Central Europe in July is sunflowers and wheat fields. To get to our hitchhiking spot on the south side of Bratislava, we walk along a road lined by a green strip of trees that runs between two yellow fields, sticks in hand ready to scare off any snakes while on our way to accosted people at a service station next to the highway. On this day, we’re going to Budapest. The early evening is full of color.
We weren’t successful at first, so we ate a sandwich. Shortly after, as we readied to continue accosting strangers, Nino had a moment of hitchhiker intuition and stated matter-of-factly that a car that had just pulled up to a pump was “The Car”. She walked over and asked if this was true, and the driver replied that it was true. Nino called it. This doesn’t happen very often (or ever). It was rare, it was funny, and it was going to get us to Budapest. Nino apparently has some meta-level gift for selecting cars. Or at least she did that one time. Or maybe it was the sandwich. Hitchhiking involves too much faith to not included some amount of superstition.
Two other hitchhikers who had been there before us and would still be there after us came over to talk. They were Polish and also headed to Budapest, having taken the grassy spot near the service station’s exit onto the highway. They looked like hitchhikers, with a sign and big backpacks, and likely they had been there for hours. We talked for about five seconds as I awkwardly explained that we had to go because we’d found our car. The driver came back from paying for the gas, we got in, and the lame comment about hoping to see them in Budapest ceased to matter as we drove south through the sunflowers and wheat fields. I always feel a little bit bad about getting cars before other hitchhikers, but not enough to stop getting cars first. On this occasion, I don’t feel like we breached hitchhiking etiquette, which isn’t always entirely the case.
The ride down was very similar to the ride back up – loud pop music and small talk as we glided through rolling yellow fields. Our driver on the way down was a Slovak on his way to see friends; our rides up were with a Hungarian driving to southern Spain and a Romanian driving to Germany. We set a nice personal record of four one-car hitchhikes in a row before two-car’ing it back to Bratislava. The Hungarian picked us up at a spot north of Budapest where the people are rumored to dislike hitchhikers. As we were there for less that five minutes, we didn’t get to find out if this is true or not. Our driver didn’t speak English, so he and I created a German/Spanish/sign-language pidgin that we build up to a fifty word vocabulary by the end of the drive. Most of this ride was spent looking at the seas of sunflowers on either side of the highway. The Hungarian dropped us off a gas station a few miles south of the border, and a few minutes later we ate another sandwich.
Before we found our second driver, the Romanian, we thought we had a ride, but they wanted €10 for about twenty minutes of road from northern Hungary to Bratislava. What a joke. They wasted about five minutes of our time, which was suddenly monetized by their greed. No, we want our free ride. €10 isn’t free. Keep driving and I hope you enjoy Plzen and the rest of your greedy lives. I kept repeating “€10” over and over to myself and to Nino until the annoyance wore off. Yes, there’s something slightly hypocritical about what we do, but it’s the principle of the thing. A few minutes later we found our driver who breached the stereotype for Romanians and didn’t ask us to pay (Hitchhikers typically pay in Romania, though I’ve heard foreigners can get out of it.). He dropped us off near downtown Bratislava, and I muttered “€10” a few more times to myself, now more of as a joke, before we headed home.
Cities in Central Europe have distinct boundaries. Years ago I spent a summer memorizing Prague. At its boundaries, the city stops rather than fades away via suburbs before becoming countryside. Standing on its edge, you look one direction and see fields and rolling hills; look the other way and there is Prague. This is Central Europe – rolling fields sparsely scattered with villages until suddenly you’re in a city. On our hitch south, the sun was setting as the fields ceased and Budapest began. Our driver dropped us off on the Pest side by the river, in an area full of golden city lights and tourists. We got out, breathed deeply, and were instantly in love.
We didn’t go to the baths; nor did we catch sight of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson who was there shooting a film . We hung out with our Couchsurf host, an American teaching English, and his amazing dog Tupac; and we walked the city. We hadn’t been there long when Nino suggested we add Budapest to the list of places we should live at some point. We spend a few hours building this castle in the clouds. The main thing is that we’d need to work somewhere else for a time (since wages in Hungary are low) and then live like royalty for a time (since living in Hungary, if you have the right currency, is cheap).
The day after our arrival the city was cut in half by a gay parade. The parade’s route and the two blocks on either side were shut down by the police and metal fences to make sure the parade went by without incident. We managed to accidentally find the group of people the police were “protecting the homosexuals from”. Leaving that spot and skirting the blockade, we tried but weren’t allowed in, though we did manage to watch the parade from a few blocks away. Human sexuallity shut down a major European city for a few hours, which is cool in a way. Some people, like us, just wanted to watch, some were there to hate, and, because of the barricade, no one was able to participate except the paraders walking an empty avenue to the very loud music of Queen, Prince, and Barbra Streisand
Budapest is rare and patient. The city feels a bit like Prague and a bit like Istanbul, and neither of these bits are nearly the same (if that makes sense); and neither is Budapest the same. Someday we hope it will be more than just a great weekend jaunt.
Outbound: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Budapest, HU
1st Car: Bratislava to Budapest – Service Station, Bratislava-Jarovce; WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Slovak
Total Time / Distance: 2 hours / 192 km (119 miles)
Return: Hitchhiking – Budapest to Bratislava
1st Car: Budaest to Mosonmagyaróvár – Service Station (M1/M7); WT: 2 minutes; Driver: Hungarian
2nd Car: Mosonmagyaróvár to Bratislava – Service Station (E60/E65/E70/M1); WT: 25 minutes; Driver: Romanian
Total Time / Distance: 3 hour / 198 km (123 miles)
- If you’re hitchhiking to Budapest, hold out for a ride into the city center, as it’s easier than being dropped off on the highway that circles the city and trying to find your way in.
- In the summer months, trailers aren’t allowed to drive on Saturdays or Sundays, except for those carrying food. In Hungary, there still seem to be quite alot on the roads on the weekends, so that could be an option.
- Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s just a fact.
- €10 is way too much to be driven anywhere if your hitchhiking. If you’re asked to pay and you aren’t in Romania, refuse. Paying is lazy, paying is giving up, paying is no longer hitchhiking.