Hitchhiker

In early August 2016, I decided to try an adventure, given the fact that I was forced to take my 7 day vacation. I set up meeting with two friends in Corfu in northwestern Greece, but I wanted to get there with (almost) nothing planned. No transport or accommodation. I left home with just a backpack, a tent and a bank card. And two destinations I intended to reach: Musala peak in Bulgaria (the highest peak in the Balkans, almost 3,000m) and Meteora monasteries in Greece. During my 5 days trip, I kept a sort of diary and I decided to publish it here. If you are interested/curious to know how my 5 days experience was, I publish the impressions as I wrote them back then (with minor modifications), as if I were there.



DAY 1
I packed the bag last night, so today after returning from work, I only had to stop by the post office to pick up my package with the external battery ordered online. Which I did. Then I came home. I completed the luggage and I weighed: backpack weighed 16 kilos! I left home, obviously feeling that I forgot something. And to anticipate, the feeling was not in vain. The plan was to get to Giurgiu, then cross the bridge to Ruse, where I had a train to Sofia at 23:00. I took the bus up to Eroii Revolutiei and after a brief search, I found the “bus station”. Which, actually, is a parking lot. And where I took a bus, a fee of 16 lei, and it took me to the entrance in Giurgiu. Then I took a walk to customs, going with one thumb up on the roadside. Perhaps the drivers thought it was another finger, so no-one stopped. I had seen on the map that I could have cut it outright (shortening about 2km), but I couldn’t figure if it was possible in reality as well, because the road ran through the courtyard of a building. I asked a woman who was sitting in a booth if I could, and she said that theoretically I couldn’t, but, blinking slyly, she told me that if I bypassed the barrier and passed quickly, I could. Which I did and, within seven minutes I reached the Romanian customs. I mean where the bridge crossing is paid. I went to the first small car, I asked the driver if he can drive me across the bridge, and he turned his head as if I was not there. Then a van. The driver nodded yes, then drove by. (Later I realized he was Bulgarian and he actually signed a “no”). Then another small car. That one, a gypsy, disgusted replied: “Man, I don’t do stuff like that!” And then … well, then came a car with Bucharest license plates. Behind the wheel there was a lady in her 30s, cute, alone in the car. I asked her the same question, and she kindly answered she does not speak Romanian. So I repeated the question in Bulgarian (yes, I speak Bulgarian) … and she accepted with a smile. She made room in the front seat and I hopped in with the backpack on my lap.
– Hello, I’m from Bucharest and I go to the railway station here in Ruse.
– Hello, I’m from Sofia, but I’m working at a Romanian company in Bucharest. If you explain how, I’ll drive you to the station.
– Yes, I’ll set up my GPS. My train leaves at 11. For Sofia.
– I intended to stay one night in Ruse and in the morning to drive to Sofia. I’m a little tired, this morning I did this road opposite.
– … (I raise eyebrows and shrug)
– Well, yeah, I’ll drive directly to Sofia.
– Wow, that would be great for me! But I do not want to ruin your plans!
– No, it’s ok, let’s go. Put your bag in the back seat!
A very pretty and kind girl, history graduate. On the way we talk about Romania and Bulgaria, recent events in Europe, she tells me about her teacher experience in England. She is disappointed about her country and fellow compatriots, politicians and the state of roads in Bulgaria, how irresponsible the Bulgarian drivers are. She admires us Romanians for having a higher life standard than them and, overall, I find in her the good old Romanian habit of despising ourselves and loving others. I ask her how she trusted to take me in her car and she replied with a shrug: “I don’t know … flair …”. We stop at a gas station to buy a coffee and I get online and I book a bed in a hostel in Sofia. I proposed her to let me drive, but the next moment I found that I forgot my license at home. Hm … it’s a wonder when I do NOT forget anything … We arrive in Sofia at 10 and, since her friends are still at the cinema, she offers to take me close to the hostel. Then she disappears. She did not take any money from me, nor she has stopped in some cornfield. So I got to Sofia, I stayed at the hostel Moreto & Cafeto for 16 leva (36 lei), in a 4 beds room, with two boys and a girl. The owners were very nice, they invited me to go downstairs to the dining room, since one of their guests celebrates their birthday. I thanked them nicely and I said I was tired and I have a hard day tomorrow.
The plan is to take a bus from Southern Bus Station to Samokov (60km), then to get to Borovets (another 10km). From there, I take the gondola up to 2,300m (to exempt 4 hours of ascent) and then hiking to Musala.
See you tomorrow!

