On my way to someplace else inPortugal,I sped throughLisbonlike a race car driver.
A classic way to go
Of course I knew I should spend more time in Lisbon. After all, Portugal’s capital city is supercharged with history and cool places to hang loose. To willfully skip Lisbon would be a huge dumb travel move. It would be like traveling across Italy and closing your eyes through Rome. All along I never intended to bypass Lisbon, no way. It was simply my intention to get back and give the city, in due time its due time. But for that moment, for a variety of reasons, the beacons of other cities sparkled a tad brighter. So off I went to places such as Guarda, Porto, Lagos, Albufeira, Faro, Portimao, Cascais, Parede, Guincho Beach, Seville – towns big and small, stretching across the Iberian peninsula.
One of those cities was Sintra. Sintra is a town blessed with a myriad of medieval castles that date back to the 8th or 9th Century, including the imposing Castle of the Moors built on a looming hilltop with a downward panoramic view of the city. I had made it from Guarda, a semi-rural region near the border with Spain, west to Paredes on the coast, where I stayed with a Portuguese family with whom I’ve now forged a friendship. Early on, they recommended I visit Sintra and offered me a bicycle for what should have been an hour-long journey along city streets. But I failed miserably in my first attempt to reach Sintra on two wheels. I ended up way off course, facing a major highway. Bicycles are not allowed on highways in many European countries, Portugal included. So I spent most of my journey, which turned in to several hours, trying to get around the highway, with every person I asked giving different directions and instructions to breach the motorway and reach Sintra.
When you come to Lisbon, buy one of these. It’s a 3-day tourist pass for unlimited travel on the train. Cost: 14 €.
While some said it was impossible to reach the medieval city by bicycle from my location, others suggested that it was too dangerous, too far or too steep a climb up and over the mountains. But experience has taught me that locals often will say that a place is too far or too risky or too whatever because they think a foreigner is not cut of the stuff to handle a trek even if the traveler says he or she does
Portugal is the world’s top producer of cork, so stuff made of cork is easy to find. Everything you see here is from cork, including her clothes and the umbrella. Clever, no?
not mind the long or uphill or even arduous walk. If I were given a penny every time I heard some place was too far to walk, I’d be a wealthy man. Still, as darkness loomed, I gave up and returned to Paredes without having seen Sintra. My gracious hosts seemed more disappointed than me. They knew the magic I had missed in Sintra, and several months later I would come to realize that. Sintra, with its rich history of conquerors, invaders and rulers, chief among them the Moors, also draws thousands of tourists each year interested in its Masonic history. Like the Moors, who ruled the Iberian peninsula for more than 500 hundreds, they left their mark on the landscape, with beautiful gardens and castles.
Recently, I paid another visit to my friends in Paredes. Paredes is a coastal town very close to Cascais, Sintra and Lisbon. I made it my mission to see Lisbon and Sintra on this particular trip. But first, Lisbon.
I arrived in Lisbon from Lagos, Portugal, located in the southern region of Portugal known as the Algarve, by ride share arranged through Blablacar. Lagos is a Portuguese fishing town that explodes with tourists in summer. It is served by all major transports, including an international airport in the town of Faro.
If you are ever in Europe, I highly recommend Blablacar, a car ride share that is often faster, cheaper and more convenient than public transportation. Soon as I arrived in Lisbon, I purchased a 3-day tourist rail pass that allowed me unlimited travel on the train that links outer communities to Lisbon.
At the Moorish Castle in must-see Sintra, Portugal. In the background, the grand Pena National Palace.
Unfortunately, the pass does not extend to the metro trains, buses or streetcars. For those you have to buy a separate pass or ticket. But for me, the commuter train pass worked just fine. It allowed me to reach distance cities, such as Cascais, and I would easily get around Lisbon by walking or buying a metro ticket if necessary. I was getting around by commuter train more than anything else. You have to choose what transport option works best for you. The express bus from Lagos to Lisbon is 20 euros during peak season and runs every hour several hours a day. Portugal is well-served by public transportation but it is not always convenient as far as time schedule and cost. Do your homework.
And so on my first real visit to Lisbon I went, recalling during my 3 hour journey on the bus how I had spent my first time in Lisbon at the foot of a bridge trying to hitchhike south to Lagos. On my second visit, I never even stopped, marveling at the longest bridge in Europe, the Vasco de Gama Bridge, which spans the Tagus River. This bridge, which was inaugurated in 1998, is 17.2 kilometers, or 10.2 miles long, and it will blow your mind when you begin to realize how long you’ve been on it trying to get to the other side. It’s just one of the cool things Lisbon serves up. The city, once ruled by the Romans, also has an aqueduct that survived an earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the city in 1755.
