I’m leaving Paris. It was a short, but pleasant stay. Today my target is Toulouse located about 700 km South. First however, I need to pick up my bank card an ATM machine swallowed the previous day. I use public transport and visit the bank. I get back my card from a member of staff and withdraw some money. With some euros in my pocket I feel a lot more comfortable.
It’s already afternoon when I arrive at services on the motorway. I quickly find a car and with a help of local businessman jump 100 km to next services. It’s getting hot and I’m thumbing for over an hour. I decline offers of shorter rides and finally meet Dimitri and Junes. Boys are driving to their friend’s wedding, close to Bordeaux. It’s not exactly my direction, but it’s 400 km closer and I fancy their company. They are cheerful fellows and we are having a blast. They are also hitching in their free time and tell me about their experience. Just a month earlier they helped organised and participated in Ed’Express hitchhiking race from Strasbourg to Budapest. We have many common subjects and the time flies by.
The services close to Bordeaux are quite busy, but I struggle to find a driver going South East towards Toulouse. After 30 min I see a couple of hitchhikers getting out of the car. We meet and I introduce myself. Clementine and Lucas are a French couple travelling back to Toulouse from their holiday North of France. We have a short chat and decide to focus our efforts in 2 places. Clementine and Lucas approach drivers directly at the petrol station while I thumb all cars leaving services. After a while a car stops and my new buddies invite me to join them and another French couple travelling past Toulouse. We entertain our drivers with some adventure stories. I relax watching clouds during the sunset, I’m happy that I will reach my destination soon.
Toulouse is a lively city and many people are out partying. I catch a tram and walk through the centre to my couchsurfing host’s apartment. Agustina is a student from Argentina. I arrive to her place close to midnight and receive a warm welcome. There are another couple of couchsurfers staying at her place. We bond and relax. I’m tired and my chest still hurts, I take a quick shower and past out on the couch.
It’s morning. I take my time, go shopping and rest. Agustina finishes her apprenticeship shift for the day and we go for a walk. She shows me more interesting parts of the city, while I batter her with numerous questions about her country. She is from Mendoza, the city is located close to Andes and Chile. It’s an amazing spot for outdoor activities, something I really enjoy. I promise to visit her once in Argentina. On the way back home we stroll to a pizza joint. We chill in her apartment and stuff our faces with food.
I’m worried about my ear and my ribs. I decide to shorten my trip, push forward and skip Barcelona and Valencia this time. I make up my mind, my new destination is Madrid. I look at the map and find a way on the motorway. I jump through a fence and walk to the services on Toulouse’s ring road. I approach drivers stopping to tank the patrol. One of them sees my sign and waves me over. With a number of short lifts I enter Spain. I look for a car going at least to Burgos or further. With time and practise I slightly improve my broken Spanish and soon I’m more comfortable asking for rides.
Finally I find a driver going through Burgos. We have a short chat in Spanish, after which he opens the car’s door and asks his friend in Polish to make me some space. I’m laughing, Grzegorz and Marek are living close to Madrid. They just finished an assignment and are going straight home. Grzegorz ‘s Spanish is very good, I haven’t caught a hint he’s my countryman. We talk about their life in Spain. They are very happy with their construction job, their families enjoy life here. They are not planning going back. I ask them to drop me at services 50 km from Madrid.
The place is quite empty and not many cars are passing by. The sun is setting and my chances of finding a ride shrink every minute. An alternative is to stay and camp. My tent is not only for show and I find it quite comfortable, but the pain in my chest motivates me to continue looking for a ride. Medicine I bought in Paris helped my ear and I feel better. I think there is no broken rib, but there might be a fracture and it’s definitely bruised. The doctor wouldn’t help me, but the time and comfort would.
I approach a family of three. I usually don’t ask people for a ride when a young kid is in the car. Nowadays most of the parents are over protective. I don’t like making people uncomfortable. This time I try my luck and play a happy tourist. What does it mean? I don’t use Spanish, but ask them about their English within a first question with a huge smile on my face. My aim is to show them I’m not dangerous. I’m lucky, the man is tense and observe me carefully, but the woman speaks broken English. It’s the time to attack. I quickly explain my situation and provide some background to make them relax. I see it works and my face can relax now. I can be myself again. We get along during the ride. They are driving back from holiday to their home in Madrid. I ask for recommendations and learn about Prado. I rarely go to museums, but this one is free of charge and apparently ‘must go’. It’s close to midnight when they drop me in the city centre. I find a hostel I booked during the ride and go to sleep.