DAY 2

Last night I’ve learnt that at 7 in the morning someone from the hostel will take me to the bus terminal. Initially they had demanded five leva, but after 10 minutes they returned and said that it’s free. Which has happened. Even the manager, a 28 years old Ukrainian girl, has led us, me and a Spaniard (who traveled to Bucharest), at the bus stations. Him at the Central Bus Station, me at the Southern Bus Station. And, because she drove him first, I lost the 7.30 bus. It has proved not to be a problem, because half an hour later another minibus started to Samokov. The road is bumpy, but picturesque. After crossing a mountain and winding by a lake, the road takes us some 10 km away from Borovets. As I did not know how I continue my journey, I ask the driver. He says that it was a bus, but it just left. Next to me, an older couple with backpacks and hiking boots is interested in the same thing. The man points to the parking lot and proposes to take a taxi and split the cost. I agree, of course. 10 km, 10 leva (5 for me), 15 minutes and we arrive in Borovets. I go to the hotel Mura, where I had booked a room at home and although the check-in was after 2 pm, the receptionist gives me the room key. I empty the backpack and re-put only the things I need for the hike, then fly to the gondola station. I pay 12 leva for a return ticket and in 25 minutes I’m up to 2,300 m with a 4-seater gondola.

At Jastrebets Hut I get off the gondola and look around. The clouds were gathering, but the peak could still be seen clearly in the distance. So I put on my sunglasses … I mean… I intend to put them on, only to find out that I don’t have them. I rewind the movie and I realize that I forgot them in the car door pocket of the girl who took me to Sofia. Hm … I’d be astonished if I didn’t lose anything…
Finally, I get on the path at 10.30 (compared to the planned 9.30) and pull hard. In front of me, people flood! Bucharest’s center is deserted compared to what I find here! I go fast and overtake them all: people with boots, sandals, small shoes, 4 years old children, 70 years old couples, Bulgarian, French, Romanian … All of them! I keep making every effort to get to reach the peak before it is covered by fog!
I have no break, even at Frozen Lake Hut, the last stopover point before the final assault on the peak and end on time to catch some view before the fog falls. I smile thinking that, after an unsuccessful attempt to reach a month ago Moldoveanu Peak at 2,500m, I chose an easier route and arrived here at 2,925m. 🙂
Although cloudy, the visibility is still good and I’m glad of that. If I came here in T-shirt and sweat soaked, now I put on my polar sweater and the rain jacket. Moreover, it has already begun to drop slightly. The place gets slowly crowded as the people I’ve overtaken arrive. A queue for taking pictures of the stone on top is building up, so I get a feeling of claustrophobia, and start descending. Slowly. Now I can see the glacial lakes, the snow in August, the lack of garbage on trails. I enter the cottage and buy me a fridge magnet and a post card, I drink a cup of tea and continue my descent.
At one point, I catch up a woman in her 50’s, which I’ve overtaken while climbing. We smile at each other, but the trail is narrow so I remain behind her and we start talking. She recommends me a route for tomorrow, and some other trails in the area, how to get to the Rila Monastery in just two days, and more. Rila is another old dream of mine, so I start thinking about her proposal. But since I cannot be late for another two days, I remove temptation and return to the original plan. I stop below at Musala Hut and lie back by the lake. It’s quiet, warm, sunshine, fresh air, so I have the right conditions to take a 10 minutes nap. And so I do.
I stayed a little and I continued on to the gondola. I descended in Borovets, I went into the room to change my clothes, then I went out to eat. Bulgarian cuisine is among my favorites and although the resort is rather deserted during the summer, I eat well at one of the two open restaurants.
Tomorrow I’ll leave. Still I don’t know where. I would like to get to Meteora, but it’s far away. I could stay one night in Thessaloniki. I’ll try to somehow get to the motorway linking Sofia to Greece and hitchhike there. As a matter of fact, it’s the road that the Romanians take to get to the greek seaside, maybe some compatriots will give me a lift…
See you tomorrow!