I thoroughly enjoyed Lisbon, but the thing that struck me the most was how laid back, patient and helpful residents are with tourists. They stop and take their time to give directions, to help, unlike some other European capitals. It was refreshing.
From Lisbon, there’s a direct train to Sintra. The Viva pass works on this line. There are buses as well, from other coastal cities. One option is to go to Cascais, spend some time there on the beach or having a nice lunch or walkabout, then hop on a bus to Sintra. Some buses make a slight detour to the most western part of continental Europe, Cabo da Roca.
The Moorish Castle in Sintra
The southwesternmost point of mainland Europe – Cabo San Vicente near the city of Sagres – is also in Portugal. I can now claim I’ve been to as far west and as far southwest point of mainland Europe. Now, keen on the southernmost. That would be Punta de Tarifa, Spain.
From the moment I arrived in Sintra I felt an inexplicable sense of joy. The city has a zen vibe that soothes the soul. Yes, there are thousands of tourists walking about, but it doesn’t feel overrun.
It is nestled in the Sintra Mountains and Cascais-Sintra Nature Park, with beautiful architecture that goes back centuries, and several castles built on hilltops.
Queen Beach in Cascais
Some of the most impressive castles in the world are here, including Pena National Palace, which was the summer residence of Portugal’s monarchs of Portugal during the 18th to 19th centuries. There are a total of seven palaces in Sintra, all worth a visit. Ask for a special discounted fare if you decide to see at least three of them.
In the city center you will find local foods, including traditional regional pastries. Tourists and locals line up to buy them at local shops. Don’t get sucked in by tourists traps, however. You will pay more if you don’t go to the spot, Cafe a Piriquita, for the tasty pastries, including queijadas de Sintra. You might have to take a number and wait, but it’s well worth it. The queijadas look like small custard tarts, but are cheesecakes with a healthy dash of cinnamon in a crusty outer shell. I bought a dozen. But by far my favorite Sintra pastry was the one known as travesseiros, the Portuguese word for pillow. These desserts with a dusting of sugar and a creamy filling inside are heavenly, especially served warm. I couldn’t stop eating them. In Portugal you will find that most towns have a dessert all their own, including Lisbon, but in my opinion, none come as close to perfection as the ones from Sintra. Get to Sintra, have a coffee and a pastry, it will complete your day.
Below, Sintra seen from the Moorish Castle. Quite a climb to get here, but buses deliver those who choose not to walk.
I was once again in a tough spot. This pickle inPortugalhad suddenly edged my previous predicament inSpain. But even with the situation rather dim, in Spain I had not felt compelled as I did in Portugal to hastily scribble “S.O.S.” on a piece of discarded cardboard and hold it above my head in a last-ditch plea for help. But this was Portugal, where strangers on roadsides are viewed with great suspicion. You are simply a wayfarer in need of a ride, but to the Portuguese you are theGrim Reaper. Portugal and neighboring Spain are notorious in the hitchhiking community. Some hitchhikers I met along the way said snagging a ride in Spain was next to impossible, and that I found to be true. It took an inordinate amount of effort and tedious hours, sometimes days, to get from one point to another on my journey, but Portugal was just as bad, if not worse. At best in both countries, all I got were wary glances, dumbfounded stares, or flatly ignored. At worst, a firm and nasty “no!”.
Lyon to Marseille, but switched course and headed to Toulouse instead
I am not saying Spaniards and Portuguese are unfriendly or unhelpful lots – they most certainly are kind to strangers – but only once they get to know something about you. So many were quick to invite me to their homes and extended a hospitality beyond compare. That happened once I got an opportunity to share my story; who I was, where was I from, what was my business in their country. Otherwise, you are nothing more than a sinister stranger they see on the road, and quite understandably they want nothing to do with you. Some would say that’s just plain smart, from a safety standpoint. But I would also point out that the unease is a two-way street, perhaps far more so for the hitchhiker. To get into a stranger’s car, everything of value that you own stuffed in a backpack, requires a good dose of courage and a certain level of trust in humankind.
During myhitchhikefromPolandto Portugal, I was very fortunate. I met so many nice people who offered a ride, sometimes without me asking. They invited me to come visit, and some straight away offered a spare bedroom. They happily made me breakfast and shared evening meals. I was truly humbled and blessed by their generosity.
