Blog: Trip to Istanbul and Athens - 1960

March 23, 2014

 

 

It was Easter 1960. I was a student of architecture in Birmingham and like most students, was "broke". My "Banister Fletcher" - the encyclopaedic standard textbook on the History of Architecture, received as a student prize - contained a wealth of interesting information. The finely drawn illustrations in particular wetted my appetite for the subject and I determined to prepare for a scooter trip to Athens to explore the City, and see at first hand the Acropolis and other architectural monuments I had seen only to date in illustration.

 

My well-used LD Lambretta 150cc scooter, registration HBV 686, which by now had done 60,000 miles, was unfit for the journey. Travel to Greece by sea would take too long. Flying wasn't an option in those days either... but ambition will find a way! I traded in the Lambretta as a deposit on a new Triumph Tigress 250cc scooter registration MCB 370. This new model, British-made scooter had just been launched by BSA from its factory in nearby Small Heath.

As it costs money to travel, and I didn't have any, I had to skip some lectures to work 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week for 4 weeks at a local brewery. It was worth the effort as I finished working with £80 in my hand. This was big money in 1960 (and the allocation of 4 pints of beer a shift was a welcome bonus for the effort involved).

 

And so began my summer vacation! I landed in Calais with £63 in my pocket, hoping this would cover a planned 3 month trip. Crossing the Alps, travelling solo on main roads was easy as the new scooter had a maximum speed of around 70mph. After visiting Milan and spending a few days in Venice, I headed for Trieste. A travel visa was arranged and I crossed through the "Iron Curtain" into Tito's communist Yugoslavia. This was the start of real adventure, as I was heading into the "unknown" with only a basic atlas to guide me. Warnings had been received to be discrete with my camera, and avoid arrest for "spying" by staying clear of military installations.

Arriving at Opatija on the Adriatic, a campsite was found for the overnight stay. I learned that ferries plying along the coast offered cheap transport and a scenic journey. The next day, I boarded a ferry to Split and signed in at the local student hostel. Ferry travel seemed much less effort than travelling on the winding dirt coastal road. So after visiting the Diocletian's Palace (built in AD 305), and other ancient sites in Split, I boarded the overnight ferry south to Dubrovnic and slept on deck. The ferry sailed and, too late, I found myself facing a big problem. My wallet, money and passport had carelessly been left under a hostel mattress in Split! Arriving in the walled City of Dubrovnik, in the early morning, my plans for sightseeing in this Unesco World heritage site had to be abandoned. Climbing back on the scooter, I immediately headed the 250km up the un-surfaced coastal highway to Split - as fast as I could travel. Luckily, my possessions were still there! Leaving Split, I had a change of plan and now decided to head inland. The scenic coastal landscape quickly changed to barren mountains. That evening, I stopped for a couple of young shepherd boys who were looking for a lift and I happily took them to their isolated mountain village. Here I was greeted with generous hospitality by their family and too much Slivovitz (the local plum brandy). Apparently, I was the first English person to visit this village since WW2, when Allied troops had parachuted into the area to help Partisans fight Nazis from their mountain hideouts.

 

The following day, as I continued my journey, I crashed the scooter - caught out on a bend with poor camber and a loose gravel road. The scooter went down a bank and hit a rock. The front wheel bent flat under the floorboard and needed major repair.  I had to drag the scooter to the side of the road, and wait several hours in the blazing sun, before hitching a lift with the scooter on the back of the first passing lorry, which happened to be heading for Mostar. The student driver fortunately spoke good English and invited me to stay at his family home in the City. His home turned out to be in a walled courtyard in downtown Mostar, entered through high timber gates. This timber built, cockroach infested courtyard was home to several families who kindly treated me as a guest-of- honour. The outdoor feasting, drinking and entertainment specially laid on for me was memorable and much appreciated.  The courtyard was located close to the famous Old Bridge across the River Neretva, built by the Ottomans in the 16th Century. Local entertainment included diving off this high bridge and travelling down the fast flowing river on inflated inner tubes, often in groups. My host, a student of engineering, correctly predicted that once Tito's "iron grip of fear" on Yugoslavia was relaxed, the Country would break up into its various constituent nationalities. After about 3 days, the bike was hammered out and then welded back into driveable form by a local blacksmith for minimal charge... it was then a message reached me, demanding my attendance at the local police headquarters. Courteously and apologetically, I made peace with the police, who had terrified my hosts when news leaked out that I was illegally staying in town. My thinking at the time was...... why argue and be locked up? Time to move on.

