Where the Hel am I?

It's all very well Dante advocating that the middle of life is the time to take a tour of Hell, but where exactly is it? The best the atlas could offer was a little fishing port in Poland...

I am standing in the middle of Essex. It's the middle of my life. And no, I am not in a good mood. In one hand I hold a sign which says Harwich, in the other I have a copy of Dante's
Hell. Hitchhiking at my age? In this weather? There's no reason for such self-punishment, of course. I could take the train. Except that Dante has got me worried about spiritual choices. The middle of life - I've been reading - is time to take a tour of Hell.

I am standing in the middle of Essex. It's the middle of my life. And no, I am not in a good mood. In one hand I hold a sign which says Harwich, in the other I have a copy of Dante's Hell. Hitchhiking at my age? In this weather? There's no reason for such self-punishment, of course. I could take the train. Except that Dante has got me worried about spiritual choices. The middle of life - I've been reading - is time to take a tour of Hell.

In my case, I'm hoping that an earthly town called Hell will do. I've found two of them in my atlas: one is in clean and pleasant Norway, and one, spelled "Hel", is in Poland, on the grim, gloomy Baltic coast.

Poland wins it, and that missing final "l" doesn't bother me. Which is why I am here now, standing by a slip road in Essex with my thumb out. Hell, here we come! Cushy travel options not available.

Getting to Harwich, mind you, is almost cushy. One lift from a grumpy English man and his pleasant Dutch wife and I'm there, embarking the ferry. No drama. For the rest of that evening I'll be on the lookout for white-haired boatmen-of-death bawling Woe to the wicked!, but all I can see are British couples hiding behind Sunday newspapers all the way to Holland.

The next morning looks bad, though. I find myself in a drizzly Dutch town that I will spend five hours trying to hitch out of. Apart from two bleating sheep, Hoek van Holland is as silent as the grave - even if my mistake here is to hold a sign saying "Hamburg" (it's like standing outside Woking with a sign saying "Baghdad").

Eventually, a man in a Jeep stops. His odd diction emerges in an extremely strong Scottish accent. What man art thou, he seems to say, that free and dangerless, thus in deep Hell dost place thy living feet? Ah! He is in fact speaking Dutch. I want a lift, I tell him. He nods but drives away.

It is obvious that I fit the description of an evil child-rapist in this town. The only person who is eventually brave enough to pick me up is a stoned cockney. "We'll get you all the way to Rotterdam," promises Scott, from the driver's seat. Great, I think. Rotterdam is all of 30 minutes down the road. "Weed or hash for you, mate?" he asks, handing me two plastic sealed envelopes. "I'll take this one, mate," I reply.

Scott has now got one hand on the steering-wheel and one hand on a newly lit joint. Is smoking dope a sin, I worry? A kind of gluttony, perhaps? But what the Hell. The next thing I know, I am standing at a Dutch service station in the rain.

I feel like I am going backwards. My day deteriorates into an endless cycle of slip roads, filling stations, junctions and gravelly verges. At a spaghetti junction beyond Rotterdam, two men looking like Dennis Bergkamp and his toothless little brother, stop. "Hey, hitchhiker!" says little bro staring out of the window with glazed eyes, "wanna go to Papua New Guinea?"

Later I am treated to a series of rides with anonymous, gloomy men in jackets and ties, driving silent cars under black skies through dreary towns like Utrecht and Arnhem. The trouble is that they aren't going anywhere. No one ever is in Holland. These men of mud soon have me reaching for my Dante again. Sullen were we, we took no joy of the pleasant air... sullen we lie here now in the black mud... Is this a story about the Dutch nation? Only when I reach Germany, 24 hours later, do I feel like I'm making any serious progress.

Here everything changes. Suddenly, I am on an autobahn, in a little foreign car surrounded by muscular German cars, flying tail-to-bumper with the joy and precision of fighter pilots in formation. Everywhere I look I see German cars, proud and happy to be in their own country where no one can get at them.

Hamburg, when I reach it the next evening, is in a different circle of Hell altogether. Walking the streets behind my hotel I find respectable-looking people syringing themselves in broad daylight. Later, in the St Pauli area, I am approached by an attractive German girl who has the voice and manner of a PR executive and asks if I would like to have normal sex with her. What would Dante say, I wonder, flicking to the section on carnal desires?

The Germans have one response to worries: solve them. Nothing will be easier than hitching all the way from Hamburg to Berlin the next day. Taking advantage of that German invention, the Mitfahrzentrale - an agency that matches drivers and hitchhikers for a small fee - I promptly find myself being driven along the autobahn at 180kph by a man in a straw hat. We aim to reach Berlin by breakfast.

For a long time, the driver is silent, before he finally asks me whether London is blessed by a red-light district like that of Hamburg. "Actually, we are... discreet in this field," I reply, trying, but failing, not to sound like a hypocrite. Ah, yes. It was always so with you British, chuckles the man.

