I realize it has been a while since my last diary post about my hitchhiking adventure. The second part of my trip went even faster then the first and didn’t leave much time or computer access to describe my experiences. After arriving back home there were exams, a graduation and student job that got in the way. Before embarking on a new and completely different kind of adventure (but that’s a story for another time) I wanted to finish my account of the hitchhiking trip first. So I’ll just pick it up where I left off: in Riga.
Distance travelled: 4078km
Number of lifts: 38 cars, 7 ferries
Number of countries passed through: 11
Days on the road: 20
Money spent: 242,43€
The night I arrived in Riga I literally slept inside of a bush. Its was almost like a lush cave, completely covered with leaves to the ground, but with a hollow center that somehow precisely fitted my tent, which I erected not without difficulty. Lying there in the dark I could hear cars and trams passing by less than 25m away from me. People were laughing and drinking all around (after all it was saturdaynight), not realizing that some unshaven vagabond was listening to their unintelligible conversations in the darkness. After a while, accustomed to the sounds of my new environment, sleep came naturally and I dozed off.
Pretty early on sunday morning I woke up, packed my gear and crawled out of my shelter, only disturbed by the surprised look of a gardener who stared after me as I took off. I wandered aimlessly around town until my back hurt, and took a break on a city bench to consider my options. I was tired, needed a shower and my phone battery was good as dead. I wanted to see a little more of this beautiful city before taking off again and in the end I came to the conclusion that finding a hostel for the night would solve all my little issues. I found a nice hostel called the Naughty Squirrel Backpackers Hostel in the middle of the old town, and it became my safehaven for the day. After freshing up I did some exploring and bought numerous 0,35€ euro ice creams on the street, since today of all days Latvia’s heat record was expected to be broken with a staggering 37°C. Luckily it cooled off quite a bit at night and after a few drinks with some hostel people I was happy to seek the comfort of an actual bed for once.
The next day my target was to reach Poland, meaning I had to cover about 400km through Lithuania and aim for a narrow Polish border passage between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, both of whom demanded a visa which I didn’t have. This meant there was only one road I could take, limiting the number of cars that went in the right direction. Aware of this small obstacle I left the hostel early, bought food for the day in a nearby supermarket and freerode a city bus to the outskirts of Riga where I was picked up within minutes by a teacher on her way to visit her parents. The hot weather of the past days decided to torture us some more and by the time I got out of the car some 50km further the sun was burning unmercifully. Within minutes I was sweating like a racehorse and glad when a truck stopped to pick me up. The driver and I didn’t share any common languages (the reason of which being Russia’s influence in these countries in recent history), but I won him over with sign language and a few well-placed Russian words (nazdrovje, spasiba, vodka), and he decided to take me along to Vilnius, a 250km trip that was only a little out of my way. After the usual courtesies we both went quiet and spent the rest of the trip in graceful silence.
Once arrived in Vilnius another problem emerged: getting to the other side of the city in order to reach the entrance of the motorway to Kaunas, and Poland afterwards. Surprisingly even here the public transport system was quite extended. After two short, tens busrides (I had read that fines for blackriding were huge here), a pitstop in a supermarket for an ice cold coke, a 5km walk and an encounter with two sympathetic Lithuanian boys in a mercedes I left the capital behind me and was headed towards Kaunas, Lithuania’s second biggest city. Along the way we talked at length about the history of this young country and its invasion by Russia during the Cold War, the destruction it was in after independence and the recent swing to anglo-saxon Western Europe by new generations.
An hour later I was dropped off on a gas station on the road between Kaunas and the Polish border. The sun was already setting and, exhausted by the busy day that lay behind me, I lay down on my back with a box of grapes and shut my eyes for a few moments. When I opened them again there was a girl in front of me that smiled and asked me if I was hitchhiking. I told her I was. Coincidentally she was doing the same thing, and we sat down together to tell each other our stories. Vaïata was an 18-year-old Swiss girl who had just cycled 1500km from the North Cape through Norway and Sweden where she decided to send her bike home in the mail and to hitchhike back to Switzerland in order to enjoy a few more weeks on the road. We got along and decided to try to do a last effort for the day and to catch a ride to the Polish border together. We persuaded a very sympathetic Polish couple to take us along despite our big backpacks and all our stuff. Eventually we reached Poland, and they invited us to stay the night at their summer cottage, where we pitched our tents in the backyard and enjoyed a beer and some delicious Polish potato pancakes with them, their daughter and grandson before turning in. Yet again we experienced some genuine goodness in this world. And we were grateful for it.
Enjoying a spectacular sunset next to a surprisingly clean canal near Groppenbruch, Dortmund. The German Ruhr area is not easily hitchhikable. Just too many highways!
Berlin Reichstag. Welcome afternoon nap after an early start with temperatures reaching 33 degrees.
