So with Madrid done, it was time for the coast.
We headed south-east toward Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, the van was moving well again, and so I put aside my thoughts of mechanical failure that first appeared in the Madrid traffic and rolled on.
The coast was really (I see now) what we had come for, and the seabreezes, when we finally came within their sphere of influence, were worth every kilometre we had driven to experience them.
Valencia is famous for its oranges, and indeed the site of those beautiful dark green swathes on the red Earth of the coast made everyone feel better.
We had been in the van, and each others close proximity now for two weeks, and even if you are travelling with St Francis of Assisi and the Dalai Llama, arguments and bickering will still occur.
St Francis would always be wanting to stop at every church and have a pray, while you would no doubt get annoyed with the Llama for never getting annoyed about anything.
So the coast was a great change for us.
We hit Valencia and after a few nights there we headed back up the coast toward Barcelona.
And here, in Barcelona, we hit a campground that was run by Fascisti left over from General Franco’s regime.
It says something about this narrative that famous sights don’t figure prominently, that is largely due to my lack of interest in them.
In the end I am writing down what I remember, and if it is still in my mind twenty years later, then I figure it’s worth reporting.
The first thing I remember about Barcelona was that it was the first place I had a long, complex, to me anyway, conversation in Spanish.
We were in the van driving around with our less than adequate guide book, trying to find the campground.
Eventually, we came across two young Spanish mothers out for a stroll, each pushing a pram with baby on board.
I pulled up next to them and leaned out the driver’s window.
“Buenos Dias”, I said, in my flawed Castillian accent, “Hay una camping por aqui?” (Is there a campground nearby?).
One of the young women replied, “Yes”, and she pointed to a chainlink fence next to the road, “that is the campground, inside that fence, but to enter it in your van, you have to go back up the road to the lights, turn right, and it is about one kilometre down on your left.”
I was very pleased as I understood her response pretty well.
I sought some clarification, and then we thanked the young women and did a u-turn and went on our way.
It was very satisfying to be able to make some small steps in a foreign language.
And I might add, I was already learning that learning a foreign language has many tricky bits, but in any language, grammar is the toughest.
Vocabulary is relatively easy, this word means ‘car’, this word means ‘campground’ etc, but when those words come clothed in and around with verb and adjective structure, it can hide the noun completely and you are left all at sea.
German for instance is like this, many say that it is the easiest language to learn as it is logical, but this is a fallacy, German has its hard bits, I can tell you, commonly, by its use of compound words.
The noun in German is placed in the middle of the word, then a whole series of ‘un-
, ‘ab-‘, ‘noch-‘, ‘ge-‘ and other bits are welded onto the front and back of the word till the learner doesn’t know where they’re at.
Plus Spanish and French have the famous gender prelates, and so in French, a chair is male and a table is female, figure that out.
And, just before this turns into some ‘English is the best language’ rant, from what I understand, one of the hardest things about English is that so many words mean different things, throwing the learner off even at the vocabulary level.
‘Set’, for instance, can be ‘the glue has set’, a ‘set of blocks’, ‘the sun had set’ and ‘I am going to set up my computer’.
So all of the languages of Europe have their issues, but the point is there is something very satisfying about making progress in any skill.
So we made our way back to the lights, turned left and pulled up at the campground.
We paid, went in and set up, then decided to have swim in the campground pool.
And here Craig and I discovered where the Nazis that had escaped Germany at the end of World War two had got to.
The pool attendants, in their white terry-towelling clothing, seemed to have a beef against the world and everyone in it.
For a start, I walked up to the pool wearing my shorts and t-shirt, and jumped in.
Then before I had finished shaking my head dog-like to get the water out of my eyes, one of the attendants blew a whistle and said to me, “You can’t wear clothing in the pool”, then he gestured to my t-shirt.
I looked at him a little askance, wearing a t-shirt in the pool is a common way to avoid sunburn.
At first I thought he was kidding around, it seemed so ridiculous, but he kept gesturing and so I paddled over to the side, got out and put my t-shirt on the grass next to the pool.
To be fair to him though, I had been planning to use the chlorinated pool to give my travel stained t-shirt its first wash since I’d left England, and considering the state of the thing, the life guard’s actions were probably justified.
So shirtless, I went back to the pool and dived in.