 

My next stop, Sarajevo, became a lesson in comparative values. I was accused, by an otherwise helpful, communist lady guide, of being a "rich capitalist" when in my own eyes I thought I was a poor student! She pointed to the scooter, and I realised that I must have seemed " filthy rich" to people who could not even afford shoe leather... their shoes being fashioned from discarded motor tyres. A harsh reality, and far removed from life back in England.  After being shown the sights, and the place where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on the 28th June 1914, I left Sarajevo and entered into a third world. It now became necessary to carry spare cans of petrol, as there was no other motorised traffic except for official and military vehicles. Passing close to Gorazde and its appalling recent history, I travelled over mountain passes and unfortunately suffered another crash! Funnily enough caused by the same problem of loose gravel roads and riding too fast for the conditions. This time I went down a steep bank for about 20ft. Front light broken, panel damage, bike on top of me. It took me hours to drag the heavy scooter back up to the road, but luckily, other than a few cuts and bruises, I was unharmed. The scooter, although a bit more battered, was roadworthy too!

 

After clearing the mountains, the winding dirt road travelled through Visegrad and a series of villages and small towns. The road was well-used by people walking long distances between towns, often with animals, oxcarts and handcarts filled with produce, who hardly appreciated my passing in a cloud of dust. Arriving in Titovo Uzice, I was immediately surrounded by crowds of people. I felt like an alien from another planet! Police and soldiers arrived to investigate the commotion. They checked my identity and escorted me to the home of an English speaking local who kindly acted as my generous host for the night. My host later said he had spent time in jail for refusing to become a Communist and that his wife was terrified I might be a spy. He also said the police had instructed I was to leave town first thing in the morning. The journey onward was hard going on the corrugated dirt roads, but I finally made Skopje and then moved on to Thessaloniki in Greece. I spent a few days in hot weather, camping by - and swimming in - the warm Aegean Sea. The sea at this location was so salty that I was able to float and swim high in the water for hours without difficulty. I met up with a small group of UK students staying on the same campsite, who said I must visit Istanbul. We spent time together in Thessaloniki, much to the amusement of the traditionally dressed old ladies who giggled at our student beards and general attire. Apparently only Orthodox Priests wore beards in Greece at that time.

 

The journey from Thessaloniki to the Turkish border was reputed to be a dangerous road, with bandits operating. I didn't see bandits, but on one occasion heard gunfire and explosions and suddenly found myself in the middle of Greek Army military training manoeuvres. That night I was invited to make camp with a group of Austrian archaeologists, who worried for my safety and who   posted an armed guard. I recall only one unfriendly incident, when a character dressed like Sinbad the Sailor jumped into the middle of the road waiving a long knife at me. He quickly dived to the side when I accelerated the scooter straight towards him. A hairy moment! Reaching the border at the sole Maritsa River Crossing close to Edirne, I noticed Greek and Turkish Troops facing each other across the River. After crossing on a narrow metal bridge, I was searched by Turkish border guards looking to trade dollars. Taking a wrong turn in Edirne, my error came to light at the Bulgarian Border where, without an entry permit, I had to turn back. In Turkey, there were armed soldiers at every major road junction directing traffic. Parked tanks and other military hardware were visible in fields at the side of the road. It was only later information reached me of a recent military takeover. Eventually the massive old fortified walls of Constantinople came into view across the plain. An inspiring sight!

