Home > Stories from the Road > From Moscow to Sicily and back: how it was during Europe's cup of hitch-hiking
From Moscow to Sicily and back: how it was during Europe's cup of hitch-hiking
by Valeri Shanin, 23 Jun 2005
Jump to Chapter:
Sooner or later practically all members of the "Moscow School of Hitchhiking" undertake a trip across Europe whether alone or in pairs.
In the summer of 1996 the founding members of the "Moscow School" came up with the rather immodest idea of a trip to Italy for competitive pairs. The "European Championship of Hitchhiking" attracted not only keen competitors, but quite a media stir as well. We even managed to attract some foreign journalists which was to prove very helpful to us along the route. Snapshots of hitchhikers in bright yellow T-shirts adorned the front page of several newspapers. The race start even made the television news right across Russia. There was a report that an ABC film crew had also been present.
I decided to partner with my eleven year old daughter Svetlana, who was holidaying with her Grandparents in Brest, Belorus. I would pick her up on my way through.
The race started on 1 August 1996 but I was delayed in Moscow for a whole day. However the following evening I hit the Minsk Highway and immediately realised it was going to be a tough start. There before me for tens of kilometers stretched a traffic jam grinding slowly forward at a snails pace. There seemed little opportunity of a lift and even less opportunity of making up the lost day even if I did get a lift.
What happened next I wouldn't have believed had I not personally experienced it. A car pulled over. It was a "Zaporozhets" driven by a maniac. Only "Zaporozhets", the absolutely cheapest form of Russian automobile could get away with the shameless violation of the road rules skillfully executed by this guy. Knowing full well that the traffic police considered it pointless to stop a lowly "Zaporozhets" because the owner of such a lowly vehicle would be too broke to afford the fine/bribe. Armed with this knowledge the Zaporozhets maniac driver took both his life and mine in his hands, manoeuvring in and out of the lines of traffic, squeezing into the tiniest of gaps, tearing along the edge of the road, even at times driving across the fields running parallel to the roadway! I tell you, this guy was crazy. But the journey had begun.
Nearby a turn to Borodino I met Tim "Wolfhound" Yamaleev, a free spirit and fellow traveller. The previous year Tim had been named 'Hitchhiking Champion of Russia' after completing the first Russian Hitchhiking Competition held 19-30 September 1995. This inaugural marathon was staged in celebration of the 72nd anniversary of hitchhiking, a practice thought to have begun in America in the 1920's, reaching a peak in the Soviet Union sometime in the '60's. The political upheavals of the 1990's once again brought Russia to the Russian people as well as the outside world solong a forbidden fruit, now a beckoning pearl. For the young and those with more dash than cash, hitchhiking became the means to that end. The hitchhiking revival had started.
At high noon 19 September near the monument of Michael V Lomonosov who, in 1755, founded Moscow State University, fourteen competitors gathered. The rules were reasonably straight forward. While each competitor had the right to choose his own route, a minimum of nine control points out of the possible thirty must be included and recorded in each competitor's logbook, together with the names of the three previous competitors who had passed by this way. A simple system of attaching a piece of bandaid to the marker post with the competitor's number sufficed as identification and verification.
Tim "Wolfhound" chose the route Moscow - Smolensk - Bryansk - Kazan - Tymen - Tobolsk - Ufa - Tcheboksary - Nizhny Novogorod - Vladimir - Moscow, a distance of some 6,500 kilometers, completed amazingly in under ten days.
But that was behind us now. A new challenged beckoned. We decided to team up and were surprised when a long haul truck stopped and the driver cheerfully waved his hand.
" Get in quickly." he called. " I don't usually take travellers. You've got the television to thank for my stopping. Last night I saw your race start on Vremechko. How come you've managed only one hundred kilometers since then?"
" We're the professionals. Gave 'em all the odds." Tim joked.
"I thought they must've been afraid to pick you up out here on this road cos it's not quiet. There's a bit of traffic around at the moment. Only last week I was in Ryazan region. Stopped in some village for a minor repair. It was daytime, like. At first the place looked peaceful. Then suddenly a Lada drove up and three teddy-boys jumped out demanding 300,000 rubles* for right of passage for anyone wishing to cross 'their' territory. In spite of all my efforts I had to pay."
"Yeah but how often does that happen to anyone?"
"It's impossible to say, but it happens. At first the drivers were at a loss to know what to do except pay up. But more recently the tables have turned against these road gangsters. For instance, there was a problem in Siberia.
One longhauler between Omsk and Novosibirsk was being stopped constantly by racketeers. Finally, he got fed up and decided to teach them a lesson. He parked his "Kamaz" on the roadside and raised the cab pretending to have engine trouble. In Siberia the drivers have an unwritten law that if you see your colleague with a problem, you 're obliged to offer help. So for the next couple of hours a long convoy of trucks gathered. Then they started to move forward like one solid river of trucks. Eventually they came to a "Cherokee" jeep blocking the road. Almost unwillingly the racketeers went along the convoy. Then the driver chap who'd planned the show, climbed into his "Kamaz" where he stored a mortar. With the first shot the jeep was smashed to pieces. But if that wasn't bad enough this self-styled freedom fighter also had a "Kalashnikov". Pointing the gun at the bandits, he ordered them to remove their clothes. The convoy of trucks then continued on their way and the racketeers were forced to stay where they were there on the road not only without their car, but without their trousers as well!" He chuckled with obvious pleasure at the thought.
"Yeah but this is probably just a one-off "
"Sure mortars aren't used anymore. In fact you don't need guns to beat these bandits at all."
Our driver launched into another tale to illustrate his point. "Once at one truckstop where three longhaulers were parked up some racketeers drove up in their Lada and blocked the exit. Then they strolled along the vehicles demanding money. Realising what was happening, one of the drivers slammed the accelerator down, rammed straight into the Lada and just carried on. The bandits were in such shock that they were unable to prevent being tied up by the remaining truckies." He was chuckling again.
Near Minsk we fell into a green Moscovitch. A homely looking balding chap of indeterminate age, on hearing that we were hitchhiking, reported: "Once I happened to get all the way from Vladivostok to Moscow without money!" Then, having noticed that this caught our interest, he continued, "I was on a business trip there. However, I got delayed for three months more than planned and it turned out that I was left completely penniless."
"Why didn't you ask them to send you an additional travelling allowance?" It seemed perfectly reasonable.
"How could I explain it?" he mused. "You see, I couldn't reveal my true location." Noticing our puzzled expressions he continued, "I was on a special mission. My superiors sent me to investigate the dealings of some local gangster group, who had their own people infiltrated into the law-enforcement agency."
As total strangers it was completely incomprehensible as to why we should have elicited such a confidence from the driver, and yet as so often happens in the hitchhiking game, having met for the first time only moments before, we often found ourselves entrusted with the deepest secrets of our fellow human beings. The old man talked on and on unfolding for us his unusual life story.
"When I graduated from the Belorussian University I went to work at factory so and so where I just did my work and minded my own business. One day I was called into the Director's Office. So I go in and there sits an elderly man in civilian clothing behind a large desk. He chatted on about this and that, and then all of a sudden he offered me a position in the KGB! Honestly it absolutely flabbergasted me! My first reaction was to refuse. The Director said that in principle to do so was in fact possible, but a precedent hadn't actually been set for refusal to date. 'It was difficult', he told me, 'to say just what sanctions may follow such a refusal.' I must admit I had to agree with him.
So that no-one working at the factory would become suspicious it was arranged ostensibly that I was to take a long business trip to Khabarovsk. I boarded a plane for Moscow. On arrival I found myself in a one-room, completely furnished apartment on Mir Avenue. Everything had been provided for me. The refrigerator was crammed with food and there were even clothes hanging in the closet!
I had never even visited Loubyanka. And here I was meeting with my chief in one of the nearby buildings whose signboard belied its true purpose. For two years I was educated in the ways of the KGB somewhere in the Moscow region. To this day I don't even know where exactly. Near a metro station is all I know. Every day I got into a bus with blacked out windows and travelled for some forty minutes.
I have never ever seen my teachers' faces. I would go into a room, put on earphones and listen to a lecture. If I needed to ask questions then I would do so over the phone. I couldn't take notes either in or out. It simply wasn't allowed.
I studied specialist subjects, and was trained to drive all types of vehicles - motorbikes, trucks, tanks. I even had instruction in martial arts.
After the completion of training I returned to my job at the factory and continued my work as normal. Whenever the KGB called me to go to Moscow it was arranged as the usual factory business trip. No-one there was suspicious."
" And what kind of tasks did you perform?"
"Alas that I cannot tell you. All I can honestly say is that I had to work mentally rather than physically. At headquarters it was not permissible to be interested in anyone else's dealings or to get acquainted with others apart from my own group. You know, the ones I worked closely with. We still keep an eye on one another to this day. Help each other out, that sort of thing.
For example, recently one of us who'd gone into business, attracted the interest of some racketeers. He asked us to help him. We met at once in Moscow and helped the bandits understand how the real professionals work. We kidnapped their boss and explained quite clearly who it was he'd crossed. And while we were doing this, our friend changed his business location and shifted his residence to the other end of Moscow."
Having been dropped off by the spy at some blind corner, Tim and I were soon seated in a Lada with two brothers from Pinsk. Alexander Alexeyevich in the passenger seat was fascinated by the idea of hitchhiking competitions.
"I think you've got it right with this travelling around the world without money, throwing yourself solely on human kindness and generosity. So, the people that you meet get a chance to make an unselfish gesture and to become a better person, at least a little bit."
Alexander's brother added his opinion. "No! It's not enough to just travel! You need to spread the word with all you meet about the benefits of altruism and philanthropy. You need to sow goodness and light".
Standing on the deserted road beyond the TP post near Baranovichi, we hitched everything that moved to ward off boredom. Along came a "MAZ". Although I knew perfectly well that it took only one passenger in order to avoid paying a penalty fine, I stuck out my thumb regardless. As the truck approached, the curtains behind the cabin were pulled apart, and I saw five grinning faces!
A fat man complete with moustaches pulled up in a Mercedes. He was an international travelling salesman with a definite opinion on what makes the world tick and he proceeded to express himself. "Warn your female competitors about mistaken identity. In Eastern Europe along the roads a lot of whores ply their trade. All sorts, all different nationalities. The cheapest are the girls from Romania and Poland. It is possible to have them for only 30 marks. But the German girls will cost you not less than one hundred."
This topic interested him so much that for two hours solid he imparted to us an unceasing flow of information on the advantages and defects of whores servicing the travelling salesmen in Turkey and China, Poland and Hungary.
When we reached Brest Tim went on alone while I called into my in-laws to pick up my daughter, Svetlana. At only eleven Sveta is already an experienced hitchhiker, although this was her first trip abroad.
On the Brest highway we were thrust into a German made "Opel". From under the bonnet the driver produced his 'contraband' goods - an extra carton of cigarettes and a litre bottle of alcohol. It is common at international borders for hitchhikers to work off their free passage in someone's vehicle through the border by carrying in duty-free goods for those desiring to take more than the permissible amount. The whole crossing process took four hours - quite average for that locality.
We turned from the Warsaw Highway to that leading to Lublin. Before long it was getting dark and had started to rain. We were dropped off at some unlit turn (a hitchhiker's nightmare) and the bad weather poured down on us with all its might. We needed to search for a place to shelter. Nearby we spotted a brightly lit and deserted petrol station. So we took refuge there thinking that it would only be for ten to twenty minutes. But an hour passed, and the rain continued to bucket down.
There was nothing to do but wait. Eventually a well polished limo pulled in and a man in orange overalls hopped out.
"Hello. What are you doing here? Travelling? Ah, I get it, You're hiding from the rain. You'd better come into my storeroom then. Its warmer in there."
We talked in a mixture of English, German, Polish and Russian. Eventually we were joined by the son of one of the filling station employees.
