We’ve recently celebrated the first anniversary of our hitchhiking journey across the world. We didn’t get as far as expected – ‘only’ 7500 km – and we even took a different route than we had initially planned. We thought we would be in Egypt or Ethiopia by now, enjoying the hot African sun. Instead we decided to travel towards Asia and are now spending the winter in a little flat in the capital city of Georgia, warming our cold bums against the heater while it’s cold and gray outside.
Overland travel can be very unpredictable, especially when we set ourselves the goal of not taking any airplane at all. We have to change routes or plans according to the situation – whether or not we can cross borders or find a boat that will take us to the other side of a sea or ocean – so we have to take things as they come. But that’s OK, we have all the time in the world to reach Alaska and in the end, isn’t the journey more important than the destination?
As a way of celebrating our first year of this world adventure, I wrote down some of the best, worst and untold stories from these past 14 months. In this post I’ll focus on our hitchhiking trip across Europe.
Sometimes it feels like it was only yesterday when we left our cozy tree house in Ireland. I still remember how excited I felt that day, not knowing where the road would lead us. I felt so mighty and powerful, just a tiny bit anxious but confident enough that I would be able to handle whatever would cross my path. I was aware that this would be a life-changing adventure and that the road ahead wouldn’t always go over roses but I was ready for it!
How has it changed our lives?
Well, so far this trip hasn’t really turned our lives upside down as both Niko and I were already traveling for years before we undertook this trip (see our biography) but we faced a few challenges, had to adjust ourselves often to unforeseen situations and we both learned a few new things. We had to find out the hard way that hitchhiking and especially camping in winter isn’t optimal when you don’t have the right camping gear (never try to save money by buying a sleeping bag from Liddle). I’ve also learned that no matter how challenging the outer circumstances may be, I’m the one who decides how to deal with it. I can make a big drama or I can learn what this challenge is teaching me.
Traveling the world with a handsome stranger is not as romantic as it sounds!
It was a good thing that Niko and I almost spent a whole year in Ireland working and preparing ourselves for this journey. Not so much to gather the funds for our journey but to really get to know each other inside-out. We were practically strangers to each other when we decided to embark together on this odyssey. It might sound very romantic to take off on a worldly adventure with a handsome stranger but in reality it isn’t always sunshine and roses!
Living full-time on the road is a very intense experience where you face many challenges – on the outside but also within yourself. And if you’re 24/7 together with someone else, you really have to know if you can fully accept the other person with all his or her strengths and weaknesses, see how you can complement each other and show support when things get tough; otherwise it’s a recipe for drama and disaster. I think that was – and sometimes still is – one of the biggest challenges.
It’s not that easy to show your vulnerabilities to someone else. It’s like stripping off your clothes, showing yourself in your full nudity and hoping the other person won’t run away screaming after seeing your imperfections. But despite of our differences and driving each other a little crazy from time to time, we’ve learned how to cope with it. It has actually made us stronger, not only as a couple but also as an individual person.
France – le pain, le vin et l’autostop
We started our hitchhiking adventure on a good note. Although Niko overstayed his Irish visa – if you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll know that the same happened in Turkey but we’re not planning to make a habit out of it – we managed to reach France by ferry without any immigration control. We even found straight away a ride into France from two other travelers, Jenna and Tino, that we met on that ferry. That ride didn’t last very long as the car ran out of petrol and our driver Tino had to hitchhike himself to the next petrol station. We had just entered France and were already stranded on the side of the highway. Although it was early in the morning, the sun was shining, we had Jenna’s ukelele and we were having a good laugh about the whole situation.
During the four weeks we spent in France we only had good and often lucky rides. When we were hitchhiking in the North of France, we spontaneously decided that we wanted to visit the island of Mont St Michel. An elderly French couple took us for a nice sightseeing ride along the northern coast and dropped us of right at the entrance of the pathway to the island. Apparently we were there at the right moment as it was the night of the autumn equinox, which means that during this special event – that only takes place twice a year – the tides are so high that this medieval walled city is completely surrounded by water and that there’s no way in or out the city.
We took the time to travel in France. We spent almost a week with our new couch-surfing friends in Paris and another week in Lyon with friends that we met the year before – the same place where Niko and I met for the first time. The rest of the time we camped in forests and on the side of roads. We hitched great rides and met wonderful people. We had some great encounters, especially in the south of France. One day a woman picked us up and after inviting us for a coffee with her husband, she wanted to support our trip by taking us to a supermarket to buy us food. She didn’t accept no as an answer and insisted on paying. When she dropped us off, our bags were filled with food, worth to survive a whole week from it!
