Rijeka / Split / Hvar / Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia (June 13-22), Part 1

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The plan was a two-day hitchhike to Split, Croatia, a ferry to an island, a week of honeymooning, and then the whole thing in reverse. I had outlined the route and lined up some possible couchsurfing hosts in a few of the cities between here and there, since we didn’t expect to make it in one day. Four hours by car is a reasonable distance in Europe for one day of hitchhiking and, as Split is eight hours away, the math is simple. We did of course get to our honeymoon and back here to Bratislava, though almost no part of going or returning went as planned. But that’s merely the nature of hitchhiking into the unknown.

On the first day, we thought we’d get as far as Maribor, Slovenia or even Zagreb, Croatia. We ended up in Rijeka, on Croatia’s western coast. We started from a service station south of Bratislava that sounded, from most sources at hitchwiki.org, to be the best spot in the city. After about an hour and a half of trying to get around a grain field, our path only being blocked once by a large snake, we reached the service station and, after quickly profiling everyone according to license plate, we got a ride in about two minutes. Thus began a two-day stretch of really beautiful parts of Europe we hadn’t planned on seeing as well as very little sleep.

Our drivers were a Moldovan and a Slovak in two cars driving (very slowly) to Italy. We rode with one for a while, and then with the other. They both spoke Russian, so even though they weren’t very conversational, Nino was able to communicate with them. We wanted to go as far as Graz, Austria, and from there head south through Slovenia into Croatia, but they decided that it would be better to go drop us off in Trieste, Italy. Hitchhiking is free and every driver is doing you a service that you don’t repay him or her for, so when a driver says that it’s better to go a few hours out of the way because lots of Polish tourists going that route into Croatia, it’s hard and feels very impolite to say otherwise. People generally are bad a geography, even when they have maps. We should have just told him to stop at Graz, but we kept our mouths closed as we passed by the exit proclaiming ‘Slovenia’ in big letters. The thought “We should have got off at Graz” went through my head quite often during the following days.

The drive through southern Austria into Italy is very beautiful, but when you weren’t planning on being in Italy and the car is moving at or below 100 kph (62 mph) for over eight hours, it becomes less beautiful. We were dropped off at a service station outside of Trieste, and we spent the next few minutes acting casual when police pulled in to refuel (since hitchhiking on the highways, including service stations, is illegal in Italy) before getting a ride from an American who was on his way to Zagreb. An Air Force guy from Augusta, Georgia, he had been in Italy for a few years and hit up Zagreb every couple of weeks to party (Q: “How’s the party scene in Zagreb? A: “The whole country’s one big party.”). Since we were closer to Rijeka than Zagreb, we talked him into taking us that direction as far as he could, which got us to Kozina, Slovenia. Not knowing where we were, we walked along the road to Croatia, sometimes stuck out our thumbs, and on the whole enjoyed being in Slovenia. At one point, we walked down through a pedestrian underpass expecting it to smell like piss. It smells like flowers. Slovenia is full of surprises. After some more walking and casually thumbing, a car pulled off onto the shoulder and two guys got out to pee. We asked for a ride, one of the guys asked if we were ‘tramping’ (I said yes and rather like this term), and we continued on with them to Rijeka. One was German and other was Croat, and though they, like all of our drivers that day, weren’t very talkative, they did have a very nice car and played American pop the whole ride. Also, the same as the others, they thought it was cool that we were hitchhiking to our honeymoon. As soon as we crossed into Croatia (the fifth country of the day), they stopped and bought some road beers. Shortly thereafter, they dropped us off on the south side of Rijeka, which began our love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with that city.

