Favours on the E4

Someone asked me the other day what I had learnt from walking across Europe.  Not an easy question but it kicked a conversation, made me think and bought back some lovely memories.  I concluded that the thing I learnt was that you can get better at asking for and taking favours. I learnt that people love to help. 

Perhaps worth mentioning in this context that if favours have an opposite I didn’t get any.  I walked virtually every day for just over six months covering over 5,000 kilometres through six countries and without speaking any language other than English. Not once did anyone try to rip me off or abuse me in any way.  I was never threatened and, although occasionally frustrated at my own incompetence, never felt afraid.

Man on motorbike fetches water for parched walker
There were so many favours that it’s difficult to produce a selection but to give you idea I’ll try anyway.

I was stranded for various reasons about 25 kilometres away from the trail in Ayora, a town in Valencia.  Walking back to the trail and then onto walk the next town was 60 kilometres trip - I had to get taxi.  It was Sunday and in the bar across the street from where I had been staying no one spoke English, but it was clear that there were no taxis.  After a few minutes a man in the corner crosses the room and, after the usual linguistic struggle, I work out that he is asking me where I want to go.  Telling him is not, in itself, straightforward as I wasn’t carrying any maps just images of maps on my iPad.  To be honest he struggled a bit with the iPad, I hadn’t got the screen lock on and the images flicked from landscape to portrait and he somehow managed to keep closing the page.  After about 10 minutes (the maps are not great) - he recognises the junction, tells me to jump into his car (by no means a flash vehicle) and takes me up the mountain on a journey which took the best part of 40 minutes.  I tried to make him take a taxi fare but he wouldn’t - a wonderful man.

What a kind man!
Another Spanish example of unexpected generosity occurred about 8 kilometres to south of Tarragona. Tarragona is a lovely city but you shouldn’t try to walk there, particularly from the south, where there is a chemical works of epic proportions.  It’s all very built up, I had lost the trail, and was walking along a hideously busy road which industrial traffic heading to and from the chemical works.  Suddenly, very close to a round-about, a tiny clapped out Fiat mounts the pavement at the side of the road, a door opens, and a man beckons me to jump in.  The car didn’t inspire confidence, full of half read newspapers, half eaten loafs of bread, and empty boxes of cigarettes.  Inside didn’t look great but outside was a nightmare and I didn’t hesitate. Despite the man’s appearance, shaving nicks all over his face and clothes that desperately needed a wash (I am describing him not me), he was a nice guy.  We hardly spoke a word of each other’s language but somehow we managed a conversation.  I told him I was walking from Tarifa to Budapest and despite knowing where both places were he didn’t think I was a total nutcase.  He took me all the way into the middle of Tarragona, told me where to find a cheap hotel and we said goodbye with a handshake - another Spanish gentleman.

The third example, one my wife Christine likes because she was there, took place at Culla on the way to Benasal (we had already been rescued the day before when we had arrived in the pouring rain in Vistabella de Maestrazgo without any accommodation but that’s another story).  We got to Culla at about 2 and ducked into a cafe to escape the weather, we were still about 8 kilometres from Benasal.  The cafe turned out to be a real haven, full of young Spanish parents eating a communal meal with their children along a long table.  We hadn’t planned to stop and eat but it was just too tempting, everything looked so nice, and give it an hour and the weather would surely get better.  Well after a couple of hours, some lovely food involving rabbit and large quantities of local wine, we were putting on our waterproofs to step out into the rain when the owner comes up to us and insists on giving us a lift to wherever we wanted to go.  Dodgy cars seem to be a running theme in these rescues but we didn’t complain with the wine, good food but above all else his generosity producing a lovely warm glow as he us to the door of our hotel in Benasal.

What I learnt as I travelled across Europe that is while you often need help you still have to give people a chance to offer it.

By the time I got to Hungary I had become more “open” and better and putting myself in a position where people could be generous.  In Hungary the support I got was just wonderful - just amazing acts of kindness - and I was getting help in one form or another everyday.

A couple of examples just to illustrate both the extent of the kindness and how my behaviour had changed to make kindness more likely.