The whistle went again and the life guard pointed at me again, and said, “No diving from the side of the pool.”
WTF? I said under my breath, then the life guard came over closer to me and admonished me further, he repeated his injunction and made it clear that if you wanted to dive, you had to do it off the diving board.
So Craig and I nodded and then began to swim a few lengths.
Astoundingly, the whistle went again and I looked up to see the life guard once more pointing at us, and this time he was indicating that if we wanted to swim lengths we had to go over to the other side of the pool and do it.
Turns out we were swimming in the shallower side and this was supposed to be only for parents and young children.
Anyway, we continued our swimming and then, mischievously, began to push the envelope in every direction to see exactly just what was and wasn’t allowed.
Turns out pretty much anything except floating on your back quietly is against the rules, and even then you have to do it in the right area of the pool.
Crag went to the diving board and jumped in.
AGAINST THE RULES!
Diving only from the diving board please.
I splashed Craig with a sweeping motion of my hand.
AGAINST THE RULES!.
No excess splashing please.
And so it went.
Eventually we had had enough, we’d heard that whistle more than a particularly transgressive soccer player during a tight match and so now it was time to get out.
So we dried off and went into Barcelona to look around, I saw the main square of town which was interesting to me because of a story told to me by my flat mate in Vancouver, Bob.
He had gone Spain for his vacation and had been in Barcelona for John Baptiste day.
John the Baptist is the patron saint of Barcelona, and so his birthday is widely celebrated.
The focus of this celebration is the main square and this square is packed with locals who take champagne and fireworks.
Said Bob, “midnight came around everyone was fully loaded with champagne and already things were getting out of hand. Then they all began letting off their fireworks. You’ve no idea how bloody dangerous it is being jammed into an outdoor area, shoulder-to-shoulder, when a sky rocket suddenly goes off next to your ear. I was lucky to get out of there with all my limbs.”
So we went down to the main square and looked around.
It was all too easy to picture the carnage of that night.
Apart from the fireworks damaging you when they go up, they’ve also got to come down sometime, so there is a double jeopardy on this night.
We returned from town on the bus and we got off on the main road, not far from where we had had our conversation with the two young women that morning.
Thus, we were driving distance from the entrance to the park.
I should add, this was the mother of all campgrounds, certainly in terms of size, I would estimate that it was a square kilometre, and so where Craig and I now stood was something like a two kilometre walk around two sides of the park to get to the entrance.
I looked at Craig, then at the walk ahead of us, and said, “Sod that, let’s climb over the fence, and save some walking,.”
Craig demurred, he was always more sensible than I, and said, “Do you think we should, won’t that be against the rules?”
To which I replied, “almost certainly, considering the pool this morning, but I’m doing it anyway.”
So I walked through the scrubby bushes up to the fence.
I was standing there examining it, planning my assault, when a rattling, scraping sound caught my ear.
I turned my head, and there, twenty metres away, but closing the distance rapidly was a Rottweiler guard dog bearing down on me with its mouth agape with menace.
The scraping sound was coming from the dog’s lead which was attached to a metal pipe laid lengthwise down the fence, the dog moving up and down to stop people like me doing exactly what I was planning.
I gave a falsetto yelp and leapt backwards and then sprinted the few metres it took to take me out f the dog’s bite zone and stood panting in fear next to Craig.
“I think we had better walk around to the entrance”, I said, in another understatement of cosmic magnitude.
So we set off and now that we knew to look, saw that there was a dog tied to the ground pipe apparatus every hundred metres guarding the entire perimeter of the campground.
So I didn’t climb in, but did wonder why on Earth the campground needed such ferocious security.
In the end, it was no doubt just a throwback to the third Reich, where the staff of the campground had learned their trade.
We spent a few more days in the internment camp, and then it was time to return to France.
So we packed up and headed up the coast toward the French border.
And it was on this leg of the journey, that the gear changing stickiness that I had noted in Madrid hit home for real.
We were moving along the highway of the Spanish coast this morning, and already it was hot, very hot.
Then the highway veered inland to avoid some coastal hills, and here, cut off from the cooling seabreezes, our clutch melted.
I was driving and I changed up from first to second, then into third, then finally into fourth, however our speed didn’t increase, the needle stayed stuck on forty kilometres an hour.
