Hitchhiking Europe: Our Tough Journey from Portugal to Germany
Day 1: A Difficult Start
Porto – Aveiro – Viseu – Vilar Formoso
We thought it would be a good idea to start our hitchhiking tour from Portugal to the North in Porto. We took the train in Lisbon Oriente for 24 euros per person. A train ride is always something special for me as trains belong to the expensive means of transportation. I like to look out of the window: cornfields are passing by with the blue mountains in the distance. The sun covers the landscape with a slight golden blanket. The fields and hills appear and disappear behind the next turn, let my thoughts wander. How will this trip be? Will we get a ride in every place? How will our backs, shoulders and legs end up after a couple of days of carrying so much weight? Will the weather be OK to put up the tent? Will we find truck drivers who can give us a straight ride until the border?
Starting in Porto
We walked out of the train station in Porto. The main parts of the city are provided with free wifi so that we were able have a look on Couchsurfing. It was already evening and we wanted to stay the night in Porto so we tried to find a couch. We found out a Friday weekly meeting would take place. It was quite a walk or maybe we thought that because the backpacks made every step feel ten times harder. When we finally arrived there, we went to the backyard where the people from Couchsurfing were supposed to gather. Surprisingly, we were the first ones there although it was already far past the scheduled starting time. We took a beer and waited. It was getting darker and we had to look out for a good spot to put up the tent for the night. We decided to wait until we finished the beer.
All of a sudden one after the other joined us. The organizer didn’t show up and there was just one local we could ask, but unfortunately he couldn’t host us. We asked him for advice. He warned us that it will be difficult to camp outside as the police could catch and fine us. The only spot he could imagine to stay over the night was the beach far outside the center. On the map we saw some green spots close to the train station. That should be our destination, we agreed.
We also had a look in the hitchwiki where to sleep. Some tunnels were mentioned but we were not able to find them. We walked all the way back to the train station. On the way, we passed abandoned buildings and little parks but they were either not accessible or well protected by security.
There was a petrol station mentioned in the hitchwiki we wanted to head to from where we could start hitchhiking early the next morning. However the description was not really clear so we had to a look on the map with an almost drained phone battery.
We walked under the bridge down to the river Douro where the motorway leads into the highway going to Lisbon, Gaia, Braga and another place that was on our way. There was a petrol station. We were happy to rest there. We asked the guy who worked in the petrol station if we can put our tent up behind a small wall – the only spot that was a bit hidden between some bushes. He had no objections so we popped up our tent, loaded the tent with our luggage and prepared for sleeping. It was pretty noisy at night, especially when a group of probably drunk people turned on some shitty music.
We woke up around 9 AM, cleaned the place and again lifted all our belongings from 10 months in Lisbon on our poor backs. We walked up to the beginning of the strip leading into the petrol station. This was our first hitchhiking spot. The name of our first destination was “Aveiro/Viseu”. We held up the sign and our thumbs. In the beginning it felt awkward as the last time we hitchhiked was quite some time ago. Cars, vans, motorcycles and trucks passed but they either waived, smiled or made a gesture that should look like they had no means to take us.
There were also some who also put up a thumb but didn’t stop. That was pretty rude, as a thumb up should mean that they’re willing to give us a ride. Instead they just drive away. This is the message for any drivers here: if you can’t take a hitchhiker, then don’t sign him a Go!
After an hour of holding on there, we decided to move on to another highway. The cars were coming from a tunnel. We stood in the grass next to the road and held up our sign. The reaction was mixed. Some ignored us, others waived us to show their support. Especially truck drivers are always very friendly. Sometimes they call through to inform their colleagues in the other trucks.
Then it happened! We got our first ride
On the way to the Spanish border
An old dark red BMW stopped by the crossroads leading from the city to the highway. He spoke a bit of English so he could understand us. He couldn’t bring us to Aveiro but to a village where he lives close to Aveiro. We were happy that we made our first progress so we took the chance. He dropped us off at a toll station where we could continue hitchhiking.
From Aveiro to Viseu truck station
What happened next made us believe that we’re on a good way. A SUV with a little baby stopped. They came from Aveiro. We kept our rule, staying on the road and telling the drivers to drop us at the next nearby petrol station. In Aveiro it started to rain. Suddenly we saw another hitchhiking couple on the other side waiving at us. We stood again at the strip leading into the gas station, so if there would be a car that would like to lift us, it could easily drive in.
A Portuguese in his mid-30s was our next lucky strike. He was on the way to the mountains in the area of Viseu. He was kind of a tough person that experienced something mind-changing in their lives. He wanted to offer us some weed boasting that Portugal has the best weed in Europe. He let us out some kilometers away from Viseu.