 

Constantinople, now known by its Turkish name Istanbul, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the largest and wealthiest European city of the Middle Ages. Founded by Constantine the Great in 325AD, the size and wealth of history within the walls of this fortified City came as a revelation to me. I stayed in a student hostel opposite the Great Mosque and roamed Istanbul for days, visiting the sights. Selling a nylon shirt in the Great Bazaar to help with funds, I swam in the Black Sea and crossed the Bosphorus by ferry over to the Asian side. The unloading of ancient sailing vessels, tethered to the old Galata floating bridge across the Golden Horn, was a memorable sight. Hundreds of sack-carrying dock workers perilously crossed narrow gang-planks in order to transfer cargoes on to flat wagons lined up at the dock.

 

I had yet to visit Athens and time was running out. So I returned the 700km to Thessoloniki. I didn't remember to check the engine oil level and the scooter skidded to a halt when the oil ran out, and the engine seized up.  After letting the engine cool, I poured in spare oil and fortunately was able to continue on my way. Pulling off the road at night to make camp, I drove down a steep bank and pitched tent on a dry salt marsh. I was plagued by giant ants in the night and had to put a preserve pot outside the tent to divert the ants' attention. In the morning I was unable to get the scooter back up the loose bank. Eventually a Gipsy caravan train appeared in the distance and I began to worry about my safety. However a few helpful fellows came down the bank and lifted the scooter back to the road. I thanked them and handed over some loose change in grateful payment and was on my way. Heading down the coast past Mount Olympus I had problems with recurring punctures, due to the hot weather, and had to seek help in a village. The punctures were repaired in a workshop, in front of a small crowd of inquisitive locals. The mechanic charged me a sum which seemed small to me, but to the locals it seemed like extortion and they started shouting at the mechanic, venting their displeasure that I had been overcharged. Finally arriving in Athens, I found board and lodging for the princely sum of £1.25 for the week. Using Athens as a base, I visited the Acropolis and other ancient sites, often alone with no other visitors in sight. I recall walking amongst piles of historic "rubble" in Corinth and wondering why precious artefacts were scattered around untended. I also visited the 13th century BC Bronze Age citadel at Mycenae and marvelled at the Lion Gate.

 

 Soon it was time to return home and I determined to put in the miles, arriving in Skopje, Macedonia, at the end of the first day. The 15 hour journey to Belgrade the following day was the hardest day's ride I have ever encountered. This was due to diversions around unending new highway construction works, which were being carried out by many thousands of young communist workers (of both sexes), armed only with picks and shovels. These "volunteers" were organised into large labour gangs, who marched between worksites and accommodation camps in military formation. In Belgrade, I recall being stopped by a very irate armed policeman for some traffic violation. Of course I couldn't understand the signs or the words he was shouting and took the somewhat rash decision of riding away, hoping that a bullet wouldn't follow or a roadblock stop my progress.  From Belgrade the road surface improved, and the third day's journey was an easier one to Villach in Austria. My fourth day's ride was from Villach, over the Grossglockner Pass to Munich and on to Darmstadt near Frankfurt.  

 

The scooter had been averaging some 400 miles per day on the return journey, and it proved to be too much. On the 5th day, the engine disintegrated with a loud bang on the Brussels ring road. I hitched a lift with the scooter on the back of a lorry to Bruges, where I camped the night. The next day entailed a seemingly endless 14 mile scooter push, along the main road from Bruges to the Ostend ferry port. Arriving penniless in Dover, I sold my allocation of duty free cigs and spirits and raised enough money to buy a train ticket to Birmingham. The scooter was then pushed for a few miles from New Street Station to the BSA Small Heath Factory. At Reception, with mock innocence, I said "there is something wrong with my scooter. It's only 5 months old and still under guarantee". They asked me to wheel it in. The dirt and dust covered scooter was indicating some 13,000 miles on the mileometer. It was a wreck! Within minutes factory personnel were crowded round the machine asking all sorts of questions. They said that no other Triumph Scooter had had that treatment and could they take it for testing. A couple of weeks later they generously gave me a new scooter. Subsequently, that took me on five month trip to Scandinavia and the Arctic. Another story!

 

 

 

 

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