Another meeting that we’ll never forget was with Roberto. He picked us up while it was pouring rain. Not only did he make a detour to show us a beautiful part of the Côte d’Azur, he also invited us for dinner with his family and offered us a warm and dry bed in his cozy flat. But that wasn’t the end of his kindness. He gave us a book, written by Ludovic Hubler, a man who also hitchhiked around the world and Roberto even arranged a meeting with him.
We had again a perfect timing as Ludovic was just about to leave France when we caught him at the airport in Nice. Thanks to his advice we changed our itinerary. Ludovic explained to us that the best way to travel the world over sea by sailboat would be from East to West because of the dominant winds, which means that it would be easier for us to find a boat that would take us across the Indian Ocean from Asia to Africa than the other way around. Our initial plan was to hitchhike towards Africa and then towards Asia but after our meeting with Ludovic and Roberto, we decided to first travel towards Asia. We always try to find our own path in life but this time we listened to the advice of a man who knew what he was talking about!
Our luck with finding good rides lasted until Monaco. Just before entering this little micro-state, we got picked up by an older man who also used to hitchhike a lot. He understood how it was to live on a small budget so he made a few phone calls and arranged free accommodation for us in the apartment of a friend. Thanks to this man’s help, we were able to visit Monaco for free!
Misadventures in Italy
The journey became a bit more challenging when we entered the North of Italy. We crossed the border between France and Italy late at night and had a scary experience with refugees while trying to find a place to camp. Hitchhiking in Italy was also harder than expected. While we had an average waiting time of 15 minutes to get a ride in France, here we had to wait sometimes for hours. One day we stood on the side of the road for more than 8 hours before we got a lift. I could say that this was the first challenging time for me and for us.
I didn’t feel too good as I was becoming tired of waiting so long, especially after not getting a good night of sleep. The nights were becoming really cold, we didn’t have proper sleeping bags and I kept waking up because of the cold. Every time I woke up sighing and shivering, I also woke Niko – he sleeps as deep as a woman with a newborn baby. He became annoyed with me – “Put on those extra clothes that you still have in your bag, Cynthia” – , I became annoyed with him – “I’m already wearing so many clothes and I’m still cold and I’m about to have my period so please show me some empathy” (this was me being a little dramatic) – so yeah, it caused some frustrations between us. Being tired and cold (and having PMS) can definitely bring down a (wo)man’s spirit!
We had planned to spend some weeks in Italy but after a few days of long waiting hours and sleepless nights, we felt it was time to move on to the Balkans. And when we nearly got arrested by the Italian cops for hitchhiking at a petrol station – which apparently is illegal in Italy?!? – we decided to throw in the towel and take a train towards the border with Slovenia. It would save us time, money and reduce the risk of spending a night in jail. But first we had to find a ride that could bring us to the nearest city where we could take a train. We started approaching people but most people didn’t want to talk with us or they looked at us like we just crawled out of a dumpster – we looked tired but not that rough! Eventually Niko found an elderly smart-looking man who was willing to take us along, but not without hesitation. We were only allowed to enter his car after he covered his back seat with a big blanket. It seemed like we indeed looked like ‘trash’. He barely talked with us during the ride and we felt awkward, to put it mildly, but at least we were glad that we had a ride.
But… we couldn’t leave Italy without a visit to Venice, the city of a zillion canals, piazzas, art and love!
While we were strolling along the little canals of this beautiful city, a man passed us by on his sandolo (the little brother of the gondola). He stopped his little boat and invited us to jump in so he could take us for a ride on the waterways. At first we were suspicious because we thought he would ask us for money. But the man was a retired rower and just wanted to show us his city from a different and non-touristic perspective. We spent hours on that little boat and even after we said goodbye to our new friend, we still couldn’t believe that this had happened! It was one very unique experience and that moment reminded us that, no matter how challenging life may be, everything passes and there’s always something great waiting around the corner. We never thought that one day we would hitchhike a gondola in Venice!
Speeding through the Balkans
Entering Slovenia felt like a refreshing breeze on a hot summer’s day. Not literally because it was also already quite cold but the friendliness of the people and the ease of hitching rides were a nice welcome after our misadventures in Italy. We spent about five days in Slovenia, mostly camping in the majestic woods. Looking back, the villages and the nature of Slovenia were very similar to what we see now in Georgia. It was a nice and peaceful country and if winter wouldn’t have been lurking around the corner, we would have stayed there longer.
We crossed the border of Slovenia with Croatia and continued hitchhiking inland. One night, when we were camping in yet another forest, Niko told me that one of our drivers had warned us to be careful of wolves and lynx. Almost right after we heard strange noises in the woods, like someone or something was sneaking around. I think it was the only night that I felt scared. I barely dared to leave the tent to go for a pee and I slept with a knife in my pocket. Not that it would have made a big difference and I was probably being dramatic again, but it made me feel just a bit safer.