Magnificent sunset during the ferry passage between the German village of Puttgarden and the Danish town of Rødbyhavn. Hello Scandinavia!
Entire day of sightseeing in Copenhagen, with this Nyhavn neighbourhood as one of the highlights.
Lovely afternoon in my friend Dagmar’s backyard. Barbecue, beers and great international company. Aarhus is quite a nice city!
Typical Danish breakfast with Kammerjunkere and yoghurt.
I arrived in Frederikshavn, northern Denmark, in the evening and bought a ferry ticket in the deserted terminal for the following morning. Time to find a suitable bush behind which I could pitch my tent!
The last 2 hours from the 9 hour long crossing from Denmark to Oslo were absolutely magnificent. The ferry maneuvred between the Oslofjords (check the map!) resulting in these landscapes on both sides.
Meeting up with friends from home. Oli and Lisa were interrailing through Scandinavia and we coincided on a campsite in Oslo. Excellent occasion for a delicious barbecue.
After a horrible first half of the day (7 hours of hitchhiking without any luck in 30+ degrees) a lovely Swedish girl picked me up, drove me 300km to her house in Stockholm, let me take a shower, washed my clothes and then dropped me in this incredible natural reserve in Nacka, right outside of the Stockholm city centre.
After meeting up with Oli and Lisa again (they did Oslo – Stockholm by train, I hitchhiked) I saw my first rain after 12 days of 30+ degree weather. But what a storm. Our shelter almost flooded within 30 min.
Evening ferry between Stockholm and Mariehamn, capital of the semi-autonomous Åland archipelago between Sweden and Finland. After taking this picture I fel asleep in a corner and when I woke up the ferry was preparing to take off again back to Stockholm. Luckily for me I still got off board.
The grey harbor of Helsinki, right before boarding the ferry to Estonia.
This beautiful tramline led to the Unesco protected Old City Centre of Tallinn, Estonia. Right at the end was the supermarket where my couchsurfing host Rain and I went about 4 times (in 2 days) to buy cold beers.
After being almost eaten alive by mosquitoes when trying to cross a swamp this sight made the big effort definitely worth it. Another sunset over the Baltic sea + a relieving swim to ease the itchy feeling. Pärnu, the Estonian holiday destination, didn’t disappoint.
The extension of this park sheltered me for another night of urban camping in Riga, Latvia. With temperatures up to 36 degrees I was lucky to discover during my exploration of the city that ice cream only costed about 0,35€ here!
I met Swiss girl Vaïata in a gas station in Kaunas, Lithuania and we decided to hitchhike together for a few days while crossing Poland. She cycled from the Arctic circle in northern Norway 1500km to the south of Finland where she sent her bike home by post and decided to hitchhike home. Read her adventures on http://thegirlwhomyoumet.tumblr.com
I also visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau extermination camps in Oswiecim, southern Poland. This was something I wanted to do for a long time and the only thing I actually planned to see on my trip before leaving home. Afternoon spent in great wonder of how something like this could ever happen.
This former industrial coalmine site in Ostrava, Eastern Czech Republic has recently been transformed in one of the coolest cultural centers I have ever seen. Festivals, bars and cafés and a huge concert hall are only the beginning of what they’re planning here. Architectural dream.
After Venice it was time for France and Spain! I covered a lot of kilometres in just 4 days, this picture shows the difficulty of hitchhiking in Italy. Was here for more than 4 hours with police interventions and everything.
I passed very quickly through Lyon on my way south.
Slept in a field somewhere outside of Figueras, just 50km inside Spain.
After visiting my friend Ilaria in Madrid I started the last stretch of my trip. 2 days to cover 1600km! My sign shows that many cars with Belgian number plates passed by here.
After driving all night from the south of France I stranded just outside of Paris on the morning of day 40. My 9500km circle was (almost) closed.
Distance travelled: 3531km
Number of lifts: 34 cars, 7 ferries
Number of countries passed through: 9
Days on the road: 18
Money spent: 207,27€
Happy to not have been harassed by the drunks during the night and after consulting the internet to look for some info about ferries between Finland and Estonia (it is hard to find places without free wifi these days) I set out on a quest for breakfast. Usually when I don´t plan to arrive in a big city at night and assume I´ll be camping somewhere I buy some basic things in the supermarket that´ll keep me going for a day or two. Despite running out of gas for my small cooker back in Oslo already I managed to survive in this fashion with great ease so far, and it is a great alternative for going out for food, especially in these slightly more expensive countries (ahum). Following the advice of my Finnish friends I therefore traversed part of the city in search for a Lidl supermarket and wasn´t disappointed when I eventually found it: yoghurt and grapes for breakfast, bread, cheese, chocolate-filled croissants and juice for lunch and a coke and some cookies for the hunger in between satisfied me for the day. Next I bought a ticket for the 85km ferrytrip between Helsinki and Tallinn and filled the remaining hours by reading on a bench in the busy touristic center of the city and chatting with a girl who came to talk to me after seeing my hitchhikers sign. I usually fix it behind the straps of my backpack when I don´t use it, and quite often it provokes some kind of reaction from bystanders. This particular girl just arrived back in her hometown after hitchhiking around Germany for a week or two.