Breakfast is included in the hostel’s price. I eat and plan the day. I decide to join a free walking tour at the Plaza Mayor, one of the central squares with a bronze statue of King Philip III. It’s one of most popular spots with shops and restaurant preying on tourism. There are numerous companies offering ‘free’ tours with their guides earning money from tips and amenities sharing their profit. Pub crawls and other activities might be fun and can be a great opportunity to meet some interesting people. With free walking tours it might be hit or miss. It all depends on place and person leading the tour.
I quickly realise this tour guide isn’t for me. I stay for few minutes, pick up on some facts, take few pictures and bale out. It’s a sunny day and the sky is blue. I walk around the plaza, admire the architecture and plan what to do next. I walk towards a huge building I found on the map I got in the hostel. It’s a catholic church with a statue of pope John Paul II in front of it. I’m curious and check wiki for some extra info. I learn that La Almudena cathedral was consecrated by him in 1993. Can you imagine people building your statues? Spoiled brat.
One of the door is ornament beautifully with a lot of detail. It’s so impressive, a huge group of people admire it, take pictures and pose with it. A question pops in my mind. What’s the point of having door if it stays closed and no one can use it?!
I find inside of the cathedral very colourful and lively. It’s a huge contrast to a moody public in these type of places. Everyone is solemn and it’s rare to see a smile stretching a face. I understand the reasons behind it, a respect to religion and people practising it, but find it ridiculous on the fundamental base. Places like that should make you feel happy rather than be a source of bigotry, which unfortunately happens in my own country.
Next door to cathedral I find royal palace. I learn that is mainly used for official ceremonies, but right now a long que of people is waiting to sightsee it. It’s not something that really interest me.
I prefer to spend time in Sabatini royal gardens. I rest in a shade, enjoy the view of the water sprinkling from the nearby fountain and admire contrast of statues with a green background.
I walk towards Puerta del Sol square and through shopping streets of Madrid. I observe tourists and locals in their casual day. I always wanted to move to Spain. I try to visualise my life here. I haven’t fell in love with the city, but I would like to see more.
My driver praised Prado and that is where I’m heading next. The free entry to Prado National Museum starts at 6pm. Many people que even an hour before and it is busy. While entering museum I overhear a conversation about the Diego Velazquez’s painting titled Las Meninas. It sounds interesting, I decide to check it straight away in case I forget about it. It wouldn’t happen, Las Meninas is the centre of attention. The artist supposed to portrait the royal couple and in a way he followed the request. The king and queen are seen in a mirror while the painter concentrates on the young princess, her court, artist himself and… a dog. it’s truly hilarious and shows real genius. I love it.
If there is a one great painting, there must be more. I find one soon. Juan Batista Martinez del Mazo. In the first instant I thought it’s two people, now I know it’s just a long name. I stay longer and observe his View of Saragossa. In Prado you can find many portraits and religious art, but it’s landscape and casual life that I admire the most. The artist made me gasp for air. It’s rare for me to buzz with excitement about a picture… bravo!
There are few more that peak my interest. Auto-da-fe in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid presents power structure of religion and politics. Francisco Rizi presents the inquisition in a full strength. I’ve visited this square in the morning, crazy. I easily recognise Venice from Wittel’s painting and enjoy Codazzi’s and Gargiulo’s combo presenting Roman Amphitheatre. The last one is hanged in a passage and its difficult to inspect. Something I like is not appreciated by others, life.
Prado has an amazing collection of art. Rubens, Coello, Caravaggio, Tiziano and Rafael, the list goes on. I stay until they close the complex and head back to the hostel. The visit in the museum was definitely a highlight of my stay in Madrid, surprise.
I get up early and use public transport to get close to services on the motorway. I walk last 2 km, buy myself breakfast and enter the petrol station. One of the drivers I approach for lift is a tourist from Colombia. He offers me 20 euros, but I politely decline his offer. He is confused, he doesn’t understand what I want from him. I thank him and continue hitching. My broken Spanish isn’t the best, luckily majority of people speak some level of English.
