HITCHHIKING THE BALKANS
Six weeks, ten countries, 5,480 kilometres, 67 cars, countless new friendships made and experiences gained and only €230 spent! You can travel almost for free if you’re not afraid to try new things. You’ve heard me talking about free accommodation through Couchsurfing many times before. (Who still doesn’t know what I’m talking about, detailed description of how to use CS can be found here.) This trip was no exception and I paid for accommodation only twice during the whole journey. This time, however, I’ve decided to go even more low budget and travel around the whole Balkan area only hitchhiking. I’ve met many other hitchhikers on my journey, no other solo girls though, only guys, occasionally couples. Meeting a solo female hitchhiker surprised almost everyone, but in reality there is nothing to fear. Being a girl doesn’t mean we are disabled. We can do anything a man can do. And actually, being a girl is a superpower in many cases, talking about hitchhiking in particular. While hitchhikers – guys sometimes found it hard to do even 100 km a day, I had no problems hitchhiking 500 km daily usually waiting for a ride no more than 5 minutes.
Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia was my first destination. Getting through Austria was not that easy. Austrian people just don’t stop to hitchhikers and every time I finally managed to get a ride it was either someone from Italy or Hungary. Not far from the border with Slovenia I was left with no other option than to hitchhike at the highway. This is illegal in the EU. Someone reported me within five minutes and the local police came to give me a fine. Fortunately I managed to persuade them not to give me one and I even made them to give me a lift to the closest petrol station too so I can continue my hitchhiking.
When visiting Ljubljana take an one day trip to a the Bled lake. Fairytale like place full of beautiful views.
After three days spent in Slovenia it was time to head down for Croatia. In Zadar I was meeting Nick who flew from London for a few days to see me. Many of you were asking where to find such luxurios place in Croatia. This is the Portus Beach Club in little costal village Sukosan near to Zadar. You can freely use all their beach facilities with the consumtion of drinks or food in the restaurant. It was almost empty at the end of September but to get yourself a spot on the deck during the peak season you need to be early!
Nick and I also took a trip to the Plitvice Lakes that are like the reflection of the Jurassic Park. The lakes are listed among the UNESCO heritage sights and attract tourists from all over the world. The place can get very crowded so I definitely recommend visiting only in week days and off season if possible!
The road from Zadar to Dubrovnik along the Croatian coast is incredibly beautiful. The azure sea lined with hundreds of small islands, forests and white rocks all around. Do not get on the highway and take this slower coastal road. The views are definitely worth the extra few hours. You’ll be crossing a tiny part of Bosnia and Hercegovina, so don’t forget your passport.
The country is full of beautiful black hills. Hence the name Montenegro – Black Mountain. The medieval town of Kotor set in the Gulf of Kotor is the gem of this region. In many ways similar to Dubrovnik but cheaper, less crowded and in my opinion even more beautiful.
Couchsurfing will never stop to amaze me and this time I was accommodated on a deserted private island. No running water, no electricity, no internet. My host wasn’t the owner of the island, but his work was to simply live on the island and look after it. As there is not much to take care of, he basically does nothing so he offered this unique free experience to get some travellers over and keep him company.
This country is a true hitchhiking paradise! Once again, I proved to myself that the poorer the country, the nicer and more friendly the people. The fact that Albania is not the easiest place for life is not hard to observe. Half-built houses falling apart, rubbish everywhere, kids begging for money on the streets. The nature is beautiful though. Trekking in Maja Jezerce or Korab is one of the best in the whole region, and Albania, unlike Croatia and Montenegro, has long sandy beaches that most of the time are even completely empty. What makes Albania such a great place to travel though are mainly Albanians themselves, and the country is incredibly easy to hitchhike around. People often went miles out of their way just to get me where I needed to go, many of them invited me to join their family lunch or dinner and even though I always refused at first, many of them gave me some money at the end of the ride and insisted on me keeping it. So, after few days hitchhiking in Albania I was left with more cash than I had at the beginning of the entire trip.
