Hitchhiking can be hard. It relies so much on luck, and the first half of this story is based firmly in a lack of luck situation. However, we learnt a trick to hitchhike to Anywhere, and by the end of this article, you’ll know it too.
A quick bit of background: we woke up to our third morning in Bled. I shook off the dream I’d been having (where Usain Bolt coached me to be a wrestler after I humiliated myself in a 400m race against him…) and quickly packed up my things. We were leaving Slovenia to head to Italy, our seventh country. We intended to get to Venice.
As with most hitchhiking days, we began by consulting the map and working out a likely good spot. This usually involves a bit of hiking (I guess the clue is in the name). On this particular morning, we ended up having to hike 7.5km with our heavy backpacks. However, we were both geed up by the coffee we’d just necked, and we marched on with a good pace.
We were faced with a problem as there were two different routes to Venice. We opted for the slower road as we’ve found it generally easier to get people to stop. Without too much of a wait, a car pulled over and our driver opened up the hitchhiking discussions.
He could only take us 13km, but we felt like getting moving so we accept. However, when he learnt that we were heading for Venice, he laughed and said that nobody would be going that way. Our first mistake of the day was to ignore this advice and take the ride anyway.
He soon took pity on us and explained that he was in fact going on the better road for Venice himself later, and could take us as far as the Italian border. His car had failed its MOT, so he was heading to his parents’ house to wait for the replacement car, then he would drive in our direction. We agreed that he could leave us in the main square and return to pick us up. We exchanged numbers, then sat for a second coffee (a jittery Martina learnt that one coffee per day is definitely her limit) and waited.
2 hours came and went, and we heard nothing from him. His number had gone dead. With a storm brewing in the air, we decided something must have gone wrong for him and that we would have to continue our journey on our original route. We would later learn that he was indeed having trouble, and turned up a further hour and a half later, but we were long gone by then.
Then things got gradually worse and worse. We walked another 4.5km, now battling the gradually falling rain. The roads were awful for hitchhiking, and we found ourselves standing on a busy (and fast) stretch of road, hoping that one of the cars peeling off from a feeder road would take pity on us. They didn’t.
Once the lightning started flashing and the thunder rolled overhead, we retreated back up the road to take shelter under a bus stop. The misery set in and we felt beaten. We then spotted a sign for a pizzeria just 50m up the road.
Cue a mad dash through the rain, frantically asking locals where the pizzeria was (UK readers can imagine an episode of Challenge Aneka from the 90s…) Having found it, we ducked under the awning and ordered a beer and a wine at lightning speed.
We were desperate. 8 hours after I’d left Usain Bolt’s wrestling management, we had managed to progress just 25km. And don’t forget that half of that was walking.
Then came Martina’s flash of inspiration.
“Tom,I have an idea. But we will need a bigger sign,” she said. I had seen that the pizza boxes in the restaurant were plain white. In less than 30 seconds, Martina had gone inside and grabbed one, and set about making her sign.
“So, We’ll go back to that bus stop once the rain eases up and we’ll hold up this sign. I don’t really care where we end up now, I just don’t want to be here. I want to be anywhere but here.”
It was the move of a pair of desperate people who hadn’t eaten much and instead opted to line their stomachs with booze. I shrugged, smiled and agreed that it was probably our best option.
I nipped inside to use the bathroom. As I came back to the table, Martina was beaming at me.
“We got a ride!”
In mere minutes, the Anywhere sign had already begun to weave its magic. A waiter had seen the sign, asked where we were going, and said that he knew a much better spot to stand to get to the right road for Venice.
The stop turned out to be a gas station 10 minutes away. Gas stations are much better places to grab rides from so our spirits began to rise. It became apparent that our desperate measure was a great joke to the motorists in the area, and soon we had people laughing as we approached them with our sign. One carload of 3 German women in their 60s giggled like schoolgirls. We were making them laugh, but not catching a ride.