As the rain was still falling we unhesitatingly accepted an invitation to spend the night in the man's home. The four of us squeezed into a microscopic Polish Fiat. Having whirled along the streets of some borough or other, we finally taxied up to a white two-storied mansion. In the comfortable kitchen there sat a woman with spectacles, a calculator in her hands.
She glanced up from the accounting report that so occupied her. "Hungry? No? Maybe a cup of tea?" So engrossed in this fascinating occupation was she that she could hardly bear to tear herself away long enough to provide us with the preoffered cup of tea. Eventually she showed us to the guest room, a luxurious affair furnished with a sofa and satellite t.v.
We woke early and not wanting to alarm anyone in the still sleeping household, we quickly collected our things and slipped out to search for the road to Lublin.
As we being driven along it suddenly dawned on us that we didn't even know the name or address of that hospitable family who had so generously allowed us to spend the night. (More interesting, that we did not know even the name of the city!)
Near the monument to Adam Mitzkevich in Krakow's central square Sveta and I spotted Tim "Wolfhound" Yamaleev pacing back and forth.
"At last! I've been waiting for you for at least three hours already. Yesterday I got lucky when I caught a truck on the motorway that gave me a lift directly to Warsaw. I spent the night there in the park. Didn't half get a fright when the cops came, but they only wanted to check my documents. And this morning as soon as I hit the road, I was taken by truck straight here to Krakow. Can you believe such luck?"
Soon other competition members appeared at the pre-arranged site - Sergei Plekhanov, then Vitali with Lena. We noticed some guy with a rucksack going around and around the monument, obviously looking for someone. Turned out to be us!
His name was Eugene and he was hitchhiking around Eastern Europe. By complete coincidence he'd met Alexei Lykov somewhere on the road, who told him about our meeting here at the monument.
Having finally met up, we all decided to have a look around the medieval narrow roadways of Krakow. When we met a group of Polish tourists with enormous rucksacks, sleeping bags and rugs we offered the following suggestion.
"Let's spend the night together camping in the woods. Relax, swap stories, cook some porridge..."
"In the woods! No way! We're going to the youth hostel."
Ah! These comfort lovers! In Europe we trip over them everywhere. They travel by train and sleep in youth hostels. All the comforts of home supplied and still they carry heavy backpacks crammed with camping gear! It's pretty hard to understand them!
As usual we searched around for a place to stay deciding to pick one at random. Leaving Krakow on the way to Vroclav, we travelled for about 5 kilometres and turned in at the edge of some woods. There was a clean brook nearby and so we made camp. All the wood was wet and it was a struggle to get the fire going, but in the end the buckwheat porridge was cooked.
In the morning we separated again some solo, some in pairs. By the rules of the competition a distance of 50 to 100 meters (the average stopping distance of a vehicle) must separate each hitchhiking team and so we strung out along the route.
Sveta and I managed to get a ride with a Polish Frenchman who took us to Vroclav, where we turned from the highway to a country road heading towards the Czech border.
Almost immediately we were picked up by a young lad in a sports "BMW". He barrelled along the crooked, narrow road at speeds of up to 240 kilometers per hour! We were relieved when the young driver dropped us off about thirty kilometers from the Czech border.
Because there wasn't a lot of traffic on the road we took a chance at thumbing everything that moved. But when a tiny Fiat Bambina headed our way we didn't bother. To our complete surprise it stopped. There were already two people inside and the back seat was stacked up with timber. When they pulled up beside us they immediately started shifting the timber around. However I still doubted that the two of us would be able to cram into this tin can. Purely out of academic interest as to whether such a feat was in fact possible, I decided to chance it. You know, it actually worked. Sure, we were herrings in a barrel but we made it all the way to the frontier post!
The Customs Officer inspected my passport. "To Italy? On foot?" his tone was doubtful and he shook his head, but he stamped our passport all the same.
We decided to walk down the mountain and wandered along a stream through the woods. Here we gathered wild berries on the edge of the forest, enjoying the silence and the crystal clear air.
Then out of nowhere a group of cyclists came up behind us and we could hear the familiar tones of the Russian tongue! It turned out that they were fellow Moscovites.
Because we didn't have a map I was interested in picking their brains. "Do you know if there's a river ahead? It would be great to spend the night on its bank."
"Yes, there is," came the welcome reply. " We've just ridden past there. But you won't reach it on foot. It's way too far off - some 20 kilometers further."
Darkness was closing in and it became urgent that we find somewhere suitable to sleep. Unfortunately we couldn't find anything. The road led through the damp, dark forest and into the village. Finally we settled for a steep scrub-covered incline with the odd tree here and there. I told Sveta that there's nothing more clever in such a situation than to lie on the steep slope facing down hill using the trunk of an old birch for support and stability. In fact there was no other choice.
I was woken when a man in a shabby leather jacket stumbled upon us carrying a basket of wild mushrooms. It turned out that in the dark we had actually picked a resting place smack bang in the middle of a lane. One good thing though. On closer examination the prickly bushes that had bugged me all night turned out to be raspberry. The berries were small, but there were a lot of them.
Less than 200 kilometers out of Prague, we met an unexpected obstacle. The main route had been closed for repair, and a detour was set up along a narrow mountain road thus doubling the distance we had to travel.
However, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. In this case we found cherries growing along the roadside. We stuffed ourselves with the small, sweet fruit and gathered a bagful for the future. Further on we stumbled upon yet another tree and this time with much larger fruit which we added to our cache. We walked on. What! Even more cherry trees laden with an abundance of even better sized fruit, sweet and very ripe. We lingered about an hour.
Still 80 kilometers to reach Prague. It was time to move on. When a Ford stopped I asked, "Going to Prague?" The affirmative answer raised my interest. "Do you know where Karl's Bridge is situated?" We had an arrangement to meet fellow competitors there that evening.
"Yes from here you can take the Metro. Its only five stops."
I had to explain that Sveta and I were participating in a hitchhiking competition and that it was against the rules to use public transport. It worked, and at 6.00 o'clock that evening we climbed out of the Ford right by Karl's Bridge!
Soon Basil appeared with an enormous yellow rucksack and a string bag containing several bottles of beer, some of which were already empty.
In a playful mood he asked in Russian, "If you're thirsty, drink til bursty?"
How could we refuse? We washed our cherries down with Basil's beer sitting on the stone parapet of the bridge, waiting hopeful for the others to arrive. Crowds of youths passed by speaking various languages. Once in a while we even heard Russian. But we failed to meet up with our own friends.
We needed a shower and so headed for a youth hostel where we managed to wash ourselves gratis. But we couldn't spend the night there on principle and instead wound our way along the alleys to the top of a high hill looking for some secluded nook.
It is possible to find such places and finally we selected a spot on a mown lawn between the fort wall and the cable car building. Ah! Such happiness for the professional hitchhiker! Basil got out his billy and we supped boiling hot tea.
In Hungary the roads are planted with fruit trees - plums, apples, pears. No-one, including the hitchhiker, would ever die of hunger. The drawback in this country was that there was nobody to speak to. The locals refused to speak Russian and they were unable to speak English.
In an effort to shorten our route we tossed out an idea to visit Budapest.
Near Djor we turned to Balaton. From Balatonfjord the road led to the Lake strung along the shore of which was a chain of holiday resorts for the wealthy. We moved slowly, but with a measure of comfort. Having come out of one car, we weren't in a hurry to hitch another straight away.
Instead we found the idea of a swim in the warm, whitish turbid water irresistible.
We arrived in Kesthei in time to meet up with the others but as the two of us were the only ones there, and with time up our sleeve, I treated Svetlana to visit the palace. As we strolled down the main street with pedestrian access only, it reminded me of Old Arbat.
Eventually the road beckoned once again so we headed for the outskirts. The next planned group meeting was in Italy.
An old Zaporozhets stopped for us. I took the front seat, but Sveta relaxed on the back with a six year old boy. I thought she'd love it but when we have left the car in Zalagerzege, she said in a tone of express annoyance, "That kid wore me out. I didn't say a word but the whole way he poked his finger in my side just to get my attention. Next time we'd better not hitch a car with babies!"
It was probably crazy but we didn't have an atlas or even a map with us. I suppose that was the reason why we missed our turn several times. It was fortunate really that we still ended up at the Slovenian border although not at the crossing point we'd originally planned.
A Customs Officer took my passport. "You need to buy a visa."
Thoughts flew threw my head. "Well, its finally caught up with us! We don't have enough money, and they're asking us to pay for a visa!" I dragged myself slowly down to the customs window. To my surprise and relief I discovered that for Russians there was no visa charge. However, there was still a problem. The officials needed confirmation that I had enough cash on my person to allow us entry to Slovenia. I felt a surge of displeasure.
I presented my $US100 but emphasised my credit cards. Unbeknown to them I have never ever had even one kopeck on them! Recognising the familiar logos of 'Visa' and 'Mastercard', the Customs Officers looked at me entirely differently. Now I was one of those well-to-do persons. Little did he know that this card had been issued to me gratis as an employee of Moscow State University and was actually more like an ID card! (It only looks like credit card, but actually was a debit card with 0 account).
By pure accident we came across a public toilet on the other side of the border. Two things came together to make this a chance too good to miss - an absence of people and an abundance of hot water.
We carried out our laundry washing with gusto. Clean but wet we returned them to our packs - they'd be fine until we found a suitable bush for drying, hopefully in the not too distant future.
With customs safely behind us, we headed for the open road in the hope of stopping a passing car. A car did come along. A police car. "Well here goes." I panicked a bit inside. "The Customs people have tumbled on my phony credit cards. Or, maybe hitchhiking is illegal in this part of the world.". But it turned out to be a Slovenian cop, a former hitchhiker himself, who felt, as so often happens with former hitchhikers, an obligation to return a favour bestowed upon him in days gone by.
Near Maribor the road led us to the Austrian border. So tantilisingly close we were to Austria , a land barred to a Russian without a paid up visa. Only a stone's throw away, separated by just a narrow stretch of river not more than 20 meters wide. It was hard to comprehend such an informdible barrier. So close and yet... But we didn't care to take the risk to check the possibility out for ourselves.
Near Lublyana we were picked up by some Germans in a BMW. The driver spoke wistfully, " Me, I'm a hitchhiker of old. Some ten years ago I traveled the whole of Europe with just my thumb. I even reached India. I wish hitchhiking was more popular now. I always pick up hitchhikers when I see them but quite often you can go for a whole day with out seeing a single one."
Our Slovenian experience was quite different, especially as it was possible to hitchhike on the main highway in that country. We were constantly meeting our colleagues. We never stood anywhere long . So generous and friendly the locals were that once a completely crammed passenger car stopped for as and when we tried hard to get in we discovered that all the passengers were actually hitchhikers as well!
At last the Italian border. We arrived at the frontier crossover point at Nova Goritsy. The Slovenians had let us pass easily and without fuss. Having stamped their visa they wished us good luck. But problems appeared with the Italian Customs Officers. Right from the start they checked in their computer for the authenticity of our Italian visa. One of the customs officers then asked in English, "Are you travelling as hitchhikers? And spending the night on the streets?" "Noooo" I replied, emphatically denying that I was intending to do such a thing.
The Officer pointed to my yellow T-shirt with the Russian words boldly proclaiming our membership of 'The Moscow School of Hitchhiking' and said, "But it is written there 'School of Hitchhiking'!"
Foiled! Who would have guessed that an Italian Customs Officer would have command of the Russian language? I made a mental note to act prudently and change our clothes before we crossed through a border in the future.
A nice looking brunette came up to us wearing an Italian Police uniform. She immediately took the bull by the horns demanding, " How much money do you have?"
I thought I'd try the trick that had produced such a favourable impression on the Slovenian Customs Officers. I presented my 100 bucks together with the plastic cards of the "Stolichny" bank issued through the Moscow State University. The Italians however, did not pay the slightest attention to them.
The brunette categorically declared, " For each day of validity of your visa you should have $US300. Cash only. We do not acknowledge credit cards. How would we know that your credit line is open?"
