Zigzag in the Balkans (2/2)

Hello my dear loukoums, how are you doing?

In the last article we arrived in Shköder in Albania at Jacques’ place. Our host works early in the morning and we wake up at the same time. The day starts at 6am with a small coffee and a big glass of raki. It is a bit early for fruit spirit and we only drink what politeness requires from us.

With the victory of the Democratic Party in 1992, Albania turns the page on a regime even more closed to the world than the rest of the Balkans were. Its opening to the outside, still marked by the Communist years, is going without control. Since a few years Albania dreams of integrating the European Union and strives to fulfil its conditions, disturbing the geographical but also the cultural landscape. You can have a quick glance of this changes observing the construction speed of the roads and highways, or how fast the petrol stations and hotels are sprouting everywhere. But for us it is a very “typical” Albania that we have found, a great hospitality and kindness. Whereas we rarely waited less than an hour in the rest of the Balkans, in Albania we never stayed more than 5 minutes on the side of the road and we leave, unfortunately too quickly, this country at 10am, when we are usually still in our warm sleeping bags. We get to Kosovo and decide to stop in Prizren, where we have a coffee, stopped by the hip-hop sounds of the place.

Now we are back in the Balkans we know, and we wait a good two hours at the exit of Prizren. The day goes by with 3 drivers, still with plenty of waiting time in between the cars. We have a host in the Makedonian capital Skopje and we are only 50km away. The night falls on the bus stop where we are dropped, it is incredibly cold and no street lamps can make us visible to the drivers. The bus costs 2 Euros and we decide to take it if when it arrives! But it is not now that we will pay for our transportation because a car stops and brings us to Skopje near the Alexander Palace. Where our host Dobre and one of his four room-mate come pick us up and they open us the doors of their student apartment. It is a pleasure to see that everywhere, student apartments are similar and we feel immediately at home, surrounded by our teddy-bear hosts. These two nights allow us to recharge our batteries, to wash one or two underwear, to walk on the boulevard Alexander the Great, to admire Alexander’s statue dominating his four bronze lions, to eat a burger as big as the courage of Alexander. Yes, Makedonia is proud of its national hero. When we leave, we take the Alexander of Macedon motorway and we catch sight of a sign indicating the airport Alexander the Great.

When leaving Skopje to get to Sofia, we didn’t really realize that the border with Bulgaria is at more than 1000m high. We glimpse snow on the summits just above us. After having enjoyed the last sunbeams and having seen them disappear, it is not cold, it is freezing. We try to hitchhike but soon discouraged, we find a shelter in the heated toilets of the customs. We try one more time to hitch, just to see what might happen, and a car stops offering to leave us 20km further, we refuse. At least in our toilets it is warm! The dashboard of the car indicates -4°, we understand why we are cold. Back in the toilets we take care to close the door of our small room in order not to be spotted and take out our sleeping bags, mats and food bag. There is an electric plug, we watch Carne Tremula from Pedro Almodóvar, our backs leaning on the heater. We stop our conversations and our movie whenever a custom officer comes in to relieve himself, when all of a sudden one of them opens the door. Almost without a word he finds his way through our beddings to fill his bottle of water. Apparently hitchhikers are not a problem for the Bulgarian custom, and yet the border police is not really reputed to be the most friendly of all police force.
Thanks to an early awakening we join Sofia, capital of the yogurt, in the end of the morning. We find again this city that we visited three years earlier with four other friendzzz during a three weeks trip in Greece, Bulgaria and Rumania, the six of us in a 9-seats car! We find again as well Art Hostel and its relaxed atmosphere, youth hostel/pub in which we spend a bit of the afternoon while waiting for our host that finishes work at 10pm. After the four guys flat-share, we visit now the three girls apartment! Here again we are in a familiar territory, kind of a universal atmosphere, and it is good to be here.

Another early morning (what is happening to us??) et we make it to Istanbul in one day.
Arthur falls asleep in the truck that takes us from the Turkish border to Istanbul while Rémi, with childish eyes, marvels at the size of the city and of its traffic jams. We cross the bridge on the Bosphorus, strait that separates this huge city in two halves. Then dropped at a bus stop on the main road to the East, without any lira (turkish money) in our pockets, we want to join the apartment of Mathieu, our contact living in Kadıköy, a district of Istanbul. We soon understand that Istanbul is not Grenoble size-wise and that walking seems unrealistic. The locals advise us very very strongly to take a bus. Actually we don’t really have a choice. From now on, it is the Turkish kindness that takes care of us: someone explains to the driver that we don’t have money, no problemo. Another one tells us when to get out of the bus. An when we ask for a map at the security guy of the subway, he opens us the gate without asking any money and indicates in which direction we should go. Once arrived in Kadıköy, we ask three young musicians for our way and have to convince them that we will find the apartment on our own and that there is no need to come with us. 1am, Mathieu is not here but Alican his room-mate opens us kindly the door. Finally we are arrived.
See you next time ladies and gentlemen,
Teşekkür ederim !

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Zigzag in the Balkans (1/2)

We decided to spend only two weeks in the Balkans before joining Istanbul for two reasons. First of all because it is cold, and that cold is to the hitchhiker what the Team Rocket is to Pikachu: winter has to be in flip-flops under the Christmas coconut trees. The second reason is that Rémi needs to start an mysterious project beginning of December. But we will talk about it later (more infos on http://love.hitchwiki.net).

