I read on the website “hitch-wiki” that Italy is a tough country to hitch-hike in. Admittedly we hadn’t had too many problems on our first day (despite nearly getting arrested outside Venice); but this day we were going to discover how things would go on a much longer journey, crossing the north of the country from east to west …Would Italy live down to its online reputation and give us the cold (hard) shoulder, or would it match all the other countries we had hitched in so far for warm kindness to strangers on the roadside…?
Our friend Gigi had some business on the edge of Ferrara town, so he offered to drop us off on the road pointing in the direction of our destination (Pisa), and that is where, with minds buzzing with caffeine and hearts full of optimism, we started hitching. And that is where we stayed, as minutes turned into an hour, started to turn towards two…eventually, however, a car pulled over and we sprinted to it delighted … but it turned out to be Gigi on the way back from his business and amazed to find us still in the same spot.
On the course of our journey we have met, through couchsurfing, a couple of other people who have hitch-hiked around Europe. When comparing notes they tell us about countries which are hard to hitch in (e.g. England) and say something like….”yeah it’s terrible, sometimes you need to wait thirty minutes…” “Holy shit”, I always think, “that sounds fantastic”. Sometimes lifts come thick and fast, but often our waits by the roadside approach an hour and beyond. And what is the problem we have when hitching? The answer is simple, it’s me.
Because these fellow hitch-hikers we have chatted with are all girls. So obviously if Catherine was hitching alone then she’d be getting lifts within minutes. But then people see me standing behind her, my arm out and grinning, in an attempt to convey friendliness which maybe makes me look slightly demented. And presumably people who would otherwise stop spot me and suddenly think “there’s no way I’m picking him up…” and then their hands go up to indicate that they can’t help, and then their feet go down to accelerate themselves away…
The other problem hitch-hiking in Europe is the number of potential destinations people can possibly be going to in the tightly packed continent. So even when people do stop they often aren’t going the right way. It’s not like that in Australia, when we were hitching between Melbourne and Perth and, still over 2,000 kilometres from our destination, a driver pulled over and called “are you going to Perth, mate?” To put this in context it’s like hitching outside Rome and a driver pulling over correctly guessing that you want to go to Kiev. Of course this Australian driver could know where we were going, even though it was 3 days drive away, because there was only one road and only one destination…
Still, despite occasional long waits, things have never got as bad for us as for one Australian, male, friend who once waited for a lift, in the deserted north of the country, for three days…Generally for us when hitching in Europe we look at Google maps before we start a journey and if it gives a journey time of four hours then we reckon that should take about one day for us hitch-hiking. In Turkey, where the drivers are much more likely to stop, you can cover more than double that distance per day. For example, heading from the Mediterranean coast to Istanbul, which Google calls a 17 hour journey, can easily be done in two days hitching – even with me on board…
But despite delays hitching in Italy is a pleasure in the sense that the climate is nowhere near as cold as the places we have come from, such as the Czech Republic and Austria. So we don’t mind anywhere near as much the big waits, and in the relative warmth it is much easier to keep that grin genuinely on your face, rather than just having it stuck there because your features have frozen. And, of course, lifts eventually do come. Today’s first lift was a woman going to Bologna, and she gladly fitted us into her car despite having two other passengers. I’ve mentioned before that no women drivers ever picked us up in Turkey, but further west women make up an increasingly higher ratio of the people who stop.
When we reached suburban Bologna the driver, who didn’t speak any English, insisted in taking us to the train station. We tried to explain that we were travelling by “autostop” but she insisted that nobody would pick us up in Italy. This happens quite often when hitching. The drivers try to get you to public transport and tell you that hitch-hiking will never work in their country. I always feel like saying, “but how do you think we ended up in this car, I mean, you picked us up yourself?” I have also tried telling drivers that we have come via this method all the way from Iraq, but that just seems to confirm for them that I have taken leave of my senses and need to be helped to the nearest public transport as quickly as possible…
Anyway hitching from suburban Bologna towards Florence took a long, long time. We waited on the edge of a roundabout while cars swung past and the hands of the clock spun round and round. Still we had all day to get to Pisa, for reasons I will explain later, so spirits remained high. Eventually one man stopped, he wasn’t going our way but he was so keen to help that he drove us out of his way to the nearest service station on the motorway, a much better place to hitch. En route he told me, “I stopped for you to show you that not all Italians are like Berlusconi.” But of course we already knew that.
