Is it 50 years ago? Can’t be. Yes, it is.
Two mates and I won college travel bursaries after our ‘first public exams’ – which in those days counted as ordinary degrees taken after 5 terms. Value: £36 each. So we planned a month away in the summer vacation – destination Greece via everywhere in between. It wasn’t called back-packing in those days; we were just travelling students, advised to sew Union Jacks on our rucksacks so that Johnny Foreigner wouldn’t mistake us for undesirables (!). Such innocent times!
We rendezvoused at London’s Victoria Station with several other student adventurers to take the boat-train to Paris and thence the ‘transcontinental express’ to Milan, eight to a wooden-seated compartment, plus bags and baggage. I suppose we ate and drank too but nothing special comes to mind – except some better-heeled passengers making for the dining car.
After maybe an hour en route south when it was already dark I needed something, maybe water, from my rucksack, which was well-and-truly jammed with the rest on to one of the overhead racks next to the window. I pulled and pulled with the result that there was a very sudden, very loud screeching of brakes as the train came to an abrupt halt in the middle of nowhere. Within no time a small, round, moustachioed, be-uniformed and very irate conductor appeared, screaming at us in French. Luckily one of our number, a nubile young lady, studied French and could translate his rant for my benefit. I could pay a fine now or be put off down the line to be locked up. He also described in vivid terms what had happened in the dining car when the train braked. Not a pretty sight apparently. So I paid up (obviously without too much pain – the fine was far from excessive). I’m sure I could thank my comely interpreter for heading off a more severe punishment.
Next morning (had we really slept?) we were wending our way through the Alpine passes and tunnels and south to Milan, to change trains. This time another fast connection to Brindisi, down on the heel of Italy, and the ferry across the Adriatic, through the spectacular Corinth Canal to Piræus. We could bathe in the sea before we embarked and sun-bathe on the decks of the clanking old ferry which was the first of many we would experience during our travels. So we eventually fell into our beds in a youth hostel in Athens. We had arrived! And that was the last real bed I slept in until I returned home.
…….to be continued