I thought it wiser not to argue, especially as I already knew that my credit cards were completely empty. Always had been.
We were refused entry and sent back to Slovenia.
We found such a denial of entry offensive. Had we not in fact passed through the whole of Eastern Europe? Why should we return home, not having seen either Venice, or Rome?
Well, we'd tried to be law abiding citizens and enter Italy openly through the official border. But alas! These officials were sticklers for every little thing wanting to dot the 'i' and cross the 't'. They had left us no choice but to push on illegally.
We wondered how the border is guarded here? We thought we might try to bypass it by going through a nearby field. Images from spy thrillers flashed into our mind. But we had no idea of the direction in which we should go. Having moved back into Slovenia some one hundred meters, we turned onto a smooth track running parallel with the border. We travelled for about a kilometer and then stumbled on a gravel pit. The road turned to the left. But we went right - to Italy.
We had to make our way through some vegetable gardens constantly stumbling in the dark over marrows, pumpkins and cucumbers. We checked our direction periodically by lights travelling along the highway.
All of a sudden there appeared before us high poles with wire stretched along them. The frontier fence? No, only a frame for growing hops. We pushed on further under the cover of darkness. Ahead another fence. This time we were in luck. Bright lights illuminated two meter high concrete poles strung with barbed wire. Surely this had to be the border. Our hearts sank when we discovered that it was only the fence surrounding the barracks. We scouted passed it across a ploughed field in true spylike fashion. Then all at once we felt a roadway beneath our feet. A metal sign shone briefly in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle just long enough for us to read the joyous words 'To Slovenia' Yahoo! Mission accomplished. We are in Italy!
Too early to relax yet. Such close proximity to the border meant that it simply isn't worth it to wander along on the road at night. Here the cops are particularly suspicious. It is possible to run into them at anytime and have them check the validity of our documents. Worse still we could be easily noticed by Customs Officers returning home at the close of their shift.
There was nothing else for us to do than spend the night where we could. Nearby we found an abandoned lot, covered with wilted bushes. It would have to do. But as soon as dawn started to break we were out on the deserted road. We hadn't gone too far when a Volkswagen appeared. I raised my hand, but the car drove past for a 100 metres before taxiing back.
The Slovenian driver offered an explanation. "I used to take all hitchhikers on the road once upon a time But once I picked up two girls who looked harmless enough. Once inside they pulled knives on me and forced me to hand over all my money. Now, if I see any hitchhikers I carefully scrutinize them and think long and hard as to whether I will take them or not." It seems father and daughter had passed the test.
The Slovenian was actually going our way, but it was important for us at this point in time to get as far away from the border area as possible. We didn't entirely care where we ended up.
The first Italian town on our way was Monfalcone. According to the map, there are two roads from here leading to Venice - the speedy and the scenic coastal highway. At first we took the second option. But it was unsuccessful as there were few passing cars, and those that did were travelling a short distance only to visit some local beauty spot or other. If we were going to make it to Venice we needed to get back onto the main route.
We managed to hitch a ride nearly all the way in the same car which dropped us off at a petrol station at Mestre, about ten kilometers from Venice. However, the pattern started at Monfalcone emerged once again. Hardly any of the Italian drivers showed any interest in picking us up at all. Another Fiat raced passed but within 50 meters it had stopped and backed up. He mentioned that he had read our sign and that he was not actually going to Venice because he was on his way to see a friend. "But when I saw you," he said, shrugging his shoulders, "What the hell. My friend can wait a little bit longer. Hop in!"
By the four kilometre dam we entered Venice and stopped on the railway station plazza. It was impossible to travel any further on four wheels. The choices facing us were either on foot or by gondola.
Eventually all the narrow streets and bridges lead you to the centre of Venice - San Marko Piazzo. And it was here that we had arranged to meet up with the rest of the competitors. When we arrived, near the Kampanella, we found several competitors already gathered.
Sergei Plekhanov was keen to tell us about his adventures.
"On the outskirts of Prague I was sitting by the roadside at night mending my torn jacket. Suddenly a Mercedes braked and the driver asked, "Going to Austria?" I'd already forgotten that I'd stuck a sign with "Austria" on my rucksack. I didn't have an Austrian visa or anything."
"Have any problems on the border?"
"Nope. I just stayed in that posh car with the Austrian number plate, and the Customs Officers, obviously took me for an Austrian!"
Vasily picked up the ball. "Me too. I passed transit through Austria without a visa. Having been in Cheshski Boudejovitsy, I had a pretty good idea that Austria was nearby. Asked the local folks if it was easy to cross the border. I was advised to go through a field, to pass two hills and cross through a sparsely planted woodland. I have to admit I was a little bit worried. For the very first time in my life I entered a country illegally. Following this illegal pathway I was careful to hide here and there to make sure I didn't get caught. Wouldn't you know it! Straight in front of me blocking my way was a swamp. I had no choice but to wade in knee-deep in the stinking stuff. What an effort it took to crawl through and out on the opposite side. And wouldn't you know it! The roadsigns were still in Czech!"
We all roared with laughter.
"The entire evening," he continued, "and half the night I scrambled across fields and woods, and eventually I succeeded in crossing the border though I don't know where exactly."
Vasily paused before continuing his tale. "The Austrians turned out to be very friendly, open people. They shared their beer with me the whole way. One truck driver, who dropped me off in Vienna, even took me on a guided tour around the city."
"And how did you manage to enter Italy from Austria?"
"Amazing. I crossed the border with an Hungarian millionaire. The whole way he boasted about his success. In his own eyes he was such a cool guy. He'd worked in the secret service, after that had successful businesses, made his fortune quickly and is now a very influential fellow. Well, having told me all this he had to prove it didn't he? What better opportunity for him than with the Austrian Customs Officers, especially when they noticed that I had no visa. What exactly he said in my defence I don't know. But I'll tell you this - they didn't hold me up and not one stamp went into my passport!"
Now it was Nicholas Lavdansky's turn. "I did the greater loop through Germany and Austria. I passed across the Polish-German border near the motorway near Frankfurt-on-Oder. Took a small right turn, found a hole in the fence and in the dark penetrated as far as the frontier bridge. I tried to hide so as not to be seen in the headlights.
As soon as I reached the other side I immediately turned into a wood and quickly came upon a village. From the frontier area I managed to go a long way. Crossed Germany. And here, not far from the Austrian border, while I was standing at a petrol station trying to hitch a lift, two lads in denims came up to me. They even had an earring. I was totally unsuspecting.
They stuck their Criminal Police IDs under my nose and demanded to see my documents. At first I said that I didn't have them. But when they threatened to take me to the Police Station I had to show my pass. They realised straight away that I was illegal. So they asked me where I was going and why. I showed them my Italian visa. For some unknown reason it made a deep impression on them. After that the cops simply wanted nothing to do with me. They advised me to leave Germany the sooner the better and let me go. I am mystified to this day."
Ah, such tales of adventure for the gratis traveller!
In front of the Palace of the Doges there is a wharf, where the small boats called 'vaporetto' depart for destinations all over Venice. They work busily night and day. Sergei became 'The Expert'.
"I've noticed that tickets near the entrance or at the exit aren't checked. May be, there's some ticket inspectors here, like we have for our suburban electric trains, but I've never seen them. I reckon we've got a pretty good chance to go as stowaways!"
So we did. Sergei was right. We didn't see any inspectors either at the entrance or exit, or anywhere along the way for that matter.
Having arrived at the wharf of the Peninsula of Sabioni, we immediately spotted a supermarket. Having bought our foodstuffs we were about to leave when we noticed a braided basket full of stale bread. We offered to buy it in the hope that they would give it to us, but...
"NO! This bread is not for sale. It's no good."
"We see that it's stale, so may be you could give it to us gratis?"
"But why do you need it? To make those bread pictures?"
But because they thought we were kidding and didn't believe us, we left empty-handed.
We headed away from the wharf for some three kilometers. Sergei pointed to a half-ruined, two-storied mansion-like farm house standing back thirty metres from the road which was surrounded by a jungle of corn. The windows were boarded up.
"I stayed here last night." He informed us. "The place is very tranquil. The next house is empty too. "Closed up for repairs".
We decided not to try to get inside but rolled out our sleeping bags in the grass-covered courtyard. As luck would have it, the corn stood ripe and golden on its stalks so we gathered some for dinner, cooking it over our campfire.
When morning dawned we headed back towards the sea. The intention was to find a camping ground so as to take a shower and wash our clothes. Again it was Sergei who shared his knowledge.
"Let's hide our rucksacks in these bushes here because you can't enter the camping ground with them. We can get away with plastic bags only. Oh, and another thing. We'll have to separate so as not to attract the attention of the guard."
Many of us professional hitchhikers have a passion for collecting various ways to travel free, where to spend the night and how to get food.
It was Nicholas' turn to share his expertise. "Do you want me to show you how to get a free meal at a camping ground?"
The demonstration he gave was quite inspiring. He approached a tent, in which a German family rested. He greeted them and then said, "My friend is sick. Probably sunstroke. Would you have an aspirin?"
"Yes, certainly, we do." would come the helpful response.
"Thank you very much. That's great. But can I ask just one more thing? My friend is lying down feeling so rotten that he can't get up to get to a cafe. Is there a chance that maybe you have a couple of spare sandwiches for him?"
As expected, the method worked one hundred percent. And soon Nicholas returned loaded up with a can of something, a piece of sausage, a stick of bread and a carton of milk.
The rest of us decided to put our lesson into practice to test our own efficiency. Parting we set about dropping into various tents. When we met up again and put all the food in one heap, it was obvious that we wouldn't be able to eat it all for breakfast. We were going to have to stay here for lunch as well!
By evening we had split into our teams once again and parted company.
Sveta and I didn't have much daylight left to get that far from Venice. Night caught us on the outskirts of Yezolo. We picked a spot near the shore of a channel, where the frogs jumped and the swans floated gracefully. From the side of the highway we were obscured by thick, prickly shrubbery. On the opposite side there was only an abandoned lane, or so we thought.
We awoke to shouting. A chain of peasants were strolling by along the lane and as each one came upon us they didn't fail to express their surprise.
Beside the speedway entry near Padua we met up with two more of our fellow competitors, Irene and Tatyana. They told us of their own crossing of the Italian border. Nothing new. Their problems were caused by the same requirement to have three hundred dollars for each day of the visa validity. Unfortunately for the girls they had less than one twentieth of that amount.
But there was a twist to their tale. Unlike the rest of us they were permitted entry to Italy legally. Probably the feminine touch!
Irene and Tatyana went off first and within half an hour we too had hitched a ride. At first the coolest sports car raced by but then reversed back to where we stood on the roadside.
The driver offered his explanation. "I didn't immediately click that you're headed to Milano". As we climbed in he added, "By the way, I like to drive fast." Never was a truer word spoken for we were soon racing along the entire journey at speeds somewhere between 180 and 200 kilometers per hour.
We didn't have much sympathy with noisy, dusty Milano. Finding our way via the roadmarkers, we walked to the outskirts and found ourselves in a slum district. There were shacks made from pieces of plywood, plastic or sheets of rusty iron amidst old, broken cars and garbage. Along the roadside stood painted whores.
I have the bad habit when on my hitchhiking travels to only remember to look for a place to sleep at nightfall. Still, as a rule, it's easy to find a place where it's possible to put down a rug and sleeping bag. It can be harder though when night catches you nearby the entrance of a speedway, for it's a well known fact that pedestrians are not allowed there.
Consequently a dilemma set in - you can't go forward and you don't want to return the way you've just come. The search area is limited therefore by the nearby surroundings.
And it was exactly in such situation that we now found ourselves at the exit from Milano. Ahead, the speedway. We glanced around and to our joy and relief discovered what appeared to be limitless fields of corn. We managed to find a grassy site. Our rest was not pleasant however, for it was a stuffy night and there were hordes of mosquitos and gnats. And to add insult to injury, our nostrils were assaulted by the stinking evaporation from the irrigation channels which were filled with rotten, stagnant water.
