European odyssey 1981
In early August 1981, due to a failed romance I decided to join the Legion, the foreign one, not the ‘of Mary’ type.
I had heard that there was an enlistment office in Lille in northern France, so I decided to travel there and to sign up.
At that time I worked for a shipping and trucking company, so hitching a ride on one of the trucks as far as Cherbourg, as my last official duty, was no problem.
My younger brother Dessie who had been working as a carpenter in Holland for two years and felt that he deserved a break, decided to accompany me until I joined up and then he would go on a bit of a tour of Europe.
To fund my trip and a potential five years as a legionnaire, I sold my much loved Ford Capri and my collection of audiotapes for a total of £500, tapes like Blondie, Boston and Rainbow, to be played loud on the car’s stereo. There was also a whip around in work for me which generated £250 (a tidy sum back then) and at my leaving do in the office, the managing director presented me with a cheque for £100, so I was pretty well funded for five years as a legionnaire, or a year and a bit as a non-legionnaire (or a failed one).
We travelled by truck to Rosslare on Saturday morning then availed of trucker’s accommodation on the voyage from Rosslare to Cherbourg, big steak and chips dinner, a good 10 hours sleep in a driver’s cabin, and full Irish breakfast before our arrival in France.
My trucker friend continued on his own journey after Cherbourg, and so on a balmy northern France day we set about finding our way to Lille, which I believed was over near Belgium; admittedly not great path finding, but I was full of the optimism of youth.
When I had played for Kore athletic, a local (to work) football team, I had travelled with them some six months earlier, to play two football matches against local Cherbourg sides.
It was a truly dismal winter’s weekend, freezing cold and raining non-stop.
We had partied for most of the ferry crossing, so we lost the first game played on the day of our arrival on a sodden mucky pitch, in an industrial park, with shipping containers as changing rooms without showers or heat.
We did better in the second game, our gear was soggy and filthy, but on a proper all-weather pitch with the prospect of a hot shower afterwards, we managed a creditable 3-1 win.
That visit to Cherbourg had not engraved the city on my memory as a place to be visited again. In fact because of the unrelenting rain, some of us went to the pictures to get away from it, well when I say pictures, I mean a porno.
We genuinely had no idea into what we had ‘soggilly’ stumbled.
But that had been Cherbourg in winter
The best of the summer weather in Ireland had been in May June and July of that year, but August in Cherbourg was summer in full swing.
I acquired through a friend, student cards which enabled us to get inter-rail passes at a significant reduction, so we intended to take the train to Paris the following day, and from there go to Lille. However first priority was a couple of cold beers at one of the many bars in Cherbourg.
I don’t think it was a city with much ‘touristicness’, but Cherbourg was full of people in transit.
From there you could take ferries to England, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Scandinavia, so I guess for backpackers looking for cheap travel, it was as good a place as any to gather.
We had brought a tent and sleeping bags as our movable accommodation, because campsites are plentiful on continental Europe, pretty much every major city has at least one, so we intended to spend the night under canvas in Cherbourg, and move on, on the following morning.
Not far from the ferry compound we found a large bar with outside seating, loud music and a big crowd of young people, just what we were looking for.
After one or two beers we met two young girls, backpacking university students from New Zealand who had just arrived in Cherbourg from Scandinavia, via England, and were planning a leisurely camping trip around southern Europe by train, starting with Paris the following day and then on to Biarritz in the south of France.
As the evening progressed I found myself utterly in thrall of the gorgeous brown eyes, the tan revealing singlet, and the revealed tan of an archaeology student from Dunedin, and I could feel my legionnaire resolve crumbling into dust.
So before the night was out, we four had entered into a loose arrangement to travel together, starting with the train to Paris the following morning.
Except for my thoroughly forgotten desire to travel to Lille after Paris, we really had had no travel plan, so once our presence was not unwelcome by our new companions, we could tag along and get to know each other.
On a sunny Sunday morning we took a bus to the central railway station, and shortly afterwards a train to Paris. We arrived in Paris at Gare du Nord in the mid afternoon, and left our large rucksacks in the luggage lockers in the station so that we could spend the day doing the touristy bit, unencumbered.