Spaniards and Portuguese were no exception. The key in Spain and Portugal, I learned, is to talk directly to people. Holding a cardboard sign and standing on the road is not as effective in Spain and Portugal as it was in other parts of Europe. Being able to have a chat, however quick, put minds and nerves at ease.
While in the hitchhiking community Spain is known as a very tough place to get a ride – and it is a thriving global community what with websites that detail best spots to be to ask for a ride – I would add Portugal to that list. I knew it would be tough in Spain, forewarned by others who had already blazed the path. But I could not have imagined how tough.
Toulouse, France, to Bayonne, Spain
Young, attractive women have very little trouble getting offered rides – usually from men hoping it will lead to something more (it usually doesn’t) – but even young women traversing Spain said they had some difficulty getting people to stop, especially if they were with a male companion. I had very little trouble in other parts ofEurope. In some countries, such as Germany, rides came even just sitting around taking a break. And if you’re wondering, yes, race and nationality played a huge part, leading to a couple of brushes with police in Spain and Switzerland, and some down and dirty honesty from some motorists – “If you were from Africa I would not give you a ride” – about racism in Europe. But more on that later. For now, back to my predicament in Portugal.
Cars and oversize trucks sped toward me like competitors inthe Indy 500. I was on a highway shoulder wide enough to keep a safe distance between me and the speed demons. A trucker delivering new and almost new used cars toFaro, Portugal, a city on the country’s southern shore, had dropped me off there. It was my first ride ever from a trucker. Those guys notoriously prefer to share their cab space with women, the more attractive, the better. But at a truck stop restaurant inGrandola, a small Portuguese village, I struck up a conversation with a couple of Portuguese businessmen who explained that the only way to hitch a ride in Portugal, especially from a trucker, was to ask, loud and clear, confidently. This was no task for the timid. These two businessmen who were on their lunch break and were regular diners at this truck stop, became somewhat of my hitchhiking agents. They struck up conversations with truckers around them, all seated at the restaurant eating lunch, about the importance of asking, not just standing there holding a sign. The truckers nodded in agreement, and one joked that only women get a pass on not outright asking.
Zurich to Biel, Switzerland, with the super cool Howald brothers, Patrik (left) and Dominik (right)
“They just have to stand there and look pretty…and sexy in a skirt,” he said in Portuguese, with one of the pink-shirted businessmen translating.
“Maybe I should stand on the road in a skirt,” I joked.
“I don’t think it would work,” one of them replied, laughing heartily.
“Unless you maybe wear a wig,” another said, revealing a row of yellowed broken teeth.
This banter put us all in good stead to the point that the truckers began to ask me questions about my nationality, my hometown, why was I in Portugal, where was I headed and so on. Most of them said they were not going in my direction. Others kept silent. As truckers began to file out of the restaurant, I began to ask for a ride and got no positive responses. Keeping a close eye on the time – 3 p.m. – I decided to go stand by the road with my cardboard sign, “LAGOS” scribbled on it with a thick black marker, to maximize my chances.
Geneva, Switzerland, to Lyon, France
I was still just steps from the door of the restaurant to talk to those headed back to their trucks. Hopefully someone would be headed directly to Lagos , another town on Portugal’s southern coast. It was my final destination – the prize – the end of the Poland to Portugal hitchhiking journey. After about 30 minutes standing there and beginning to worry I would never get out of this tiny village that consisted mainly of this truck stop, farm houses
In Toulouse, France, destination Spain!
and olive groves, a trucker who emerged from the restaurant called out to me. He shouted that he was going to Faro and I could go with him to nearby Albufeira, just before the highway split to go to either Faro or Lagos. He said he could drop me off at that spot on the highway and from there I could get a ride to Lagos. Instead of nearly three hours away, I would be within a half hour of Lagos. Albufeira was not exactly Lagos, but close enough. Or at least closer. Perfect.
We walked to the back of the truck loaded with approximately 15 small cars and he popped the trunk of the one all the way to the end, on the lower deck. I placed my backpack inside, walked back to the front of the truck and climbed inside the cab. Wow, great view of the roadway from this perch, was my first thought. My second thought was I hope this guy had enough sleep because this is one big rig. He fired up the engine, it sputtered and roared to life, and off we went. We’d be just outside Albufeira in about two hours. Paolo the trucker was extremely nice, despite his gruff exterior, offering food and drinks on the way. He had a huge beer belly and a whole supply of food and drinks in the truck’s cab to fill that cavernous stomach. He was only 34 years old, but he looked closer to 50. Just behind the two truck seats there was a bed with rumpled red sheets. We chatted about everything from family to travel. He was married with a daughter about to turn 5. He said he had driven a commercial truck to just about every corner of Europe. He was Portuguese, which explained why Spain was his least favorite country. He did not hide his disdain for Spain, the two neighboring countries with centuries-old differences, not to mention soccer grudges.