However, the sign had further powers. Approaching someone with an Anywhere sign and asking the question “are you going somewhere?” forces them to answer. With a specific place name on your board, they can quickly say they aren’t going that where. But asking them if they can take you Anywhere is a much harder offer to bat away.
The sign had yet further influence over the motorists. They were approaching usrather than the other way round. But our luck was about to change far more than we imagined.
Venice was still a far away dream, but we thought we could instead get to Ljubljana and continue the following day. Joze lived in the local area, but wanted to go for a long drive as it relaxed him. We got into his car, and he agreed to take us to Ljubljana.
As we approached, he rang an old friend who had hitchhiked extensively to ask where would be a good place to leave us. He decided on a gas station that was beyond Ljubljana, but as he likes long drives he was happy to take us.
We told him about our plan to hitchhike from Slovakia to Spain. He smiled and said “I’m crazy, but you guys, you’rereally crazy!” I took that as a true compliment, and when we arrived at the gas station we were almost sad to already be saying goodbye.
So we didn’t. We realised there was a better gas station down the road, and without reluctance he ordered us to load our bags back into the car and insisted he take us. It was another 50km down the road. By now, he realised he was 150km from home but only 100km from his girlfriend in Croatia, so decided to continue his journey to surprise her. I love the way that traveling in this way can have such a ripple effect for both the driver and the hitchhikers.
We were close to the Italian border. Out came the Anywhere sign again, and again it seemed to have mystical powers.
A poker-faced man walked past whilst staring at us. We laughed out how stony his expression was, but then he returned. I momentarily panicked that he had overheard, but then he pointed to the Anywhere sign and asked where we wanted to go.
“Italy,” I replied. “Preferably Venice.”
“I go Bologna. Is it good for you?”
A quick consultation of the map confirmed that he would indeed be going right past Venice. We had hardly waited ten minutes. The Anywhere sign was a success!
The man was traveling with an older companion. They were Hungarian and spoke little English. However, we established that the younger man worked for a circus. I noticed his physique, and hazarded a guess – “Acrobat?”
“Yes! Trapeze artist!” replied the older man enthusiastically (we later learned that he was the younger man’s father). He grabbed the phone from the dashboard and cued up a ten minute video of his son in action. We sat and watched, rapt by the dazzling displays of strength.
I spent the rest of the journey observing the trapeze artist. He had muscles in the way that children get chickenpox; sporadically located yet with immensely power where they are. It’s the kind of physique you can only get if your job involves hanging by your legs and throwing people around.
But the Anywhere sign had worked, and just 3 and a half hours after we had created it, we were approaching Venice. In that time, we had travelled 285km and barely walked at all. At last the luck was with us.
Temporarily. You see, the story doesn’t end there. The trapeze artist did not want to exit the highway as he would have to pay more. However, strict laws in Italy prohibit hitchhiking on the highway (even in gas stations). He tried to stop just short of the toll booth and get us to walk, but there was a sign quoting the section of the law prohibiting walking on that road. We didn’t fancy paying a fine, so the only option was to stay with the trapeze artist all the way to Bologna. Another 130km away.
We ended up in a small village. Martina asked if they might have a garden we could up our tent up in. It’s the kind of question I’m always dying to ask but can’t because of my damned Britishness. It’s a good job Martina isn’t British too; if she was from Slough and not Slovakia, we would still be in the north of Romania and bumbling around like characters in a Richard Curtis movie. Of course, we were really hoping they would invite us to sleep at the circus site, where we could maybe get a sneak peak into the action. But they either did not understand or simply refused, and dropped us on a small road.
The story ends with us wondering around for nearly two hours, desperately trying to find a camping spot. Half a kilometre along the road, we found the circus. We declined to stay there as a) it was very noisy, and b) they turned out to be the kind of circus with wild animals. The Tiger sleeping in a cage no bigger than the beast itself was a cruel image, and we moved quickly on.
The best spot we could find was behind a tree beside a road. By 1am, the tent was up. We slept fitfully, and woke early to pack up and move on. We learned an important lesson that day. If you ask to be taken to Anywhere, that’s exactly where you’ll end up.