We took photos at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, we had a walk around the Louvre, and we had lunch alfresco, drank several beers and small delicious coffees at some of the many very pricey Parisian bars and restaurants.
And at the end of a full day, we collected our bags at Gare du Nord and went camping in the Bois du Boulogne, where we had dinner at one of the many restaurants on the campsite.
The following morning/mid day after brunch at the same restaurant, we took a bus and Metro to Gare d’ Austerlitz for our late afternoon sleeper train, south to Biarritz.
We had more beer and ham and cheese rolls in the railway café for dinner before boarding our train, and we bought provisions for the journey.
We were in an eight berth sleeper carriage with some very young English girls who were inter-railing around Europe for their summer holidays. There was also middle-aged man from Australia who had lost his wife in northern Italy when he went to the diner car for something to eat, leaving her just at the time when the train changed carriages for French railways, and he ended up in Paris with nothing but the clothes he wore, a couple of francs and luckily his passport, which he always kept in the breast pocket of his shirt, and his wife finally made her way to Biarritz where she awaited their re-finding each other.
Because he had retained his passport he was able to get help from the Australian embassy in Paris, who arranged phone calls to his family in Oz and money transfer, so that he could meet up with his wife again.
So there were the two Irish two Kiwis three English and one Aussie. There was beer, there was red and white wine, there were ham and cheese rolls, there were yoghurts, and there was a bunch of bananas. We all shared everything, we talked and we even had a little singsong before bed.
Shortly after leaving Paris, darkness fell, but we talked, drank and sang for a few hours as the night sped by .
The Australian man was from Adelaide, he was a retired mining engineer and his wife had been a nurse. One of the English girls was trainee police officer, and the other two were in University in Leicester, and then there was us.
I thought at the time that the English girls were a little bit scared of being in a rail carriage with two feckless Irishmen, and given all that was going on in Northern Ireland I couldn’t really blame them.
However we did our best to assuage their fear, and they relaxed I think. There were no rebel songs from us, only lachrymal ballads and my rendition of the anti-war song Waltzing Matilda, which our Australian companion loved, having never heard it before, and feeling an extra poignancy because he had lost two great uncles, who died at Gallipoli with the Anzacs and the Irish.
I can still remember the names of those strangers who shared our railcar and provisions through that August night in 1981.
I also remember the fondness and the warmth shared amongst. It’s one of my favourite travel memories even after so many years of travelling, it was truly lovely.
After showers or a wash and brushing of teeth and finding out how to operate the drop-down bunks, we turned in and I for one slept until the conductor woke us the following morning.
When the blinds were lifted, bright warm sun shine flooded the car, and the view through the windows left us in no doubt that we had moved to a different climactic zone.
The bright sunlight outside shone down warmly on a Mediterranean style bucolic vista.
There were fields with rows upon rows of vines or olives, low light brown hills, plane trees and red roofed houses.
It was definitely not a Parisian or an Irish Augustan (in terms of climate) view.
There was no mistaking the fact that we had moved out of the Irish temperate zone and into a spectacularly Mediterranean one.
The conductor told us that we were one hour from Biarritz station and that ‘petit dejeuner’ was available in the dining car.
We thanked him politely and made our way down for coffee and croissants while we watched the rural Mediterranean vista shift rapidly past the window, as we waited for Biarritz to arrive.
Shortly after making our way back to our carriage, Biarritz did indeed arrive; the train braked noisily and lurched a little as it slowed.
The Vista stopped hurtling past the window, slowing down so that we could make out rather more settlements, two, three, four, five, six, seven houses together, with streets between and bigger buildings like barns or factories, maybe businesses or hotels or shops. So there was no gap between the farmland and the small towns, and soon after that there was Biarritz. The train slowed and slowed with a screaming of brakes as we entered the city and its main railway station.
The villages and the towns were all red roofed and sun drenched and the air was hot, like Spain for a package holiday ‘hot’. We all had a second breakup breakfast of the most wonderful scrambled eggs, fresh bread rolls, basins of milky south of France breakfast coffee, and ice cold orange juice, after which we all went outside and took photographs in the strong sunshine, at the signposts for Biarritz ‘Centrale’ and San Sebastian in Spain, because we were that close order. Afterwards with much hugging and good bying, we took leave of our English and Australian companions.
