Turkey to Italy, 1953
After crossing through the tiny area of European Turkey, I left the train at the last station on the railway line.
Ahead, lay the frontier post which was set in open farmland. Nobody was manning the border and I was soon happily marching through endless open fields into Greece. As I walked, I was aware, in the distance, of large groups of Greek girls stooping down to the ground, picking various crops of vegetables. Every now and again they waved to me, and I responded with a cheery wave.
In the late afternoon, with the sun still high in the sky, I strolled into the pretty small town of Alexandroupolis, which is situated on the Mediterranean Sea. It is the first town of any size in Greece. Captivating exotic music penetrated my ears from a nearby footpath café. This was exactly what I needed, so I entered the café and sat myself beneath a white umbrella shadecloth, laced with blue stripes. The pungent aroma of coffee drifting into my nostrils stirred my senses, so I ordered a tiny cup of thick, sweet Greek coffee.
The approach of evening relaxed me as I stretched out my weary legs, at the same time allowing my eyes to capture the magical scene, which was now opening before me. The “passigata” [walk] had commenced. Swarthy, good-looking young men, smartly dressed in dark suits, white shirts and black ties, their faces beaming with anticipation, eagerly strolled around the town square in one direction. Whilst seductive, giggling, olive skinned young girls, excitedly whispering to one another, wearing colorful peasant skirts with pretty embroidered blouses, excitedly paced in the opposite direction.
This was a typical summer evening with Greek-style courtship happening before my eyes. Both boys and girls, when passing each other, often called out romantic cheeky comments when their eyes found the person of their imagination and desire. The vivacious girls flashed dark chocolate-colored eyes and fluttered long black eye lashes. The boys responded with catcalls and shrieked continuous wolf whistles.
Of course, the girls instantly started to sway their hips, whilst their thick, jet black hair bobbed in the evening sea breeze. Throughout, perfume continuously wafted across my table.
During this delightful passing parade, Greek music could be heard from the loud speakers attached to many poles in the town square. Very often, female vocals crooned sad, sexy, romantic love songs.
I was transfixed for a good two hours!
Later that night, I ambled my way round to the railway station and observed a long train of goods wagons, many of them empty. You see, I had earlier decided to ride the freight train. Therefore, when it was completely dark, I quickly hauled myself over the side of an empty wagon and, using my rucksack as a headrest, spread myself out. Not long afterwards, the night air echoed with locomotives warming up their engines. Then came the jolts, movement and sudden halting, all in rapid succession.
Eventually, the train slowly gathered speed and I was moving along to my new unknown destination. The air was full of the stench of the pungent smoke as it passed over my head. The wagon wheels clanking along on the iron rails eventually became a soothing lullaby that lulled me fast asleep.
Next morning, when daylight came, I felt far more confident and sat myself upright, with just my head protruding over the side of the freight car in order to view the passing scenery. Not long after this, I observed the train’s guard standing outside the guard’s van, only a short distance behind where I was sitting. Feeling friendly, I waved to him and, to my surprise, he waved back.
Further along the track, at one of the small stations, the guard suddenly strolled up to my wagon and made signs with his hands that I should accompany him. After passing many passenger carriages I was invited to enter through an open door into one of the carriages. The guard pointed to a vacant seat, therefore, I sat down! My journey continued in comfort, as a non-paying passenger!
The guard must have mentioned to the passengers where he found me, because all the other passengers who appeared to be Greek, tried to speak to me, miming and using sign language.
I did my best to describe who I was. The passengers were most friendly and, within a short period of time, handed over to me a never ending supply of fresh bread, feta cheese, olives, figs and melons At the same time, a bottle of wine covered in Greek writing was repeatedly passed in my direction. This I sampled in cautiously small swigs.