I stamped on the accelerator and this had no effect, so I tried changing down again in case it was a power issue, but our speed did not increase.
The queue of cars behind us began to build up, and eventually when there were nearly fifty vehicles, full of irascible Spanish and French drivers behind us honking their horns and telling us in no uncertain terms to get off the road, I pulled over.
I explained to the gang, what was happening, then got out and had a look under the vehicle.
I couldn’t see anything obvious ( I had thought we may have picked up a bit of metal or something that was interfering with the gear shaft), but nothing was visible.
However, stopping the engine had compounded our problem because when I restarted and tried to get the van going, I discovered that now we didn’t even have first gear.
Whatever had happened had happened because of the heat, and stopping had allowed whatever had melted to set solid, jamming the clutch and gear cogs into immobility.
So we stood on the side of a highway in Spain and contemplated our options.
Thankfully Peter and Sylvana had been given some invaluable advice back in London and had joined an organisation called National Breakdown.
This was a Europe wide towing service, wherever you broke down across the continent, National Breakdown would organise a tow to the nearest repair point.
However, good as this service was, you still had to phone them, and this was the days before mobile phones were widespread.
So we had another conference and it was decided that since I had the best Spanish I would walk/hitch along the highway to a phone booth, and organise a tow truck.
So I set out and I have to say, quite enjoyed my walk.
I was away from the crowded interior of the van for the first time since we had left London and it was refreshingly liberating.
But then the heat began to take over and I realised I couldn’t keep this up forever.
So it was fortuitous that the universe sent help.
I walked along and came to a paddock where a farmer was ploughing the field with a tractor.
I went up the fence around his field and when he came around again, waved vigorously and caught the farmer’s eye.
He noticed me, pulled his plough out of the ground and drove over to where I stood.
He was a quite amazing looking man.
He was Spanish, as I was to learn from our conversation, but he had blonde hair.
I guessed he had a northern European parent, or grandparent, either way, he jumped down off his tractor and asked me what I wanted, I said in the best Spanish I could that our car had broken down and did he know where I could find a phone to call a tow truck?
He nodded and then launched into a series of direction, I couldn’t follow it precisely, but gleaned the gist.
So I thanked him and then continued on down the highway in the direction he had pointed.
He had told me there was a petrol station about three k down the road, and I could call from there.
I didn’t particularly fancy three more ks, but when you know your destination, it does make it easier.
However, as it happens, I didn’t have to walk all the way, I was meandering along when a change in the traffic noise caught my ear.
The noise of the passing cars was replaced by the deeper rumble of a diesel engine and I turned around to see my farmer friend in his tractor.
He pulled up next to me and waved to get on board.
“Terrific”, I thought, “this’ll speed things up”.
So with me perched on the wheelguard we drove along the shoulder of the highway until we reached the petrol station.
I jumped down and thanked my Spanish farmer friend volubly.
He nodded and said ‘no problem’ or words to that effect, then parked his tractor and went into the petrol station restaurant and bought himself a coffee.
What a marvellous gesture of help.
So I went inside and went up to the counter, a young woman came to serve me and I told her my story of auto failure and then she took over.
“Grua?”, she said questioningly.
I dived into my Spanish-English dictionary and looked it up, ‘Grua’-‘Tow truck’.
“SI, si”, I said with my head nodding.
She picked up a phone next to her mounted on the wall, and made a call.
She spoke briefly with someone at the other end.
She hung up and then turned back to me, nodded and said something, which largely passed over my head, but I caught the word ‘grua’ in it, she was indicating the tow truck was on its way.
I then asked her how long it would take, and she said ‘ahora, ahora’, (Now, immediately).
Talk about helpful service.
I began to feel I could start to forgive these Spaniards for the Spanish Armada.
So I made my way back outside the coffee shop are and then a thought struck me, was the truck coming here? Or was I in for another walk?
But then that was quickly solved because I realised I hadn’t told her where we were broken down, and then the truck itself showed up.
It pulled onto the forecourt of the petrol station and the driver looked around saw me, gestured at the towing apparatus on the back of the truck and looked questioningly at me.
I nodded, jumped up and got in the cab with him.
We roared off down the highway till we came to the van, then he winched the vehicle on board, we all got in and headed down to the nearby town of San Carlos De la Rapita.