Soon I’m picked up by Guillermo, a truck driver on the way to Portugal. I consider my options while driving West. I wanted to sightsee Cordoba and Seville, but don’t feel comfortable to continue my journey for a long time. My chest hurts and I need proper rest. I don’t want to rush my visit in these places. I ask Guillermo if I can continue with him to Portugal rather than get out on the crossroad to Seville. He agrees with a smile. It’s a nice guy and we enjoy conversation. I plan next days and look for a cheap flight from Portugal to Poland. I find one.
The centre of Spain is mainly deserted with plains of scrub. It’s a very hot country and most of the agriculture is concentrated closer to the coast. Slowly the surroundings change. Guillermo points to me olive trees, we drive through small towns and I see a few castles from a distance.
Late afternoon we cross the border with Portugal. It’s really uneventful. Just a sign on a side of the road, one of the highlights of life in the European Union. The tiny road is winding through hills and soon we are back on the motorway. It’s getting late and Guillermo is tired. We stop at services and I thank my driver.
I’m 150 km away from Lisbon. I hope to find another car to take me there for the night. A couple I approach is busy tanking petrol. I ask for lift, but the man ignores me. I think, he is uncomfortable, I thank him and leave. Seconds later I’m called over by his partner who offers me a lift to Lisbon. Cristina and Patrick were visiting family and are on the way home. I share some travel stories with them and gain their sympathy. They drop me it the city centre of Lisbon. I find nearest McDonald and use free WiFi to find a hostel for the night.
My destination is Porto, but the cheap flight I found is from Lisbon. I decide to sightsee Porto first, complete my challenge and spend the remaining time in Lisbon. It’s only 300 km to Porto but I arrive there late afternoon. Diogo is my last driver. He shares with me some stories from his work as sound technician. He works on concerts locally and abroad, he met few celebrities. Diogo is very relaxed and I feel great in his company. He drops me in the centre of Porto, close to an amazing viewpoint by monastery Serra do Pilar. Porto is beautiful. The weather is crap when I arrive, but I look down on the Douro river, Luis’s bridge, the old town and smile.
Diogo recommended me Caffe Santiago in the centre and that is where I go next. I order francesinha. It’s a traditional Portuguese dish. It arrives and I dig in. A selection of meat on a bun is covered with cheese and egg. Burger with chips? Kind of. I also order aletria for dessert, it’s a thin pasta with cinnamon. I’m not a fan, but my curiosity is satisfied.
Next morning I’m back at the viewpoint watching the sunrise. I stay there a bit longer and enjoy the view. I buy a breakfast in local bakery and walk towards the church I noticed the previous day. I see tourists waiting and I approach them. Charlotte is from Germany. She is starting Camino de Santiago walk in Porto and is waiting for cathedral to open. She wants to purchase pilgrim passport and get her first stamp, one of many collected in different points of the trail. She plans to walk about 200 km in next 10 days. We enter cathedral together. The building is under reconstruction and looks better from outside than inside, which is pretty dim. I wish Charlotte luck and immediately regret we couldn’t spend more time together, I like her.
I walk towards the Sao Bento train station. I noticed some beautiful mural artwork the previous day and want to take a closer look during the day. I really enjoy it and stare at it for a while. I’m not the only one. Soon a train arrives and hundreds of people dispatch, at least a half of them are tourists.
I descend towards the river and walk along the river blanks. It starts to get lively. The weather changes and we have a beautiful day. I can admire the old town district Ribeira in its full glory. Colourful houses are tightly settled one to another. Restaurant by the river are sieged by tourists.
Charlotte mentioned to me Livraria Lello bookstore and library where they filmed Harry Potter scenes. It supposed to be a very cool place. I love books and enjoy fancy staircases, but I’m a bit disappointed when I arrive. The library is very busy and people step at each other. I pass on this experience and check out close by church instead. I walk back to the hostel. I need to rest and organise myself. I would like to stay longer in Porto and I hope to visit it again.
