Is there any such thing as a hitchhiking Shangri-La? The answer is yes, though most of us call it Eastern Europe.I heard it all before hitchhiking in Eastern Europe—all the bullshit-turned-preconception. However, in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe hitchhiking is deeply ingrained into the culture, and locals do it without considering it adventurous in any way.
So does anything change if you’re not a local? Fuck yes it does! People will be even more willing to help you out, to hook you up with food or local currency, or to even offer you a place to sleep. That’s why I repeated the experience. The rule of thumb in Europe is: The further East you go, the easier it is to hitch a ride. Well, that also works southward, especially in the Balkans. I’ve hitched rides in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria on different occasions and can guarantee you I’ll do it again.
My experiences hitchhiking in Central and Eastern Europe taught me a few things that I’d like to share with you to encourage you to try it!
You want to travel slow and allow for spontaneous changes in your itinerary.
While hitching out of Zagreb down to Banja Luka in Bosnia/Republika Srpska (a Serbian federative entity within Bosnia) I experienced the willingness of people to leave their mark on your trip. The driver asked if I wanted to see some of the country. I said yes, and so we started driving in a completely different direction to Karlovac. He wanted to show me an assortment of leftover military equipment rusting on an empty lot on the side of the highway. When we eventually crossed the border into Bosnia he took care of the administrative stuff, bribed a cop (10EUR got him off the hook!), and suggested we check out the city of Bihac. Getting to Banja Luka of course took twice as long as it normally would have but I probably would have never set foot in those cities otherwise!
Something similar happened on the next leg of the trip on my way down to Sarajevo. We were driving high up on the mountain along the Vrbas river, and the sight was just mind-blowing. I was looking out of the window in awe of the nature. The driver, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, saw my face and pulled over. I would have never breathed that air had I been traveling by bus. After a quick photo session we kept going. Look at the satisfaction on the guy’s face!
I unfortunately didn’t get to see any of those bizarre World War Two monuments spread around in the middle of nowhere all over the former Yugoslavia but I’m hoping next time I’ll get lucky and see at least one.
Keep one thing in mind should you get out of the car to do a bit of hiking in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia: As a result of the war, there are areas in the former Yugoslavia with heavy concentrations of unexploded mines. Bosnia is still one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Should you see a red sign warning of unexploded mines, stay the fuck out of there.
People took detours to show me other things they believed I absolutely NEEDED to see, like the castle of Nowy Sacz or a wooden church somewhere in Poland, or the city of Jajce in Bosnia.
That’s not where the generosity of people around there ends: I was given food, invited by some guys to a wedding celebration (which I unfortunately declined), recommendations, and even a bit of local currency.
Enjoy your fifteen minutes of fame but know when it’s time to listen
What the hell was I doing in Donji Vakuf, a city of 24,000 inhabitants in Bosnia? A couple of locals wanted to know as well. Well, waiting for a lift, of course. A couple of youths approached to ask how the hell a traveler, let alone a non-European traveler, had ended up in that town and insisted we exchange contacts on Facebook. Why? To put me in touch with their relatives in Sarajevo. I also had to put up my one-man-show during many rides, since people were interested in knowing who the hell I was. On a number of occasions my driver and I had no common language and communicated in a rather rudimentary way, if at all. I had a few very interesting conversations in German while crossing the Balkans due to the fact that my interlocutors had fled to Germany during the war. The stories they told were harrowing and the nostalgia with which they talked about Germany put the fact that I live there in perspective and made me feel pretty lucky.
You can usually rely on truck drivers
Truck drivers are often in the mood for some company. And no, I’m not talking about that of the prostitutes that swarmed the truck I was in when my driver pulled over at Poland’s border with Slovakia to buy cigarettes but about hitchhikers! Well, even if they’re the quiet type they do often stop. In Serbia, a truck driver took me and a friend all the way down to the border with Bulgaria. We crossed on foot and waited next to the road for the next ride. Who was the first to stop? Why, another truck driver. We crossed the entire country with him in his 18-wheeler. You can also approach the rows of trucks parked at rest areas and ask if anyone can take you.
Here is nevertheless where it gets tricky: I never had any bad experience riding in trucks but I know people who have, and they just so happen to be girls. As unfair as it is, girls are incurring a higher risk than guys when getting into a truck. Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to turn down a ride if it doesn’t feel right.
Issues of communication can arise. I had that problem in Hungary, where none of my drivers spoke English. Not really a problem except for the fact that there was not knowing where we were until the guy announced he was taking the next exit and that he was dropping me off on the highway close to the border with Croatia. Needless to say that that was illegal, and the only car that stopped after over 3 hours (not a very transited road) was a police car. The struggle, my friends, is real.
Experience the richness and the history of the region
Central and Eastern Europe is a very unique area populated by peoples of different nationalities, linguistic families, and religions. Not only West, East, and South Slavic but also Latin, Finno-Ugric, Albanian, Turkic, and Greek languages (among others) are all spoken there. Catholicism, Lutheranism, Orthodoxy, Islam, and Judaism are all found throughout the Eastern Part of Europe.
Though the whole region was heavily peppered with both small pockets and large communities of other nationalities (such as Hungarians in Serbia and Slovakia, Germans in Romania, Turks in Bulgaria, Jews in Poland, just to name a few) more or less all the way up to the 20th century, ethnic distribution changed in the wake of forced population transfers and exchanges before, during, and after World War Two, ethnic cleansing campaigns, and the Holocaust, among other reasons.
Nevertheless, the diversity of the area can still be experienced, albeit not to the same extent as before.
This all means that you can still find yourself in a Bosnian town with a Croatian majority, in a mostly-Muslim part of Serbia, or in an Slovak town where the majority of the population speaks Hungarian. There are municipalities all over the region, especially in the Balkans, where the titular nation constitutes a minority.
Hitchhiking can bring you closer to this amazing world, especially in areas close to international borders. It is an aspect of the region you would otherwise not be very likely to experience.
Observe and respect this, and avoid provocative remarks as this issue is still highly controversial and hurtful to many, particularly to people in the former Yugoslavia.
All in all, hitchhiking in Central and Eastern Europe is a great experience. It is safe, it is easy, and you’ll be overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the people there. History plays a huge role in the area, and the traces of the many wars that raged there as well as of the influence of other cultures can be seen in the architecture of the different cities you’ll travel through.
As always, don’t be afraid to take risks but let your common sense have the final word.
Travel For Less!
At The Broke Backpacker we are passionate about seeing the world for less. Hitchhiking can make travel ridiculously cheap and along with Couch-surfing can help you travel almost for free. Of course, you will need money to buy food and you will need to buy your gear in the first place. Before you set out for your first Broke Backpacking trip be sure to check out our Packing List and don’t be sure to shop around as you can find some great online bargain including money off outdoor and trekking gear.
About The Author.
Sebastián Cuevas is a US-born, Mexican-raised expat and traveler living in Berlin. He obtained both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in History at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and his Master’s in unpredictability on the road. Along with traveling, he is also passionate about literature, football, and Death Metal, a combination that does make perfect sense.