We sent the tow truck driver on the way with a National breakdown payment number, then entered the mechinic’s workshop he had towed us to.
Needless to say, because our van was German, the parts needed had to come from somewhere else, Barcelona probably, or maybe even Germany.
Either way, we were in for a few days stay.
However, this was a godsend in its way, and further reinforcement of the Buddhist ideal that ‘nothing is good or bad, it just is’.
Carlos, as we locals came to call it, was a resort town on the Mediterranean, and so we found a hotel and stayed on the coast for, in retrospect, exactly what we had come to Spain for.
The first morning was spent with me in conversation with the owner of the garage while they tried to explain what was wrong.
Despite my progress in Spanish, this was well over my head, but with perseverance we communicated in the end.
Turns out that somewhere in the past some nameless cowboy had replaced the clutch plate with a plastic one.
No doubt parts were short, and this had worked fine in the northern latitudes where it was cool, but once we began traversing the stinging hot Spanish plain the plate had begun to deform in the heat, and that final morning on the highway it had folded up completely.
So with much nodding the owner, the mechanic and I talked and they got through to me that they could fix it but we would have to wait for a few parts.
I nodded and went back to the hotel to report.
That done we settled in and enjoyed a bit of real Spain.
We slept in, went to the coffee shop and had breakfast.
We lounged on the beach and by the hotel’s bathtub-sized pool, at night we had dinner in the seafood restaurants of the town, and generally got some real vacation time.
Eventually our parts arrived and the owner sent a message to the hotel and we went down to the mechanic’s workshop.
The owner told us the van was fixed, then pointed at me and told me to get in.
We set on for a test drive, and scurried about the cobblestoned streets of the town with the owner at the wheel, changing gears repeatedly and constantly talking to me, clearly indicating that the clutch was fixed.
We drove back to the workshop and got out.
We paid up, handed over a six pack of beer as a tip and then went on our way.
Sometimes it takes a melted clutch plate to make you stop on life’s highway and smell the flowers.
So we moved up along the coast and re-entered France.
We were going roughly to Italy, Sylvana had relatives there, and to get there we had to return along the Meditteranean coast of France.
The next major town was Cannes, but we took a detour that many do and stopped in at the small fishing village of Saint-Tropez.
St Tropez is famous of course as the winter hang of the mega-rich, Bridget Bardot lives there apparently, or did, and this description, mega-rich, was accurate to the extreme.
I’ll never forget pulling up in our dusty, travel-battered kombi and emerging like five people who had come to fix the drains.
All around us the beautiful people flowed.
The shops contained goods, clothing most prominently, that you needed a second mortgage even to try on.
I remember a stunningly beautiful French woman in designer clothing, with designer makeup, sporting designer hair and leading a designer dog on a designer lead.
She walked along till she noticed us, then made a wide detour around us so that none of the poverty of our clothing would brush against hers.
And it was crowded, boy was it crowded.
St Tropez has a resident population of 5,000, but each year attracts 5 million tourists.
This makes it a difficult place to live if you’re a local, additionally due to the morphology of the coast, the only entrance and exits are a single two lane road.
So traffic jams are not just common, but incessant.
And to give you some idea of the scale of the crowding consider these nerdly figures.
Cape Cod in Massachusetts, US, has a population of 250,000, and attracts six million tourists a year.
Byron Bay in Australia, has a population of 10,000, and attracts 2 million tourists a year.
So those comparisons show that there is nothing like St Tropez for tourist crowding, with approximately 1,000 tourists for each resident jampacking the place annually.
That being the case, we didn’t stay long.
Peter bought a pair of shorts, not so much because he was out of leg wear, but to say he had bought something in St Tropez.
We didn’t eat there, but simply gawked for a moment and then got back in the van and got the hell out.
I had been hoping to see Bridget Bardot, preferably topless, but even if she had appeared on the footpath in front of me I wouldn’t have seen a square centimetre of her skin as the paparazzi would have got their first and blocked the view.
They inhabit that town like swarms of killer bees, and it is a reasonable rule of travel planning to be anywhere the paparazzi are not.
So we moved on.
We stopped at Cannes and had a swim and had our first encounter with the French police.