A certain Umberto Valdata, an architect from Milano, picked us up next morning. It appeared that his hobby was coin-collecting. When he realised we were Russian he asked, "Would you have by any chance some Russian coins on you?"
In fact it's for just such a purpose that I usually take a handful of silver and copper coins with me when I travel abroad. I reached into my pocket for the change.
Umberto got excited. "Actually I only have twenty thousand liras with me. The rest of my money is on my credit card."
I agreed to take what he had for I knew that exchanging it for Russian roubles would yield me approximately a hundred times more in value.
On alighting we bought ourselves two litres of ice-cream from the nearest supermarket and settled down in the shade of a traffic sign. We had no luck for ages.
Here on the Italian roadway the lunchtime siesta yields for the hitchhiker only foreigners or those urgently needing to get somewhere. Just one of them braked. I stared in the window: "Genoa?" I pronounced with my Russian accent.
"What - what?" Clearly the driver couldn't understand my request, so I showed him my placard with the name written in Italian.
"Ah! Jenova! Quick! Jump in! I'm in a hurry."
Mario was born in Sicily, homeland of the Mafia, but now worked in the north of Italy as a truckdriver, where he was earning three times more than he ever could have in his Motherland. He was headed to visit his folks and was in a hurry to get to the airport. He apologised at length that he was thus unable to take us right into the city.
Fortunately for us, even though it was Italian lunchtime, someone was driving from the airport and within a couple of minutes we'd changed cars, and hence several minutes later, we were in Genoa, amongst the extravagant palaces and museums, with parks and discotheques stretching along the seashore.
Genoa was settled in the fifth century B.C. In the middle ages it was an important Roman trading port. Then as an independent republic, its influence spread up to the Crimea. An example of this can be found today in the Crimean town of Soudak, where towering from the peak of the mountain is a Genoeese fortress.
My daughter and I had by this time perfected the habit of finding our way on foot to the outskirts of any human settlement, big or small. We went southward along the seashore. For one hour we walked, two, three, five. And still ahead, shimmering in the dark, the tantalising blaze of lights.
We descended onto the beach. Between the boulders and the steep stone cliff we found a suitable site for the night. Tired out from the long walk we quickly fell asleep only to be woken abruptly when somewhere out of the darkness there appeared an enormous black man.
As it turned out we had taken 'his place'. Fortunately for us he behaved decently and hospitality rather than insisting on his rights!
We settled down again undisturbed relieved that there were no more pretenders laying claim to 'our place'.
But we did have to share the beach in the end for with the morning came the local townsfolk, passionate fans of bathing in the sea.
At the entry onto Route A12 we were picked up and unexpectedly taken by the same car straight to Rome. A nice, fat man sat at the steering wheel.
"If you can't find a suitable place to stay while you're in Rome, call me." he offered. "Think it over. I work in the cafe "Maliaspina" on the Via Apia Nuova, number 41. You can find me there from early morning to late evening."
Having thanked Gianni for the invitation, we left at the turn off to Pisa.
At once a car stopped with two cheerful lads inside." To the tower?"
Amazed we queried, "How'd you guess?"
They just laughed. "All tourists go there. Each of them hopes to be the one to see the Tower fall. But even after all this time nobody's got that lucky!"
On Campo dei Miracoli Plaza, apart from the Leaning Tower,(entirely encircled by scaffolding), there is only the cathedral containing the tomb of Henry VII plus a rather strange building going by the name "The Baptistery."
All around and nearby the souvenir shops are crowded with multi-national tourists. It's even possible to hear Russian spoken. But as soon as you move away, say some 200 metres, you immediately find yourself in streets so empty that it's as though the place has been struck with a nuclear bomb. Very strange!
From Pisa towards Firenze - as Florence is called here - there is a speedway. Not quite bonefide though because hitchhiking is permissible here. In reality however, its not really suitable to do so. The traffic speeds by so fast that in order to stop someone, the hitchhiker must want to do so very much. Even if you do manage to win a lift, the speed your car is travelling is so high that it'll take some fifty metres to come to a halt from the time of braking. In fact we witnessed just such a feat executed by a young pair driving a blue Fiat.
On approaching we were asked the standard question. "Where are you from?"
I gave the standard reply. "Russia."
But the reply came as a complete surprise. "Then we can speak Russian."
Russians? Not quite. The young couple were in fact members of our brother nation - Slavs. They turned out to be an international mixture. Tomash, was Slovak but his wife Sofia was a Bulgarian. They worked in France for some French/Russian company. So we were all foreigners driving along this route on our way to Florence.
Florence attracts thousands of students and art lovers from all around the world. Here the Renaissence began and here is where the majority of its great masterpieces have been created. World renown names such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Dante, Bocacchio, Bottichelli, Galileo, Giotto - all of them from Florence.
This city stands unequalled in the world for the sheer number of masterpieces collected together in one place and it would easily take more than a week to visit all the museums and art galleries located here.
During the day Svetlana and I had time to visit only the most popular places close at hand - Palazzo Veccio, Gallery of Uffizzi, Pitti Palace, the Duomo Cathedral.
As a former physicist, I remembered the Church of Santa Kroche over and above all the other galleries and museums because it had been turned into a scientific pantheon. Here the great Galileo is buried. On one side Enrico Fermi, the nuclear physicist, has joined him. On the other Marconi, the designer of radio.
Having crossed the Arno River via the bridge Ponte Veccio, we climbed up to the sightseeing area known as Michael Angelo Piazzale where the whole city comes into view. What a spectacular sight! However, because we couldn't stay there for the night we camped instead in a nearby park.
An old but pretty woman sat behind the steering wheel of a small passenger car. "You going to Sienna? I wish you could have visited us yesterday"
"Why, what happened?"
"You don't know?!" Total disbelief. "We in Sienna since the twelfth century, from 3 July to 16 August are witnesses of the Palio Festival. Horse races. All is as in auld lang syne. The jockeys wear medieval suits with emblems of their own Master. Of course, these days these are only the team emblems, you understand! Yesterday the team which I have supported for 40 years WON!"
Our friendly granny let us out near the Dominican cathedral. The old city centre is surrounded by a well preserved stone rampart. If you were to go through any one of the gates and continued straight ahead without turning, you would eventually find yourself in the central square, Piazza del Campo. Here one finds the most beautiful gothic building in all Italy - Palazzo Comunale and also the one hundred metre tower known as Mangi.
The square still showed the evidence of yesterday's races - heaps of muck everywhere, coupled with a strange procession of jockeys wearing medieval velvet suits with, you wouldn't have believed it... baby's dummies in their mouths! The hung-over expressions worn by several of the heroes testified to the length and intensity of yesterday's victory celebration.
Having wandered around the twisting driveways and roads that were Sienna, we returned to the Dominican cathedral. It was so pleasant to rest from the heat of the day, sitting in the shade on chilly stone steps. Caution was called for however, for the native doves also like to while away the time!
In order to leave the city of Sienna, we orientated ourselves with the use of the road signs pointing the way to Grosseto. Following the indicated route as we wandered along the crooked streets we could not understand why we ended up back at the Dominican cathedral. The second try ended the same way. It was only then that we noticed the enchantment of the Cathedral itself and wondered what it was like inside. Maybe worth dropping in for a look.
Strange as it may seem, after visiting the Cathedral, we easily and quickly found an exit out of town! As we walked along the road we gathered the ripe cones from the cedar trees. (The mediterranean nuts are at least three times larger than the Siberian ones.) Oranges were also freely available but they appeared to be still green.
Grosseto is a comfortable, medieval borough. Having just left Sienna we failed to appreciate its true worth. The overwhelming beauty of Sienna which still burnt brightly in our minds allowed no room for a favourable comparison.
Our next ride was with a pensioner couple. They did not understand English, but when we pronounced "Chivitaveccia" they both nodded joyfully. What that meant for us was that we were all going the same way! Before we'd travelled even forty kilometers they pulled over and stopped by the roadside where they immediately started to explain something in Italian. I caught only one familiar word , "mare" (sea). Just what we needed. As night was already falling it was better for us to stay by the seaside than in some unknown port like Chivitaveccia. I prefer to sleep on the seashore and, if possible, as close to the waters edge as I can. In many European countries there is very little difference between the high and low tide mark.
Soon we reached Montalfo Marina near the mouth of the Fiora river. On one shore a number of campsites and hotels stretched on but on the opposite side, a beach deserted at this hour of the evening. No bridge. But we did manage to wade across the river.
We walked for nearly a kilometer toward the distant yet visible atomic power station. (Later we were to discover that the building was not as yet complete.) To our delight we found a place right beside the high tide mark where the sound of gently lapping waves soothed us to sleep.
In our efforts to get back to the road next day we accidentally wandered into a watermelon field. The problem of how to test taste the melons since we didn't have a knife now presented itself. After wrapping the melon we firmly but gently hit it against the asphalt. To our delight by the third attempt the watermelon cracked neatly and we ate our fill with great enjoyment.
Our main concern now was to hit the road again. The two male occupants of the old rattletrap which picked us up were Moroccans who earned their living by working the beaches. Their trade consisted of everything from pedalling sunglasses to sun umbrellas.
Following our lift with the Morrocan Negroes we were picked up by a student. "You're headed to Chivitaveccia? I was going to drive along the bypass route. Well, OK I thought, I might do you a favour and give you a lift to the city centre. Then I thought, nah, there's nothing interesting there for tourists. So instead why don't you come with me to the mountain Lake Brachano?"
So that's where we went, Antvillara, a town whose narrow winding streets, rise up from the shore of the Lake to a church, standing on the hilltop above.
Above the lake shore we found a comfortable lawn. No sooner had we stretched out our sleeping bags when we heard voices. Someone approached, and was followed by a young lad walking a dog and talking on his cellphone. But on seeing us, he excused himself and immediately retreated. The place was ours!
In Rome we immediately went to the street called Apia Nuov which we remembered was where Giovanni worked whom we'd met only a few days before. He was not yet in the cafe. So we left our backpacks there and went on an excursion around the city.
What I had taken from a distance to be a fortress tower, actually turned out to be... the Colloseum! One of the enduring symbols of the Eternal City the Colloseum was built in the time of Emperor Vaspasian on what was formerly a swamp, and had the capacity to hold a crowd of fifty thousand spectators. In modern times probably the same number of tourists visit architectural masterpiece each day. Free entry is permitted to the first floor only. If you want to climb up higher then you need to pay. You also have to pay for having your photo taken with men dressed as Roman gladiators.
To bother with a description of Rome is a waste of time for any school boy could tell you of the Forum, Cvirinale and Palatine. On the other hand the sensation which exudes from the cobblestone pavements over which marched the Roman legions, defies description. It needs to be felt deep within the soul. It was this feeling that consumed us, sending us aimlessly strolling from palace to palace, from park to park, from fountain to fountain.
So preoccupied were we with soaking up the atmosphere of an Empire emanating from mighty Rome, that it was quite late at night when we recalled that we needed to return to the cafe. It was already closed, but Giovanni had been waiting for us. The oddest thing I thought, was that he did not think to invite us to his home. Instead he entrusted us to his bartender, an insatiable opera fan. The whole evening we spent watching the great Luciano Pavarotti in concert on TV. While this 'high brow' entertainment was not our usual choice, somehow here in Rome, in such pleasant surroundings, full of pasta and wine, it all seemed to fit together so perfectly that we didn't actually mind at all.
The new day found us in Vatican City. Passing over the River Tibre, we reached the square, encircled by the oval colonnade displaying the statues of 140 saints. We drank the 'saint' water from the small fountains near the Egyptian obelisk then headed through the entrance into Saint Peter's Cathedral, named in honour of the Christian apostle said to be buried there beneath the altar. Saint Peter's is the largest cathedral of the Christian world and can accommodate up to one hundred thousand people at any one time.