The girls asked their dad to give me a ride. Arrival in Lyon, France!
When we reached the drop-off point, it took just one glance and I immediately felt uneasy. It was all highway – no restaurant, no service station, nobody – a no no in the hitchhiking book. With cars zipping by, it felt like that time inBurgos, Spain, where a well-meaning man picked me up in the heart of the city and dropped me off just a few miles up ahead on a highway, and said if I walked just up the road along the highway shoulder I would come to a gas station where I could then ask for a ride to my next destination, Salamanca. Well, what he failed to tell me – perhaps he did not know – was that the gas station was more than 7 kilometers away, a grave distance even without a heavy backpack in a blazing sun on a very busy highway. In a move to put a safe distance between me and the traffic, I climbed over the metal barrier and awkwardly tried to walk along a sloping grassy area, my overstuffed backpack forcing me to lean forward and the slope making me lean right, me trying not to tumble down this slope littered with all manner of refuse tossed from fast-moving vehicles. I was undoubtedly a weird sight in Spain, as bewildered drivers and their passengers looked at me, wondering what in the world was this guy doing on the highway. In most European countries, pedestrians are not allowed on the highway and in some, stopping your vehicle for anything other than an emergency is prohibited. Several miles outside of Dresden, Germany, for instance, the police threatened to fine an elderly woman who had picked me up near the Poland-Germany border.
Arrived Toulouse, yeah!
She pulled over on the highway in Germany to consult with two highway police officers she spotted because she was deeply concerned she had missed her turnoff to Dresden and on to the Czech Republic, where she lived. When she pulled up and got out of her car the officers seemed very surprised. One of them, visibly angry, immediately began shouting at her. “Are you crazy!?” he said. “You will get yourself killed. You are not supposed to stop on the highway!!!” The dear old woman tried to explain that she simply was seeking direction. But the officer, now switching from English to German, started shouting the word “Fine”, as in a ticket, while the woman tried to explain her situation. He would not listen. The other officer, a woman, just stood and watched. When the old woman started to grow upset, I jumped out of the car and walked up to the officers. “Is this the way to Dresden?”
I asked the policewoman. The angry male officer turned to me and said “Dresden? Yes, Dresden, straight ahead!” I said that’s all we needed to know and we got back into the car and at the first opportunity, drove off. In the exchange, the pissed off cop told the woman in German that even with plenty of room to stop, it was not allowed. Back on the road she was so shaken that I did all I could to calm her down, chatting about a subject she seemed to enjoy – her remote house deep in a forest in Czech Republic. She had invited me to come visit and to stay. She was Polish by birth, but left Poland years ago, she said.
That was my first encounter with the police during my hitchhike and I did not want to risk another. After a very trying hike that included a river-crossing across a highway bridge, I made it safely to the gas station. When I sat down in exhaustion, a trucker walked over to me and handed me his half-eaten baguette and sausage. I was tired, but did I also look hungry and destitute? I had food in my backpack. That’s what I ate.
On this very busy stretch of highway in southern Portugal, I did not want a repeat of Burgos, Spain. But it appeared headed in that direction. I watched vehicle after vehicle speed by. No takers. As the sun started to descend and I began to walk to another spot on the highway, if nothing else to shift the energy, I realized I was boxed in, surrounded on all sides by expressway ramps and interchanges. A walk in any direction led to nowhere out. Climb that fence or steel railing and it could prove a fatal mistake. Some were driving so fast that my original ‘LAGOS’ sign was probably just a blur to them, if they bothered to look in my direction at all. Funny how even on roads where drivers drove slowly they pretended not to see me. Others would smile or wave or flash a peace sign, yeah, just what I needed. Peace, dude! Yet, at the very least it was some acknowledgment that I was there, real, and being seen. The ones who ignored were a hoot. You are standing right ahead of them and they look right past you as if you are transparent. Stare ahead. Ignore. But the dodoheads were the ones who took one glance, slowed to read your sign or have a look at you, then hit the gas as if taking off in a drag race.