According to the schedule on the bus shelter outside the station, there was a bus every 10 minutes or so into the centre of Biarritz, indeed a bus or two had passed us while we said our goodbyes, so we hung around in the sun, it was never too early to start working on a tan even for a few minutes waiting for a bus.
The weather was spectacular and the beach near the camp site equally so, so we worked on tanning for the next week.
The campsite wasn’t really up to much, but was adequate, there were showers, a restaurant and of course a beach.
In the city there were plenty of restaurants and bars, charging what seemed to be less than half of what we paid in Paris, so the more we ate and drank the more we saved.
On one of those carefree sun tanning days, the four of us sat outside a beach side bar and watched a bicycle race tear past us several times.
On that sunny south of France afternoon, we had ringside seats for this most particular of French sports. It was not the Tour de France, but the contestants competed with true endeavour as if it were, and moderate crowds lined the route shouting encouragement to the cyclists as they passed. The two Kiwis’ worked on their already golden tans, while we white Irish took advantage of every opportunity to darken, and by the end of the week we no longer looked like two package dealers in the first minutes of their holiday. We had arrived on Monday and we left eight days later.
We took the bus to Hendaye just along the French coast from Biarritz, where we stayed in a student’s hostel above the lovely bay and harbour for a couple of days, and from where we simply walked a few hundred metres into Spain.
There were barriers in place which were obviously designed to handle many more than four people at a time, but the kindly French border guard opened a gate right by the customs office and ushered us through.
Once in Spain we caught a bus to San Sebastian and pitched our tent in the campsite while we hung out and enjoyed the ‘Spanishness’ or maybe more correctly the ‘Basqueness’ of the locale.
I didn’t know it at the time but Ernest Hemingway was a great lover of Biarritz, the border area; Hendaye and San Sebastian, where he liked to hang out, drink a lot, and go trout fishing.
When we moved on again to Bilbao we took a photo opportunity outside the Guggenheim, but for some-not now recalled reason-we didn’t venture inside.
We then left by train in the evening and passed through Santander at night, arriving in Oviedo early the following morning. Sun was still hot and the architecture was still Mediterranean, even though Oviedo is on the Atlantic.
From Oviedo we went south into Portugal to Lisbon, back into Spain and up to Madrid where we saw Picasso’s Guernica among other great works of art, and then down to Valencia where oranges grew in the central reservation of the highway, then along the actual Mediterranean coast up to Barcelona, which I knew quite well from my business trip there two years previously, when I had spent six weeks between Barcelona Madrid and Valencia, but mainly Barcelonna.
I enjoyed showing everyone around; I was particularly enraptured with the Gaudi style of architecture from before, and while la Sagrada Familia didn’t seem to have progressed much in the two years since I’d been to visit last time, it was still jaw droppingly beautiful.
We enjoyed a few days in Barcelona, staying in a student hostel near the old Gothic city, hi Ian the bars of Las from us and generally taking in the ‘ambiente’ which quite literally oozed out of every building in the city centre.
We next moved onto Sitges just down the coast for a 14 day beachside tanning fest, there is nothing much there except the beach, the camping was right beside the sea, so we partied at night and beached by day.
By this stage we had run out of August, and even on the European side of the Mediterranean, the weather can change, so we upped stakes again and headed round the corner into Italy.
I had travelled quite a lot to Italy to meet with agents and customers in my previous job; I had been to Milan to Prato and to Florence.
Our agents delighted in showing off the magnificent architecture and artwork on display in those great Renaissance cities, just as I loved bringing visiting representatives to see Christ Church Cathedral, St Patrick’s Cathedral, new Grange, Achill Island and the cliffs of Moher.
So on my recommendation we headed for Florence where we visited Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s birth of Venus, Botticelli’s primavera, and Brunelleschi’s Dome on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, all magnificent pieces of art and architecture, which I had been brought to see in my previous life.