We drank a coffee – our tradition whenever we make a little progress to celebrate but also because we need it to stay awake. We tried to ask drivers filling up their cars with gas but the chance to get a ride before it starts to get dark was not really high. We already started thinking about a spot to set up the tent, when a bald guy crossed my way. I was not really focusing on him, but I just asked expecting a rejection when suddenly heaven sent us an angel.
He was on the way to Guarda, a city close to the Spanish border. We were not sure if we could take the whole ride as we thought that it would be the best to follow the advice in the hitchwiki. In Viseu there should be a European truck station where it would be easy to get a ride directly to France. We wanted to skip Spain as hitchhiking there is not very welcomed. The bald guy had also a little baby in the back. We could talk a bit as he spoke English well. They were typical Portuguese who couldn’t understand why someone would travel in the way we do. For Portuguese, family has a high value and to be different would mean that you would be against your own family. That’s why only few Portuguese travel. The majority marries early, keeps their jobs for a lifetime and spend all their money on their house, car and the annual 10-day holiday.
Our day ended after arriving close to midnight in the European truck stop in Viseu. We found some shelter behind a tree close to an abandoned restaurant. We crawled into the tent and tried to catch up some sleep.
Day 2: Abandoned Hotel Alaska
Somewhere near Viseu, Portugal
It was getting pretty cold in Spain. We didn’t really expect the weather to be that harsh already. We left Portugal in our T-shirts but had to get more and more clothes on. Luckily, this made our bags slightly lighter. The night in the tiny tent wasn’t very comfortable but we got a little sleep anyway. It was a Sunday and we were stuck on a gas station that was supposed to be a place with lots of international trucks stopping by. There was barely any traffic there; only a few trucks were parked but had no drivers and it was raining once in a while. We killed some time drinking a coffee and playing some cards.
In the afternoon, finally a truck driver stopped. He initially said he wasn’t able to take us but after asking if he’d be willing to drive us at least a little bit further, he was willing to try. As most trucks only have one passenger seat, the drivers are worried about police giving out fines when a second passenger is sitting on the cabin’s bed without a seatbelt. Therefore, he drove us up to Vilar Formoso, a town on the border of Portugal and Spain. He didn’t want to cross the border with us because of possible police checks.
Portugal to Spain
Vilar Formoso is a very small town. It appeared a bit abandoned. We walked across the border to Spain where we found a Carrefour, a supermarket with more decent products and prices than in Portugal. We did some cheap food shopping and went to a truck stop nearby. From there, we got a ride almost immediately from a friendly truck driver who was on his way to Paris. Like the previous driver, he didn’t want to cross the border with us but he managed to bring us a long way. From the border town we drove to Salamanca in Spain and made a small coffee break along the highway. We kept going a few more hours North. Spain looks very dry and empty, almost like a desert. It was getting colder the further we got. Not too far from the border there was a truck stop along the highway. Our driver didn’t think we’d be able to get a ride from the truck drivers and cars won’t stop there, he said. He did know about a good place for us to go, a few kilometers down the road. He was nice enough to bring us to this road.
It was almost midnight and it was completely dark, except for a small light shining outside an abandoned bar. The street was empty and no longer in use since the highway was constructed. We were supposed to find a hotel called Alaska. We followed the road, not knowing where we would end up. We found Hotel Alaska: an abandoned hotel next to an empty parking lot. We decided to set up our tent here for the night. As we were far away from any town, the sky appeared very bright and lots of stars could be seen. Even the Milky Way was clearly visible.
Day 3: Crossing Basque Country
The middle of nowhere in Basque Country
In the morning, there was finally sunlight. Now we could see where we were. The empty street next to us leads to the highway. This was the direction the driver told us to walk to. With nowhere else to go, we decided to follow the highway. Signs indicated a gas station a kilometer away, in a direction called Puerto de Etxegarate. Also on this gas station there was not a lot of traffic. The few people stopping by were going in the wrong direction.
There didn’t seem to be any way out of here and we decided to walk back all the way to Hotel Alaska and keep walking to the truck stop, a few kilometers further. However, rain started pouring down when we just started our walk. Luckily, there was a weighing station along the highway that could offer a little bit of shelter. The weighing station was closed and may be out of use but somehow, once in a while a lot driver would pass it anyway. It was impossible to get a ride from here though. The rain didn’t stop. We tried to pack our stuff and ourself as good as possible and we quickly went back to the gas station.
One driver gave us a voucher for a free coffee in the restaurant there. Tina went in and managed to get fries for free with the voucher instead. We took shelter next to the restaurant and asked people there for a ride. It was already dark and the rain just kept going when a man went up to the restaurant alone. He didn’t speak English but went in our direction. He seemed in a hurry and wanted to get to the restaurant quickly to use his free coffee voucher from the petrol station before he would speak to us. He came out a few minutes later and just asked “¿Vamos?”. We quickly grabbed our bags and got into the warm car.
