Austria to Portugal – The final hitch

The route from Fernpass in the Austrian Alps to the Algarve in Portugal is a complicated zig zagging labyrinth covering approximately 2600km. The trip takes a minimum of 26 hours driving time across six borders. It took me four days to arrive on the sandy beaches of Portugal. This was the longest, fastest, and least enjoyable hitch hike I’d ever attempted. I was picked up twice by police, baked in sweltering conditions, I was sold some drugs in the south of France, witnessed a fellow hitcher get his wallet stolen, inadvertently traveled four hours in the opposite direction, and slept in my hammock in the garden of a three star hotel.  During an exhausting ride into Spain I lost motivation and enjoyment for the adventure, I caught a bus from Madrid the remaining journey to Lagos in an anti climactic way to end a summer from northern tip of Europe to the southern tip.

The journey began in complete zen on the back of five weeks of meditation and yoga at a retreat in Austria. On the final day of the retreat I woke up to join the meditation class that I had attended everyday for the previous 35 days. Once class was over I ate breakfast and raided the fridge for leftovers. I wanted to hit the road early but instead took great time and effort to farewell each person that had contributed to this incredible month. Today was the first day of arrival for new guests. The new guests took interest to my peculiar set up, axe, bow, sleeping bag strapped on the outside of a well worn green backpack and bold hitchhiking signage which had names of the places I was hoping to be driven to. I finally got away at around 11. Traffic was typically bumper to bumper on the fernpass highway, it wasn’t long before a young man pulled over.

There are various options of getting to Portugal from Austria, none were straightforward. I could make the tricky navigation through the north of Switzerland and into the east of france, this was the direction I hitch hiked from one month earlier to get here, this route had the advantage of being travelled on already. The other way was to head in the direction of Milan and towards the coast of Western Italy, along the south of France, towards Barcelona and into Portugal . It looked difficult getting to Milan, there were two ways to get there. If I could make it to the south coast it was a straightforward hitch all the way to Barcelona.

I decided to leave it up to the helpful motorists to offer their opinion. The first driver dropped me a short distance, near the intersection of the main highway. I jumped out and sat unsuccessfully waiting near the motorway for a ride to Innsbruk. I opened my bag to eat some leftover Dahl which had spread its creamy contents through an opening in the container. I ate the last remaining spoonful’s of Dahl that remained in the container and began madly shaking the rest of the curry from my clothes. With all my contents spread over the footpath, the driver who dropped me off, drove back past in the opposite direction, watching and waving, 2 hours since dropping me in that very same spot.

I was picked up soon after, a five minutes ride that stopped literally on the motorway headed for Innsbruk. I knew it was illegal to hitch from a motorway. I didnt have much other option than to try it anyway. Five minutes later blue and red flashing lights whirled up behind me and I feared I was in some trouble considering I had no visa and a passport containing multiple European stamps that went back almost five years.

Inside the police car I was quizzed about why I was walking on the motorway. I hesitated to announce my plans but quickly realized these friendly Austrian cops were more interested in the story of my adventure than grilling me about how long id overstayed my visa. They wanted to tell me about their own adventures that they’d experienced back in Australia. The cops erupted in celebration when I said I was from Tasmania. Ahh, the little island! With the devil! They said. Most beautiful place in Australia! After I got the highlights of their holiday, we got down to business, they explained the illegalities and potential dangers of standing on a road with cars doing over 100km/h. Then they drove me to an ideal hitching location. They said I should hitch hike via a lesser known road that leads in a virtual straight direction to Milan, this would be the easiest and safest route. Not once did the police interrogate or raise suspicion around my dodgy passport papers.

My next ride came soon after and dropped me within walking distance of the Italian border. The scenery is beautiful here, cows grazing lush green grass surrounded by endless mountains. It was late afternoon, I’d travelled for hours over many kilometers, retracing steps, without even making it out of Austria. I was literally two hours from where i started. Dark clouds began forming overhead. I could see a secluded bunch of trees on a mountain side that looked a good place to spend the night, I was close to giving up hitch hiking any further when a young Italian man in a van pulled up. ‘Merano!, Merano!’ He shouts ‘Milano?’ I respond ‘Merano, si merano’ ‘ahh, si Milano!’ that brief exchange is the beginning of a four hour detour In the wrong direction. The misinterpretation was an easy mistake to make considering his strong Italian accent. Oblivious to this complete fuck up I confidently sat back, happy to make my target for the day, enjoying the friendly company of this man who for some reason didn’t think to ask why I wanted to go to his tiny hometown, Merano.

The traffic was heavy and after three and a half hours of crawling through peak hour traffic my driver tells me that we are fifteen minutes away, and asked where I wanted to be dropped off. A brief panic filled me as I suddenly realized the dramatic mountainous landscape was clearly not fifteen minutes outside of Milan. I don’t have a phone, so I borrowed his and it confirmed I was indeed a further four hours to the north west of Milan. I had done a massive detour away from milan that ended me being the same distance away after a full day travel. I embarrassingly admitted my mistake and he drove me to a train station where I could catch a 7pm bus ride to Bolzano, and then an overnight bus from there to Milan. I’d have to rush to make it all fit together but I simply didn’t have time to try and hitch from way out in the countryside at night time.