Shortly after arriving in Thessalonica, two young Greek girls, who were standing on the platform, immediately walked over in my direction and commenced talking to me in broken English. A foreigner is always most obvious and easily picked out. They took me by the hand and dragged me along the street and stopped at what I presumed was their dwelling. Here, it was indicated to me that I would be sleeping in their bedroom which, I noticed, had a double bed. They clearly made me aware that I was to sleep on the floor. Later that evening, a big argument broke out between these two girls. Not wanting to be involved in a domestic dispute that could possibly involve male relatives wielding knives I pretended to be asleep. Early next morning, I made a hasty departure!
Before long, I was on the highway, hitch-hiking and walking my way towards the north of Greece. During one long stretch of walking, I came across an Italian construction camp, where a gang of Italians introduced themselves to me and beckoned me into their canteen, also inviting me to join them for lunch. Soon, I was dispatching a great bowl of pasta covered in a tasty red sauce and, to my delight, endless bottles of red wine were constantly placed on the dining table. For the workers, this was their siesta – a long break from work.
Bidding my hosts farewell, and profusely thanking them, I resumed my journey in the late afternoon.
Walking under bright blue skies with plenty of sunshine was a real treat. My nights were passed sleeping out in the open, beside hedges, or in the caves I occasionally found nearby.
Arriving at the Yugoslav border in the province of Macedonia, a giant of a woman examined my passport upside down and, turning the pages, spotted my Yugoslav visa. She seemed unable to understand what she was looking at. She clearly enjoyed throwing her authority around and trying to impress all and sundry with her knowledge. Of course, she was a communist party member.
Crossing frontiers was always lots of fun because there was invariably a great crowd of soldiers, all inspecting and leering at me. Nobody could speak English and I couldn’t speak Serbian or Macedonian. At this border crossing they were quite illiterate. After what seemed ages, they all lost interest in me, deciding I wasn’t a spy and waved me though.
For the next week, I marched along dusty dirt tracks from dawn to dusk. Sometimes, I was lucky and traveled along the highway sitting on top of a huge haycart drawn by horses. This was fun as I stretched myself out on the freshly mown hay and soaked up the sun.
One day, a large shiny American car came along and, at once, I felt elated, since there had been no vehicles at all until now. I immediately commenced waving at the driver. The vehicle stopped and a smartly attired man hopped out of the car. He uttered a few words in what I presumed was Serbian.
I pointed to my mouth and shook my head, at the same time holding my hands upwards in an expression of not understanding. I pointed with my finger at the car and also in the direction the car was pointing, and said in English, “A lift please?”
The driver opened the car door on my side, and indicated for me to get inside. The driver spoke a few words of English and managed to tell me by pointing to his hammer and sickle badge on his lapel, that he was the local communist party official for the area. As soon as the car roared into life, the official waved his arm towards the back seat and put his fingers towards his mouth, which he opened and shut quickly. At once I recognized this as meaning ‘food’.
On the back seat was a basket of bread, cheese and melons. I lifted up the basket and placed it on the front seat between us. A knife was provided so I commenced to slice the bread, cheese and melon, and each of us helped ourselves. The official produced from the side pocket in the car door a bottle of vodka. Removing the top, he gulped a large portion of the fiery liquid, then passed the bottle over to me and indicated for me to do likewise. Not being used to vodka I downed more than I should have, and coughed and spluttered. The communist official laughed and this really broke the ice between us.
In many European countries all drivers drink and drive without any hesitation. Before long, we had completely finished the bottle of vodka.
Not long after, I was dropped off in a large town called Skopje. In the evening, I secured a bed in one of the hotels for the equivalent of one shilling. Yugoslavia certainly was cheap! Late in the evening, I went into a restaurant and a waiter came up to me. I pointed towards the kitchen, then pointed to my eyes, and went through a mimicking of my eating. Once inside the kitchen, I checked out the bowls of steaming hot food cooking on the stove and pointed to some potatoes, meat and vegetables, then pointed to my chest. The waiter understood and walked me towards a small table where I sat down and waited for the food to arrive.