Top left, in Wroclaw, Poland, my first ride on the journey! She left me on this highway in Germany, where this other woman, bottom right, picked me up and drove me to Dresden, Germany, my first destination. Both women are Polish but the one with the sunglasses lives in Germany and the other in the Czech Republic
I got a ride and babysitting duties, on the way to Zurich, Switzerland. Wow, that was definitely a first for me!
I had hitched rides in South America and other parts of Europe before I set out on this singular journey from western Poland to southern Portugal. I had always wanted to hitchhike across Europe for the experience alone and now I was finally fulfilling that wish. There were many moments I thought “this is insane!” But there were many more moments I enjoyed, getting to know the people who offered rides.
The sun was at the lowest point in the horizon and it would soon be dark. I whipped out my black marker and on the cardboard scribbled “S.O.S.!”
Offered a ride without even asking, just south of Munich
since “LAGOS” was getting me nowhere. Even a police car that drove by kept going. I know the cop in the passenger side saw me because he looked dead at me. I guess a black guy in Portugal on a highway holding an SOS sign is an everyday occurrence. The cops just kept going as if nothing was out of the ordinary. It was at that moment I decided to take the risk and walk up an exit ramp. A bit further on I could see a shopping center. Whether I could gain access to it from the highway was another question. I had looked around the area to see if there was a spot to pitch my tent, but there really wasn’t. The highway ramp was my decision. As I walked toward it, frankly a bit worried since it was already getting dark, I decided to stick my thumb out as I walked. And to my surprise, a car stopped!!! I thought I was imagining that it stopped. But there it was, barely off the road because there wasn’t much of a shoulder. This, after more than four hours! I ran to the car, the man inside cleared the passenger seat of stuff and I shoved my backpack in the back and got right in. I told him he had no idea how he had rescued me from a nightmarish evening. He just smiled and asked where was I going. I said just take me to the center of Albufeira and maybe I could take a bus from there to Lagos. He said the train would be better, and cheap, so to the train station we went. I wanted nothing to do with hitchhiking for the rest of the night and maybe for a long time. In fact, I am not interested in hitchhiking at this time. Talk to me in a few months or years.
Made it to Portugal! Here in Guarda.
TAKE A HIKE, COUNTRY BY COUNTRY, HIGHS AND LOWS
I got a late start out of Wroclaw, Poland, to my first destination on this trek, Dresden, Germany. I set out for Highway A4/E40 sometime after 11 a.m. Generally, if you plan to hitchhike you want to be in place earlier in the morning when drivers are starting to take to the road.
I took a city bus to a shopping mall near the highway on the outskirts of the city, then had to ask several people along the way how to get to the highway. A fruit and vegetable vendor selling his goods under the highway overpass pointed the way and when I walked right by the access point – a grassy slope with a muddy path – he shouted to me from the distance and instructed me to go up the slope. And so there I was on the highway. I took off my backpack and stuck out my thumb. Within 20 minutes I had a ride – from Ewa – a Polish grandmother who has lived in Hamburg, Germany, for the past 35 years. She’s the one wearing the sunglasses in the photo collage above. She was visiting her mother in Katowice, Poland. The first thing Ewa said to me was that she does not like the United States because of its policies. We spent a good half hour discussing American foreign policy, Guantanamo, Iraq, and other issues. Ewa is apparently also no fan of Poland. She said it’s full of racist, close-minded people. She has mixed race children and she broke into to tears recounting how her daughter was badly beaten in Gdynia, Poland, in school, just because of her mix race (white and Arab). It was a very emotional moment. Ewa also lived on the island of St. Kitts with her German husband. They’ve since divorced. She loves Hamburg, she said, where she met her now ex-husband. She said she loves its diversity and embrace of multiculturalism. She said no time soon will Poland open up to foreigners as other neighboring countries. Ewa and I had some very good discussions on many topics, from love and marriage, to politics, to travel. She was very engaging.
A few miles after we crossed from Poland into Germany, Ewa dropped me off where the highway splits – one to Berlin, the other toward Dresden – and there I waited for more than an hour as cars rushed by. At times there were few to no cars. I began to ponder what I should do if another hour blew by and I was still standing there. I was in the middle of nowhere. And as I said I’d give it 10 more minutes then I would begin to walk along the highway in the direction of Dresden, a car stopped. Another grandma, Jolanta, a Polish woman who has been living “in the forest” of Lovosice, Czech Republic. She had just also visited her mother, who is in some sort of home care facility. Her English was nowhere as good as Ewa’s, but she was just as talkative. She was clearly a nervous driver and when she thought she had taken a wrong exit and stopped to ask two police officers on the highway, the German highway cops became very angry with her for stopping and at least one of them was shouting at her for stopping on a highway, even if she had pulled way off the road. He said it was a highway and stopping was not allowed. He threatened to write her a ticket and she was so flustered and so upset that I got out the car to try to smooth things over. I explained to the cop that she simply was trying to find out if we were on track for Dresden. The cop said “Yes, Dresden is straight ahead”. He was not very nice to Jolanta and definitely not very helpful. We got back in the car and it took some time for Jolanta to settle down. She kept saying “I don’t know where I am…where is A4 highway?” I tried to assure her we were okay and she finally settled when we resumed our conversation about everyday things. When we arrived in Dresden, she dropped me off at a shopping mall. I took a tram to the city center.
