old son, who speak not a single word of English between them. As we drive up and down the mountainous roads leading to Shkoder the father mimmicks walking with 2 of his fingers and whistles.
I nod in agreement, yes, it would have been a long walk.