However it wasn’t overly ploblematic as they simply asked us to move our van from the red zone in which we had parked it.
We did so and they with nodding and a merky bucket watched as we went on our way.
I mention this because these Cannes police were the epitomy of politeness compared with one I was about to meet just up the coast in Monte Carlo.
Like St Tropez, Monte Carlo is a famous proving ground of the hyper-rich and the police there are more of a Praetorian guard than any other.
Just quickly some more stats.
Monte Carlo has a population of 15,000 and they inhabit an area of 0.61 k2, an area smaller than our campground in Barcelona.
However, this town, city, country, protectorate, or whatever, is stunningly beautiful, and there is more money per capita in this small little pocket of France than anywhere on Earth with the possible exception of Brunei.
I mention this because I think the police there have been given orders to give anyone poor a hard time.
And so it was that while there I nearly got arrested, then deported, for sitting on a wall.
Craig and I had gone out to sightsee and we had climbed the stony paths up into the hills to look out over the town and to the shores of the beautiful, blue Mediterranean.
We got to a lookout point and found our view obscured (slightly) by a chest high wall.
Now the sign on the wall said, quite clearly, “No Sitting on Wall”, in five languages, but that was just a red rag to my bull.
And in similar vein to my attempt on the north wall of the campground in Barcelona, I went over, hoisted myself up, and sat on the wall.
Lovely, the view was so much better, without the wall obscuring the lower half of the view I looked down through my dangling legs at the houses below and the ocean further afield.
I was just congratulating myself on my cleverness when a French voice barked behind me, I turned my head saw two policemen in the light blue shirts of the Monte Carlo police.
They spoke again and gestured, clearly, for me to get of the wall.
I did so, then they spoke to me in French, I gestured that I didn’t understand, and they switched to English.
Faultlessly, one of them said, “Can’t you read? The sign says ‘no sitting on the wall’”.
I really had no answer for that, and was about to make a smartarse comment when the cop took over and began handling the smartarse part of the conversation quite nicely.
“You know what I hate about you English” he began.
I was about to say ‘I’m Australian’, but quickly realised that was unlikely to help.
So remained silent, and he continued, “You come over here in your filthy clothes, you sleep on the beach, you get drunk and vomit all over the place and you get into fights with the other tourists and cause a lot of trouble for me and the other police.”
This was obviously a practised rant, and most of my life I have had pretty good relationships with the coppers, starting with the much loved Sergeant Crick in my home town, but this was as close as I have ever come to obstructing a policemen in the course of his duties, to wit, punching the arrogant arsehole in the face.
I was starting to lose my temper, I can tell you, I didn’t like being called English (no Australian does), and the reason I was filthy was because every damn spare cent I had went on paying astronomical Europe summer prices, Monte Carlo being the pinnacle of those.
And I was just going to launch into my little fiscal discourse when he said, “Give me your passport, I am going to check you out.”
What may have happened next we’ll never know, because thankfully at that point Craig brought his level head to the issue.
“Just give him your passport, we don’t want any trouble with these guys.”
He may have gone on to say, “And I’m not going to wait around to bail you out of the clink”, but I could tell he was thinking it.
However, I saw sense, got my passport out of my chest bag, and handed it over.
The copper took it with disdainful fingers, if he had had some surgical rubber gloves he would have put them on I’m sure, then he went over to an area of the viewing deck away from us and spoke into his radio.
He was there for a few minutes, then he came back and grudgingly returned my passport.
Then with a final admonition to ‘follow all the rules’ while we were in Monte Carlo, he waved us away.
He was only doing his job, but I was still fuming that evening at the perceived injustice of the world.
Of course, looking back I should think myself lucky, because what this policeman was really watching out for was English football supporters, who famously make infinite amounts of trouble for the hard working police of Europe, and in the end it was probably only hen he saw my passport and realised I was Australian and not English, that he didn’t arrest me on the spot.
That night we went down to the famous casino of Monte Carlo.
Sorry, let me put that more accurately, we went down and stood outside the famous casino and looked at the pretty lights and the pretty people walking in.
I have never seen so many glittering people, and so many glittering, shimmering performance vehicles parked in one spot before.
A Mercedes would have been decidedly low rent here.