Our driver went to Tolosa, a small town on the way to Donostia/San Sebastián. We passed a petrol station on the way, but there would be another one, he assured us. In the end, he dropped us off at a small petrol station on a road inside Tolosa. We took some shelter in the bus stop and saw a bus passing on the other side going to San Sebastián. We decided a bus would probably be the best option. We found the right bus stop and it cost us € 2 and about an hour of our time to get to San Sebastián.
We ended up in the center of a big city with no place to set up the tent and the weather was still terrible. We first found a McDonald’s to use free wifi and decided to find a hostel. There were two hostels nearby. It was disappointing we had to pay so much money just to stay for a night but it felt good to have a shower again and to dry our stuff.
Day 4: Spanish Siesta
Today we didn’t do any hitchhiking but we managed to cross another border. We started our trip in Donostia. We tried to find another place to sleep but didn’t find anything suitable. We could leave our luggage in the hostel and when the rain finally stopped a bit, we also had a look at the town center and the beach. As we had a little snack in the town center, we noticed the number of babies here. Every second person was driving around a baby carriage or buggy. Usually grandmothers pushing them while the mother walks next to it. We didn’t consider the Spanish siesta when we got here. Most shops were closed for nearly all afternoon to be opened again after 4.30 PM. It was already after 5 PM when we left to find a ride.
There seemed to be two possible hitchhiking places. The first was a roundabout leading towards the highway. We walked here and found this was no suitable place. Not all cars would go in the right direction anyway and there was no place for them to stop. The second place was almost 5 km away, on the other side of the city. We had no other choice than to walk there. On the way we passed a train station where we had a quick look. We found the train ticket was only € 2.90 so we just took the train to our next destination: Irun.
Irun is a town on the Spanish side of the Spanish-French border. It seemed to be a nice little town. Although most shops were closed, Tina found an Asian shop to get some new shoes (the old ones were destroyed in the rain) and we passed a Russian shop where we bought a drink so we could have a rest. After we drank a beer next to the canal in Irun, we kept following the road towards the border.
Along the way, there was a hill with escalators going all the way up. We had a quick look up there. There was nothing to see but we could have another break from walking as there were some benches.
We finally crossed a small bridge to the French side: Hendaye. Apart from the language on the signs, there was no clear indication we had crossed the border. From there it was only a bit more than a 1 km walk to the highway. There was a truck wash building with a bit of grass next to it where we could set up our tent.
Day 5: Crossing the French Border
The Spanish-French border
We walked up to the highway. On the French side, the tollroad starts so all traffic has to make a stop there. There were a lot of trucks but not so many cars. Still, it didn’t take long for us to get a ride from a French guy born in Spain. We had to make a little detour because he got distracted and missed a turn. He left us waiting in his car and while he went to the hospital to pick up a form. He told us about his shop he lost because of his health. We got back on the highway and he dropped us off at another toll station.
It took about 10 minutes to get another ride. The driver didn’t speak English. He dropped us off at a petrol station. Just when the driver left, an accident happened in front of our eyes on the highway. One truck lost some big metal cylinders that ripped through the side of the trailer and another truck lost crates full of bottled drinks. Two other trucks were standing still as well, at least one of those had some damage. This caused a huge traffic jam as the whole highway was blocked. Luckily for us, this meant that all traffic was driving around the accident via the petrol station. We were going to have a break first, but French petrol stations are too expensive anyway and with all the traffic passing by, we quickly went back to hitch a ride. A few minutes later a guy offered us a ride to a supermarket close to the highway.
We didn’t eat much while on the road so it was nice to find a supermarket again. After a quick break, we hitchhiked at some traffic lights nearby. It was the only place cars could stop. A French woman, who also didn’t speak English, offered to bring us somewhere. We always try to get a place along the highway and she assured us there would be a good place on the highway, even though she took smaller roads. She dropped us off at a toll station on the beginning of the highway. Signs indicated the next place was called Périgueux. There was almost no traffic here and the sun started to set.
We gave up and wanted to look for a place to set up the tent. Just at that moment a driver stopped for us. He spoke English well because he was born in Perth, Australia. We both asked at the same time “Then why are you here?” He somehow managed to find a girlfriend who is not interested in going to Australia. Anyway, he drove us to a petrol station near Périgueux where we spent the night in the tent between some trees.
Day 6: Freezing in France
It felt like it was almost freezing so it was uncomfortable to sleep. We started hitchhiking in the morning and again we quickly got a ride. A girl drove us closer to a town. There was a roundabout with one exit leading to Lyon. As we stood there, finally some sunshine appeared, making it a bit more comfortable but the place turned out not to be the best. We spent hours waiting here. Most traffic went in the wrong direction. In the end, a businessman stopped for us. He buys and sells old doors for a living and apparently he makes a lot of money doing that. He drove us a very long way. It took a few hours. He was going to have a business meeting in a small town in the mountains where he also owns a holiday home. We got out of the car at the exit of the highway so we could start hitchhiking from the toll station again.
