We left off with a post about an epic ride to Belgrade from Mikulov, Czech Republic. After that insane day, we explored Belgrade. Took time to walk around, had some Serbian food, and got a feeling for the city. Like Berlin it is a young city, vibrant and quickly changing. Full of history, monuments, and arts. It has an active nightlife (or so we heard), and looks like a great place to spend a week.
And then we were back hitchhiking to Greece.
Rested, showered, and packs packed with clean clothes; the next morning we shopped at a local market and made our way out.
We headed for a gas station on the highway which was conveniently located where the road passes through the city just a couple kilometers from the center. As we approached the station we noticed there was already a hitchhiker there. It was our first time meeting another hitchhiker. We met the new experience as kind of nice but kind of a problem. While we could exchange information and it was nice to have a feeling of comradery, in the end we were competition for each other’s next ride. He was in our tribe, but we still had to fight over our next meal.
Our new fellow hitchhiker was from Munich, and was headed to Kosovo. He was very friendly and he had a different method than us for finding rides. He approached people at their car in the gas station instead of standing at the exit like we usually do. So in the end we weren’t direct competition.
In about 45 minutes he’d caught a ride. We had the station to ourself, but 15 minutes later another backpacker arrived at the station. By now it was pretty clear, this was the main station for hitchikers to get out of town. I suddenly imagined the many stories of them all passing through, heading north and south through Belgrade. If you stayed at there long enough you could probably meet several on any given day.
The next comrad/competitor as Zuzanna keanly noticed, was from Poland. As he approached us she started talking to him in Polish. He was a bit surprised but charmed at her observation and the coincidence. He started speaking to us both in Polish. Which I could not participate in, much. Dziękuję!
His name was Paweł and he graciously switched to English for me, so we all talked for a bit. A young guy, probably not much older than 23 or 24, he had a smallish backpack which gave me immediate backpack envy. He wore a fidora hat, sports shirt, and shirts, and black plugs in his earlobes. Paweł was very experienced in hitchhiking and had already hitched through Serbia and this very gas station before. He shared his black marker pen with us, we’d recently lost ours. He offered us his advice and we soon agreed to split up. I realized, this whole competition thing was really not a big deal.
Still at the gas station after well over an hour, our hopes were strong but as we were just waiting on our first ride, it wasn’t the best start. We decided to adopt the last guy’s strategy, which was a bit more agrressive, and started approaching drivers in the gas station. This worked! Two people in a small white car pulled up to the filling station. In the car: a tall bearded guy in his 20’s and his cheerful, smiling, blond mother in the passenger seat. They were talking and looking at us, we responded with some eye contact and body language. Soon the guy walked up and asked us where exactly we were going. Moments later we were sitting in the back seat of their car having a great conversation. Our new friends invited us over to their house for lunch! What magic!
Zuza and I debated the offer, the day was already half passed and we weren’t even out of the city, but this kind of offer was not going to happen often, I knew from experience how great a serbian family meal could be, and we could still get dropped off at the toll station out of the city afterwards. Our new friends were so nice, we couldn’t resist. Minutes later we all turned off the highway and headed into the hills of Belgrade to their home. The city’s television tower was in our sights and grew nearer and nearer until we’d passed it. Philipp, our new best friend promised we were still in the city, and that their home wasn’t far. Before long we were pulling into a long rocky driveway deep in the hills, and three cute little dogs barked at us as we parked at their holiday house.
We met the whole family, and spent the next hour drinking beer and rakia, and eating a typical Serbian meal with salads of cheese, tomato, cucumber, and ćevapi (a sort of meat kebab popular in the Balcans) his dad had just grilled. Zuza and I contributed a green pepper and cucumber we’d bought at the market that morning, it was the least we could offer, we wished we had more, if only we’d known! The whole event seemed like a long afternoon at a cottage in the forest, but before long we were back in the car and Philipp dropped us off at the toll station. We exchanged contact info and hoped it wasn’t the last time we spoke.
From the toll station we got a ride in a few minutes from a man named Zlatan who admitted he wanted to practice some English with us. This is not an unusual explanantion. Zlatan got us about 100 km down the highway and left us at service station with a McDonalds.
From the McDonalds we discovered something that was going to be a problem for us until we reached Greece. The parking lot was full of Turkish families driving in cars with German, French, Swiss, and other northern European plates. These weren’t typical tourists though. Apparently, as we learned that day and for the next days, millions of Turkish people drive to Turkey for the summer from Northern Europe each in July each year for their holidays. So many do this from the 10th to 20th of July. If you are on the main highways used for their passage, you will see the roadways, rest stations, and toll stations completely full with car loads of Turkish families. I’m sorry to say most of their cars were full, and none of them wanted to give us a ride, most just ignored us. But still what a sight!
When we finally arrived by way of a couple truckers on their way to Sofia, in Niš, the last big city before the border of Serbia and Macedonia, there must have been 200 cars parked at the station, entire families were outside, cooking a meal, or passed out on the grass — surely catching a break during their 20+ hours drive home.
Normally we try to find somewhere inconspicuous to pitch our tent, but with all the families sleeping out in the open at the station, we had no problem throwing up our tent directly insight of anyone at the station. We slept well and in the morning we woke up, still many cars at the station, and also a tent across the station driveway from us. As we started to cook breakfast Paweł, our friend from Belgrade the day before, stepped out. We smiled and waved.