Rijeka / Split / Hvar / Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia (June 13-22), Part 2

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Hitchhiking is full of faces, and most of them from the past few years we’ve forgotten. Or they are faces without names, or faces with names along with a few basic personal details and nothing more. Or sometimes much more. Hitchhiking brings into contact a full spectrum of people. Mostly we live in homogenous circles that we create or enter into. People who stop for hitchhikers are certainly a type (The mean ones don’t stop.), but they are almost always other than whom we typically choose to live among. Hitchhiking doesn’t allow for much choice. A car stops and you encounter another human, take it or leave it.

There are no givens in hitchhiking. A driver might take you a short distance or a long one, or might make a short distance long by running personal errands en route. He or she might not say a word or may talk the whole way, in a shared or not shared language. He or she might drive fast or slow, might make you feel at home or awkwardly uncomfortable, or might, as often as not, listen to American pop music the whole time, which gets you thinking about the Anglosphere’s influence on contemporary world music culture (at least it does for me). Or you might get into a car in Split, Croatia and one-car it all the way to your doorstep in Bratislava, spending the interim with two simply wonderful people and their cat who help you find a new way home, one that contains a wealth of conversation, good food, waterfalls, and rainbows.

After a great week in Jelsa, Hvar, a short ferry ride left the island and our honeymoon behind us. Again in Split, we received some help from the bus control guys, who were more than glad to help us get to a hitchhiking spot, even going as far as making sure we got on the right bus and writing down instruction to show the bus driver. The Croatian bus system might be inefficient, but the drivers and control guys have a notable kind of camaraderie and nonchalance. After being dropped off, we found ourselves between a ‘No Autostop’ sign and a tollbooth. The sign may have said ‘No Autostop’ because it was warning hitchhikers that, no, you didn’t really want to try here because it wasn’t the best of spots, or maybe because there was too much else going on. Too many Croats stopping cars to pick up friends, conduct business, or just hang out. It was like a small asphalt village that happened to have a tollbooth.

The initial interaction with drivers is a bit like bartering. He or she stops, I run up to the car as the window rolls down, we exchange hellos, and I say something like ‘Zagreb’. The driver says yes or no. If it’s no but in the same direction, I ask how many kilometers. If it seems enough to get us out of town a bit and to a possibly good spot, we get in. If not, then no, I say thanks, and the driver goes on. Outside of Split, since we hadn’t been waiting too long and the weather was nice, I said no to two drivers who offered rides of ten and forty kilometers respectively. Another driver responded to ‘Zagreb’ with ‘Dubrovnik’, and I didn’t want to say no, but we were heading north. If we had somehow ended up in Rijeka again that night, I would have been saying ‘Dubrovnik’ over and over in complete regret. But I didn’t have to. Dubrovnik would have been a good deal, but we held out and the car that stopped for us, after forty-five minutes of thumbing, made an even better offer. I said ‘Zagreb’ and the reply was ‘Plitvice Lakes’, about two-thirds of the way. But the offer continued. The driver suggested we come along, visit the lakes, and continue north with them. Sounded good, so we got in. It got better, both because they had their cat with them and because they’d be driving through Vienna the next day on their way back to Poland. The driver was Latvian, his wife Russian, and the cat an English shorthair. Within a few hours the divide between hitchhikers and drivers had vanished, and we were simply people on vacation together. The following day and a half contained a lot of time in the car, but more importantly plenty of good talk, food, lakes, and waterfalls. It was much, much more than the typical hitchhike. Nino and I spend the night near the Plitvice Lakes in our tent in the yard of the guesthouse where our new friends were staying. Shortly after waking, they informed us that they’d found a better deal on a hotel room in Bratislava than in Vienna, so they’d take us all the way home. Yes, we’d done it – the one-car hitchhike. The hope and goal of every hitchhiker.  Point A to Point B in one car, and this wasn’t a small one either. This was almost 800 kilometers (500 miles). And we made friends. And they said we could come stay with them in Poland. And we could join them on another trip in early August. And it feels good just writing about it.