Arrived in fantastic Munich with ride share from Dresden. Thanks Kay!
I was feeling a bit out of sorts and so I turned away from hitchhiking on my way from to BlaBlaCar chance. It’s a ride share website, where you can get a ride with people traveling to a particular city and you pay a predetermined amount to help pay for the gas. Funny, I was supposed to meet my ride share at the same shopping mall where Jolanta dropped me off. The driver, Kay, a super nice German guy who spoke very little English, and the two women in the car pretty did not speak most of the way. We made it safely to Munich safely and in good time.
With the exception of a couple of crazy speed bumps along the way, I got rides relatively easily to and in Switzerland. At a rest stop restaurant just outside of Munich, Germany, I was having a snack and checking email on my laptop when this middle-aged man walked by my table once, then twice, then thrice, all the while looking at my cardboard sign sitting on the table and giving me the glance over. The fourth time he walked by I looked dead at him as if to say, “WTF!!” He then approached my table and asked if I wanted a ride to Zurich, as the sign read. I was quite surprise, and asked “right now?”, to which he replied yes. I gathered my things and out the door we went, to his spanking, fresh out of the showroom Mercedes. Off we went – fast – along German highways where there seems no such thing as a speed limit. I learned from him that as a younger man he hitchhiked around the world for 12 years and picking up hitchhikers was his way of repaying the kindness shown to him by strangers all those years. We were stopped at the border. I had my passport ready, but after he joked a bit with the border guard, the guard didn’t bother to ask for my passport. He just waved us through, giving me a long look. In a geographical oddity and perhaps because how the highway is laid out, we entered Austria, within moments back into Switzerland, Austria again, then again Switzerland. He dropped me off at a very large and very busy rest stop, where things got interesting. You see, because of large influx of Africans, some in the country illegally, Switzerland has racial profiling problem. As soon as I had been dropped off at the rest area and held up my sign, my backpack at my feet, the cops came. I’m pretty certain they were alerted by an employee of the service station. There were other people hitchhiking at the station – specifically two German guys – but the cops rolled right up to me in their patrol car, bypassing the two blonde-blue Germans, and asked me for identification. They spoke in German and when I said I did not speak German, they switched to English. I asked if there was a law against hitchhiking at that service station and the two cops looked at each other with dumbfounded looks and shrugged. When I produced my passport their severe attitudes immediately softened. “You are American” one of them stated, my passport in hand, with a tone that suggested he had committed a grave error. While one of the cops went to the patrol car to presumably check my passport, the other seemed fascinated that I was from New York and said she always wanted to visit New York. She was going on and on about New York when her partner returned and asked how long was I in Switzerland (just hours) and where I had entered the country (I couldn’t remember the name of the border crossing). He returned my passport, smiled and said “have a nice day and a nice stay!” Later, one Swiss person after another, both black and white, told me the cops were likely called, as they are routinely, and they arrived under the assumption that I was an illegal migrant from Africa. Hmmmm…How many migrants from Africa are backpacking across Europe? And it was certainly interesting that the cops never went over to the other two hitchhikers to ask for their ID. After that little episode I got a ride offer to the nearest town, a ride I should not have accepted, but I was rattled by the encounter with the cops and also just wanted to leave that rest stop. Only problem was that the guy dropped me off far away from the highway to Biel. It took me almost four hours to get a ride and only back to the same service station where the cops had come to check me out. I was back at square one hours later. Then, a couple from Sweden approached. They were also hitchhiking came over to chat. They were headed to Geneva and I to Biel, all of us going in the same direction, but they several miles farther south. While chatting, two brothers in a van pulled up and offered the three of us a ride. The good thing was they were going exactly to Biel. Patrik and Dominik saved the day! We kept in touch and hung out a few times while I was in Biel. Patrik and Dominik, really super cool and super nice guys! I even met their parents at a local rowing club fundraising event.
