Usually we travel from A to B in as straight a line as can be managed, but what if we don’t know where B is? What if B is just something hoped for but beyond the horizons of planning? Or maybe, in Nino’s and my case, what if B is unknown simply because we don’t feel like planning? Planning is one of the ways we can lie ourselves into a sense of security, hitchhiking isn’t particularly guaranteed, ergo we sometimes don’t feel like lying. We decided to see more of Slovakia than just Bratislava, and not fully knowing where to go we embarked on what became autostop sans plans, which for Nino and me was a glimpse of the ideal hitchhike, in which the destination is determined by the drivers who pick us up, not by our own wills. Our weekend in Central Slovakia let us briefly don the hat of platonic wanderer.
The Tatras Mountains come in two varieties. The Low Tatras are similar to the Appalachians (so similar as to be uncanny) and the High Tatras are the highest peaks of the Carpathian Mountain Range, bald crags jutting out of dense forests. A valley separates the Low from the High. We stayed in Banská Bystrica, a small city in the foothills of the Low Tatras which we were told many times isn’t a good place for mountains (it’s not), but that’s where the couchsurfing host was. Two cars and we were in Banská, the hardest part of the hike being the temperature on the highway which fluctuated between 46 and 48 degrees Celsius (115 and 118 Fahrenheit).
Hitchhiking worked in our favor more than just as transportation. Our couchsurfing host accepted our request primarily because we identify as hitchhikers. The following week she would invite us to a concert and outdoor movie in Bratislava. Later she would arrange a week of couchsurfing with one of her friends in the city after Nino and I decided to be homeless rather than pay rent. She hitchhikes with a sign, we without, and between the three of us the travel stories are legion.
The first evening in Banská, we went with her into the city center and watched the impromptu circles of break-dancers, which was part of an international break-dance competition being held that weekend. In our minds, of course, Banská Bystrica is a hotspot of international breakdancing because that’s our lasting impression of the place. Travel is full of false but lasting impressions.
Not having a destination for the day we spent seeking mountains, answering drivers’ questions about where we were going was like trying to answer that pesky question about what I’m going to do with my liberal arts degrees (incidentally, the answer to both is “Mountains”). We had some town names that put us in the general direction, but mostly (and it was mostly Nino speaking Russian) we pushed this idea that we were going to the mountains and just hoped it would be the best thing ever, since that is really all hope is. We were assisted by an Italian, a couple going to a waterpark, some people in a Land Rover, a middle-aged man going about his Saturday business, some guys in a BMW (who dropped us off at one of Slovakia’s folk villages), two guys in a red car who actually told us were to go in the mountains, and a couple who drove us up into those mountains. Somehow we ended up in one of the most popular places in the whole High Tatras, Štrbské Pleso. We hiked to and back from a mountain lake, ate some haluški and ice-cream, and hitchhiked back in just three cars and half the time it took us to get there. The first driver had been drinking non-alcoholic beer next to us at the outdoor cafe where we ate the haluški. Before our second driver picked us up, a rather grizzled man on a bicycle stopped on the other side of the road to tell us we might get fined for hitchhiking too close to the highway. He sang ‘Georgia on My Mind’ in a surprisingly good voice and took a picture of us (I think mostly of Nino) with his mobile phone. Our third driver had just dropped his wife and son off for a week at the grandparents. He was on a music fast (to help him listen better to himself), so picking us up was a way to help against the radio’s temptation. As it was raining, he took us just about to where we were staying. In all, it was a ten-car hitchhike day.
Through our host, we (mostly Nino) managed to get an invitation to a Slovak wedding, getting in on a loophole that allows for uninvited guests to join after midnight. We napped for a few hours after our hike, woke up at 11:30, and headed to the wedding. The novel feeling that we were crashing faded when actual wedding crashers, a Polish breakdance troupe, showed up around 2 a.m. After twirling around on the floor for a bit, the bride’s mother told them they could eat and drink as much as they wanted as long as they danced again. Their second dance was to James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’, slightly ironic and tragi-comic as the groom was passed out drunk somewhere (he revived for a few hours later), which made for what seems a common theme of traditional weddings the world over: The bride and groom rarely get the benefit of James Brown’s profound and funky words on so special a night. According to the guests from Eastern Slovakia, however, it’s not even a wedding unless the groom is passed out drunk.
It wasn’t just a wedding – it was also a full tour of Czechoslovak spirits and viniculture. Education with slightly too much praxis. We were quite the scene: Stumbling home as the sun rose over the Lower Tatras, the end to a very unexpected day, we two stupidly grinning about how ridiculous it all was.
Outbound: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Banská Bystrica
1st Car: Bratislava to Nitra – Highway Shoulder; WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Slovak
2nd Car: Nitra to Banská – Onramp; WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Slovak
Total Time / Distance: 2½ hours / 196 km (122 miles)
Return: Hitchhiking – Banská to Bratislava
1st Car: Banská to Bratislava; Shoulder; WT: 4 minutes; Driver: Slovak
Total Time / Distance: 1¾ hours / 211 km (131 miles)
Tatras Mountains Outbound: Hitchhiking – Banská to Štrbské Pleso
1st Car: Banská to Ulanka; Shoulder; WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Italian
2nd Car: Ulanka to Liptovský Michal; Shoulder; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: Couple going to a waterpark (Slovak)
3rd Car: Liptovský Michal to Liptovský Mikuláš; Shoulder; WT: 2 minutes; Driver: Some people in a Land Rover (Slovak)
4th Car: Liptovský Mikuláš to Liptovský Hrádok; Side the road; WT: 5 minutes; Driver: Middle-aged man going about his Saturday business (Slovak)
5th Car: Liptovský Hrádok to Východná; Side of the road; WT: 25 minutes; Driver: Some guys in a BMW (Slovak)
6th Car: Východná to Tatranská Štrba; Side of the road; WT: 1 minutes; Driver: Two guys in a red car (Slovak)
7th Car: Tatranská Štrba to Štrbské Pleso; Side of the road; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: Couple who drove us into the mountains (Slovak)
Total Time / Distance: 4 hours / 128 km (80 miles)
Return: Hitchhiking – Štrbské Pleso to Banská
1st Car: Štrbské Pleso to Liptovský Mikuláš; Side of the road; WT: 5 minutes; Driver: Slovak
2nd Car: Liptovský Mikuláš to Ružomberok Michal; Onramp; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: Slovak
3rd Car: Ružomberok to Banská; Side of the road; WT: 2 minutes; Driver: Slovak
- It’s very easy to hitchhike aimlessly in Central Slovakia. The people are nicer than Bratislavians.
- The whole of Slovakia returns to Bratislava on Sunday evenings. We didn’t start hitchhiking until 8 p.m. and only waited about 4 minutes before a car stopped and drove us all the way to our front door. I’ve heard this is normal for Sunday evening hitchhiking.
- If we had planned this weekend, we would have missed out on all the good parts. A word to the wise.
- Before judging a country’s people, spend some time in its villages. Not only did my view of Slovaks improve, but I can now speak more intelligently about how Bratislavians need to just get over themselves and chill out.
- Slovak town names are difficult. A few times when cars would stop, I’d run up and then have to yell back to Nino to ask where we were going. This is easier when you don’t know where you’re going.