Early the next morning we made the beds and slunk out of the hostel so that they wouldn’t charge us for the extra night. I was carrying the pizza box lid with the name of our destination already copied onto it. We walked away from downtown Ljubljana, along quiet lanes. We skirted a field of crops, ducked under a fence, and passed by a quiet, steepled church. Although we were still in the city it felt like a perfect, pastoral setting, just us and the road and the hope of a ride.
Beyond the church we found the intersection that had been recommended to us. We hauled our packs across the road as cars slowed down and pulled over onto the shoulder. I couldn’t believe we were already being offered rides, but they weren’t stopping for us; just ahead of us was an orderly line of students, each waiting with patience and certainty for a ride.
Hitching in Slovenia doesn’t exactly bring the same badass cred that it does in other parts of the world. In a country so small hitching is just good common sense. On our first day we were picked up from a quiet woodland intersection by a woman who said that she had been hoping to find a couple of young people in need of a ride. Slovenia may be the only country in the world in which drivers are grateful for the chance to give you a ride (in a non-Wolf Creek kind of way).
Having said that, most Slovenians aren’t exactly planning cross-country odysseys. Most rides were very short and very sweet, reliably dropping us at the next sure place to get a ride. Also on our first day, on the short westward hop from Ljubljana to Postojna, we were picked up and then invited by a local couple to come swimming with them in a creek along the way. We could have covered a lot more ground in less time if the people and places weren’t all so damn charming.
Often the people offering us a ride had a better idea of where we were going than we did. We had only to stumble and stutter over the name of whatever tourist destination we were aiming for (a lot of the time it was easier to copy the name onto a discarded pizza box, rather than grappling with Slavic phonics), and they would begin to fill out an itinerary for us. They would drop us at a good place to hitch a ride to wherever we were going, and whenever 6pm – the mystic hour at which people stopped offering rides – approached, they would make sure to leave us close to accommodation.
Slovenia at the time was just about to adopt the Euro. In the rural areas we were passing through no one seemed too thrilled about this, and there were signs everywhere reminding the few visitors that passed through that Euros were not yet accepted. Every time we were picked up we were asked what we were doing in Slovenia. The country had begun to open up but many people seemed genuinely surprised that anyone was bothering to take notice.
We were dropped one evening, as the sun slipped into 6pm shadows, outside a small hotel sitting alone at a bend in the road, surrounded by farms. The cheapest room was a ‘dormitory’ of four single beds, but the couple that ran the place gave us a nicer room at no extra charge. We were the only guests that night. Just as we realised we had absolutely no food and were in for a hungry night, there was a shy scratch at the door: would we like some dinner?
We were ushered down to the kitchen, where a spread was being laid for us: beef, hard cheese, pickled onions, bread, soured milk and homemade honey. Our hosts insisted we sit and eat, and then left us to it. Touched by their generosity, impressed by the food fresh from the farm and hungry from a day spent waiting by remote crossroads, we ate in delighted silence until one of us took a piece of bread, and noticed that a few of them were covered in mould.
We stared at each other in the half-light of the cosy kitchen for a long time. We didn’t dare eat the bread, but we didn’t dare leave it there to accuse our hosts either. Eventually, without a word being spoken, we scrunched the offending pieces up into a tight ball of napkin, hiding the evidence in our pockets until we could find a place to dispose of it.
The next morning we were offered breakfast, which was mould-free and again heavy on the fresh local produce. As we finished our hosts nervously offered us their guest book. It was completely empty.
We set off from Ljubljana without a definite plan, and in the next two weeks slowly circumnavigated the Julian Alps that cover the northwest corner of the country. We visited the Postojna Caves and their creepy inhabitants the human fish. Up around the stunningly beautiful Soca River (there’s supposed to be a funny squiggle over the C in Soca) we stayed in a tiny village, Dreznica (maybe some kind of squiggle in that name too), hitching into the nearby town of Kobarid every day to go hiking, rafting and eating. Walking along the road with our thumbs cocked outwards, hoping for a ride back up to the village, we passed shaggy haystacks and sleepy beehives. We were routinely overtaken by dark storms that tumbled down over the steep peaks around us.
There were of course times when things didn’t quite go to plan. After visiting the human fish at Postojna we walked to the wrong end of town and waited hours for a ride that could never possibly come. We ended up walking back into town and staying at an enormous, deserted hostel with a definite all-work-and-no-play-makes-Jack-a-dull-boy quality.
If you hitch enough rides (i.e. two) you’re bound to meet some interesting characters. Early in our trip we met a guy claiming to be the only black man in Slovenia. He was very proud of this, and yet couldn’t find a nice word to say about Slovenians. Nor could he find the brake pedal. It was hard to come up with a reply to him when my heart was firmly wedged in my mouth.
After leaving the Soca Valley we tried to get a ride up over the back of the mountains and down to Lakes Bled and Bohinj. The only guy going our wayish was an Italian guy who looked mighty pissed when it became obvious that we didn’t speak his language. We drove in stony silence, snaking along the border, until he dropped us at a random spot about halfway to the town we were all heading for.
The lakes were our last stop before returning to Ljubljana and leaving Slovenia. The landscape was as beautiful as everywhere else, but something was different here. Bohinj and Bled are Slovenia’s biggest tourist destinations, which means lots of buses and very few drivers with the time to stop for hopeful hitchers. We paddled the lakes and avoided their hairy, spreadeagled nude beaches. We hiked their woods and fields. Then we left to look for a bus that would take us back to our hosts (there might not have been much roadside hospitality here, but there was still plenty of Couchsurfing generosity to go around).
I left Slovenia with a strong sense of hitching entitlement, convinced that people everywhere really did just want to help me. It took a while for me to realise that the rest of the world just doesn’t work like that. I still haven’t forgiven the rest of the world for not being more like Slovenia.