DAY 3

Awakened as in holidays, at 7:30, I had plenty of time to have breakfast and get to the bus. I close my bag and go to reception to hand the room key. But there was no-one. The security guard shows up, but he turns quickly overwhelmed (I suspected something …). He starts looking for someone, and here comes… the bartender! Who, as I’ve learned last night, was new here, working for only 3 days. First he asks me if I know how much I have to pay for the room. Pff… Yes, I knew, 27 leva, and I wanted to pay by card.
– Uh… don’t you have cash ?, I do not know how the POS is working.
– Okay, here 30.
– Uh… don’t you have exactly 27?
– I have. Here. And now, please, show me the restaurant.
– What, you mean you have breakfast included?!
– Yes!!
– Um … the restaurant is over there, but we open at 8.
It was 7:45. I think I have time to run to the post office to buy a postcard. So I do one more try:
– Okay, where’s the post office?
– I don’t know. As I said, I’m only here for 3 days.
– …
I couldn’t find the post office, the breakfast was good, the bus arrived on time and for 1.30 leva it took me to Samokov, 10 km away, where I had another bus to… somewhere. Basicly, Dupnitsa, where the road meets the highway.
I went to the counter and found out the bus leaves after an hour and a half, so I decided not to wait. I bought some peaches, put them next to… excuse me, I have put them in the place where I used to keep the pies that I found I left in the hotel room refrigerator, then I walked about 1 km away and waited for a car to lift me. After 15 minutes of waiting, a small car stopped, with (what else ?!) a pretty girl driving and her mother to the right seat. (Do they really need bodyguards everywhere?) 🙂
– Where do you want to go?
– Well, to Dupnitsa, or… wherever you go!
– Oh, we only drive 10 km.
– It’s OK.
And I jumped in and they praised my native Romania because we’ve put some politicians in jail, complaining that there’s a generalized mafia in bulgarian politics and that there’s no way out.
After 10km, I landed at a crossroads and I sat and waited on. After 10 minutes (meanwhile, no car driven by a woman passed by!!) a truck stops. The driver – a man who seemed to me about 50 years old (but it turned out that he was only 42), without a tooth in his mouth (after pulling his mouth corner with his finger, he explained that he lost them during road driving through Europe) and… he started praising my native Romania for putting some politicians in jail and that we got better.
He divorced his “bitch wife” because she cheated on him with another as he was away in long voyages through Europe, he swears his boss (a 2m tall and 150 kg heavy former minister) for earning millions of euros and owning over 100 trucks, while paying him only €550 for every 30 days of driving. In Blagoevgrad, he shows me how the motorway to Greece ends abruptly, “because our politicians have eaten the money.” He says that during the communists life was much better and that the European Union is terrible, but after he lights a cigarette and throws the empty pack out the window, he confesses that he likes its civilization. We pass by a medicine plant and he says it is in fact an undercover drug plant supported by mafia politicians. I’m listening to music from Bulgaria, Macedonia (“Macedonian Music is the most beautiful in the world !!”) and Romania for about 85 km, to Simitli, where we shake hands and break up. (Did I mention that despite his poverty he has not accepted any money?)

Here I am, at 11 o’clock, about 65 km away from the border and under a deadly sun, on the road linking Romania with Greece. However, no car with Romanian plates dares to take me. Their passengers watch me carefully and I read in their eyes the joy that they passed by a great danger: the tourist with backpack that keeps a cardboard that reads GREECE. I’m thinking of writing on the back of the cardboard “VĂ ROOOG!” (that’s PLEASE in romanian) and to expose it whenever I see cars with Romanian plates. Instead, however, I quit to show the cardboard. After 40 minutes of waiting, a Citroen C4 stops, with Sofia plates, a guy in his 30’s, well dressed. I move suddenly from 35 degrees to 20 and during the 40 km as I accompanied him, he told me (how did you guess ?!) that Romania is far ahead of his native Bulgaria because we’ve put some politicians in jail and we have a higher standard of living. He got divorced after three months of marriage (“because our characters didn’t match”), he does not like Bulgarian politicians (“all should be put in jail!”), Gypsies (“because they’re uneducated, lazy, violent, they don’t learn anything and they’ve compromised Bulgaria in the Western world”) and refugees (“these are not refugees, but 80% Pakistanis and Iraqis!”). He tells me things about Bulgarian history and recent politics, then we part friends in Sandanski, 20 km away from the border.
As he left me in a place where the road goes upwards (and no car could stop) I walk about 400m to reach a bus stop and sit in the shade of a tree. This time, my thumb does the job in 15 minutes and stops me an old VW Golf, of a Bulgarian truck’s driver. He lives 10km away from there, outside the main road, but he is so kind that he drives up to the Greek customs and teaches me to look after Bulgarian trucks with numbers starting with E and ask them if they go to Thessaloniki. And he, like the others, took me as much money as I received from the sky today.
At the customs, I spot two cars with Bucharest registration plates and free rear seats. Each of the drivers, following the question (in Romanian) if they take me along, answer by turning their head away. Not a word more.
So I go to the truck lane and the first guy I ask if he’s taking me to Thessaloniki, answers me happily to hop in.
And here I am going for the first time with a 20 tons truck, with a 36 years old, married Bulgarian, father of a 3 years old girl, which he first saw when she was 6 months. Because he worked in Greece. He shows me pictures of his wife and daughter. The daughter – on a mug, his wife – in his cell phone. His wife’s young and she looks great, and, having the other trucker’s experience in mind, I advised him to be careful not to spend too much time with long races. He smiles and tells me not to worry about her. He says that, in fact, the truck is Greek, but it’s registered in Bulgaria because in Greece are very high fees for trucks. Then, after he praises my native Romania because we’ve put some politicians in jail and we live better, he swears the Macedonians and the Greeks for stealing their territory, then the Greeks for claiming Cyril and Methodius, then the Macedonians for not knowing who they are, then those who choose to live in Bulgaria and refuse to learn the language and to look at Bulgarian television, then the Gypsies for being Gypsies, Obama for being a monkey and the Bulgarian president… for being gay. He shows me the roadside fields planted with various vegetables and tells me that in Bulgaria there are lots of hectares of fallow land.

