Where was I going? What was I doing? I'd soon find out.
– Jack Kerouac, On The Road.
The degenerate's choice of travel guide for 25 years, The Hitchhiker's Guide To Europe1 was the very antithesis of glossy, Condé Nast-style publications. First published in the early 1970s, it provided advice for penniless travellers until its final edition in 1996. It claimed to be the book most often stolen from British public libraries2.
While Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy has transcended cult status and passed into popular culture, few readers will have heard of the mystical Hitchhikers Guide To Europe3. Welcome to the budget guide to end all budget guides.
Who Wrote It?
Ken Welsh was the original author, but in the early 1990s Katie Wood (a renowned budget travel writer, whose works include Cheap Sleeps Europe) came on board to help update the material as co-editor. However, the Guide's unique appeal was that, at the end of each chapter, there were contributions from travellers giving their own tips on how to survive on the road. Advice given in these sections ranged from the occasionally useful ('Avoid being dropped at Gordano on the M5 — I've never got away in less than three hours') to the bizarre (and often disgusting):
Need a free meal? I hang around outside roadside restaurants waiting for a family to finish a big meal. If there's a lot of leftovers when they get up, in I rush!4.
Short debates often went on in these sections. Should you refuse a lift of just a couple of miles or not? Should a female hitch-hike while her male partner hides in a bush waiting for a car to stop? What is the best way of getting out from a long lift with someone you can't stand5? Sometimes contributions were worked into advice in the main text, but were usually left as individual tips for the reader to decide for themselves.
Ken's opening words in the book were considered something of a mantra, and set the tone for the pages that followed:
Hitch-hiking is a game of chance. In this world where we expect things to run on time or to be in a certain place by three o'clock, it is a refreshing experience. Just because the ninth car doesn't stop doesn't mean the tenth will; nor the hundredth, nor the thousandth. But you'll get there.
His introduction finished with a selection of philosophies collected from travellers. These ranged from Chinese philosophy ('The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step') to the thoughts of men who had obviously spent the night sleeping under a bush ('The problem with the rat race is that, even if you win, you're still a rat'). It was truly eclectic stuff.
How To Hitch
Choosing the right place to hitch a lift from is crucial. Make sure you can be clearly seen from a distance, so that drivers have a chance to decide whether to pick you up or not. The driver must also have space to pull over and pick you up safely. Never, ever, ever, try to hitch a lift on a bend as this is extremely dangerous. Holding a card with your destination written on it clearly and the word 'Please' in the local language (eg, Madrid Por Favor) will help, especially at busy intersections.
Important advice was given in the opening chapters regarding hitch-hiking protocol. It warned that, although the traditional 'thumbs-up' is widely recognised, further south and east this could be perceived as an obscene gesture. Check local hitching regulations; thumbing a lift on a British motorway or German autobahn could result in a ride with the law. If it is dark, find a service station and ask around. Even the thorny subject of what to do if you get on a road and someone is already hitching there was mentioned (negotiate with the other hitcher whether you should find another place to hitch from or, if you’re going to different places, go further down the road).
While most of the early advice was common sense, there were one or two surprises. For example, if a male and female were hitching together, it was suggested that the female sit in the front. The logic for this was that some cars have child safety locks in the back, and a woman could potentially be trapped by an abductor. Keep your gear with you wherever possible as, if it is in the boot, the driver could drive off after you've got out. Or how about this, a genuine tip for getting a lift:
I always have a destination card written with a place name in the opposite direction to the place I'm going to. Then, when some kind person stops to tell me I'm going the wrong way, in I jump and off we go!
How To Look
Bizarrely, the Guide had no truck with scruffy hitch-hikers. It suggested that, as some people who would give you a lift had kids at college, if you looked like a nice college kid you would have more chance of getting a lift. Good personal hygiene, shaving6 and occasional laundering were clearly an issue. A smelly hitch-hiker, it was noted, might put off the driver from picking up someone in the future. Ethics were key. The book clearly stated:
Look keen and friendly and try to smile at each vehicle, even when they pass by at high speed. The key is to look like you really want to get somewhere. While you might get a lift lying in the grass by the roadside, nonchalantly waving a thumb in the air while swigging from a bottle of French red wine, frankly, it's unlikely.
Country By Country
The book was written in a jolly spirit that effectively said 'if you want to get to Rome, buy a bus ticket. If you're not too bothered about whether you get to Rome or not as long as you have a good time, hitch.' This was clearly adhered to in the chapters for each country, which tended to contain more advice from fellow travellers than actual descriptions of destinations. You could find out how to get stale bread in France or the regulations regarding sleeping on Portuguese beaches, but finding out about what to do when you got to a place was more difficult.
Venice is a city renowned for its network of canals, and is rather expensive. A ride on a gondola is considered a must, if you can afford it. Further south, Bologna...
Such brief descriptions of places to visit meant that every town and city in Europe had a unique appeal. The hitch-hiker, on arriving in Toulouse, for example, would have absolutely no idea where to sleep or what to do there, and could simply get on with the business of exploring. The exception was capital cities, which generally had a half-page all to themselves.
What To Take
The first few pages of this section dealt with the necessities. You need a good rucksack and some boots. You can save money with a tent and cooking stove, which increases the weight you have to carry. But the wonderful part of this section of the book was the lengths of improvisation people were prepared to go to in order to save a little weight. It seemed anything could have two uses, at least. One respondent suggested taking a Frisbee for entertainment, which could serve a second purpose as a plate. Guy-ropes from a tent could be employed as a washing line if strung together. Or perhaps you could carry a pennywhistle rather than guitar if you wanted to busk?
But arguably the most useful item, as Adams's fans will know, was the towel. Various uses of a towel were suggested in the Guide, including using it as:
- A scarf
- A makeshift groundsheet
- An extra layer of clothing in cold weather (much as tramps used to use newspaper)
- A poncho, to put over yourself when it's raining and keep your clothes drier
- A flannel, if you reserve one corner for this use exclusively
- Something to dry yourself with after a shower, bath or wash
The implication was that you didn't need to take a scarf, raincoat, groundsheet, flannel or extra jumper as long as you had a good towel. Hence you would have less weight to lug around Venice while you tried to make enough money from your pennywhistle playing to buy a ride on a gondola.
The Hitchhiker's Guide To Europe was an incredibly oddball book. It accepted that some people would have urges to explore Europe without access to an Inter-Rail card, or indeed money, and quite simply told them how to do it. Its unique charm and appeal was that, in the pre-Internet days, it was a fantastic source of information, particularly from hitch-hikers with strange names whose opinions were printed and updated annually.
It was also the forerunner to now-established guides such as Rough Guides and Lonely Planet. The availability of such guides having updates regularly on the Internet, as well as message boards to ask specific questions, meant that travellers who would have had to wait a year before the next edition came out could now log on and find out what they needed to know almost instantly.
One user of the Guide, the aforementioned Douglas Adams, went on to great things and expanded some of the themes in the book in his works — notably in the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy; radio shows, books, TV series and a movie. Users of the Hitchhiker's Guide To Europe will be pleased to know that, at least indirectly, its mantra has passed over into the wider world.