I am dropped off at Bahnhof Zoo, the centre of West Berlin. If only this place had been destroyed, I find myself wishing, in a Cold War nuclear hell. At least that would have saved millions of people the trouble of mooching here in gloomy eternity, hands in pockets, eating ice creams and sausages. Or am I being cynical? Should I perhaps join these eternal moochers, stuffing my mouth with eternal sausage? No. My journey through Hell is not yet finished. There's a brand new motorway from Berlin to Poland, which I ride that same afternoon in the Mercedes of two unfriendly men, one of whom resembles Hitler and the other Stalin. "Why does this man not speak our language?" they seem to be asking one another. "Of what use is he to our plans of world domination?"

Gloomy forests begin to crowd the road, pylons and pillars and poles and girders clog unkempt fields. I glimpse cobbled alleys and rusty fences. And look! Germans in uniform manning the border to Poland! But my fears are unnecessary. Have a nice day, they say. I laugh. Entering Poland there is no compulsory money exchange, no currency declaration, no visa inspection. Hell, I fear, is not what it was.

But an hour later, I am checking into a room in Szczecin. This is more like it. Within moments I am fixing a broken window frame, unblocking the toilet, killing a bluebottle. What more could I ask for? Heaven?

It's not far to Hell from here. The next morning, I wake to tricklings and gushings and lashings and gurglings and drummings. Mere thunderstorms, I tell myself. Nothing to stop my progress. After attaching an umbrella to the strap of my bag, I stand by a road on the edge of town getting sprayed by Mercedes, BMWs and Audis. Eventually a Lada stops.

The driver is a thin man with dyed black hair who speaks not a word of English, German, or indeed Polish. In his back seat, I notice a beautiful blonde girl reading a book about Buddhism. But as I climb in to join her, she climbs out. She is nothing but a Satanic trick! I find myself cuddling up to a stinky, muzzled black dog instead.

We drive on, with a curious lack of purpose, past fruit trees, crows, black muddy lanes, allotments and pine forests. The dog farts. There seems to be grave indecision as to where we are going at all. Ahem, I say, pointing at my map, but the driver only shakes his head sadly.

A horse-drawn wagon trundles past; village chimneys smoke furiously although it is mid-July. The end of my journey? Almost. That night I settle for a town called Wladyslawowo, where hundreds of bedraggled teenagers are hugging sleeping bags in the main street. I walk to the beach to find it packed, at 10pm, with people wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas, sitting on benches, eating fried fish from cardboard plates and drinking beer from plastic cups. Is this where bad Mediterranean holidaymakers go after they die?

The next morning, the little fishing port of Hel is a short drive away, through mossy forests along a sand spit. Almost before I have stuck my thumb out, a local doctor whose car smells of medical swabs has picked me up. Are you going to Hell? I ask.

In fact, Hel has golden sandy beaches and picturesque cottages. But I've got Dante in mind and am finding the day oddly humorous. Where, for example, is the tortured, naked spirit of Judas Iscariot? I turn to the doctor as he drops me off: you know there's an English word, hell... I begin to explain. But I can't quite spit the words out.

Funnily enough, no Hel resident gets the joke, when I try telling it. Instead, they smile politely. Only the Yugoslavian ex-sailor who squirts cream into iced coffees at Hel's waterfront bar seems to understand. Yes, he tells me. But this Hel only has one "l".

You're right, say I, taking my coffee. But he has got me confused. A fragrant breeze picks up off the sea and a summery sun is trying to come out. Can it possibly be that this isn't really Hell at all? That I have hitch-hiked all this way for nothing?

Surely not. Happy gulls squawk overhead. People are taking their coats off. I spoon myself a mouthful of cream and sugary foam and conclude: Hell is just not the bad place you sometimes think it has to be.

Going to Hel

Hitchhiking: Jeremy Atiyah paid £22 from Harwich to Hoek van Holland onStena Line (0990 455 455). From there, the road to Hel recommended in 'Europe: a Manual for Hitchhikers' (Vacation Work, £4.95, but the most recent edition is 1985) cuts straight across via Rotterdam, Osnabrück and Hanover to Berlin, where you should bear left for Hel. For details of the German lift-share scheme, visit www.mitfahtzentrale.de (in German only).Regrettably, the Polish Social Autostop Committee - Europe's only government-run hitchhiking scheme - collapsed at the same time as Communism.

Planes: the closest airport to Hel is Gdansk, accessible three times each week on British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.british-airways.com). This is a code-share flight in associationwith the Polish airline LOT. Specialist agents such as Polorbis (020 7636 2217) usually offer fares below those charged by the airlines themselves. Expect to pay around £186 return for travel from London in October - or £11 more if you travel inbound on a Friday. From Gdansk, a combination of trains, buses or (in summer) boats will get you to Hel. And back.

Buses: plenty of buses operate from various UK points to Gdansk. Eurolines (08705 143219, www.GoByCoach.com) has a fare of £99 return from London's Victoria Coach Station to the city.

Visas: these are no longer required for British passport holders visiting Hel.

Information: Polish National Tourist Office, Remo House, 310-312 Regent Street, London W1R 5AJ (020-7580 8811).

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