Since he is not allowed to drive his truck in Thessaloniki, he goes round and takes me to Sindos, a suburb where I have a bus that takes me to the center of Thessaloniki. He drops pe off exactly in the bus station and after 5 minutes bus 81 stops. Obviously, I don’t have a ticket. I climb and ask the driver whether he charged. He shrugs and shakes his head. “But where can I get tickets?” He raises his shoulders and drives on. I look at the other passengers and I read in their eyes a sincere “you really want to buy your ticket?!”. So I sit and wait for the destination.
The driver, a man of faith according to the christian icons displayed above, drives fast and in a few minutes I’m in the train station in Thessaloniki. I go to the information desk and I ask what is the next train to Meteora, because of this depends if I stay here tonight or not. He says it departs in one hour and the trip takes 3.5 hours. It’s good. I buy my ticket, I take something from a fast food restaurant and, at the set time (16:15), we start. The train carries me 150km/h past the beaches of Paralia, by the foot of Olympus mountain, through vast plains. Next to me, there are a few voluble Greeks, who do not speak English, but, laughing, they are trying to tell me that if I go to Meteora it would be good to have a lot of money with me! Obviously, I do not take them into account. After an hour or so I enter Larisa. No, that’s not the name of the girl that I forgot my glasses at, but a village! I change trains there and after another hour or so, at 19:40 I arrive in Kalambaka, a small and quiet town.
I get off the train and set foot in a place where I always wanted to get. The sun is at sunset and casts a golden, surreal light, upon the cliffs that dominate the town. It’s quiet, and I, at the end of a day of adventure and uncertainty, I have a moment of inner peace.

I walk about 1km to a camping that I found on the net. I check in ( €7.50 per night) and inaugurate the tent and mattress bought the other day. I take a shower and I praise the guy who invented the hot water, then I come to one of the open air pubs of the campsite, I get a beer and I write this letter.
Tomorrow I will visit the area. See you tomorrow!

DAY 4

No more life on the road, today is holiday. And visiting day. Last night I asked the owner if there is a bike rental center in the area and he told me that there is one in Kalambaka, a kilometer away from here. I have a map of the area and the tour that I intended to take was pretty large, because these rocks are spread over several square kilometers. Therefore, I get up early morning, I have the breakfast and then I start walking 1km to the bike center. At 50m before arriving I realize that they may not rent anything without an ID, since the camping owner kept mine last night.
And that’s exactly what happens. With all regret for losing a client, the guy there tells me that he cannot rent me anything without an ID. I stick my tail between my legs and walk one kilometer back. I fill my water bottle and start walking.
The map shows many roads. Paved roads, narrow paths, steep trails. I chose one that seems to me it’s like a tour and, not very easy, I manage to follow it. Not far from the village, I leave the road and take the trail through the forest. Alone. Me and the Greek nature, on a path where it seemed to me that more people and even bicycles passed by. But now I was alone. No living soul anywhere. But no animal as well. Only in a place where I stopped to take some pictures and got a little out of the path, I’ve hosted on my legs… some fleas.
The path took me through the woods, then through the open and overlooking the plains of the area, then through the woods and climbing among the rocks, then through the forest jungle, where it seemed that someone forced their way with machetes, then I went through a huge hole in these huge rocks, then … I went somewhere above, on one of the rocks. A laaarge view, with these big rocks (specific for this region) in the foreground and a plain and some mountains – in the distance. I sit down somewhere in the shade with this scenery at my feet, and I have the lunch.

At one point some people appear!! An organized group of about 10 people. I use them to take some pictures, then I continue my way.