Hitchhiking on this trip saved us more money in travel costs than we spent total on our honeymoon (the week at the resort was a gift from a generous family friend). We honeymooned, we one-car’d it 800 kilometers, we saw yet another double rainbow, this time southwest of Vienna, and we made two friends, three if the cat’s included. Hitchhiking is confusing. Some days, you end up a few cars and a few countries in the wrong direction. On other days, someone stops and offers to drive you to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and then all the way home.

Return, Day 1: Ferry – Hvar to Split; Hitchhiking – Split to Plitvička Jezera (Plitvice Lakes National Park)

1st Car: Split to Plitvička Jezera – Split-Dugopolje Tollbooth (E65/E71/A1); WT: 45 minutes; Driver: Latvian / Russian

Day 2: Hitchhiking – Plitvička Jezera to Bratislava (Same Car)

Total Time / Distance: 1½ days / 795 km (494 miles)

Tips:

  • To hitchhike from Split in any direction: From the city bus stops near the ferries, take the bus towards Sinj. Show the bus driver a piece of paper with ‘Na Autocestu Dugopolju’ written on it. He’ll let you know when to get off. Once off, walk towards the left under an overpass and then towards the right, where you’ll see a tollbooth. Traffic goes pretty much everywhere in Croatia as well as to other EU countries. If you get stuck, from here you can flag down buses going to Zagreb and elsewhere.
  • For hitchhiking north from Zagreb to Maribor, Slovenia and Austria, hitchwiki.org puts you in a great spot.
  • Plitvice Lakes National Park costs money, but the only riding boats and maybe the buses are monitored. There are no fences and plenty of paths and even roads that go unmonitored into the park. The park itself is very beautiful and very much worth seeing. It feels like the set of the Jungle Book, with wooden walkways through numerous waterfalls and water-lilied ponds.
  • Jelas, Hvar is less full of tourists and slightly cheaper than Hvar (the town) or Stari Grad (and in my opinion, far superior in every way). The Fonatana Resort, where we stayed, has rooms that are still cheap through the summer. We were in a deluxe apartment, so that’s a different story. You can barter at the lavender stalls if you’re stubborn enough.
  • While on Hvar island, rent a moped. It’s fairly inexpensive, and most of the island can be seen in one day. Make sure to go through the kinda dark and scary one-way tunnel to Zavala. By moped is the best way to find the many hidden villages and beaches of the island if you don’t have a car.

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.

Prague (June 7-9)

 

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Only once have we used a sign, which was supposed to get us from Lyon to Paris. It didn’t help us get out of Lyon, so we disregarded it and thumbed our way to Paris. Nino and I didn’t hitchhike when we first got together. We started close to the end of the first year, quickly realizing that, being a well dressed, well educated, interracial (only in the sense of origins) couple hitchhiking mostly for fun and almost for leisure rather than economic necessity, we were very good at it. So good, actually, that we’ve realized we don’t even know what we’re doing. No signs, just thumbs and accosting people at service stations. If there’s an art to hitchhiking, we aren’t artists. If it’s all just dumb luck, then yes, we are lucky idiots. People likely hitchhike for a variety of reasons, some sadder, some happier. Personally, I hate buses. Plus it feels good to travel long distances for free. But autostop is more than this. It’s about people, about risking not our wellbeing, but risking being human with another human, with a stranger who stops his or her car to give rides to other strangers. Hitchhiking isn’t an adventure like the running of the bulls at San Fermín is an adventure; but rather, it’s the adventure of encountering other people, who (especially but not necessarily if there’s a shared language) tend to surprise you.