Lamborghinis sat next to Ferraris, Ferraris jostled with Zondas, those Zondas made way for Bugattis, Bugattis were parked next to Beamers and Roll-Royces stood aloofly nearby.
I would estimate that the street outside the casino had ten million dollars worth of cars in it.
How much was being flung around inside doesn’t bear thinking about.
Even the taxicabs in Monaco are BMW minimum.
Come to think of it, it was somewhat surprising that there wasn’t a roadblock outside of town monitoring the vehicles trying to get in and telling us point blank that our battered Kombi was not welcome.
So having seen the sights of the Principality of Monte Carlo, and paid the prices therein, we moved on.
But before I do, I would just point out, that what you have read so far has kind of glossed over the mental strain of what we had put ourselves through.
We were all ‘over’ this constant road life in the van.
If we’d had a particular destination it may have been different, as we would have been able to sustain ourselves with the completion of each kilometre toward said goal, but we didn’t, we were just travelling around and it was wearing thin for all of us.
I was the worst behaved I might add, impatient, tight with money, unwilling to compromise, but there was no denying we all, already, needed a break from our holiday.
And hasn’t that line been written thousands of time throughout human history?
So when we were in Avignon in the south of France, Craig and I went to the shops to get some supplies and I told him I was over this, and he agreed, he to had had enough as well, and so we decided to leave the van and head for Greece.
I had always wanted to go there ever since reading Gerald Durrell’s enchanting books of his life on Corfu when he was young, and Craig’s sister had married a Greek man and they now lived together in Kalamatta in southern Greece, so we would leave the van, and go there.
So on our return from the shops, we told the others of our plan, and they agreed, with some relief, that it was good idea, I know they were happy to see the back of me at the very least, and we got out the maps and made a plan.
Next stop, Milan.
Sylvana’s relatives lived not far from there and Craig and I could get a train south from the central concourse at Milan station.
So we moved on across the southern coastal fringe of France and entered Italy.
And just because it has always amused me, let me tell you something my brother told me once that sums Europe up pretty well.
He heard this from German friend he worked with.
Heaven in Europe is when the Swiss are the organizers, the Germans are the engineers, the French are the cooks, the Italians are the entertainers and the English are the police.
That’s heaven, right?
Hell in Europe is when the Germans are the police, the English are the cooks, the French are the Engineers, the Italians are the organisers and the Swiss are the entertainers.
All tied in with the stereotypical views of these various races.
However, I want to say that I actually found Italy far from disorganised, and quite nice to drive around in.
This was mainly because we didn’t go to any of the heavy tourist areas, the Leaning Tower, the Vatican and so forth.
All Craig and I did in Italy was get driven to Milan on the famous Autostrada (Expressway) and a smooth ride it was too.
However, my cheapskatedness nearly denied us that in the end.
All the autostrada have tolls and due to difficulty of doing the exchange rates from Francs to Lira, even with Renee’s nifty little machine, we couldn’t work out what the tolls were with any certainty.
The last thing we wanted was to come to a toll gate and be advised we owed a Monte Carlo-level of money for using the road.
So we took a B-road toward Milan.
This was a lovely drive, but we were in the foothills of the Alps here just north of Genoa, and every ten metres we went toward Milan was accompanied by a hundred metres of snaking turns.
Then we would encounter a speed limited village.
Out speed would drop from sixty to fifty and we would nudge our way through the tiny mountain settlement back to the open road.
After an hour of this, we reconferenced and decided that lovely as it was, if we kept this up we would spend infinitely more on petrol than tolls, so it was time to open her up on the autostrada.
So we did so, we lurched down out of the hills and took the on ramp for the Milan Expressway.
We came to the toll booth and the little sign popped up showing we owed 3,000 lira for our trip.
The Italian lira is defunct now, replaced by the Euro, but from my research I have been able to glean that this meant we owed three Australian dollars for the toll.
Even we could afford that.
So we paid up, floored the pedal and set off for Milan.
Milan is a wonderful place, and is often considered the true capital of Italy, but we didn’t see much of it, with our plan set, and the blue waters of Greece beckoning we just wanted out of the van, out of the country and out into the world of Greece.
We stayed our last night in the van nearby in Bergamo, then the next day the others dropped us onto the staggeringly beautiful forecourt of Mila station and we said our good byes.
They headed off and we went inside.
