Tag Archives: hitchhiking

Leaving Austria – a tale of a lucky hitchhike

Way back in 2008, when I was a penniless student, I was finishing my semester in Zurich when I got a call from Kristian (who already featured in an earlier post about London). He asked if he could come visit me in Zurich and whether I’d be interested in a little side trip together. Needless to say I was.

You might recall that in 2008 the European football championship was played in Switzerland and Austria. Not that we had tickets but since we were around, we were planning on enjoying the sphere. By the time Kristian joined me in Zurich the semifinals were being played. After spending a couple of days in Zurich I’ve done the last arrangements, packed the rest of my gear and off we went to Vienna on a most spectacular 8-hour train journey through the Alps, to experience the city during the final match between Spain and Germany.

The closest we got to the actual match

The closest we got to the actual match

In Vienna we, much appropriately for two poor students, arranged a place via Couchsurfing with a lovely local couple who were binging on couch surfers, so the house was swarming with guests. A couple of days partying at crazy birthdays, a bit of mischief in the local museums and pestering the losing Germans flew by and it was really time to get back to our base at the Netherlands. Have I mentioned we were poor? We could however afford to spend a bit more time on the journey back and were both in an adventurous mood so we decided to hitchhike. Getting out of Vienna and onto the highway proved in hindsight the most treacherous part of the trip. We probably should have started hitchhiking on the closest petrol station in town. Instead we took the metro to a place near the highway and spent a half an hour searching our way through the fields in an effort to get to the highway petrol station and really start the journey home.

Not the right way to hitchhike

Needless to say, this is not how we were hitchhiking – this is just for the show.

We’ve had an early start, which was a very good thing. It was July and it turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year. By the time we were in position, it was almost nine and already quite hot. Within a mere half an hour I approached a Saab with Dutch number plates and struck a conversation. The guy was friendly enough to offer us a ride but at he explained in the car, he was only going as far as Passau, at the Austrian-German border. He was after all already driving for a while – he was working in some import-export firm in the Netherlands and they’ve had a misunderstanding with Austrian customer. Having failed to clear the misunderstanding over the phone the previous day, he jumped into his car after working hours, drove all the way to Vienna, was there at 7, had a meeting until 9, and was now on his way back to Eindhoven. He was (before he met us) realistic and planned to stop at Passau to get some sleep.

We quickly realized it was a golden opportunity. And we did our best to keep our luck awake, pouring coffee into him at every stop and keeping him entertained by small talk. Passau was passed, then Nuremberg, then Würzburg, and we were still driving. The dude was, in fact, also anxious to get home. It was the last day of school, and his eldest child was graduating from primary school (can you graduate from primary school?). The traditional school play was set due in the evening and he reckoned he could be there at least for the second act. Naturally, we encouraged the idea and as the hours went by we were pretty certain we’d get there.

The Saab clicked through the kilometres, and thank God it was a Saab – the comfy seats, the powerful airco and the reliable engine really got us through the day. By noon it was 38 degrees and the asphalt was melting. Every pit stop we made meant spending as little time as possible out of the car, as even a couple of minutes in the relentless sun would give you a heat stroke. The evening rush hour was rather brutal on less reliable cars, and dozens of overheated car lined the sides of the Autobahn.

As we were coming to the Dutch border, massive storm clouds were gathering as common in Europe on such overheated days. Just as we passed Venlo, all hell broke loose in some of the biggest thunderstorms I have ever seen. We blessed ourselves again with our ride, as the news on the radio mentioned countless train routes out of order due to lightning strikes. From Eindhoven it was quite simple – the storm has passed, cooling down the intense heat, and we had an otherwise uneventful train journey back to Delft. And there we were – having hitchhiked in a single day and with a single lucky ride a whooping 1100 kilometres! And if that’s not a promo piece of the joys of hitchhiking, I don’t know what is.

Vienna to Delft

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Caucasus – a spicy bite of adventure

I have to admit – the last time I’ve been to the Caucasus was more than 30 years ago. I was 3 years old and I’ve spent a summer with my family on a bee farm in Dagestan, or so they tell me. I have very limited recollection of the events myself. Nevertheless, the countries that now compose the Caucasus – Russia, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (and the multitude of semi-countries like South-Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh) were part of the Soviet Union, so technically, I once lived in a “Caucasus country”. The region has been at the top of my wish list for a while, so I’ve gathered sufficient knowledge to write about it (*).