Finally we were on the right motorway so our next lift came quickly. A father and son en route to Rome took us to the edge of Florence. But there, at another service station, we had a long wait during which time this part of the earth turned away from the sun to face the darkness of space. Five or six cars stopped but nobody was going to Pisa. Eventually, starting to worry and getting cold, we accepted a lift from a young Sicilian woman heading further down the road to suburban Florence. She sped through the narrow streets up a hill which presented us with a panorama of the cradle of the Renaissance by night. And she threw colourful curses at any drivers who got in her way in a pleasingly stereotypical Italian style.
She dropped us at the train station, but this time, in the dark, we weren’t complaining. There were no staff at this suburban station, and the ticket machine was broken, so we boarded the train for the forty-five minute journey to Pisa without a ticket. Unemployment in Italy is high and it appears that the railways aren’t bothering to employ tickets sellers or conductors, therefore we never had the chance to but a ticket. So I guess in a way we hitch-hiked the train too, and thus the mission to get to Pisa, from Iraq, for free was achieved.
Why were we trying to get to Pisa? Because at this point in the mission we were about to make a radical change and fit in a few weeks holiday in Morocco…we had booked a flight a long time ago to go to Marrakesh to meet our friend Paula Morris. So we would be taking a diversion off the hitch-hiking route for a couple of weeks and then flying back to Europe to pick up where we had left off and complete the hitching home. The idea of the Moroccan trip was to see Paula, and to delay the finish of our journey so that our return would coincide with Christmas. Also, after so long in the cold of Europe it would be a welcome opportunity to thaw out in North Africa, a new continent for us on this trip.
So with a flight out of Pisa airport at 7am our plan was to take the last train out of the city centre to the airport. This meant we had just enough time there to walk across the old town and to see the leaning tower, which was a delight. I reacted to it as people often do when they see a celebrity in real life, “wow, I thought it would be bigger.” The leaning tower is one of those images so familiar from pictures that you almost can’t believe you are actually seeing it in front of you (I had a similar sense at the Taj Mahal last year). I felt as if what I was looking at was a parody of itself.
The tower is part of the cathedral complex, but, atypically of a Christian tower, it stands aside from the main building, in the style of a Muslim minaret. The other buildings in the same complex are actually spectacular in their own right, and I can only imagine how much they must resent the superstar standing at a jaunty angle next to them for distracting all of the world’s attention from their own beauty. I suspect they whisper amongst themselves about how delighted they will be when the arrogant tower finally realises it is not leaning on anything and it collapses, like Del Boy falling through the bar.
Post-tower we just had enough time to fit in a pizza at a place so full that the customers were spilling out into the winter evening street. The perfect end to our Italian adventure, or so we thought, because, actually the airport experience was a disaster. Our flight was leaving at 7am and we planned to sleep in the airport. The airport wasn’t set up for sleeping with fixed arm rests across the seats, but eventually, curling ourselves around the bars, we managed to drop off. Ten minutes later we were being woken up by a repeated announcement in Italian and English saying “customer permanence is not allowed.” It took my sleeping brain a long time to understand what was being said until eventually it dawned on me – they were shutting the airport. Security came round to evict us and the dozen or so other people who had planned to sleep in the airport.
A waking nightmare … we were kicked out for four hours to sleep on the street outside on a winter’s night. This was almost certainly the worst night of our whole trip, lying out there was like trying to fall asleep on a block of ice with an un-switch-off-able fan blowing on you…if there is one thing I’ve learnt on this hitch-hiking it is that being cold is one of the most horrible of things. Until central heating and double glazing came to tame it, winter was once a hellish time across Europe. This night was a reminder of the bitter power it once possessed. Think of anyone this winter anywhere in the world who cannot find a warm place to sleep.
In the end Italian hitch-hiking wasn’t so hard at all, generous people can be found everywhere. But despite the warmth of the people the official rules meant that we still ended up getting the cold shoulder.
Facts and figures from the hitch:-
Total distance covered – 229 km
Number of lifts – 4 (and a free train ride)
Nationality of the drivers – all Italian
Occupations of the drivers – Telecommunications, Teacher, Beautician
Hospitality offered – none