I was amused to note that a guard stands at the entrance way. Excluded are those who are 'not worthy' of the Christian favour. 'Worthiness' is determined by the clothes one is wearing. If, for example, a person is attired in a gym suit with a gold chain around his neck, then you are most welcome, please. But if you are too 'poor' to possess even a pair of jeans being clad instead only in shorts, then sorry, get out of here! Indulgences are made only for children. They may wear whatever they want. So Sveta was permitted to go in, but I had to stay outside and wait for her.
I looked around. As it turned out, I was not the only naive outcast here. At least one third of all tourists are excluded. Not only are men in shorts barred from entry but also women wearing short skirts, that is in reality, any skirt above the knee.
In order to get around this rule, the smartest tourists right there in front of the entrance do a striptease. I watched an approaching group of young people. There was only one pair of trousers between them. The trousers then became a sort of baton, being passed from individual to individual as each took their turn to view the inside of the great cathedral. In this I could see the potential for a booming business and wondered why the Vatican had not yet organized the renting out of trousers, as is the case in some museums where the museum clerks hire out slippers?
We left Rome on foot. Judging by the map, the Apia Nuova should lead to the highway going to Naples. And so it was. On reaching the outskirts, we immediately started to hitch. Quite often we find that on first leaving a city the hardest thing is to cover the first twenty or thirty kilometers. So when a young family couple offered to take us only five kilometers, this time I didn't refuse.
We got acquainted and I told them about our journey. Then Alessandro and Antonina Salvati suggested that we join them for a walk along the shore of Lake Albano. Nearby stands the summer residence of the Pope, Castle Gondolfo. The idea was at once appealing because we had no idea about the existence of such a remarkable lake. As so often happens in the life of the Professional Hitchhiker, the unknown would have remained unknown had it not been for pure chance and a casual meeting.
Having left our rucksacks in the car, we strolled down the path which zigzagged along the slopes of the extinct volcano now vegetated by a dense wood. In its crater is Lake Albano. We decided to take a dip. The water was excellent. Could it be because the 'saintly' person of the Pope has himself bathed here?
As the sun was setting we hurried back to the vehicle fearing that we would have to climb in the dark. Our daily walks, averaging some twenty to thirty kilometres had trained us so well that Sveta and I did not even lose our breath. But not so the Italians who looked as if somebody had plowed over them.
"We're not used to this kind of sport. We drive everywhere, home, work, shopping."
The friendly married couple invited us back to their home for the night, but we declined their kind offer, for we did not want to return to Rome again. The call of the Italian summer sky and the fresh air was too strong.
We were now in a region of splendid villas owned by the Roman aristocracy and anyone else who was rich enough. Unchained dogs strained through the bars of high fences. Eventually we thought we'd found a suitable place to rest in the grounds of a rural school vacant due to summer vacation. But the dogs protecting the nearby villa noticed us began to bark frantically. Five minutes, ten, fifteen... We simply couldn't stand it. We decided to pack up and hit the road again to try our luck further along.
We walked on for at least an hour passing by vineyards and plantations of kiwifruit (which on tasting turned out to be unripe). Finally, we found the open, green expanse of an unfenced lawn where we settled down for the night, undisturbed by the wealthy owner whose house was some 30 metres away.
Evening found us at Castle Volturno. Standing nearby a certain mulatto girl "hitched". Her true intentions and occupation were evident by her style of clothing. Because we had not come to spoil her prostitution business and there was no urgency to reach Naples that evening, we decided to make our way seaward, for it was only about five kilometers further.
As we walked along with our thumb out we were picked up by a German tourist, who was staying at some coastal campsite. He pointed towards a pine plantation. "May I recommend an excellent camp site? See those trees there, well, beyond there's a stretch of beach. In the daytime its overcrowded and noisy, but at the moment, no-one. If you're looking for a quiet nights rest, that's the place."
We found the deserted, sandy beach. The night was warm, dry, and brightly illuminated by the moon. By morning however, the weather had changed sharply. The sky was obscured by clouds and drizzle fell. Hastily we packed up our rucksacks and ran into the pine plantation. We only just made it when the thunderstorm began. Hail followed. When the sky cleared a little we made our way down to the road. No sooner had we reached it than the rainstorm broke again. This time there was nowhere to shelter for the only thing surrounding us were endless cornfields.
Naturally, we got wet through and with nowhere to dry ourselves our one and only hope was to get into a warm car.
To our great relief and gratitude a top of the line Mercedes braked. On seeing my intention to sit on the front seat the driver waved his hand, "You'll soak my seat. Sit in the back!".
Several times on the way to Naples we got held up by traffic jams, caused by the flooding of seaside town streets following the morning rainstorm.
We'd barely left the Mercedes on the outskirts of Naples, when an enormous refuse collection truck pulled up. The garbage collectors, dressed in bright orange overalls, opened the door and shouted, "Hey you! Jump in here with us! You'll never make it on foot!"
We did not need to be asked a second time. The outskirts of Naples was knee-deep in flood water. Only a truck could get through.
The historic centre of Naples begins from the Dante Piazza, where one can find the town gates of Port Alba, the Jesu Nuovo church and the Santa Clara Abbey. It then stretches down to Via Duomo with its enormous thirteenth century cathedral and the San Gerolamiani church.
Not too far away, on the Piazza Plebisita, it's possible to see the Palazzo Reale, the facade of which displays statues of the eight Napoli kings.
Travelling from the palace to the port, you soon reach Nuovo Castle. Further out still, are the famous Napoli slums. Along both sides of the road are dilapidated shacks one or two stories high. Overhead washing lines; underfoot children crawling in the dust of the road.
The feeling you get is that suddenly you've found yourself transported back in time to an Italian movie set from the 1950's or 60's.
According to the map, the road from Naples to Pompeii passes along the coast of Napoli Bay through Portisi, Torre de Greko, Torre Annunsiata. But it's only on the map. In reality an endless municipal street stretches on. We failed to find a suitable place to hitch a lift. Several times we tried to hitch in prohibited places, but failed to secure a ride at all. So we covered all thirty kilometers to Pompeii on foot.
The city perished in 79 A.D. because of the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It was excavated by archeologists in the nineteenth century. At present all the ruins are encircled by a barbed wire fence. Entry is by ticket only.
By the time Svetlana and I arrived there was still a full 15 minutes before closing, so we seeped through the exit gate. Sure, if we'd wanted to see the lot there wasn't that much time, but we planned to spend the night here. We had to abandon our plan however on discovering that the compound was gaurded by unchained dogs!
A short search found us a more suitable place - on the outside of the fence. We were relieved to find somewhere so quickly as the 30-kilometre hike had left us exhausted.
We headed to the nearest entry onto the highway pretty much as soon as we awoke next morning. Without having to wait too long we managed to flag down a southbound car which raced along at an average speed of 170 kilometers per hour! During this journey the driver, a young businessman, engaged his brain to explain to us in understandable terms, the economic policy of Italy with regard to the poorer South.
"In the south of the country all highways are free. The reason is to help speed-up economic development in the region. But here only cops and the Mafia have a permanent job".
I wondered at our driver's occupation - it certainly seemed to fit.
As we taxied into a petrol station we saw for ourselves of the truthfulness of this young man's words. A warning for any would-be cheaters of the Mafia - an enormous, black hole burnt into the facade of a roadside restaurant.
A member of the other workers group of the south pulled along side us in a patrol car. The cop glanced directly at us. "Hitchhiking is prohibited!" we were informed in no uncertain terms.
I grabbed our only chance. "Really? We're Russians on our way to Sicily."
"OK then. Move on".
Now having gained the support of the constabulary we soon caught a microbus with a local scout behind the steering wheel.
" Travellers!" he proclaimed with obvious delight. "Cool! I like to hike as well." (I secretly wondered how he would have gone on yesterday's thirty kilometre marathon).
"See these woods around." He was saying, "My friend and me feel at home here".
I'm still not sure that he really got the gist of what the Professional Hitchhiker is all about. But he was a nice enough fellow and he let us out near the turn off to the Villa San Giovanni.
Far below a port was visible, from which the ferries shuttled back and forth to Messina. We swooned at the utter beauty of the scene but were sharply jerked back to the cold hard reality of just where exactly on the globe we happened to be standing when a passenger car shot past with a Sicilian from Palermo.
Sicily is not only the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, but also the native homeland of the world renowned Mafia. I guess this explains why the streets of Palermo are patrolled by both police and submachine gun toting soldiers as well.
The most unusual building in Palermo is the Palace of Norsemen. In the eleventh century the Arabs began this structure, but it was added to over time by Norsemen and Spaniards, victors of subsequent battles. The resultant mixture of styles seen today reminds one of a building which hovers somewhere between a mosque and an art gallery!
Close by the Palace of Norsemen stand the gates of Port Nuova, erected in 1153AD to honour the visit of Charles V.
Underground in this fascinating city, are the catacombs below the Abbey on Piazza Capuccino where, exposed to the eye of every common man, are the mummified remains of 8000 of Palermo's richest citizens.
Night had fallen and the darkness only seemed to highlight Palermo's underbelly. We felt insecure here. The thought of leaving the city on foot was not that appealing. We returned to the Palace of Norsemen hoping not to have to wait too long for transportation out of this Mafioso paradise.
Our wish was granted when a Fiat stopped. I opened the door to reveal an old man in a bright Hawaiian shirt. "Mondello?" I asked hopefully, having seen this name on a road sign.
"Do you speak English?"
The conversation which followed revealed two distinctive peculiarities which we discovered to be common to all Sicilian drivers.
Firstly, many motorists do not understand that hitchhiking is a practice whereby the invited travelling companions are delivered along the way, that is, the same way that the driver is travelling. No inconvenience is necessary, or intended. However, the Sicilian driver may simply travel in the requested direction for perhaps ten kilometers or so, and then, having delivered his 'guest' passenger, turns around and continues on to his original destination!
And secondly, unlike the majority of Italians, the Sicilians never ever, acknowledge that they do not speak English at all. Of course this was the case with the Old Sicilian. His command of English being completely limited to a mere handful of words.
Time also revealed that the Old Man had absolutely no need to go to Mondello at all. But he was friendly and helpful, so he took us there anyway.
When we arrived in Modello the nightlife was in full swing. All the discotheques and cafes were open. Even the embankments were overcrowded. Understandably so for this was Italy where daytime was for sleeping but the nighttime for strolling.
Considering that the previous night we had spent in Pompeii now some 800 kilometers away, our one overwhelming desire was to lay down and just sleep. It's amazing though that this desire for sleep, albeit strong, was overridden by our own snobbery, for not only did we want a suitable place to sleep the night away, but as always, our preference was for one by the sea!
At first, the problem seemed impossible. Experience though, coupled with tenacity, came to our aid. Having investigated our surroundings, we discovered that one of the hotels had direct beach access via its own private tunnel under the embankment. For security reasons the end is sealed with gates of thick, steel bars and so here we chose to lay our weary bodies unseen from the hotel above, yet only three meters from the sea. We fell asleep to the hypnotic sound of the waves and the feet of the folks wandering somewhere in the darkness above.
The racket made by conversing fishermen penetrated our slumber early the following morning. Why, why, with the coastline stretching out endlessly before us, did they have to choose this spot directly opposite us to gather their entire fleet of boats? Would you believe it? I guess you could say it was Murphy's Law.
From Palermo to Trapani there are two ways to go. The most popular, and on reflection, most sensible, is the scenic coast road. The only explanation for not taking this route that I can think of is that some devil got to me.
Instead, sense was replaced by madness when I found myself accompanied by my eleven year old daughter, traversing the zigzagging mountain road. I think I must've been the only person in history to entertain such a brilliant idea.
There was good reason to avoid this route as only about one car every two hours made its way inland. The result of this choice was that hitchhiking gave way to 'hiking'. (Ah, shades of that intrepid Italian scout who'd given us a lift earlier!)