  • Why go there?
    In recent years, the Caucasus got a lot of bad publicity. Wars, poverty and crime have scarred the region. Most of the Russian Caucasus is a no-go area, where the security situation is best described by “what security?” However, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have by now mostly recovered from the dramatic events of the past decades and are enjoying a vastly improved security situation, even though the international relations in the region remain very tense. With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the area is suddenly in the spotlight as a viable tourist destination. And if you’re ready to look past the dramatic headlines, you’ll find a region rich in sights, culture and most of all, exceptionally rich in excellent food and drinks.
  • What’s it best for?
    This is the place for the adventurous traveller. Of all European regions, the Caucasus has the highest content of what I call “the National Geographic sensation” – when you feel like a true explorer. Most of the region is still virtually untraveled by outsiders, so you’ll be as much of a revelation to the locals as they will be to you.
  • When is the best time to go?
    ASAP. Now. Before mass-tourism arrives and the prices go up, before you can read the menu’s, before the roads are paved. Go now, and be the first of your friends and colleagues to drink from a ram’s horn at a Georgian wedding, the first to pick pomegranates in an Armenian mountain village, the first to dip in the mud volcano’s of Azerbaijan. Amazing travel stories guaranteed.
  • How to get around?
    The transportation system in the region is improving, but is still badly hurt by years of conflict and economic hardship. Many rail and road connections are severed by conflict lines. The road will be a large part of your adventure in the Caucasus and especially in remote areas, hitchhiking might be the best way to get from A to B.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    If you’re uncomfortable being close to active and dormant armed conflicts – stay away. In any of the region’s countries, having the “wrong” stamp in your passport or photographing a seemingly innocent building may lead to anything from a lengthy interrogation to expulsion, a heavy fine or even imprisonment in the extreme case.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Georgia has it all – beaches, mountain resorts and wine cellars. Unlike many of its neighbours, Georgia is a democratic country, which earns it some bonus points. And Georgia is unique in being the home land of the Chief of all American Tribes, Father of all Nations, the Sun of the People, Jozef Stalin. The museum dedicated to Uncle Joe in his birthplace Gori is a must. Last but not least Georgia is well connected – it has rail connections to Azerbaijan and Armenia, you can get in by road from Turkey and there are even ferry connections to Istanbul and Odessa. Perhaps doesn’t mean much to you, but in the Caucasus this connectivity is pretty unique.

(*) – All images used in this post are from Wikipedia. I’ve done my best to credit the photographers, to all of whom I with to experience my gratitude for providing such beautiful images.


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Europe as a budget destination – part III – how to get around?

An essential part of travel is… the actual travelling. Unless you’re on a city-trip, at some point you probably want to get from A to B. Admitted, some routes are more spectucalr than others, and not all ways of transport are equally pleasant. But getting around can be part of the joy of travelling, and even in Europe it doesn’t have to be expensive.

  • Take the bus
    The major destinations in Europe are well-connected by budget airlines and the excellent European train network is rightfully praised. However, in some parts, like the Balkans, bus is the major mode of transnational travel. But even in better-connected parts of Europe the transnational buses of Eurolines are a very valid alternative for the budget-minded traveller. For example, say you want to travel from Amsterdam to Frankfurt. The cheapest flights are at least 90 Euro, train tickets start at 59 Euro but the bus costs just 25 Euro! Sure, 8 hours by bus is longer than 6 hours by train, but it does save you 35 Euro. And on shorter routes, like Amsterdam-Brussels, the margin is even greater (9 vs 29 Euro for the cheapest tickets and the train is only an hour faster).

    Eurolines bus (credit: Wikipedia)

    • Rent a car
      What? Renting a car? How’s that a budget mode of transport? Well, under certain conditions it is. First of all, if you’re going to remoter destinations, or off the beaten track, renting a car can be even a necessity. Secondly, since trains in Europe can be quite expensive, if you travel in a group, or moving around a lot, renting a car can turn out to be cheaper than train or even bus. “Group” doesn’t mean you have to squeeze 5 guys in a small-sized vehicle, the break-even group size is usually between 2 and 3. This means that even for a couple, renting a car can be a budget option and if there’s 4 of you, don’t hesitate to rent. Finally, car rental is about the only thing in Europe that is cheaper outside the peak season of July-August, and the differences can be significant. Check the prices in different months – it might pay off to postpone your travel by a couple of weeks, to save hundreds of Euros on the rental vehicle.

      Rental car in Borgarfjörður Eystri - Iceland's remotest point

      Our (budget in the off-season) rental car in Borgarfjörður Eystri – Iceland’s remotest point. We’ve visited the local church. It was for free. And unlocked.

      • Hitchhike
        This is for the more adventure-minded travellers. For women its probably not the best idea to hitchhike alone even in the safest countries. Generally, standing by the roadside with a board or the thumb up is not a good way to hitch a ride. Go to a gas station and engage in conversation with people you want to give you a ride. Smile a lot. Learning a few words in the country’s language, even if only saying “Hello, how are you”, is essential for breaking the ice. Ask people politely where they are going and if they would be ready to take you with them. While hitchhiking took me once from Vienna to Eindhoven in just 10 hours, be prepared for the worse – like getting stuck on a dead road for a whole day. Fortunately, in the modern hyperconnected world, there are special websites like www.carpooling.com or its local sibling www.mitfahrzentrale.de, where you can find a ride in advance (maybe while paying part of the gas costs). Additionally, Couchsurfing groups are a great way of getting in touch with other travellers, that may want to join you in hitchhiking, share gas costs or just give you a ride. Happy hitchiking and stay safe!

        Not the right way to hitchhike

        Not the right way to hitchhike

        Well, now you know where in Europe to go to on a budget, how to find a cheap place to sleep and how to get from A to B. Next time – the all essential question of when to go if you want to be able to travel Europe for 30 Euros a day (and I promise not to forget to tell you what you can actually do in Europe on a budget).

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Filed under Europe, Europe on a budget, Tips and tricks, Travel