I had chosen to draw the birth of Venus for my sixth year art class portfolio in Secondary school; however my art teacher thought it to be over ambitious, so I presented my representation of Goya’s El Tres de Mayo 1808, but I sneakily worked on Venus until I could draw a reasonable copy of the great masterpiece, and I loved seeing her again.
I felt proud to bring our little troupe on that short tour to see those few incredible tourist sites.
Italy is so full of things to see; we could have spent months and not seen it all, so we were selective, very selective.
We went to Rome to see the amphitheatre, Trajan’s Arch, St Peters Square, and the Sistine Chapel, which required a five-hour queueing in the blazing sun to get in.
That was in 1981, I believe it to be a few months long now, so my archaeologist companion and I considered ourselves lucky.
Our other two travelling colleagues did not feel like queueing in the sun, even to see the marvel that is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so they went on a tour bus around the big Roman sites.
We agreed that we would fill them in about what we’d seen later over dinner.
After Rome we went to Pompeii to see the archaeological work under the-quiet for now-cone of Vesuvius.
We missed Naples but saw the Island of Capri (from a distance).
While on the Amalfi coast someone saw an advertisement for ferries from Salerno to Palermo in Sicily, and as we had planned a trip there, we decided to hop down from middle Italy to Sicily.
The red roofed higgledy-piggledyness of the architecture in Salerno is echoed by the red roofed higgledy-piggledyness of the architecture in Palermo.
It seemed to me at the time that the benign nature of the Mediterranean allowed the builders of coastal cities to build right down to the sea.
The last 30 something years from 1985 2016 during my second manifestation as an adult, I have worked a lot in Italy, mainly Trento and Civitavecchia, and that initial impression has been borne out.
We spent three or four days in student hostel accommodation in the centre of Palermo. We mainly drank, ate, and strolled around taking in the sights, tanned on the beach and…….drank.
Food and drink was a fraction of the cost that it had been in Rome
When our time was up in Sicily, we embarked on a ferry to Brindisi in the heel of Italy and the hub of the ferry system from Italy to the Greek islands.
We could have taken a ferry direct to Athens but our friends had made arrangements to meet people in Corfu, but I wanted to see Athens and as Dessie was happy to go with either, he decided to opt for Corfu, which left me on my own heading to the Greek capital.
Had we taken a ferry direct from Palermo, we would have missed one of the stand out memorable experiences of the whole trip.
Most of the ferry companies had their offices on the main square in Brindisi, so most travellers congregated there.
The city provided showers and amenities for those many travellers to freshen up before embarking on a ship to the islands.
We arrived on the square in the afternoon and so after showers and something to eat; we relaxed waiting for the time when our ferries would depart.
At sunset and knocking off time for the many Italian workers in the ferry offices and associated businesses, who congregated outside to smoke a cigarette and chat with their colleagues from other companies.
Prior to the sudden influx of chatting people, the square had been somnolent in the afternoon heat, quiet and lazy.
Suddenly the hubbub of conversation shattered the silence, and right on cue the songbirds in the trees broke into beautifully harmonious song, perfectly in tune with the conversation.
The noise was magnificent and beautiful, perfectly concordant with the late afternoon warmth.
It was a truly lovely experience.
The time had come for me to leave our little gang, even temporarily, but having gotten this close I was determined to see the Acropolis in Athens, so I caught the ferry to Piraeus and my three fellow Travellers caught their ferry to Corfu.
On the ferry to Piraeus I met a beautiful girl from Brazil who was on the way to see the sights of Athens, so we tagged along together for three days sightseeing.
Dessie had taken our tent, so we stayed in a student hostel in the city.
After our time together I headed back to Corfu and she headed back to Italy, ships passing in the night again.
She stood at the ship’s rail as the ferry left waving and throwing kisses to me.
I have often wondered what would have happened if I had asked her to stay with me.
There would have been some explaining to my New Zealander companion for a start, still I wondered.
In Corfu I hired a little Hyundai car in the port, and set off to find my comrades.
It was total madness, in those pre-mobile phone days I had absolutely no idea where they were, but I picked up a little brochure campsites the tourist office and set off my quest.