Strangely enough for all our foot slogging we were not that upset by this choice, the weather being excellent, the air clean, and the place, well, yes, largely uninhabited!
To intensify this euphoric experience came the added bonus that we were now able to replenish our supplies of fresh produce. Apples, plums, pears, peaches grapes - they all flourished here, virtually every step of the way. Even the cactuses, whose fruits we had seen for sale in the local markets, grew here. I tore out several of these cactus fruits for us to taste.
Removing the skin is a painful business without the appropriate tools, and my palms were pinned all over with the small but extremely sharp spines. Once inside though, a thick, red-coloured pulp is revealed containing what looks like thousands of small stones. We bit into them, pausing to comprehend this new taste sensation.
The effort exerted to win the fruit of the cactus far outweighed any rewarding of the taste buds for we found them to be completely and utterly tasteless. Nil. Nothing. Zip. I wondered what on earth the Sicilians found in them. Perhaps its that the plentiful supply of delicious oranges have bored them and so they need a simple diversion to something more unusual and tasteless? Perhaps.
The cars were almost end on end along the road now and practically all stopped for us. Having accepted a lift we discovered that the drivers were only going a couple of kilometers. To our amusement and suprise though, they would actually carry on for a few extra k's before dropping us off, explaining that "this is a much more suitable place".
One such altruist delivered us to the Palermo - Castelvetrano speedway. Our destination, Trapani, was impossible to reach from here. Quick decision time - OK, let's go to Castelvetrano!
The first car to stop for us was going to Palermo. Thanks, but no thanks, not Palermo. Castelvetrano. We were forced to wait maybe half an hour more. Eventually when a vehicle did stop the story was the same. Again we declined. Another thirty minute wait. When the third car pulled in and offered us a lift to Palermo we accepted for it seemed that it was to Palermo we were supposed to go.
For the second time we arrived on the outskirts of Sicily's capital city, but we decided not to go in. We examined the map there by the roadside. Better to roll forward instead and try our luck in arriving in Agrigento.
Our next driver acted in the true Sicilian mould of generosity of motive and complete misunderstanding of what "hitchhiking" is all about. When we asked if he was heading to Agrigento, he turned aside from his journey into Palermo and delivered us instead to a forked road. As a result he covered a good thirty kilometers extra. But we were grateful for this "Sicilian Way."
A Honda with the inscription "OSHO" on the rear window kept us moving forward. The husband and his wife explained that they were followers of the Indian guru Osha Rajnish.
The husband waxed lyrical on his approval of our mode of travel. "Good on you. Life demands the taking of risks, the opportunity of complete uncertainty. I imagine that this is exactly what you get hitchhiking. Ah, the opportunity to feel alive. These guided tours are not like this. Everything has to be planned and approved and done according to schedule."
I tended to agree with his sentiments, for life is always connected with danger. Only the dead run no risk, for they have nothing to lose. But for the living, they are pressed hard and required to fight for life. Danger abounds everywhere - when we step out of our homes and onto the street, we run the risk of being robbed, victimised by hooligans or met with some accident or other. Even in our homes we run certain risks.
I've often mused that the only safe place is in the toilet. By simply closing the door it is possible to 'live' out our life in complete safety. And to die the same way. Ah, how dull and empty the safe life! How preferable the other extreme, a life filled with adventure but fraught with possible danger. I understood what this man meant and I relished the feeling of being 'alive'.
To me these organised tours about which he spoke gave a person about as good an impression of a country and its people as being holed up in some hotel or other anywhere in the world, an illusionary backdrop created by running a promotional video pertaining to the country of choice. And any hotel restaurant in the world could provide the appropriate ethnic food and wine.
Twilight was beginning to approach as we stood at the turn to Cammaratu. A dilemma - look for a place to camp or try to move further?
The two of us agreed to try the first twelve cars. If no-one stopped, then we would sleep here. And wouldn't you know it? That's exactly how it happened. The very last car, number twelve, was the one that pulled in.
You should never miss 'your' car'. This is the main principle of hitchhiking. Perhaps this can be better explained as 'A hitchhiker is always there where he is supposed to be'. Hitchhiking is not for the worrier. The pleasure of a hitchhiking journey depends so much on the hitchhiker's ability to be flexible, rather than doggedly trying to stick to hard and fast plans and aims. Like the organised tour I'd discussed with our earlier driver.
Again we were picked up by a married couple. Their names were nearly identical - Franco and Franca. And they were similar in other ways too, more like a brother and sister. Even their characteristics were alike!
They laughed and joked along the entire journey, and told us about their children. We were surprised to discover that, in spite of their apparent youth and childlike nature, they already had kids. Franco apologised to us endlessly that he couldn't invite us to their home. And as if to compensate, he took us to a roadside cafe where he bought us sandwiches and cola.
Loaded down with the heavy plastic bag containing our meal, we couldn't go very far so we headed for the nearest field. It had been ploughed but not harrowed yet, and the resultant surface was made up of enormous clods. Our search failed to find even one small flat site, but we were feeling so tired from our day's excursion that such a triviality did not lead to insomnia.
Next morning we continued our way to Agrigento. On the way we learned that this city was famous for its temples and museums of Greek art. But Agrigento raced by and we missed it!
However we did succeed in visiting Syracuse. This city is known primarily because of the great Arhimed who lived there. Syracuse was the second (after Athens) city of Europe in the ancient world by its wealth and prestige.
Here can be seen the inspiring antiquities of the Roman coliseum, the Greek theatre and the catacombs. But entrance fees govern any closer examination.
The Middle Ages saw the addition of the fortress of Dionisium Sr., and the Evrialo castle. And the twentieth century has left its mark too for right there at the exit to Messina stands an enormous chemical plant!
It had never entered our heads to climb to the top of the active volcano that is Mt Aetna, but it was an opportunity too good to miss. Mentally prepared for such an experience we were now looking forward to the danger element. It would be nice to say we'd done it. But to our bitter disappointment it was not to be for we raced straight past towards Messina. And so instead of climbing Mt Aetna we found ourselves standing at the speedway exit for an interminably long time. The city itself was not far away, but we had no desire to go there on foot. Doing what the Professional Hitchhiker does best we raised the thumb. Nobody stopped. Eventually the reason why we failed to attract even one little old vehicle became quite clear. We were still in the municipal area. Plus it was nighttime. The only vehicle that did stop was that of a cop.
" You are Russian?" he stated. "I see your T-shirt "'School of Hitchhiking'".
Immediately I recalled the Italian customs officers, who stretched our nerves to the limit at the border.
"Will he lecture us on how to live?" I wondered. "Try to prove that to hitchhike and sleep in the streets is neither good nor sociably acceptable?" I let out a slow, controlled sigh.
To my unexpected surprise however, this cop turned out to be one of the good guys. In a mixture of Italian, Russian and English he explained that in just fifteen minutes he'd be finishing work and would be delighted to give us a lift straight to the port!
Out of pure curiosity I went to see how much a ticket on the ferry cost. One dollar!
Isn't it amazing though how one's principles guide one's life. It suddenly seemed enormously important to keep the principle which governed the Moscow School of Hitchhiking - never pay a fare. It wasn't just a matter of saving a buck. After all, for the truly Professional Hitchhiker to go without money is like a cliffhanger is to the extreme sport abseiler - an ascent without insurance equipment. To do so promotes the development of one's self-confidence and self-reliance and sharpens the grey matter when difficult situations arise.
Experience told me that it was possible to travel free on any ferry. The important thing was to know how. In many instances, the ferry companies have a rule - a driver pays only for himself and his car, but if he carries less than three passengers, they can travel for nothing.
The loading queue. A small passenger car was first. The back seat was overloaded with stuff, but the front ones were occupied by a young married couple. Unfortunately both of them spoke only Italian and it was with some difficulty that I managed to explain that all we asked was for them to deliver us only twenty metres - onto the ferry.
Having finally understood they were only too pleased to oblige. All that was left was for us to find a space in the cab. To do this we had to clear half the back seat by cramming everything into every nook and cranny. What a squeeze Sveta and I had but we managed, and most importantly the main principle of the Moscow School of Hitchhiking was kept!
As the very moment the ferry departed Messina, the great festive fireworks began, lighting up the sky wondrously. Secretly we imagined that it was us that the hospitable island was seeing off.
On the ferry we met a pair of Polish hitchhikers. The guy was at least six foot but the girl appeared to be not even half his height.
Having disembarked on the Italian coast, we all headed for the speedway. The Polish couple hoped to leave immediately, but we decided to hunt for a place to sleep the night.
Our new acquaintances quickly achieved their goal for in literally five minutes they managed to score a ride. My daughter and I on the other hand, unsuccessfully having studied several hills covered with the prickly plants, decided that it would be wiser to lie on a steep slope, even though we ran the risk of rolling down onto the road while sleeping.
We came to the south of Italy via the western seaboard and chose to head back north up the eastern coastline. There's no motorway here. Near Regio di Calabria Route 90 begins, following the seashore then moving away for a couple of kilometers before returning almost to the water's edge. As is common to all seaside roads it's impossible to meet longhaul drivers. The only hope is a short hop of perhaps twenty or thirty kilometers with a local transport company.
The Calabrians didn't seem in a hurry to pick us up. One by one cars passed us by. We had to hang around for an hour or two at one place. A pattern began to emerge - no sooner than we got a lift for a few kilometers we came to a standstill again. To top it off nobody spoke English. There was a bonus however in that the sea was quite close at hand. So when we got tired of thumbing we went for a swim instead.
Naturally, our next travelling companion speaks only Italian and carries us no further than we could've covered ourselves in the hour we'd stood waiting for his lift. However, when he stopped, he did not seem to be bidding us farewell but chattered on excitedly. I could see by his gestures, rather than his words, that he was inviting us somewhere. Then I heard one of the few Italian words familiar to me: "mangiare" (to eat). Ah, lunchtime!
He brought us to an apartment on the ground floor of a two-storied building. Inside, we met not only Marina, our host's wife and their six year old daughter Palma, but also another couple, an Italian girl, Denisa and her African husband, Kenedid. Amazingly it was only Kenedid that had a more or less tolerable command of English.
So, he became our interpreter. During our lunch, which lasted three hours, we had plenty of time for discussion. Everything, from the various ways of being on holiday to the problems of educating children with learning disabilities. (Denisa works in Torino as a special needs teacher at a boarding school there).
We exchanged addresses before saying fond farewells and returned to the roadway to continue the nerve-wreckingly slow process of moving along the Calabrian roads.
Reality told us that there was no hope of being invited for supper with anyone and so we gathered wild tomatoes which grew along the roadside.
As darkness began to fall, we turned off and went to search for a place to sleep by the seashore. To our delight the beach was sandy which is so much better to lie on than those covered in pebbles or stones. To add to our great joy we discovered the mouth of a small stream. Laundry time, and in fresh water which is vastly more suitable than seawater for this task.
Speedwise, the next day did not start off any better than its predecessor, the one consolation being that we were in freshly washed clothes. Amazing the small delights of the simple life of the Professional Hitchhiker!
Slowly we moved through a line of similar seaside towns hardly covering more than a hundred kilometers. Twilight found us in the village of Soverato and it was here that a BMW pulled up beside us. In the front seat sat the male driver with a girl beside him and in the back sat a woman. We climbed in beside her and started conversing with the driver in English.
However, on realizing that we were Russian, in a strong foreign accent he surprised us by saying, "Let's speak Russian".
The girl beside him seemed equally was surprised. "Wow! You are really Russians? That's great! Let me introduce myself - I'm Marina. I've come here from Ivanovo to see my Italian friends. I saw you from my balcony and thought, "They could well wait for a lift from this place for a long time. If you're still there when we leave we'll pick you up'".
I told Marina and Giovanni (he translated to his wife) about our journey. what seemed to impress them most was that we had been travelling with only one hundred dollars for the two of us.