Whilst traveling through this part of Yugoslavia, I was constantly stopped by security police who wished to check my passport, it being quite evident that tourism had not yet arrived in this part of the country. Nevertheless, these people were invariably friendly towards me, and often gave me transport in military or police vehicles to the next town. At times, this was quite amusing, since the locals would observe me getting out of a police vehicle, and with the officials waving to me as they departed. To the local citizens, this indicated that I was an important person with influence in high places. Naturally, in small towns, news about me spread like wildfire. Thus, when I ordered a meal or needed a room for the night I was treated like royalty!
The townships of Prestina and Prilip passed in rapid succession.
After being seated in trucks for many days, driving through hair-raising mountain passes on the borders of Albania, I finally arrived at the port of Koto on the Adriatic sea and, more by chance than planning, I stumbled across a camping site of the French Club Mediterranee. This organization was then in its infancy.
Once I had introduced myself, I was soon surrounded by English and French holidaymakers, all wanting to know where I had come from.
The camp was run by a young French woman who mentioned that I could stay as long as I liked, providing I helped out with preparing the meals and washing up. Immediately, I jumped at this marvelous opportunity to be with an international crowd of young people. The meals were real French, commencing at breakfast with steaming sugar bowls of milky coffee and baguettes. The latter we all dunked into our coffee. Some mornings we had my favorite French breakfast. This consisted of fresh hot bread and dark bitter French chocolate – so yummy! Because of my introduction to this chocolate breakfast, all my life I have resorted to having this breakfast at least once a fortnight.
In the evenings, there were ample supplies of mellow red wine to accompany the five-course meal, the bottles being continuously refilled. All the produce was local Yugoslav fare. One thing about the French, they can all cook and turn out the most appetizing and delightful meals. When they cook rabbit simmered in red wine and served with exotic sauces, its far more tasty than chicken.
Here, in this holiday resort camp, I enjoyed myself tremendously, being surrounded by attractive French girls, many of whom encouraged me to sit and spin my travel stories every night. Later, in the evening, after a few more glasses of wine, some of the tourists played accordions and guitars. Then everyone immediately started to dance in the typical French fashion. This is a style of dancing I have always loved since I first went to France. Men and women face each other, with both dancers placing their arms and hands around each other’s neck, the cheeks of both partners softly touching, and in close embrace, pacing backwards and forwards, also circling around with no particular steps in mind, at the same time slowly swaying to the enchanting Edith Piaf musette music, which is so sad and romantic.
During the evening, a couple of French tourists gave a demonstration of French Apache dancing. This is where the couple slap each other on the face and throw each other across the dance floor. Its extremely sexy and so romantic for the audience to watch. Dancing like this beneath an open sky, dazzled by twinkling stars, soon transports you into a kaleidoscope of magical make believe. To my mind, it’s so much better than stuffy British ballroom dancing!
Moving on I decided to join a steamer that was running the whole length of the Yugoslav coastline. I obtained a ticket for the whole journey for the princely sum of £1. This entitled me to hop on and off at many ports. One of which was Kuchular, a historical town.
Whilst strolling around the cobblestone streets and magnificent historical buildings, I came across a young Yugoslav woman, who was leading a troop of tourists, and speaking in English. Standing in the background, I listened to her commentary. She happened to notice me doing this and asked in English what I was doing. Once I had explained, she asked me to meet her at a certain café in two hours, by which time she would have finished working. Surprisingly, I was invited to visit her parents’ home. On arrival, I discovered her home was a mansion, and we sat outside under a warm night sky, drinking coffee and munching delightful cakes. Her parents spoke perfect English and begged me to spend the night in their home. For a number of years afterwards, I corresponded with this lady, who was about my age.
The steamer berthed in Ryeka the last port of call in Yugoslavia. Soon I was hitch-hiking towards Trieste in Italy and then more adventures that would take me right to the Arctic Circle.