It was 1°C at our current location and again there was barely any traffic. We were not really prepared for this temperature. Luckily, an old lady stopped for us. She also didn’t speak any English. She was on her way to Paris and wanted to drop us off at a next gas station. We were happy to get out of this place but the next stop turned out to be even worse. It started to rain again and there was a strong wind, still at freezing temperature. We wouldn’t be able to sleep here. We kept asking drivers until two people on a business trip gave us a ride. Along the way there was some snow as well.
After about an hour of driving, we stopped at another gas station. The road to Lyon (our destination) already split off before but some cars would pass here anyway to go to Lyon. Our drivers kept going to St Etienne, the nearest town. So far we were lucky getting a lot of rides but the rest of the day we had to spend here. While we were setting up the tent, police came by. Although sleeping there would not be any problem, they still wanted to see our IDs for some reason. They were just laughing a bit about how cold it was and wished us good luck.
Day 7: Stuck on the Highway
Still stuck on the petrol station somewhere on the way to St. Etienne. It took hours of waiting. Only a police car stopped. They asked us if we were hitchhiking and told us to stay there and not to go on the highway. It was the second time police came to bother us here. Finally, we found someone who was on his way to St. Etienne. He said there would be a toll station which woud be a better place to hitchhike so we took the ride. His sports car was tiny; I had to keep my head under the sunroof to fit in. At least it was a fast car so it didn’t take too long to get there.
From the toll station it took about 15 minutes to get a ride. It was a Turkish driver who, again, didn’t speak English but he seemed to know a good place to drop us off. We ended up in the city of St. Etienne, somewhere at a crossing with traffic lights. The street lead up to the highway. It didn’t seem like the best place but again it took maybe 15 minutes before we got a ride to a better place not far away. It was at a roundabout with some place to stop and in only a few minutes a girl picked us up. We were still heading towards Lyon. The girl spoke English well and didn’t stop talking the whole way. She said she’d find a good place for us to get off but we ended up in the center.
The weather was slightly better and we had a quick look around town, looking for a supermarket. The tourist information point offered free wifi so we could look for a good place to get on the road again. The best place seemed to be a petrol station on the highway accessible from a small town. We had to take a bus to get there. First, we had to look for the right bus stop. Although we found some bus stops that had the number of our bus on their list, the bus didn’t seem to stop there. After waiting for too long, we went around and found a map with the correct place to go. When the bus finally arrived, the driver told us we had to be at the other side of the road. We kept waiting. In the end, we spend about 4 hours just looking for and waiting for the bus.
About an hour later, we arrived in Montluel. From there, we could walk up to the petrol station. An entrance to the petrol station was hidden behind a container. We found a place in the wet grass to spend the night.
Day 8: The Crazy Professor
It was probably the coldest night so far. The outside of the tent was all wet. We went inside the petrol station to warm up and walked outside to get a ride. It probably took less than 5 minutes to get a ride. We got out at a petrol station. It took a bit longer here but finally some guys passed us, then drove back and offered us a ride. It was a small car with three people listening to weird French and Arab rap music. They drove us to a tollbooth near a place called Dole. It was yet another place with very little traffic but somehow we got another ride in just a few minutes. A musician and his wife were on their way to buy a new car because their current car was “already 4 years old”. It still looked new. Their son lives in America so they spoke English well.
We got the next ride at another toll station on the highway. We didn’t have to wait much again. A man with his young son was on his way to visit the grandparents in Colmar. It was a long drive. We already passed the town he had to go to; he just wanted to find us a good place to get out. He drove us to a petrol station and had to turn back to Colmar. It was a highway, but not a toll road. There were a lot of foreign cars there but most of them went in the wrong direction.
Finally, a car went in our direction and the driver stopped for us. The driver looked like the professor from Back to the Future and spoke very quietly in the beginning and then zoned out and didn’t respond to our questions. He said he had to go to Strasbourg but we drove through the city and got on another highway. Unexpectedly, the driver stopped on the side of a turn on the highway. He just opened his door without looking and a truck had to swerve to the other side. He didn’t seem to notice anything. We grabbed all our luggage as quick as possible and he drove off again. The stop was so unexpected that we didn’t really know where we were. We assumed there would be a petrol station or something, but there was nothing. We were stuck on the highway. Probably the only ones who would stop for us would be the police.
We followed the turn down to the highway in our direction. We were now in Germany and we didn’t really care what the next stop would be, as long as we could get off the highway. Surprisingly, we didn’t wait long and a French guy just stopped on the highway, not caring about the annoyed drivers behind him. He drove us to a shopping center in Baden-Baden. Finally, we could get some cheap shopping again. As we were so close, we just took the train for the last few kilometers to Mannheim.