There is about one car passing every five minutes at some places so what really surprised me was the amount of petrol stations in this country, sometimes there were even three of them next to each other. Some were also like the fanciest looking petrol stations I’ve seen in my life. There was one that literally looked like a castle. When I asked what is this about as there is obviously not enough cars to support them, I was told owning a petrol station is the most favourite way of laundering money in this country.
Just after crossing the Albanian border I stopped a young guy who as everyone else was worried about my safety on this journey. “But do not worry, with me you are safe!” He told me. “Because I have a gun. Do you want to see it? “He asked me, and pulled the gun out of his pocket. He was right, I have never felt as safe as when sitting in a car with a complete stranger pointing his gun towards me. But apart from this very extraordinary way of impressing girls he was actually really nice and drove me safely all the way to Tirana, the Albanian capital.
If you’re visiting Tirana, you should definitely stay at the Trip’n’Hostl. Beautifuly decorated, with a nice garden, rooftop terrace full of flowers, full of cool people and incredibly nice and friendly staff. There is even fresh breakfast served every morning. And you get this luxury for just 10 € per night. The hostel also makes their own beer and raki. As the clubbing scene in Tirana is not very interesting the best parties usually take place in this hostel as well. The atmosphere of this place will suck you in and won’t let go. I was planning to only stay one night and even after three days I found it very difficult to finally leave.
Hitchhiking in Greece turned to be much more difficult as due to all that has been happening in the country in the past few years everyone is quite suspicious. Every time I finally managed to get a car the driver first asked me multiple questions before even letting me in, few times I even had to present my passport to prove I’m a citizen of the EU. I crossed the country through all the way to the southern tip to the tiny village of Kyllini as I was to start my volunteering in a nearby refugee camp. I stayed there for two weeks. It was an amazing experience and you can read all about it in my upcoming post.
It’s only one hour by ferry from Kyllini to the island of Zakinthos so I decided to go for a little trip before heading up to Athens. In the harbour, I was picked up by my Couchsurfing host Ioannis who took me to a beautiful four-storey house with a swimming pool. Not only did I have my own room with a king size bed, this time I had the whole floor with two bathrooms and Jacuzzi for myself. Ioannis was busy the rest of the day working and just gave me the key and said “Make yourself at home.” So I did.
On my way from Athens to Macedonia the hitchhiking did not go as fast as I was hoping it will and I had to stay halfway in the Greek city of Larissa. When I arrived, it was already dark. The lorry driver was just passing by on his way to Turkey so he left at the exit of the highway. It started heavily raining just when I got off. Unfortunately, it was another two hours walking to the city centre, with no possible ways of public transport shown by google. I tried to hitchhike but any driver spotting me standing by the road in the dark and all wet instead of stopping started to go even faster so I decided to walk. My super cool retro jacket from the 90’s was waterproof for about first five minutes and I got soaking wet. One positive thing was that taking another two hours to get to the city gave my CS host enough time to answer my last-minute request so I had somewhere to go at least. The next day I finally arrived to beautiful Athens.
The most visited place in the country is the Lake Ohrid and the nearby town of the same name that has a pretty old town full of cute little streets. There are several national parks in the area with easy trails up to peaks offering stunning views.
Almost 90 % of Kosovo’s population are Albanians and the country itself reminded me of Albania a lot with the locals being equally as friendly. The country has long since recovered from the war and is perfectly safe for tourists now. During my short visit of Prizren I lived like a princess again, staying in a beautiful villa with a local family. The family owned a local petrol station by the way.
Although It’s been ten years since Kosovo became independent, Serbia still does not recognise Kosovo as a country and officially considers the area part of their territory. Therefore, you’ll be denied the access to Serbia when crossing the Kosovo – Serbian border as for Serbs you are considered to be in the country already but as you only crossed the Kosovo border check you entered Serbia illegally and you have to leave. However, they will let you pass if you present your ID instead of passport as in that case, they are unable to find out how did you get to the country at the first place. I lost my ID few weeks back so I had to hitchhike first all the way back to Macedonia so I can up to the Serbia’s capital Belgrade.