The day after we visited Plitvice Jezera, the waterfall jewel of Croatia, we got hit by a snowstorm. We had to seek shelter in one of the many guesthouses in the area. Luckily for us, the touristic season was already finished so we didn’t have problems to find a nice place for a low price – during summer this whole area is so crowded with tourists that it’s hard to find an affordable room if you didn’t book in advance. We were stuck for a couple of days but we didn’t mind. We had a warm cozy room and we drank hot chocolate while looking how the snow was turning the world outside in a winter wonderland.
This snow storm was for us the call to hurry up and go as fast as possible to warmer areas. It was getting too cold to spend the night in the tent – we couldn’t really afford to pay every night for a hostel or guesthouse – and hitchhiking during winter isn’t the ideal. The days were shorter, which gave us less time to travel as people weren’t so eager to pick up hitchhikers in the dark. We decided not to make many detours and hitchhike quickly towards Greece.
This is the only regret I have. I wish we were more prepared for the winter so we didn’t have to rush through the Balkans. It’s such a beautiful part of Europe! I still have the feeling we missed out on some great places and experiences. We hitchhiked so fast through Croatia, Montenegro and Albania that I didn’t have the time to really connect with those countries. Well, we have plenty of reasons to visit Balkans again!
I would definitely have loved to explore more of Albania. It was a country like no other in Europe. It had a different feel to it. Honestly, it was also the first time I was happy to be traveling and hitchhiking with a man. I can’t really have an opinion about the country because we only spent a week there and I don’t know if it’s a fact but I felt that Albania had a bit of a macho culture. The men were eyeing me on the streets and I will never forget the dirty look that the shop clerk gave me when I bought cigarettes and a bottle of wine. Maybe this wasn’t something an Albanian woman would do or maybe the clerk just had a bad day. Although it made me feel slightly uncomfortable, I still wished I could have tasted more of the Albanian culture.
Taking a break in Greece
We heard that hitchhiking in Greece was difficult but it turned out to be quite alright. We had some afternoons where we had to wait a few hours before we got a ride but we always managed to reach our destination. The highlight of Greece was definitely Meteora! It was an otherworldly place and the scenery was magical! We were also very lucky that we could enjoy the hospitality of Hercules and his wife Eleny. We had a first-hand experience with the meaning of the word Philotimo, the Greek way of living. This was what I missed out on in the Balkans, to feel connected with not only the country but also with its people!
After hitchhiking across the mainland of Greece, we took a ferry from Athens to the island of Crete. A few weeks earlier Niko and I had arranged a HelpX place in Biotopoi, a small nature park on Crete. We felt that we were in need of a small break after hitchhiking for months in a row. We planned to spend two weeks in Biotopoi where we would look after the animals and help with the olive picking in exchange for meals and a cozy bed in a caravan. We felt so comfortable there! I realized how intense it had been to travel as fast as we did, hitchhiking nearly every day and constantly meeting new people. It almost felt like a part of me had stayed behind somewhere in the Balkans and was still making its way to Crete. I even became sick and was bed-bound for a few days, like my body was telling me to slow down. So instead of the initial two weeks, we stayed nearly four weeks in the park, hibernating in a natural environment between our animal friends. Even though we took it very easy and barely left the park, we had a great time! I even had my first paragliding experience thanks to the owners of the park!
After three full months of hitchhiking in Europe it was time for us to leave the continent. Not only was Niko’s visa running out – and he didn’t want to push his luck again – but we were also looking forward to immerse ourselves in a new culture. For almost a year we had studied the Turkish language and we couldn’t wait to practice our new language skills. Turkey was waiting! I’ll write all about our Turkish adventure in part two (coming soon) but I can already tell you that Turkey felt like the real start of our world adventure.
Hitchhiking through Europe had been easy, more like climbing the Mont Blanc as a preparation for the Mount Everest. We know now that it’s important to listen to our instincts, that everything comes in the right moment and at the right time, that we can’t plan far ahead but that we’re also pretty good at adjusting and adapting ourselves to new situations. We are a strong team and we can count on each other, no matter the circumstances. I’ve also learned that I can’t control what happens on the outside but that I can choose how I will react on it. I feel more balanced and in control of my own emotions – which is also a relief for Niko! And … we have to invest in better and warmer sleeping bags…
If you enjoyed reading about our hitchhiking adventures in Europe, you’ll also enjoy watching our videos.Click on this button and watch our journey from the moment we were living and working in Ireland until the day we arrived in Turkey.
Read about our adventures in the second part of the (untold) story.