Helen and I stood on the M25 slip road at Godstone holding our sign that naively said Istanbul scrawled in biro on the back of our Michelin map of Europe. First year of University had finished, we were 20 years old, and with great excitement we were off on our first travels together. Our packs contained a weeks worth of cheese and pickle sandwiches, dehydrated food, and porridge to get us through the expensive countries on our limited budget. Others were off Interrailing or taking the Magic Bus to Greece, and heading to the islands to camp on beaches. We were hitching to Turkey, and the plan was to cross the Austrian Alps on foot, and also take some time out in Kosovo trekking near the Albanian border.
The cars and trucks sped past as we smiled at everyone making eye contact. We soon realised that you don’t put your end destination on your sign! With this adjusted we were soon on our way and a day later were whizzing down German Autobahns towards the Alps. We met lovely people on the way, like students in Aachen that we spent the evening with and stayed at their student house.
The Alps loomed, and soon we were on foot with our large packs, munching our way through our cheese and pickle sandwiches, and our dehydrated food. We had poor maps and soon realised this was going to be a tough walk from Germany to Yugoslavia, when we were scaling rock faces on steel ladders. This was hard going and we were carrying a lot of weight in our packs, which attracted attention from fellow walkers who mocked us, as they stride ahead with their light packs to their plush chalets for the night.
With snow, ice, craggy mountains and stunning lakes set against the crisp blue sky all around us, the place was magical, but the mountains got even bigger, the noise of avalanches occasionally echoed the vast landscape, we were defeated.
Back to hitching on a mountain road, we were soon picked up by a strikingly good looking couple, Mario, a Yugoslav pop star, with shoulder length hair, and his pretty girlfriend. They had popped to Austria to buy fine coffee that was not available in Tito’s Yugoslavia. They lived in Lubjiana and invited us to stay at their flat. Such kindness they took us out for dinner, visited their friends and drank shots of their home brew, then on to a club to see a band who rather embarrassingly played a special song for us! “Our English friends” the vocalist called out.
Mario kindly dropped us off early the next morning at a great spot to continue hitching and soon we were picked up by a German doctor who took us all the way to Kosovo.
We had a lovely foray into the mountainous border region of Kosovo and Albania. Swimming with local youths in rivers that tumbled down off the rugged landscape, and evenings spent with them chatting in bars about all kinds of stuff. Their open conversation was surprising as we were very aware the secret police on the next table was listening to every word. This was five years after Tito’s death, there was a tense feel in the air, something was brewing.
Back on the road at Skopje we were picked up by a Turkish truck. Progress slowed as various Turkish registered trucks met up from their journeys across Europe. There were lots of stops to brew up sweet Turkish tea. For two and a half days we crawled along north Greece towards Turkey. The driver, a friendly guy, and delighted with his one western cassette repeatedly played ’99 red balloons’ he smiled and sought reassurance from us in German that this was a great song. At night we stopped in rough lorry parks, where we would sleep under the lorry trailer, while the driver went off a visited places of ill repute, as reassurance that he would not come back drunk and drive off forgetting we were under his lorry he left us the keys. On one night there was an almighty storm with torrential rain. We had one of those orange survival bags that we both managed squeeze into. The puddles closed in on us, and to add to the drama we now had several dogs barking and snarling at us under the truck, triggered off by the thunder and lightning.
Thankfully we eventually reached the Turkish border where we continued our journey on local buses.