Starting in Leipzig on the 13th of November 2014. It is 11am when we start hitchhiking. Every time we step out of a car, we find an other one immediately. We pass Prague and our driver decides to go through the centre by car and we admire the beautiful cathedral, rather cool. Several more cars and we are in Hungary after a short stretch of Slovakia. It is about 10pm when our last car drops us at a gas station next to Budapest. We try a couple hours more and give up. We put our tent a bit further away.

From the next day on we take the habit of an intensive rhythm, waking up at 11am, a one-and-a-half hour breakfast. Even in the army they don’t do that. We love winter because thanks to our busy mornings that make us start hitching between noon and 2pm, we only have three hours of sun before freezing our thumbs. So there we are on the road to Croatia and we are doing pretty well until the border. Night falls and nobody stops so we decide to walk until the next city. It is time for our first Bürek, typical savoury pastry from the Balkans that will soon become our everyday diet.

Now things start to get complicated. It is night since quite a bit now and our first Croatian driver, Igor, invites us for a little cultural discovery of the next local pub. Igor is quite a personality and this one-legged guy in suit offers us some beers, but soon his advanced intoxication level will prevent him to take us further. It’s his girlfriend who will put us back on the road! Our thumbs are just up that we fall again into the classical Croatian ambush by following another local into the bar just a few meters behind. Rémi and Arthur love to take a sip of every culture. And here are our first glasses of raki served. It is only a few beers after that we will walk proud and strong to find a random camping place, with for only help our determination and two bottles for the road.

The two-hour breakfast gone, we join a huge and empty toll that will be the lecture room of Professor Arthur. Night starts to fall, as usual, but a hero brings us on the way to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and another one to the border. We cross by foot the bridge crossing the Sava, border river between Croatia and Bosnia, the atmosphere has something magical: the fog created by the humidity transforms into white waves at each truck passing. Several groups of young Bosnians dressed with shining clothes and covered of make-up are going to spend the Saturday night in Croatia. Our camp site will be established in a kind of swamp that has nothing to envy to the ones of the Mordor.

Things are getting even more complicated now but not because of the pubs put on our way. The hitchhiker, especially when he takes the appearance of two young males with beard is, according to the locals, someone that you cannot trust or even someone dangerous. Maybe it is because of the recent conflicts in the Balkans that continue to affect minds. Moreover we are in winter, out of the tourist season and are therefore “suspects”. This is at least our theory, in the absence of anything better.

Two amusing rascals, totally non-English-speaking, ask us to sing our national anthem “La Marseillaise” and drop us at night on a highway crossroad. A quick look allows us to tell that this place is really shitty. We are about to join a better spot when Haris stops in the middle of the cross and drops us in the middle of Sarajevo after inviting us for a quick internet-cafe at his place! We hide our backpacks in the bushes in order to carry more beer to visit the city by night. After, having no hosting, we hop up in the first tram that passes by and go out randomly to find beautiful abandoned buildings that we will be our fortunate hotel for the night.

After Sarajevo it is Mostar and its incredible bridge, symbol of the Balkans, that we are aiming. The good side of winter is that we are alone in a usually overcrowded city during the summer. Once arrived, our feet lead us to a platform next to the river where we pitch our tent.

The intense rain and the fear of water rising make us leave our spot in a speed of about 2,800 m3/s. Out of Mostar we wait three hours and end up walking the 11 kilometres that should bring us to the cross, leaving the more touristic road on our right. Until here, the day was quite lame. Once again, we had to wait for THE only cool person of the area, this time taking shape of an old Amercian Volvo. Inside, daddy fan of France and his car, and his lovely daughter future lawyer. This Volvo was not a car, it was a shelter zigzagging between the stars, following the rhythm of the warm and hearty talks.

It is night again and we are stuck 40 kilometres away of Montenegro on the « Official Hitchhiking Spot » until the falling sun the following day. But the fortress of Kotor opens us its doors in the beginning of the evening, revealing narrow streets and maze-like stairs, all empty of the usual summer visitors. We spot an abandoned house, or should I say a three-floor manor, with terrace, swimming-pool, palm and orange trees. Our surprise was great when we saw that our delicious castle had no floors, and impossible to drop our stuff under the beams that could fall on our coffee maker (our heads are strong enough to resist). But the veranda is in an perfect state and before long will be transformed into a improvised clothes hanger for our soaked equipment of the last two days.

Finally we can have a breakfast in T-shirt on our sunbathed terrace, which provides an XXL view of the mountain and the bay, as a promise of a great hitching day. Result, 100 kilometres of wait and struggle, before being blocked again, 35 kilometres away of Albania.

The next day does not look much better. It is night already and we have done 30 kilometres. But as always in hitchhiking, there is a hero: this one is called Jacques Chirac, an Albanian builder that makes us cross the border and then invites us at his place with home-made raki and goat yoghurt, giant garden, fresh picked hazelnuts… The first part of our tough Balkan trip ends with him. Nine days of tent, one unique shower in the freezing river of Mostar, and we thus appreciate our first meal in a home. But don’t worry we didn’t stink cause it’s winter so zero elbow smell.

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Germany and Balkans Gallery

A selection of pictures from the beginning of our trip, in Germany and Eastern Europe.

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