The first car I picked up at the services is taking me out of the motorway and into a remote area. I misunderstood the driver, I’m in a middle of nowhere. It takes me another 2 hours to get back to another motorway services. Ana is from Lisbon, but now resting in a country side and fighting with breast cancer. She has a lot on her head, but still is happy to help me with a smile on her face. My last driver this trip is taking me 150 km straight to Lisbon. Nick is a Chinese businessman, an owner of Portuguese football club in Porto. He is on the way to stadium in Lisbon. He hopes to transfer a player and I wish him luck.
I’m definitely lucky, from Estadio da Luz it’s only minutes walk to my couchsurfing host apartment. Sergio is a business consultant. He negotiates agreements, buys and sells company’s assets. We share some stories and chill in his place. He is quite busy with work and can’t sightsee with me, but recommends me places to visit and give me some tips.
Couchsurfing has many useful options and one of them is a hangout function. I find a couple of girls sightseeing Alfama district and join them. We start sightseeing together, but soon split and I continue only with Cyndia. We sightsee the old town and look for a viewpoint. We find a cute garden with a nice view.
Cyndia is a friendly Malaysian on holiday in Europe. We are having great time.. She recommends me Timed Out Market with their food quarter. We are both hungry and enjoy dinner together. My fishcake is tasty and the beer is cold. I take the opportunity and try offered octopus, Cyndia order for herself. Yummy! Unfortunately my new friend is living Lisbon, I help her with luggage and send off to airport. Cyndia is fun to be around, I promise to visit her in Singapore.
I use couchsurfing hangout again and set up a meeting point. I want to be there on time. I catch a tram hoping to earn precious minutes. I pay 2 euros for ticket and wait 5 minutes for it to depart. Tram stops after 100 metres. It’s a tourist attraction that goes up and down the street.
Hilarious situation makes me relax and I take my time walking to the park. I’m welcomed by Martina and Jan. We chill in the park and share travel stories. It’s a lazy and relaxed afternoon. Jan lives in Prague and enjoy his holiday in Portugal. He signed up for surfing lessons and tells us about his experience. Martina studied a previous semester in Lisbon. She’s been hitchhiking around the country for the past month and soon going back to continue her studies in Czech Republic. I ask her about her future plans. She answers…
-Hitchhiking is better than kids.
We get hungry. We visit nearby Burger King and share a meal. Jan is going back to his place. I ask Martina to show me some places she likes in the city and gain a personal guide. We move through centre towards the old town. On the way we encounter a guy playing guitar. There are quite few people sitting by in restaurants, it’s great place to perform. Miguel is very good. We stay for a bit, chat with him and enjoy his music.
We continue the walk. Martina wants to show me some amazing place. The walk is steep, but rewarding. We end up on top of the hill next to small church. It’s a lively place and many people are chilling here watching the city beneath. The Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte is considered to be the best viewpoint of Lisbon.
It’s already dark when we walk through Alfama district. Martina shows me an interesting painting. It presents the most important events in Portugal’s history. We slowly walk back to the city centre. People are chatting with their neighbours, socialising with friends and partying. I see an older lady singing a sad song full voice. A few musicians accompany her and a group of people dine nearby. I learn she is a fado singer and it’s a traditional folk music in Portugal. Martina will miss Lisbon and so will I. I had great time in Portugal.
I completed my trip. I’m very proud of myself and happy. I dreamed about adventure like this. It felt crazy at first, unreachable next and difficult at best. I pushed forward. With time and experience, it became easier in some ways and more difficult in other. Hitchhiking, hiking, camping, couchsurfing, meeting new people and socialising with strangers became something very casual. On the other hand I realised I put shackles on myself by restricting my journey with time and place. I satisfied myself by completing a challenge, but I haven’t exposed myself to unknown. I had great plan and I realised it. The question is…why a plan in the first place? Why not to just go and react to what is there? I’m not regretting anything, but just question myself. I realised one of my dreams and acquired a new one in the process. Isn’t it always the case?
During this journey I have hitchhiked over 22000 km \ 13500 miles through 14 countries in about 4 months. Such a variety of experience… I was offered money for oral sex, climbed The Great Wall of China, was stepped on by a dog during my rough sleep and broke through Russia on transit visa. I have visited some old friends and made new ones. A journey has ended, but a new adventure is waiting…