In the afternoon I got on the ferry, and felt glad that this would be the last one I´d have to take during my trip in order to arrive back to the mainland of Europe. Although some of the 7 ferries I´ve taken while hopping around Scandinavia were paying per car and thus allowed me to hitchhike onto them, some others charged a fee per passenger, forcing me to pay and take the costs into account in my already tight daily travel budget. Fortunately they always provided sockets for mobile phone or camera charging and free wifi to stay connected to the rest of the world, so at least there was that. A couple of hours later I set foot on Estonian soil and was welcomed by the gloomy drizzling I´m so used to in Belgium. In total I have been traveling for 13 days in Scandinavia, crossing all 4 countries and seeing their capitals. But I´m far from satisfied. I will be back for some more off-road discovering, sooner rather than later!
I got on some bus to the economical centre of the city where I would meet Rain, a friendly Estonian guy who answered the last-minute couchsurfing request I had sent out from my sleeping bag the very same morning after waking up in my park. I found the place where he worked as an editor for the Tallinn newspaper and after he wrapped up his work for the day we walked back to his place in the vibrant hipsterish part of the city, meanwhile passing by the supermarket and toasting with a beer to celebrate our acquaintance. His boyfriend Andres joined our jolly party and they showed me their apartment, a cosy, well-designed place where I could occupy the couch for the night. After a delicious pasta meal shared by four people – a friend of them joining in – I called it a day and retreated to my sleeping corner.
The next day Rain made me one of the best coffees I´ve ever had in my life and took me along on a sightseeing tour of the city, where we had a sun-drenched brunch outside of a former prison, with a beer to celebrate the upcoming weekend.
Later we walked through a park where many different landscape designers had been allocated a small parcel to create an exhibition of connected landscape artworks, strolled through the Old Town protected by Unesco as world heritage and headed home again after buying some chicken for dinner and of course a few beers for pre-dinner. We talked some in the garden and watched a filmcrew change the living room of the apartment into the decor of an advertisement while a delicious smell of baking chicken came floating by from the oven.
After a 11.30pm dinner (god I´ve missed these Spanish customs) we welcomed another couchsurfing girl and the floor of the apartment started to be pretty crowded. Natalie was American and doing the popular Eurotrip, and she actually came from Krakow and Riga, the direction I would be going next.
The next day, after an equally amazing coffee as the morning before I said goodbye to everyone and took the commuter train to Laagri a few km outside of Tallinn. Hitchwiki.org didn´t disappoint me and the train stop where I got out was located next to a gas station on the side of the main (and only) road to Riga in Latvia. After a while I got picked up by a cheerful Irishman in a van. Judging by the way he didn´t shut his mouth for the next two hours, driving completely out of his way I suspected him of being desperate to talk to someone who spoke some decent English. In any case it was a very pleasant conversation and two hours later I was in Pärnu, a popular summer vacation resort for Estonians and Latvians alike. I chilled out for a bit and had a beer on one of the many terraces. I have to say my initial uneasiness of sitting in a restaurant, bar or on a bench completely by my self has completely fade away and I no longer care for staring people or surprised waiters. Next I got on a bus without paying which drove me to the last crossroads before the surrounding houses changed into large forests and sat there for 2 hours without success. Despite the place being an excellent hitchhiking spot it just didn´t work, and after a while I decided to give up and to walk to the nearby beach to pitch my tent for the night. Unwittingly I took some overgrown path through a forest leading past a swamp that was located between me and the sea. Big mistake. I was almost eaten alive by mosquitos, horseflies and small things with more legs than could be healthy in general, and by the time I reached the beach I was hopping from one foot to another, scratching all over my body and hitting the air around me with my whiteboard like a crazy person. Which is exactly what the other beachgoers were thinking according to the considerable distance they stayed away from me.
For some reason the mosquito incident made me very angry and lowered my affection for the place to a rather big degree, and after a soothing sunset swim I decided I did not want to stay in a place that made me swell to twice my regular size – or at least that´s how it felt to me. I got back to the hitchhiking spot from before and had a dinner on the side of the road consisting of cheesebread covered with extra cheese, some peaches and a bit of juice. Just when daylight had almost completely disappeared and I started to give up hope to find another ride a Latvian couple stopped and took me along to their capital, where they, headshaking and in complete disbelief, let me out at 2am in a park, staring after me while I was slowly consumed by shadows.