Now we’re in Austria (5, 4, 3, 2, 1…) Now we’re not! See Switzerland.
France was by far the easiest country to get a ride once I was out of the city and at some highway rest stop. People were far more open and willing and incredibly eager to help. After I was picked up just south of Geneva, Switzerland, and dropped off a few miles from my destination, Lyon, France, I waited for a very long time at a particular rest stop because as it turned out, it was the height of the holiday season and most cars were jammed packed with families their belongings, all headed to the south of France. There was no room in most cars. So it took hours to travel a relatively short distance. Four hours at a rest stop is too long. Just when I began to wonder if it ever was going to happen, I took a bathroom break and upon my return to my backpack, which I had left outside with my sign propped up on it, a car was about to pull away. There was a man driving and two teenage girls inside. One of the girls – I heard and saw her – gestured toward me and told the driver that I was going to Lyon. The other girl also signaled. The man shouted from the behind the wheel to ask if I was going to Lyon. I said yes, and he said “Okay, we will take you.” They were a family with roots in Morocco, and they were kind enough to take a detour and drop me off in the center of town. Weeks later, leaving Lyon, I met people who were just as kind and willing to get me to the next point, which at first I thought would be Marseilles, but when I met Deniz from Germany, who was going toward Toulouse, which is where I planned to go in a couple of days from Marseilles, I decided to skip Marseilles and go straight on with Deniz to within 20 miles or so to Toulouse. I was just sitting taking a break when Deniz drove by, stopped, got out of his car and asked if I wanted to go with him toward Marseilles. On the way he mentioned he was driving from Germany to a small town near Toulouse, where he planned to spend time learning about wine-making. As we got on our way, it would be dark soon and Deniz suggested we find some place to camp. We pulled off the highway and in to a very cool southern French village, very scenic. Only thing is where we planned to camp, the mosquitoes were the size of helicopters and on the attack. After we feasted on canned ravioli and bread and drinks Deniz had in his car, we decided to find some place else to camp because the mosquitoes were relentless.
The pay off: In Parede, Portugal, near Cascais. Time to take it easy.
When we got into the center of town, we met some local young people who told us possible places we could stay and they gave us a couple of beers. We drove clear back to another part of the rural village, down a dirt road and in a vineyard, among grapevines, we slept under the stars. We had one scare, as we saw flashing lights from a police vehicle coming down the road. The car just kept going. I slept well…sort of. The next morning at the crack of dawn, we collected ourselves and Deniz drove me to the closest rest stop farther south and a bit out of his way. There, I would soon get a ride to Toulouse from a man who said he was a ski and tennis instructor whose wife was expecting a baby any moment now. He drove me into the city where I caught a city bus to the center of town to meet my friends Francis and Claire. I enjoyed Toulouse and its diverse people. Next stop, Bayonne, France, in the heart of Basque Country.
Claire drove me to a bus stop where she said she had seen hitchhikers in the past. She dropped me off there and I began to do my thing, flashing my cardboard sign, sticking out my thumb, waving a tiny U.S. flag, anything to get attention. Then two other hitchhikers turned up, a couple, and they came over to introduce themselves and to see if we were traveling in the same direction. We were not. So we encouraged each other, us standing at opposite ends of the street. I got a ride first and we waved goodbye. The ride was from an auto mechanic driving a big white van with car parts in it. He spoke no English, so I had to listen intently to his French to understand. He, frankly, had the appearance of a serial killer, and I had my escape all planned out should anything go down, but I relaxed after it became clear he wasn’t planning to kill me. He instead drove me to a better rest stop farther down the highway – bypassing his exit – and bought me a cup of coffee. We exchanged email addresses and he returned to his van and took off. I was feeling comfortable with the time I was making on my way to Bayonne, so I sat to relax on the lawn next to the parking lot, my American flag prominently displayed on my backpack. I was there for no more than 10 minutes when a young French couple – also in a van – stopped and offered a ride toward Bayonne. They were on their way to Dax for its annual running of the bulls and festival. They would drop me off somewhere along the way, just before their exit to Dax. It took me another hour or so to get a ride directly to my final destination, Bayonne. I was surprised how much I liked Bayonne. I highly recommend you visit, especially in summer. I had some difficulty getting a ride out of Bayonne, mainly because – I was later told – I was simply in a bad spot. It was definitely a spot for hitchhikers, as I watched one hitchhiker after another get rides. I aborted my departure and the next day took a bus to another nearby city where I struggled to find the right spot, as described by the website, but finally got a ride from a young woman who drove me all of – drum roll – less than a mile! She said she was going home and that I could get another ride from the town. She was right. A couple – he Spaniard, she French – said they saw me and had passed me and they did a U-turn to come pick me up.