The south side of Rijeka is a sprawling web of highway overpasses, a massive public works project that was left unfinished when local politicians who initiated (and then stopped) it were voted into another term by their constituents. It was getting dark when we were dropped off in Rijeka, so we just walked aimlessly in the direction of the highway. When the shoulder got too narrow, we climbed down to a road that when through a village. We didn’t know where we were going and maybe we were just hoping something would happen. Nothing did, and we eventually set up our tent in someone’s yard. It was very cold. Getting up early, we snuck away from where we’d slept and, after a short walk, found the spot where all the long arms of the aforementioned infrastructure project collided into a two-lane road. Sometimes, when hitchhiking, you fail. In Rijeka, we failed. The spot was bad, we were very tired, and we just wanted to get to Split to get on a ferry to an island for our honeymoon. We walked some more and ended up taking a local bus into Rijeka, essentially hitchhiking since the driver didn’t have change for the 200 kuna bill that was the only currency we had. He just waved us on board and drove us to the city center where we went looking for the intercity bus terminal. A note about Croats: They’re very nice, almost all of them speak English, and they have the worst bus system I’ve ever experienced. Someday I’m going to win an EU grant to fly some Turks to Croatia to help initiate a full overhaul of the Croatian bus system (Why Turks? Take a bus in Turkey and you’ll find out why.).

Croatia’s coast is gorgeous. Islands, stony beaches, and a thin line of road connecting small fishing towns full of motorcycling Germans. It should take about four hours to drive from Rijeka to Split, maybe five if you stop for lunch and pictures. It would be a wonderful place to spend a few days hitchhiking or motorcycling though. Or you can take the bus which is expensive and takes eight and a half hours. We made this mistake, but we didn’t feel we had any other options. The bus ride was so long and boring that it felt like a tacit mental game between the driver and us for how much longer and boring the drive could be. The driver won handily. I did, however, spend an hour or two of the ride crafting a witticism based on the Croatian spelling of ‘center’ which is ‘centar’ which I figure is pronounced ‘centaur’. It had something to do with asking a Croat how to get to a post office or some building in the city center and he replying with “Turn left and then go until you see the centar (‘centaur’). You can’t miss it.” All that to say, it was a horrible, boring, scenically stunning bus ride.

We missed the last ferry to the island and our honeymoon by twenty minutes. We wandered Split for a while, stumbling upon a folk music concert in the Roman ruins of the of Old Town and watching the nightlife wander past us from a bench by the bay. Split doesn’t sleep in the summer, and neither hardly did we, surrounded by a constant flow of inebriated college kids. Eventually we huddled together in a stairwell in the main port, trying mostly in vain to get a little sleep as we waited for the 5 a.m. ferry that would take us at last to the wonderful island where we would spend our honeymoon.

Outbound, Day 1: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Rijeka, HR

1st Car: Bratislava to Trieste, IT – Service Station, Bratislava-Jarovce (E58/E65E75/D2); WT: 2 minutes; Driver: Moldovan / Slovak

2nd Car: Trieste to Kozina, SL – Service Station (E70/RA13); WT: 15 minutes; Driver: American

3rd Car: Kozina to Rijeka, HR – Side of the road (E61/7); WT: 30 minutes; Driver: German / Croatian

Total Time / Distance: 10 hours / 700 km (435 miles)

Day 2: Bus (due to Rijeka being a horrible spot to hitchhike from) – Rijeka to Split

Total Time / Distance: 8½ hours / 370 km (230 miles)

Day 3: Ferry – Split to Hvar

Total Time / Distance: 2 hours / 45 km (28 miles)

Tips:

  • The Jarovce service station south of Bratislava is a good spot, but tricky to get to. Check out the map on http://hitchwiki.org/en/Bratislava for instructions.
  • Get off at Graz. From here to Zagreb is pretty easy and, from what I’ve heard, it’s not hard to hitch from Zagreb to Split. Especially in the summer, there’s lots of traffic going towards and from the sea. Hitchwiki.org will have more specifics. Also, if you have to take the bus, it’s cheaper and faster from Zagreb than from Rijeka.
  • If you do hitchhike from Rijeka, try from close to the city center or take a city bus (you’ll have to look at a route map) as far south as you can and try from the bus stop, which will provide adequate stopping room.
  • Stick to your guns. Be polite, but try to avoid ending up in Trieste when you’re going towards Zagreb.
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