I had breakfast in the first site I visited and I found out that there was a popular beach camping grounds very close by, and easily within walking distance of the port, which would have been important to my three buddies, who was far as I knew was still on foot, and true enough when I pulled in at the second stop my search the three of them were just coming out of the restaurant and we were reunited. We spent nearly a month Corfu turning even browner, driving around exploring the island and spending lazy carefree days, ouzo cruising, starting, motorcycle crashing, swimming, this going in the disc on the campsite the music and parallel, a take that I had retained from my car, and doing a fair bit of beer drinking.
The motorcycle crashing was not a planned activity, but an unfortunate occurrence which happened about half way through our stay.
We hired two scrambler motorcycles and headed off up dirt tracks to villages in the interior of the island which we felt at that time should be visited.
The one thing that one should never do on a motorcycle on a dirt track is apply the brakes.
With shifting traction between the tyres on the road, when the will stop turning white keeps moving but in a totally uncontrolled manner, which can only end badly, and so it did for us.
I foolishly braked; the two of us were thrown violently to the ground scraping us painfully on the gravel, which scoured the skin roughly from our knees and elbows and my hip and shoulder.
Thankfully our heads were not affected, because (of course) we had no helmets, and apart from the stinging pain of our grazes, which required a 10 or 15 minute sit down the road to cry, have a cigarette or two, and catch our breath, there was nothing broken or otherwise seriously damaged.
So after the short time out we gingerly climbed up on our unaffected motorbike and headed for home.
I had a very well-stocked Volvo first aid kit in my pack, which equipped me to perform minor surgical procedures such as the removal of bits of dirt track from wounds, and the dressing of said wounds.
Back at the campsite I carried out emergency first aid on us both, and dress the wounds in lovely white gauze bandages afterwards, which really accentuated our deep brown tans.
There would be no more motorcycle hire for us.
After our yet another sun holiday in Corfu, it was time to move off again because we wanted to catch some of the Oktoberfest in Munich.
It took a ferry to Piraeus and then trains up the Adriatic coast to northern Italy and then to Munich.
On our journey north, we transited through Milan going the opposite direction to a month and a bit previously when we were headed south.
On this occasion it was just a transport hub to get us to where we wanted to go. We were stuck with a six hour wait in Milan’s central station, which was pretty boring, so I decided to go for a walk, on my own as it happens because we were all pretty much travelled out.
The early October weather was fairly miserable, low cloud and drizzle, so for the first time in months I wore my old FCA/American army field jacket, which I had dragged around since leaving Dublin in August. I was brown as a nut; my dark hair that time (at that time) had continued to grow while I toured Europe and was by that point hippie length.
My shirt and jacket felt alien after months of wearing nothing but a singlet or at most a T-shirt, and my jeans and trainers felt strange and my legs and feet after so long of wearing nothing but shorts and sandals.
It was cool in Milan and there had been rain, the streets were wet and dark.
I wandered along without any goal in mind, just passing time.
I stopped at a had coffee and a cigarette, before resuming my ramble.
Street I was on ran from central station to somewhere else, and was called Via Pola.
There was the usual mix of restaurants and bars and shops and I remember strolling through a department store, casting a desultory look over the goods on sale, having absolutely no intention of buying anything.
I picked up a few things, a belt perhaps, a wallet perhaps, and put them back down, before resuming my walk along the street.
I had not gone very far from the department store, when a light blue and white Carabinieri police car pulled aggressively in, in front of me as I went to cross a side street.
Two Carabinieri jumped out of the car, drew their weapons and using their vehicle as cover, pointed their guns towards me, and began to shout in Italian in my direction.
I of course assumed that there was something going on behind me, so I sort of ducked down and continued to cross the street quicker.
The guns and the shouting followed me, until I could be under no illusion except that these two police officers attention was directed towards me.
Of course, at that time I didn’t speak any Italian, so I tried to explain in high school French that I was Irish, and that I hadn’t done anything bad.
When I had crossed the street now with my hands up (assuming that that is the correct response to having a gun pointed at you), I stopped, faced the two cops and raised my hands even higher.
The braver of the two approached me in a sort of hunched over aspect, with his gun resolutely pointed at me and him resolutely shouting at me in Italian.