When they headed to the supermarket to do the week's shopping we joined them. Giovanni, still in disbelief that we were travelling without luggage, pushed a small shopping trolley across to Svetlana. "Fill that for the road. I'll pay."
So we came out loaded down with two enormous bags of goods, mainly sweet treats. Sveta had decided to take the opportunity to taste many of the unfamiliar local biscuits, sweets, ice-creams...
Following our supermarket visit Giovanni drove us to Catanzaro Marina. It is noteworthy that in Italy many cities have an accompaning seaside settlement. These are generally named after the city itself, differentiated by the addition of 'Marina'.
Having reached the beach, flooded in moonlight we made a luxurious supper. But although we were blown about a bit by a cool wind, we decided that in fact this place was sufficiently calm enough to camp and so we spent the night.
Although hitting the road pretty early we'd covered the ridiculously small distance of only twenty kilometers by lunchtime. We hitched everything that moved regardless of whether the vehicle had a spare seat or not. OK, so they're full then let the passengers show their surprise. At least we got a reaction! We were feeling that if we didn't do something the Calabrians might get the mistaken impression take we were nothing more than roadside poles!
Suddenly there appeared a two-door Fiat. I tried to stop it even though I saw that the whole interior was chocker with things, and there was absolutely no space inside.
The driver seemed to deliberate a long time as to whether to brake or not. He stopped fifty metres further along. Now it was my turn to hesitate. Do I approach him or not? Fifty metres there, then fifty metres back. I've met such chaps before. He stops but only to inform you that he's either going in the other direction or, only for a couple of kilometers in your direction.
When you ask these blokes, "Why didn't you just keep going?", you generally meet with the reply, "I saw that you asked me to stop, so I stopped!". These recollections rush instantly through my mind. But solely because I feel that I've no way out, I decided to approach.
A sunburnt, long-haired man, not that young, but in good athletic shape, starts to explain apologetically. "As I was driving along I saw you standing on the road asking me to stop. But knowing that there's no spare room in my car I hesitated. Then I thought that to leave you standing in the burning sun would be wrong. That's why I hesitated. Well, as you can see I finally did decide to stop. Do you mind if I ask why you're wearing those matching yellow T-shirts? And what do those emblems mean?".
My reply that we were the Russian hitchhikers produced a magical action. with unexpected energy the driver started to tidy away all his stuff. His truly titanic efforts managed to free half the front seat and we were able to squeeze in. There's much truth in the saying "It's better to go badly than to stand well'.
Alessandro (he asked to call him Sasa) told us about himself as we drove along. "I have an apartment in Naples. But I like to travel. Winters I usually spend in Indonesia on Bali island. But in summer in the peak of the tourist season I travel around the whole of Italy, working as a DJ and running my own discotheques.
I'm actually a stomatologist by trade and for several years after graduating I worked in a prestigious clinic. I made a lot of money. Drove a Mercedes. But after a while I came to realise that such a lifestyle was not for me. I felt that without the freedom to enjoy different adventures I couldn't live".
When we arrived in Bari - an administrative centre to the province Apulea - Sasa whirled along the narrow labyrinth of medieval streets for a ages. And it was only after having rung his girlfriend on his cellphone that he was able to find her house. Here we met by a mulatto girl about twenty. She apologized profusely that she could not invite us to stay the night because there was simply no room in her tiny single roomed apartment. However both she and Sasa tried to persuade us to spend the night in Bari and were even prepared to pay for a room in the hotel for us. But I declined their kindness, asking only for a lift to the outskirts of town.
We stood near a a gas station to await our next ride. A young lad approached asking, "Where to?"
"Anywhere would be great," I replied frankly. "As long as its possible to bunk down somewhere in a sleeping bag. Ideally - a seashore free of hotels and private beaches."
"Then you're in luck. I know just such a place."
We found ourselves on the shores of a harbour in Giovinazzo. To the left there stretched a well-lit embankment. To the right darkness. We went left and walked for nearly a kilometer before I realised that it might be more fruitful to go right instead.
"Let's go back and check out the other side. It could be better." I suggested.
To put it mildly Sveta was not pleased.
"Why didn't you think about that earlier. It was obvious we should've gone right from the very beginning".
So for the first time on this trip, discordance. Funnily enough its quite common to stike a conflict somewhere along the way when you're hitching in pairs. The 24/7 closeness with someone on the road and the gradually accumulated weariness tends to take its toll. More often than not the outburst vents itself against a bad decision, however well meaning, taken by one partner.
Nevertheless this time I insisted on having my own way. To air her protest Sveta sulked and made it clear that she was no longer talking to me.
Fortunately for me the exact spot I'd suggested turned out to be a suitable place to sleep. Not what you'd call a wilderness, but a stony beach with a camping ground nearby. It proved to be a popular place for tourists who strolled along the shoreline with flashlights. Amateur night fishermen. But they didn't bother to pay any attention to us being completely absorbed in what was to them a fascinating occupation.
However as soon as we lay down, courting couples started to appear from the campsite to wander along the beach. Why couldn't they just sit in one place instead of stumbling over us all the time. But we were too tired to change our resting place and adhered to a policy of tolerance instead.
Near Molfetta we tried to get onto the speedway, but ended up on some parallel road instead, which wasn't even noted on our Italy map. So that's where we were picked up by Giuseppe - a strange chap who chattered non stop in Italian. The fact that we did not understand him, did not deter him at all. Even my attempts to transfer the conversation into English were simply ignored.
We turned off the main road and taxied up to an enormous warehouse. Giuseppe invited us inside where there were stored heaps of second hand clothing and footwear. Three Italians resembling beggars and a couple of Moroccans sorted everything into smaller piles.
Seemingly we had been awarded an especially high honour in visiting the pride and joy of our driver - his private business. On the rights of boss Giuseppe started to present us to all by a chain.
A thickset and, judging by the exterior, a slightly drunk workman, suddenly found the urge to produce a ten lira banknote, which he then proceeded to gifted to Sveta. Not to be outdone Giuseppe immediately reached into his wallet, raked through it for a long time, but failed to find anything of suitable value. Without saying a word he disappeared somewhere and on his return handed several more banknotes to my daughter.
It still puzzles me to this day.
The next place we endeavoured to score a ride from was not really suitable. It was a bypass road near Foggia. Only trucks seemed to be travelling along this freeway, and even they passed us by. At first I tried to stop them, but after failing to get any response I dropped this idea, deciding to switch to cars which sometimes glided by on the bypass road. This bypass connected with that strange road on which we'd arrived from Molfetta earlier.
It was from this direction that a long vehicle swung into view. There was really nowhere for it to stop, so I didn't bother to raise my thumb. The driver stared at us with such interest however that I couldn't stand it. So I waved my hand. Immediately the truck screeched to a halt blocking the road. We climbed aboard to find ourselves in a roomy and comfortable cabin, complete with a coloured TV set. We watched the Italian programmes with interest but were disappointed to discover the same serials as we had back in Russia. Flicking through the channels we found one showing the movie 'Thunder in Paradise'. You know it's possible to watch this movie even in Chinese!
It was night when we arrived in Pescara. A river of the same name flows into the sea right in the centre of the city. As is the custom in all Italian resort cities, nightfall brought the inhabitants pouring out onto the embankment for the traditional night promenade. The place was alive with restaurants, cafes, bars and discotheques. Gypsies plied their trade in sunglasses and leather bags.
The beach was very inviting and comfortably adorned with deck chairs, sunumbrellas and tents. Vigilant guards patrol protectively the whole night long. But the problem for us was not the fact that the place was guarded. After all, we could always manage to come to some amicable agreement with the guard.
No. The problem was much worse than that for us. The problem was that the beachfront was illuminated throughout the entire night by powerful searchlights. We were thus confronted with the question as to whether it was going to be possible to get any sleep with them blazing away. It felt as if we were standing in the shop window of a supermarket.
After a long and exhausting search we found a place in the shadows between two long boats. We slept peacefully until early in the morning when we were abruptly woken by fishermen shouting, "Hey, you! Get up. We need to lower our boats into the water!"
We got a truck-driver heading towards Bologna and we managed to get a lift as far as the Rimini - San Marino freeway intersection where straight away we hitched a Mercedes Benz sporting the numberplate for the 'Republic of San Marino'.
Our car's driver sat very pompously behind the wheel. His facial expression seemed to say 'I'm certainly not just an Italian you know. I am a citizen of Europe's oldest Republic!'
To be a citizen of San Marino is not only prestigious, but profitable as well. This tiny country with a population of only twenty thousand people, survives on the annual influx of up to a million tourists. San Marino is perched on a hilltop under the walled protection of Ross Castle and the Palace of Vallioni. Here, crowded together, are giftshops and wine merchants.
We were amused to note how accustomed the people are to Russian tourists, for hanging in several shop windows was a sign announcing in Russian 'Free liquor tasting.'
But our people are not only tourists, many in fact now live and work here. One Russian we met is Sergei who hails from Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine. He too sells souvenirs in his shop. He originally came to Italy a couple of years ago on a tourist visa, and after looking at the Italian lifestyle did not want to return to the Ukraine. Having worked here and there he eventually qualified for residency and so has made San Marino his home.
Not all has gone smoothly though. Having decided to settle here and establish his business he sent for his wife to join him. However, even after following all the official procedures to bring her to San Marino, even having secured her a visa, unfortunately she has had to return to Russia just across Slovenian border.
And why are they prevented from being together? For the totally trivial reason that she hasn't been able to raise enough cash as 'show money' to satisfy officialdom.
We wanted to spend the night in Rimini and so managed to get a ride with a somewhat snobbish businessman.
"There are a lot of Russians here", he informed us. "You can go to any restaurant anywhere and sure enough you'll find a menu in Russian."
"Well actually we don't generally dine in restaurants." I stated.
"Oh. I see." He paused as if to consider our circumstances. "Then you must visit our ancient monuments - The Triumphal Arch of Emperor Augustus, the Tiberius Bridges, the Tempio Alatestiano Cathedral, the Arenga and the Podesta Palaces. And while you're here, drop into the Malatesta Castle".
"We're only spending the night in Rimini because we like to sleep on the seashore."
"OH! I don't advise that. Usually our town beaches are quite safe at nighttime, but not in August. This is the time when the beaches are inundated with 'a group of very dark personalities'".
Frankly, we ignored his warning and went to search out a place right there on the beach. It was true, during the night there were some people wandering about. These late disco patrons definitely looked at us with suspicion and probably thought to themselves, "It's dangerous in August on the Rimini beaches with these dark characters sleeping rough!"
The next morning the weather suddenly changed becoming very cold and cloudy followed by a bitterly disgusting rain. Thus began the last day of summer. Immediately our thoughts turned to home and we just wanted to be there.
We barely managed to reach the entrance to the motorway when an even stronger rainstorm hit. We had to hitch beside the tourniquet (toll gate) straight, having hidden under its roof. An Albanian family consisting of husband, wife and baby took pity on us and we eagerly accepted their lift with relief. Near Bologna we were stuck in a traffic jam and practically ground to a halt. Here we were stuck on the tail of a long convoy.
The Albanian quickly lost patience (seemingly a national characteristic). He crossed the white line and immediately commenced overtaking everyone in front of us. At first all was well. It seemed as though we were going to get past everyone and make it to the front of the queue, but just before we did we were pulled over by a police patrol vehicle. Almost certainly one of those commuters he'd felt so clever about overtaking must've called them. Cellphones make it all too easy to do so these days.
Having stopped the Albanian was now trying to justify himself. His main line of reasoning seemed to be that there was a small baby aboard. The cops remained uncompromising. Writing out a ticket he was presented with a fine for five hundred thousand liras. However, to insure against the driver's refusal to pay, he wrote me down as a witness. May be, I'll be sent a summons to the Italian court?