And not long after, I arrive in civilization. That is, the road and hundreds of cars parked along it. And many Romanians, from all areas. Of all the monasteries that were built here, only 5 are still active and can be visited. I see one of them and try to visit it, but when I hit its closed door with my head (I was wondering why the hell am I the only one who’s coming here), I find that today is Friday. Down at the bottom of the steps, a cardboard read that it’s closed on Fridays, but… who knows what time it is when on vacation? 🙂

Did you spot the cat? 😉

Then I went to the main monastery, which gives the zone its name (Meteora) and that’s the greatest. That one could be visited, but it was flooded with people. So I was pleased to shoot them for 30 minutes as they enter, and I sit and watch with fascination the show of the world. Groups of Japanese with cameras; vocal Americans who buy their children orange juice… no, peach juice… no, ice cream and plain water… but not cold !; Romanians discussing prices of apartments in the new residential complex northside the city and the impressive size of their kitchens; Moldovans that came here with the priest (a priest in cassock who says he hardly found a parking spot); young Spaniards who will probably be couples tonight , judging by the verbal and non verbal language; noisy Italians who make Selfies two by two; solitary and silent tourists.


I grab my rucksack, I buy a bottle of water (there are about 36 degrees outside) and start downhill through the forest on a steep path, where I meet many turtles (I watch a fight between two of them; I never knew turtles can be so fast!), the other end of the hose from the latrine of one of the monasteries (now at 80m above me), an unexpected stone bridge in a place where in spring – perhaps the last time it’s raining here – a river is forming.

The stone bridge

And so, I set out in the main road, close to Kastraki, the place where my camping is. I stop at a tavern to eat a tsatsiki, a souvlaki and drink a bottle of Mythos. Then I go to the camping, take a shower and fall from fatigue. A good afternoon sleep, interrupted only by new tourists coming with the caravans. And as I was sitting inside, I hear baptism drops falling on my tent! Since I could not believe it, I head out of the tent and I confirm: it’s raining! In Greece it’s raining! In August, in Greece it’s raining!
The tent receives the baptising gladly. Only my shirt – laying above to dry – is not too happy. Nor myself, remembering that tonight’s Perseid maximum and I wanted to sit back and watch. But it’s ok, next year I’ll go to the desert to see them.

So much for today. Tomorrow morning I’ll go to Corfu.

DAY 5

Last night it was a bit of clear sky that allowed me to see two small Perseids, and then I went to sleep. I woke up at 7:30 and I started to pack. Although I ate a lot of what I had in my backpack, now the camera did not fit inside! Simply there was no room for it!
I had breakfast in the camping and I rushed to the station. I had the inspiration to ask someone where it is, otherwise I went elsewhere and I missed the bus. It cost me €13.60 and took me to Ioannina through a beautiful mountain landscape in two hours.

I had planned to visit the town, which has a former Ottoman fortress and a lake with an island. Right next to the bus station, I asked a young man where the center was and he answered coherent and focused in an admirable English, his voice trembling with emotion. Then he suggested me to visit the island, because it has an interesting story. In the early 19th century, here were the headquarters of Ali Pasha, an Ottoman controversial leader, very cruel, but who loved and helped the Greeks. The museum that bears his name still retains traces of the bullets that killed him.
I started off with my 16kg backpack in the back. I solved my first physiological problem called Hunger with a wonderful apple strudel from a recommended pastry shop. Then I went into the city. No, not riding on a donkey, but on my own. I walked up and down in a very quiet neighborhood.

Then I went to the port and €2 was enough to take a boat to the island. I met three American girls, one of them kept filming and recording ambiental sound with a professional microphone.

I visited the Ali Pasha museum and the Greek Revolution Museum, then two deserted churches, but with beautiful painted faces broken by Turks in the iconoclastic period and with a kind of white cement kept in 3 places (by 2cm square), proof that Greeks covered the paintings as the ottomans were there, to rescue them.

I returned to the mainland and took a bus to Igumenitsa that left me exactly in the port. I bought the ticket and, after an hour, I got on board. The boat is filled with tourists of all nations and starts slowly as the sun goes down. I meet a Romanian family who asks me to take pictures with their cell phone, and then I ask them to let me take pictures of them with my camera.

As we approach the island, nostalgia grabs me. There were 1,000 kilometers, some of the most wonderful that I’ve travelled so far. I find it fascinating to travel interacting with people. I intend to repeat the experience more often and interact more (maybe take with me several pairs of glasses to leave here and there). 🙂
Two hours after departure, the Saint Spyridon ship docks in the port of Kerkyra, where I meet my friends Ilinca and Mihnea, and so my adventure comes to an end. Thank you for your patience to travel with me and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
See you on my next adventure! Maybe we’ll travel together? 🙂

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