Italians are justly famous for their style and flair, so it the look the guy selling tickets gave me probably shouldn’t have surprised me.
I was wearing shorts and t-shirt that hadn’t been washed in three weeks, I was unshaven, and my backpack looked like it had recently been pulled from some swamp and should have been studied by archaeologists, rather than being in actual use.
I walked up to the counter and asked him, actually now that I think about it, showed him where I wanted to go.
Craig had a little Italian, but that was not really up to the conversational exchange and so we took out our guide books and drew with a finger our proposed route.
From Milan, we wished to go down the spine of Italy to Brindisi, then take the ferry across to Greece.
He nodded, and then said something in Italian, I looked at Craig, but he hadn’t been able to understand, and so we looked back at the ticket guy and shrugged.
The ticket guy looked me up and down again, and gave a world weary sigh, then he pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down the fare, L66,000, or A$33 each.
Lovely, we nodded our heads, held up two fingers and he wrote out two tickets.
We then went through the mill of trying to read the timetable on the wall.
We were lucky here because our train terminated in Brindisi, thus the word Brindisi was prominently displayed.
If , for instance, you are going to a small town on a main line, you will commonly find that it is not even referred to.
So we found our train, got our platform number and went over there.
Our train was waiting and we got on board.
We found the most empty compartment (there were no seat assignments), stowed our luggage and then waited for the train to leave.
Eventually it did and we had the novel experience of seeing a bit of Europe without driving.
As the train left the suburbs of Milan we were able to see the Italian countryside in all its summer glory.
It was joyously relaxing.
But then dusk came down and with the view no longer available we tried to get some sleep.
I say tried, because as usual we had the cheapest seats, and without seat assignments, people just got on and sat wherever they could wedge themselves in.
About an hour after dusk fell I had an interesting little language moment.
A woman got on and looked into our compartment and said “Et tu occupado?”, meaning, “are you full up?”
We eventually answered “No”, so she came in and took the last available seat next to me.
I mention that because the first part of her utterance was in Latin, the ‘ et tu’ bit.
You may recall this being used by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, as in ‘Et tu brute?’, referring to the moment when Brutus dug in the knife.
It makes sense that Italian of all languages would be the one to have Latin bits used in the modern day, but even so I found it minorly interesting.
What was less interesting, positively annoying in fact, was the woman’s presence next to me.
I had previously been able to slump over a bit and been relatively comfortable, but with her here now, I now had to sit upright all the way to Brindisi (she was going to the end of the trip as well).
And so the night passed.
It took twelve hours or thereabouts, but eventually we pitched up at the ferry port of Brindisi and bought our last Italian transport tickets.
We boarded the ferry and soon we were making our way across the Adriatic.
The Adriatic is a small part of the Med, between Greece and Italy, similar to the Tasman being part of the Pacific.
This was my first experience of the Mediterranean, and it is such a different world to the seas that surround Australia.
It is so calm it is hard to believe some times.
It is nicknamed ‘the pond’, and you can see why.
It is more like walking across your living room through blue shag carpet than being at sea.
It redefines flat.
The only disturbance was the wake of the ship’s propeller.
However, it was just what the doctor ordered after our month or so of crowded roads and tourist soaked hot spots.
The journey takes nine hours and we caught up on some of the sleep we had missed during our crowded train ride of the night before.
Finally the coast of Corfu began to line the western horizon and then we docked at Kerkyra, the capital of Corfu.
Gerald Durrell and his family are long gone of course, they lived here in the nineteen thirties, and the ravages of tourism, Craig and I included, have taken over, but even so, there is still enough of the natural charm to be going on with.
Craig had been here before, and there was the same guy he had stayed with standing on the dock looking for customers, Craig pointed him out and said his stay with this guy had been Ok, so we didn’t quibble, paid up and got in his minibus.
He drove us across the island to his hotel and we checked in.
Backpack down, we then went straight to the beach and took a dip.
While I was standing there chest deep in the still, everclear water, thinking I have finally made it to the site of one of my favourite books when I became aware that I was not alone.
An attractive English woman came up and said, “Hey there, Where are you from?”, I answered, “Australia, but currently I’m teaching in London.”
I was about to ask her the same question when I saw through the glass-like water that she was stark naked.
I knew I was going to like it here.