The second bus was from Bolzano was due at 4am to arrive in Milan at 8. There was a dense, creepy vibe at the nearly empty bus station, a man sold bananas and nuts to me for five euros and I sat to light my burner to make a coffee. The newly purchased gas burner didn’t fit my stove. I now sat coffee-less and unable to do any cooking for the rest of the trip. Next to me, a Spanish traveler playing guitar shared a joint with me and passed out asleep. He woke five minutes later with a sliced open pocket missing his wallet and phone, and his ticket for the bus trip. He drowned his sorrows with a song and another joint which I again helped him consume. The bus arrived and with the help of the happy herb I slept the entire way.

The morning traffic in Milan buzzed and beeped in a rushing unisen of stress and entanglement. I was able to hitch out of the city and found a ride towards Genoa, and after that another two rides landed me in Nice, France. A young man picks me up in Nice and is pumped to offer a large slice of hash to me for ten euros. ‘its your lucky day my friend’ he says, we drive to the ATM machine and when i jump out, I anxiously insert my bank card and pear over my shoulder, imagining that he could very easily drive away with all my possessions. In 30+ degree im dropped at a gas station on the motorway in Nice, with a chunk of hash, tired eyes and a massive sign reading ‘Barcelona’.

From here Im driven to Montpellier and wait at another gas station in boiling heat for over an hour. A truck pulls in and two Ukrainian twin girls jump out. The driver is headed to Barcelona. Relived, I approach the drivers door to inform of my intention to join him to Barca. He shakes his head and drives away. Deflated, I join the Ukrainians to wait for another ride. The twins are going to be fruit picking in France and need a short ride in a northerly direction. The girls are great company and I see immediately the more frequent appearance of stopping motorists now that I have twin blonde girls standing next to me.

Hitching alone, Im lucky to even make eye contact with the drivers, with the Ukrainians around almost every one of the cars stop. Another couple of hours pass, the Ukrainians have been picked up long ago, and Im still waiting, juggling small rocks in a bored attempt to gain attention. Finally, an electrician pulls over with a half smoked joint hanging from his wide, stained tooth smile. His speakers are too loud for us to speak but he keeps smiling anyway. The sparky puts his foot to the floor and screeches to a halt just shy of the Spanish border.

Im dropped at an awkward location and end up again wandering the motorway with thumb outstretched. The next car is another policeman whose far less friendly than the Italians I met just a day earlier. He looks angry and screams from the car window in French. I yell back in a calm, nonchalant fashion, ‘sorry, I cant speak French’. The policemans irritation increases, choosing to remain speaking the foreign language. He ushers me in the car, once inside, he describes, in perfect English, that its illegal to hitch on a motorway. He throws me aggressively out at a hotel and demands that I book a room in it. I walk in, use the toilet and go outside around the back of the building to set up my hammock in the tree filled garden.

In the morning Im first to arrive at the buffett breakfast and happily pay the ten euros for unlimited buffet. Apart from the banana and peanuts at the bus stop in Milan, Ive hardly eaten anything because of the constant disruptions and my inability to cook on the stove that won’t screw to the gas bottle. The receptionist watches me pile up full plates of croissants, bread, yoghurt, eggs, toast and then when he looks away I gently slide the contents into my bag that still stinks of spilled curry, and then head back to the buffet for a re-fill.

It’s a terrible place to hitch for Barcelona, immediately at the toll gate where only one lane heads to Spain. Eventually a truck driver from Bulgaria lets me in. He’s a curious and funny man and is completely shocked to hear of my journey. He a little too seriously suggests im a dead man for hitch hiking without a phone. He drops me just shy of Barcelona and I set my sights on Valencia or Madrid.

Hours later a man driving a luxurious Mercedes benz wound down his window, letting the fresh cooling air conditioned breeze escape into the thick Spanish humidity. I climbed in bound for Madrid and began replaying the same old repetitive story I’d recounted hundreds of times in the same passenger seated environment. He told me of his family in Madrid and the life they’d grown together across a lifetime of living in the same country. We crossed through the middle of the Spanish countryside, a view of less than inspiring dry tumbleweed and thirsty farmland. Conversation dried up like the empty rain water tanks we passed and my mind and body came to the conclusion that this single ride would be the final one of my hitch hiking summer. I used the mans phone to find two connecting buses and booked them to take me to Lisbon and then to Lagos. I sat back and smiled at the thought of sitting on a passenger bus destined for a certain location. I started the summer in the snowy norweigan mountains and ended up in the desert of Spain. I would spend two months working at a kite surfing lodge in the Algarve and then fly back to Sweden to see my girlfriend and do a final tour of my closest friends id met during my four and a half years travelling Europe. My mother had gotten sick and I finally decided that I wanted to go home and spend some time with my family. This was 2019. Little did I know that this Lifestyle, and life in general, was about to change forever, for everyone.

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