On my third day in Hungary I arrived at the village Hosszupereszteg expecting to find a gasthof, a gasthof which it turns out no longer existed.  I had walked in the heat all day and was running on empty.  After wandering up and down the main street a few times I stopped outside a bus-stop and decided to catch the first bus anywhere.  I asked a man parking his car near the bus stop if there is anywhere to stay and after a series of attempts we start to understand each other and in particular he understands that I have come a long way.  Turns out that the bus stop I’m at is the last one on the route and I could go all the way back to where I had started that day (returning in the morning) or he could persuade the bus driver to go a few kilometres out of his way and take me somewhere local.  At the time  I didn’t really understand that these were the options the man discussed with the driver when the bus turned up a few minutes later but it became apparent that this is what had happened when the bus left its scheduled route and took me to a very acceptable hotel a few kilometres away.  Not really knowing what was happening just added to the fun.

Helpful in Hungary
Perhaps the biggest favour came on the penultimate night of the trip, the day before I walked into Budapest.  I had planned to stay in Klastrompuszta just a few kilometres from Piliscev, but when I got there, after another marathon day, it was full (very unusual for Hungary).  Early on in the trip I would have left it at that but now I asked the landlady if she knew anywhere else and talked about how far I could come.  She rang a place in Piliscev but without any luck.  She gave me the address and suggested I ask again when I get there.  When I eventually found the place, a farm called the Kelemen Majorsag, and they were expecting me.  The landlady from Klastrompuszta had tried again.  It was a small farm producing artisan food and they were building some accommodation but it hadn’t been completed yet.  What they had done however was to organise a place for me to stay in the village, at a holiday apartment, owned by some friends, which at the time wasn’t being used.  Their friends would pick me up later but in the meantime they gave me a tour of the farm and made me supper.  Neither they nor their friends would accept any money for what they had given - wonderful generous people.

A lovely dinner at Kelemen Majorsag

So after six months of walking, unable to speak any of the languages of the six countries I had visited, and after spending most of the time on my own, I had learnt that to get help you need learn out to ask for it.  

With Csaba Almási, ex Hungarian Long Jump Champion, my escort into Budapest


  1. Interested in your latest post with regards 'favours' - especially from the humblest of people who are often quite poor themselves.
    On my latest trip on the GR7 in Spain I noticed a lot more men out of work. I had all the 'usual' lifts to villages off route with people going out of their way to get me somewhere useful. None of the drivers had work.
    In Culla a lady in a bar arranged for me to sleep free of charge in the village hall [rather spartan] In the evening wandering around got chatting in my limited Spanish to a man in the street, when I said where I was staying he took me to his sister's house and got her to give me [a perfect stranger] a bed! So ended up up eating and drinking with them for the evening, with a home video of the local vultures. Cooked breakfast the next morning and a good send off - they wanted nothing in payment.[Left money in the room for them!!]
    The man of the house had lost his job but was re-cultivating the family's fields that had lain barren for years.
    Would all that happen in Britain?
    Do find the Spanish delightful but you do have to keep asking and exploring all possibilities.
    happy traveling.

    1. Thanks for the comment John

      Things were bad when I went through Spain but they seem to have got even worse since - the unemployment rates are just unbelieveable, 50 per cent for the under 25s, but somehow people remain friendly and cheerful. I do think family ties are stronger in Spain than in the UK and perhaps people look after each other a bit more. Despite the economy being even worse there than here, there is lots to admire and even envy.

  2. Dear friends. You are quite right in your apreciations on the spanish family ties that are really strong. But I would like to mention that rural life is quite diferent than city life and indeed you would not find such friendly help and understanding in urban places than in the small villages.
    Anyway I should thank you for visiting Spain and for your interest in our habits and way of living.
    Greetings from a spanish walker.

  3. Hi Juan

    Nice to hear from you again and I hope that you and your family are well. Just back from a trip to Ireland and getting ready for a trip to the Vercors next week - would be nice to get some decent weather, non stop rain here. Very much looking forward to another trip to Spain, perhaps we could coordinate some plans for early next year.

    Christine sends her love

  4. Just back from our summer vacation in southern France. I follow your steps often so I am updated about your trips and walks.
    As you can see in my Website I use to go to walk the GRs and mountain treks on a monthly basis.
    I would be happy to walk with you again whenever and wherever you like.
    My best wishes for both of you.