We planned to cross the Italian-Slovenian border in the region of Triest. But Fate dealt us a different hand. Our next car had us going down instead to Nova Goritsa. The frugal Italian minibus driver customarily made a weekly trip here for petrol, which in Slovenia was much cheaper. Such twists and turns in the Greatest Hitchhiking Race on Earth!
The Customs Officer takes my passport in his hands and immediately notes that there is no entry stamp for Italy. I was already prepared to relate a story about how we arrived in the country with our Italian friends, and so weren't stopped by the Customs Officers. I was saved the trouble however when the sergeant managed to figure it out himself. He had found the transit Slovenian visa and according to the dates, he realised that we couldn't have stayed in Italy for more than 23 days as prescribed in the visa. This seemed to satisfy him.
It was too early for us to relax though. Ahead of us were waiting the Slovenian border patrol with the inevitable sacred question: "How much money do you have?"
It was a combination of happy chance and quick thinking that we managed to slip through. The Customs Officer looked at my twenty dollars and at once became officious. Fortunately at that very moment, someone diverted his attention. We seized the opportunity and quickly approached the next window where visas were arranged. As nonchalantly as possible I assured the fine Officer sitting there that we were cleared. I knew that he had seen me talking with his colleague even though he wouldn't have been able to hear our conversation. And so, by the time the first official returned I already had the visa in my passport. He looked at me, waved his hand and decided I wasn't worth the trouble of creating a fuss.
It was nearly 2 o'clock in the morning when we entered Slovenia but we were too pumped by our adrenalin rush to sleep. Instead we felt only a strong desire to get on the move. But the road was empty. Not a single car! We had no option but to leave the outskirts of Nova Goritsy on foot. Eventually we came across some tall grass on the edge of a pear orchard where we snuggled down to enjoy a peaceful sleep.
On our way to Italy we had passed Lublana when we took the bypass route. But on our return we crossed Sovenia's capital city on foot from end to end.
When we did undertake an attempt to hitch, we were immediately picked up by a chemistry student from the local university.
"My parents only recently bought me a car. But for the past three years hitchhiking was my mode of travel too. I spose you've been waiting here ages? I remember once that right here in this very spot I was stuck for four hours!"
Whew! Lucky break for us then!
Slovenia presents no problem at all for the hitchhiker. You're gonna get a lift whenever you want. Just ask!
It was important now to know where we were heading. Unfortunately, we didn't have a map of Slovenia. We reached Maribor easily speeding along the straight route from Lublana. But after that it was difficult for me to recall the name of the crossing place on the Slovenian-Hungarian border. The road signs didn't help much either. Their information pointed us in only two directions: to Vienna or to Zagreb.
In spite of my inner nagging doubts, from outside appearances we obviously portrayed an air of competence and self-assuredness. A Volvo slowed and a young woman in the passenger seat with a thick book of road maps wound down the window and asked, "Can you tell us how to get to Hungary?"
"No idea. We're lost! But since we're going there too, maybe you could take us along with you? Perhaps it'll be easier to figure out the roads together."
And thus we met a couple of newly-weds - Luigi Baprisko and Ilona Krashnai. Putting it bluntly, the Italian husband must've already been a pensioner, and had been a fighter pilot in the war, whereas his third wife, a Romanian girl, looked like his daughter. (As he acknowledged himself, his mother-in-law was closer to his own age). But they looked happy. They'd left their one year old child at home to go honeymooning in Italy. They were now on their way back home to one of the Budapest suburbs.
When they invited Sveta and me to be their guests naturally we readily agreed. But just accepting their kind invitation in no way guaranteed we'd actually manage it. As a matter of fact, they were going to Budapest via the speedway, which first crossed Croatia. It was no problem for them of course, but we had trouble with the Croatian transit visa.
Understandably my Russian passport immediately attracted the attention of the Croatian border guards. We were sent to talk to an official in a van which served as the Customs Office.
Here we were asked to fill out a questionnaire. In the column 'Occupation' I, without thinking, wrote down 'University Lecturer'. He looked at me doubtfully. And I knew why. After a month wandering about as a 'Professional Hitchhiker', the lifestyle had taken its toll. An honest appraisal in front of any mirror would return the verdict 'vagabond'.
To top it off, our remaining funds constituting a mere twenty dollars, didn't really cut it as far as officialdom were concerned. We must disclosure our real financial situation!! Well, I certainly confirmed that I had a bank account with at least one thousand dollars, and to back my claim I presented my plastic cards. But this was a waste of time. The only thing left to do was to bluff my way through. I informed the Customs Officials that I was travelling with my best friend. Yes, he had money! So they went to check. Luigi showed three hundred and fifty thousand liras (a little more than $US200.)
Seemingly, this wasn't enough either. To prove that he was in fact solvent, he also presented them with his credit card. (Though later he confided that it was completely empty!)
Having consulted each other the Customs Officers decided to grant my visa. The fee was fifty kunas, roughly about ten dollars. But American dollars, accepted in many places I had travelled through, were not however, acceptable here. It was mandatory that official currency only be used in payment of official debts.
I had no option but to go to the van nextdoor which served as the Foreign Exchange Office. But nobody was there. My strenuous efforts to find the official money changers - even one - proved fruitless. What was I going to do? Fortunately, a guard came to my rescue and converted my dollars into his country's cold hard cash.
This process of the visa requirement held us up for an hour, probably longer than it was going to take to cross Croatia!
Luigi joked, "I bet this is probably the most expensive road bit of road you've ever traversed. Ten dollars for ten kilometers!"
The whole day it rained heavily. We were grateful that we weren't stuck somewhere on the road in such conditions. And an added bonus - Svetlana and I got to spend a dry night under the roof of Luigi and Ilona in a suburb somewhere in Budapest.
Next morning when we set out the weather was so-so, though not raining. Luigi dropped us off on the route we needed to take. But the rainstorm overtook us before we had time to reach Miskolc. Hoping it wouldn't last too long we sheltered under the roof of a filling station. For nearly five hours we were stuck there! Only as evening approached did there appear any possibility that we might again set off.
Before long a microbus stopped.
"Will you take us toward Kosice" (Nearly 60 km).
"Sure. But not right to Kosice." (It sounds like very near to)
We'd only travelled about five kilometers when the bus stopped. The driver pointed out an illuminated crossroad.
"Look there you go. That road leads to Kosice. Actually I'm heading in other direction."
We stood under the street light, cautiously keeping an eye on the sky. No stars were visible. Inevitably it was only a matter of time before it would start raining again. And this time there was nowhere to hide. The crossroads were surrounded by meadows already knee-deep in water. As expected it soon started pouring.
We felt miserable, hoping fervently that a lift would arrive to save us from drowning. And wouldn't you know it! Out of the bleakness, headlights blazing, came a Lada to the rescue. We'd hardly scrambled in when the deluge broke. The whole journey it poured and poured. Yet amazingly, as soon as we crossed the Slovak border the rain unexpectedly stopped.
Having been dropped off at the outskirts of Kosice, I looked heavenward. The sky was filled with stars. The road was dry. My thought was that probably the thunderstorm wasn't able to pass through customs!
Ahead the lights of a large city were visible. That's the worst part of being dropped in a place like this, directly before entering the city itself. It meant that now half the night would be spent on the road.
The annoyance was to be only temporary fortunately because a 'cool' Mercedes appeared on the dark, deserted road. It was without registration plates. I half-heartedly waved my hand. But not surprisingly it passed by. A few moments later however, it turned round and came back. In the driver's seat sat a young lad, Slovakian, who spoke fluent Russian.
He explained his reason for his change of mind. "Well, as I'm flying by I see this little girl on the road. I can't believe my eyes. At first I thought it must be an hallucination. Something made me decide to check. I've got a son of approximately the same age. I didn't want to leave you here for the night."
Our next lift was in a Scoda, which took us from Kosice to Prešov. Night was already well along and the streets were deserted. Without a map and with nobody to ask the way we felt a bit stuck really. My hunch was that it would be best if we crossed the Polish border at Rzeszow.
Eventually we met the first living soul - a guard, who had the tedious task of patrolling a carpark. We figured it'd be nice to relieve him of his boredom, if only momentarily.
"Which way is Poland? This way or that?"
He pointed straight in front. "This is the road that leads to Poland." He paused thoughtfully. "In fact either right or left will do. It doesn't matter"
"OK. Let's get specific. Which road goes to Rzeszow?"
"It doesn't matter." (I do not know!)
So Svetlana and I, 'The Professional Hitchhiker', chose randomly. We slept the night somewhere on the city outskirts and discovered next day that we were already in the region of High Tatry.
The frontier checkpoint near Lysa Polyana we reached in the company of some Germans. At customs it became clear that, through absent mindedness, they had left their 'green card' for the Mercedes back at their motel. They had no choice but to go back, and for us that meant continuing on foot.
"You need to buy a voucher." stated a Polish Customs Officer looking at my passport.
These Poles are getting crazier each day! We weren't going to be crossing the Polish border illegally!
"But we're in transit."
"Then your visa will only be for two days."
"Fine. We don't need more than that. We're going home."
We reached the resort of Zakopane after descending the mountain road, and realized that due to the absence of a map we'd done a huge detour. We originally intended to go to Krakow on route (through Rzeszow, but now we were on the road E77). On it we unexpectedly got stuck in 20 kilometers from Myslenice.
Although it was already starting to get dark, our desire to return home as fast as possible moved us to continue hitching. In Poland hitchhiking at night is no harder than doing so by day. The only problem is that after one in the morning there's practically no cars, only small trucks making their deliveries of goods and newspapers to those shops open round the clock.
One of the food vans took us to Lublin. There, in an apple orchard near the Bypass road, we spent the night. Next morning we started to search for a way out of the city. We approached a passerby, asking how we got to Biala Podlaska.
"Prosto." he answered in Polish.
He's kidding. Even I understand it's not a difficult thing to do. The question was, how exactly? And then I recalled that in Polish 'Prosto' meant 'straight ahead', whereas in Russian 'Prosto' means 'easy, simple, not difficult', hence my confusion. Ah, the value of understanding foreign languages accurately!
On leaving Lublin we set off along a rural road. The farmers were incredibly willing to give us a ride and treated us to apples, pears and home-made pies.
Our next ride was with a very religious man who proceeded to expound to us some Christian sermon for the entire length of our journey with him. And probably due to his piety made a detour on our behalf to a suitable spot for hitching near Biala Podlaska. Here we were picked up immediately by a Belorussian driving a red Honda from Germany.
At the autopassage was a long queue but we got lucky. We noticed that for the transit cars there was a separate exit. No queue here. But even including this factor it still took nearly four hours to complete the border crossing. How slow these Polish Customs Officers work! It's unbelievable.
Nearly home. Our route from Brest to Moscow usually takes at worst overnight, but if you're lucky, just one day. We felt expectant.
To start with we were picked up solely by truckdrivers. The first truck carried a load of Polish furniture. A Gazelle took us to Minsk and a Kamaz to the TP post near Borisov. The kamaz driver simply couldn't take us any further than that as he was overcome with tiredness and had to rest up.
We took a gamble and tried to hitch further ahead, but this proved unsuccessful. So the rest of the night we spent in the nearest wood with a cool autumn rain falling.
The following day we were taken in a Lada driven by a guy called Vladimir who was returning to Samara from Lietuva.
"My friend in Lietuva has a splendid country house formerly owned by the Central Committee of the CPSU. Its ten hectares and there's even a lake surrounded by woodland. Its so peaceful there. You can really relax there. Not like hitchhiking. Tell me, what interests you in it?"
Where should I start? In order to answer his question I thought I'd summarize the trip we'd taken over the past month - where we'd been, what we'd seen, who we'd met, the fact that we'd never spent two nights in a row in the same place.
In the pouring rain of September 7 our journey ended where it had begun on the 1st of August, Moscow, Russia.
All rights reserved. None of the content on this page may be copied, distributed or displayed without the author's permission.
Sitemap | About the site | Contact
© 2003-2013 WorldBackpackers.net. All rights reserved.
A Jamo Web Creation.