They drove me to a gas station in San Sebastian, Spain, and from that point my next ride came from a young, tattooed and pierced wild child with a dog in the backseat and friend in the front passenger seat. They drove me to a spot in San Sebastian at which I had no luck for more than five hours. Then I realized, I’m in Spain. I walked with my sign to another highway entrance and it took just over an hour to snag a ride from a guy going toward Bilbao. My sign said Burgos, but Bilbao would do just fine. I just wanted out of San Sebastian, already! He drove me to a rest stop outside of Bilbao, where my Spanish nightmare unfolded.
I got no ride offers. I tried hard, standing there with my sign, making eye contact, waving. Nothing. Asking at night would not help. So I made the decision to spend the night at this rest stop. I would just have to find a suitable place to crash. As I headed over to a large tree under which I planned to sleep, I noticed one of the gas station attendants craning his neck to have a look at me. I had asked him earlier what time the restaurant closes. Within minutes a police patrol car was combing the rest stop with search lights. I hid behind the tree. After a few more spins around the area, the cops got on the highway and left. I did not have a tent at the time, so I slept in my sleeping bag just under the tree. I was awaken by a noise sometime around 2 a.m., and noticed a lot of flashing lights from police and other emergency vehicles on the highway, steps from where I was sleeping. I was worried I would be spotted, not that I was doing anything wrong, other than “camping” on property not meant for camping. I stayed awake for at least two hours, watching the activity, a car accident. Finally, I fell asleep and around 4 a.m., I woke up again, soaking wet. It was raining. I gathered my things and took cover under a car wash port.
From Lagos, Portugal, thumbs up hitchhikers!
I stood there until daylight arrived. I was wet, tired and not enjoying the moment. At sunrise, I went to the men’s room, brushed my teeth, and cleaned up a bit. I then headed back to the rest stop exit with my soggy cardboard sign. It took more than three hours before a couple of street performers traveling from festival to festival across Europe, gave me a ride. They, a Spaniard with a mop of dreadlocks and an Argentinian who lived in Spain, were going to Burgos, but first a detour to a small village to pick up the driver’s daughter. When we arrived in the village, the “daughter” actually turned out to be his dog. Funny. After a few more detours, finally, Burgos! The driver was kind enough to show me where I could get a ride, but it was a bad spot, as there was not enough room for cars to stop. I persevered. I shouted to a man if he was going to Salamanca and he said no. Then he said I was in the wrong spot to get a ride to Salamanca and he would drive me to the right spot on the highway. And dear reader, you know the rest of the story, assuming you’ve read the main story.
A hitchhiker’s nightmare. But! There are still people willing to help. I lucked out in Guarda, Portugal, where the nicest couple (and their kid) you’ll ever want to meet, offered to give me a ride to Lisbon. And when we arrived just outside of Lisbon, they worried that it would be dark soon and did not want to leave me on some roadside, despite me being perfectly okay with that. I now had a tent! So they invited me to stay in their spare bedroom “as long as you want” and I ended up staying about five days. It gave me an opportunity to explore the wonderful coastal region. Luis, Andrea and their son Miguel were very hospitable. I could have stayed on longer, but I had to get to Lagos. I was eager to be on the southern coast. When it came time to leave, Andrea left me at service station, but after one hour I was still there. So she returned with Luis and they drove me to a bridge that leads to points south. There, another hitchhiker appeared. He said his name was Alfredo and he was from San Sebastian, Spain. He was on his way to Lagos as well, then to Sevilla to catch a flight to the Canary Islands. We decided to hitchhike together. After almost two hours, we got a ride to Setubal. But that’s as far as we were able to get. We struggled for more than six hours to get a ride and as darkness fell, I decided it was time to call it a day and find a place to pitch my tent. Home for the evening would be a wooded area alongside the road to Lagos. In the morning I was at it again. Alfredo and I had agreed to part ways, thinking that two guys hitchhiking made getting a ride twice as hard. After asking a few people at a gas station, a man agreed to give me a ride 15 miles down the road. There, I stood with my sign. After three hours, a guy who said he had seen me the day before and earlier in the morning, stopped to give me a ride. He dropped me off at that truck stop where the trucker gave me a ride to just outside of Albufeira. And so here I am, in Lagos. The story continues..