When he reached me he grabbed my arm, and spun me around till I faced the wall then he pushed me forward so that the palms of my hands were on the cold wet concrete, he then kicked my legs apart so that I was in the position that I had seen countless residents of Northern Ireland forced into by the British army on the streets of the province.
Any danger that I might have posed having now been negated, policeman number two approached and one of them started to rifle through the pockets of my jacket my shirt and my jeans, throwing everything except my wallet and my passport on the footpath, I remember hearing my Zippo lighter hit the deck with its customary tinny ring.
Then one of them held me against the wall with the muzzle of his gun pressed into the back of my neck, while I gather his colleague checked out my bona fide’s over their cars police radio.
After a few minutes, the gun was removed from the nape of my neck, and it was indicated to me that I should turn around.
Still speaking in rapidfire Italian, but without the urgency of earlier, they gave me back my wallet and my passport, and indicated to me that I should pick up the contents of my pockets off the ground, and then they went back to their car and drove away.
A small crowd of people had stopped to see the dispensing of Milan’s justice on a decidedly non-Milanese man and they watched as I hunkered down to pick up my belongings.
I felt like I should be apologising in some way, either that I wasn’t shot down in a hail of bullets by the police, or that I wasn’t bundled into the car in handcuffs.
After all the excitement, even though I had only killed two hours or so, I headed back to the railway station, and the comfort of our little group.
Each of my compatriots agreed that I look like I had seen a ghost, and that I was in shock, desperately in need of a beer and a cigarette.
I spent the next couple of hours being comforted after the trauma of my walk.
We caught what we believed to be a direct train from Milan to Munich, but was in fact the direct train to Munich via Zurich, which was okay because we could get ham and cheese rolls and beer in the stall on the platform.
Luckily the stall vendor took Italian lira because we had no Swiss francs or American dollars, so we handed over bundles of them in return for two six-packs of beer and four ham and cheese rolls.
Of course we had no idea how long it would take to get to Munich, so we didn’t buy anything else for the journey of over eight hours.
Here is something that I discovered upon our arrival in Munich.
There was a huge McDonald’s restaurant just outside central station, and as we arrived absolutely famished, we decided that two big Mac meals each with fries and a cold beer would be necessary to assuage our terrible hunger.
I was the only one of the four of us who got started on the second big Mac; the others were stuffed after one, and to be honest so was I, but I didn’t want to waste my food.
Firstly, I could not get my mouth around those big Macs; I had to nibble around the edges until I got it to a size where I could take a full bite.
Secondly the hamburgers were huge, I would be tempted to say twice as big as contemporary burgers.
I recently got a big Mac meal on delivering, and either my hands or the burgers have shrunk considerably over the years.
What I’m saying is that McDonald’s and probably Burger King and Wendy’s have all reduced the size of their burgers, while increasing the price.
We then went on to eat a lot of German sausage and drink a lot of German beer at Oktoberfest.
We stayed in barracks style student accommodation (Germans are good at that), not too far from the centre of proceedings.
The beer and sausage were cheap and the entertainment decadent, loud music with a lot of drunken dancing by practically every nationality in the Western world, and noisy nights in the hostel.
We lasted four days, and then burnt out worn out and badly hung over, we slink away on a train to Berlin.
It was October in northern Europe, the weather was foggy and drizzly, we were coming to the end of our collaboration, and the sundering of our little group had finally arrived.
Our New Zealand partners had university to attend, and possibly other (more permanent partners) to reunite with, and Dessie and I had decided to go to see our eldest sister and her family in Holland, where we might take a moment or two to decide on our future strategies.
I had profoundly failed to join either of the legions; Dessie could go back to work in Holland, but my options were limited.
I couldn’t speak Dutch like Dessie, so the chances of finding a job in Holland were slim.
I had been assured when I left my job in Ireland that I would be welcomed back any time, and I even had that in writing on my reference, however going back with my tail between my legs, I wasn’t sure!
The four of us went to see checkpoint Charlie, and that apart from our sad goodbye at the airport, before our very special pals flew to London, was the last official engagement that we had.
And so, our number back down to 2 again like three months previously, my younger brother and I headed for the train station.