Some people call Belgrade the Berlin of Eastern Europe. Therefore, I had my expectations high and to be honest I wasn’t disappointed at all. The warehouse club Drugstore and the party boat 20/44 are a must visit, and if you still don’t have enough, there are various little underground clubs, cool bars and cafes to be found all around the city. During the three days of my stay I actually hardly managed to see Belgrade by the sunlight as I was too busy enjoying the nightlife. Apart from Berlin, the city reminded me of Prague a lot. A bit in terms the architecture but mainly regarding the local atmosphere that gave me a feeling I could actually live in that city.
Unfortunately, I arrived quite late on Friday night and with my “I’m traveling off season so I don’t have to book anything” attitude, I found all good hostels to be booked up. I planned to spend the night partying and in such case I never got myself Couchsurfing as it’s really rude. Finally I found a free bed in a hostel Green Lagoon. Some reviews looked a bit terrifying but I didn’t really have a choice. The place reminded more of a squat than a paid accommodation, there were street dogs and cats running and shitting everywhere (occasionally even into someone’s bed) the whole place stunk and was full of strange people.
The Friday night in the club was great. However, the Saturday morning turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. I left the Drugstore at 6 o’clock, and while getting the taxi, I got one of my incomprehensible money-saving attacks, when I refused to pay 1000 instead of 600 I paid to get there (€3 difference) and to save my pride and prove to the driver that no one is charging me extra just because I’m a tourist, I decided that it’s going to be much more sensible, in a city I have never been before and with no internet connection, to take the bus. I got lost several times, and with the help of locals the journey took me “only” hour and a half. When I finally arrived, and wondered why I don’t recognise this area at all, I found out I managed to mistake the name of my hostel and I was asking everyone to navigate me to the Green house instead of the Green Lagoon. Sadly for me, the Green House was also name of a hostel in Belgrade, but on the other side of the city than mine was. In another 50 minutes, exhausted, I finally reached the right station. In a dark underpass on my way to the hostel a guy passed me by. Just the look he gave me made me feel scared straight away. When he got behind me he called over to me. I turned around and he was there standing half naked, wanking just in front of me. I started to run away, fortunately he couldn’t as he had his trousers down his knees. When I finally got to the hostel I found someone else sleeping in my bed. The hippies just sold my place to someone else and I spent another thirty minutes trying to get a drunk girl out of my own bed so I can finally fall asleep. As I said the hostel was full of really weird people. One of them sat next to me on the previous evening and started to give me random personal questions whispering straight into my ear. When I told him he creeps me out and asked him to fuck off he went: “Ah ok! … Do you know what your problem is Karolina? That your boobs are too small.” Well the same weirdo woke me up on Saturday morning, just half an hour after I finally managed to fall asleep shaking with me and shouting into my face: “I’m going home, I’m going back to Slovenia, this is what you wanted Karolina? Are you happy now?” It took him a few minutes to finally calm down and leave. I had no idea what was going on and the whole morning was already a bit too much for me. I gave up on my idea of sleeping, packed my bag and made my way to a new hostel where fortunately everyone was finally normal.
Heading back home, not far from the Serbia – Hungary border, I met an eighteen-year-old guy from Brno, just returning from a very similar trip around Balkans and we decided to hitchhike through the last two days together. Originally, we were planning to go to Budapest on the way but as we stopped a cool gay couple returning from Belgrade to Vienna, we decided to go with them instead and spent the last night of our trip exploring the Vienna’s gay clubs.
The contemporary history of the Balkans was wild. All the wars have marked the region a lot and the nations still kind of hate each other. Each of them have their own version of the conflict blaming the other side but one thing most people I talked to agree on is that in Socialist united Jugoslavia the life was much better than is now in their new democratic independent countries.
Apart from Austria and Greece, the hitchhiking was super easy everywhere including the Czech Republic. There is lots of prejudice surrounding this area. Albania and Kosovo, for instance, are supposed to be dangerous countries, but the hospitality of locals made me feel completely safe. On the other hand, the only hitchhiking related “problem” I had, happened just on my first day in “safe” Austria. Not far from the Slovenian border a stopped an Austrian guy who told me he just needed to pick up something and then he would take me Ljubjana. He stopped by a supermarket to buy two bottles of wine and instead of Ljubjana he took me in front of his house. I simply took my backpack and went to the closest street to stop someone else.