It took us three cars to hitchhike to our wedding. We started later than we wanted and had to find an alternative starting point because of an overzealous policeman. Eventually we found a spot about five kilometers north of where we’d hoped to begin. It wasn’t a good spot, but we didn’t have any other options. Good spots have lots of slow, non-local traffic and plenty of shoulder for stopping. The worse the place, such as where we found ourselves on the north side of Bratislava, the more I tend to talk to the drivers who don’t pick us up, usually in rather harsh language. I also make up songs about them. Waiting for a car to stop always feels longer than it is, as each passing car is a denial and you begin to feel self-conscious that all you can do is stick out a thumb and smile. The first car of a hike, for some unknown cosmic reason, is always the most difficult. After waiting an hour, a woman stopped and offered to take us as far as Malacky, wherever that was. Malacky is, to my knowledge, only an exit and overpass next to some woods. The ideal is to be dropped off either on the far side of a city between you and your destination or at a service station or toll booth. We were dropped off by the side of the highway, which is maybe the only illegal activity hitchhikers can directly engage in in most European countries (except for Italy). Ostensibly this is for safety reasons, but I’ve begun to wonder if whoever made the law realized the difficulty in getting a ride from cars moving past you at 120 kph / 75 mph. It is hard, but we managed it after just fifteen minutes.

In addition to our hitchhiking debt of thousands of miles, we also owe a British fiber-optics company a bottle of Moravian semi-sweet white wine. Our second driver was on his way to Brno after finished some business in Bratislava. He was going to visit his mother before flying back to the UK. My favorite type of driver, he was fluent in English, talkative, well travelled, and open to discuss pretty much any topic. Just before Brno, he stopped at a Tesco to pick up some things for dinner, which he was rather pleased to charge to a company credit card. He bought us a bottle of wine as a wedding present and, after a few more minutes in the car, I asked if he’d also charged it to the company card. Grinning broadly, he confessed he had. Going slightly out of his own way, he dropped us of at a service station on the north side of Brno. Later that night, we drank a toast to British fiber optics.

Hitchhiking is very anti-racist. If we’ve been waiting more than a few minutes, Nino and I will usually start asking where all the Turkish people are (hitchhike in Turkey and you’ll find out why). Those who have hitchhiked, like the driver who bought us the wine or the woman who drove us from Ghent to Bruges last January (but only after having us over for lunch), are more inclined to pick up hitchhikers; same with immigrants and those from developing countries. The car that brought us to Prague was driven by an Albanian who lives in Berlin. He works in the prefabricated buildings business and hates flying. He drives everywhere and in a manner that betrays his love for Germany’s Autobahns. Our average speed from Brno to Prague was around 150 kph (93 mph), twice reaching 200 kph (124 mph), and generally hovering somewhere in the middle. He didn’t speak much English, but enough to tell us how much he hated Czech roads, Czech police, and Czech traffic laws. He dropped us off on the south side of Prague, leaving us to hazard the public transportation system (because of recent floods, some station were closed) which delayed us joining others for our pre-wedding festivities.

Hitchhiking is a form of public nudity, of vulnerability, of beauty – an exercise in hope pitted against the unknown. Standing like an idiot with your thumb out, telling yourself over and over that all it takes is one car – just one car – as traffic passes you. It teaches you that strangers aren’t so strange and yet stranger and more interesting that you could imagine, and that joining them from from Point A to Point B moves one towards a greater understanding of what it is to live with and love one’s neighbor. Also, hitchhiking saves you a lot of money.

Nino and I will talk about how we hitchhiked to our wedding in Prague until we die. We didn’t, unfortunately, hitchhike from our wedding. We left Prague later than planned, and it was raining heavily. As the bus pulled away from Prague, we were met by a storm ahead of us, the city burning away in a brilliant sunset behind us, and the two contrasting scenes stitched together by a double rainbow arching over the highway back to Bratislava.

Outbound: Hitchhiking – Bratislava, SK to Prague, CZ

1st Car: Bratislava to Malacky – Service Station, Bratislava-Lamač (E65/D2); Wait Time: 1 hour; Driver: Slovak

2nd Car: Malacky to Brno, CZ – Side of the highway (E65/D2); WT: 15 minutes; Driver: Slovak

3rd Car: Brno to Prague – Service Station, Brno (E65/E50/1); WT: 10 minutes; Driver: Albanian

Total Time / Distance: 4 hours / 315 km (195 miles)

Return: Bus (due to heavy rain) – Prague to Bratislava

Total Time / Distance: 5 hours / 340 km (211 miles)