We needed a break from the family, Rosemary would look after Pop and Vivian. Neither Robin or I had been abroad (not counting Ireland where I had hitch hiked with Eric, and where Robin spent some of his National Service (in Limavady)
We were longing to go but neither of us were experienced travellers so we went to a travel agent (Thomas Cook) and booked a two in one holiday to Switzerland and Italy. Real packaged holidays were still rare. We caught the ferry to Calais. Our journey was to be by train and the first oddity was that the train came right into the docks then trundled through the actual streets of Calais before it got to the real train tracks.
Looking out of the window everything was different and interesting. I just wanted to look, look, look, it was fascinating. I still love a journey by train. The little towns in Northern France looked pretty bleak and poverty stricken. I noticed how many buildings had huge advertising signs painted on their brick walls (in French of course, I imagine the owners were given much needed money) The vastness of fields with no hedges just long lines of poplars delineating roads.
Little village stations with no platforms. People just alighted onto the tracks. The different crops and the workers, often solitary, in the fields. Gradually as we went further south the countryside became more benign and the sun began to shine. In Basle we had to show our passports twice, first the French customs officers came aboard, then the train was in a sort of no mans land until the Swiss customs came through; it all added a bit of mystery and tension that years later later disappeared, when you hardly knew which country you were in.
I had never seen a mountain, much less a mountain with snow on it. but it was night time, I couldn’t wait till the dawn and was in awe of these great peaks capped with snow. How alien and majestic they looked.
Our first week was in Lugano, strangely I haven’t got many memories of it except for the rivery smell of the water in the lake and an expedition on a hillside path. It was a narrow rocky path with bushes and boulders on the sides. Robin was way ahead. Suddenly in front of me was a huge staring lizard, then another one joined it, I froze I was petrified, I turned to go back and there were other lizards on the path behind me.
I freaked out, my totally irrational fear of reptiles came surging back, I have never forgotten that time, it still brings shivers to me. I just stood still unable to move or to shoo them away. Eventually Robin came back and did the job for me. We did visit other places within walking distance and we enjoyed the simple hotel because it wasn’t too formal.
Now we were ready for Italy, it felt warmer as we moved south and through the next customs post. In those days you got a satisfying formal looking stamp on your passport. We had to change trains at Genoa, both of us smoked and we had run out of matches. I went to a kiosk and proudly spoke my first word in Italian ‘flammiferri’ (what a poetic word for an ordinary object) then my second word ‘grazie’ I love the sound of the Italian language.
Our destination was Chiavari on the Ligurian coast below Genoa. It wasn’t a noted holiday resort like Rapallo or Portofino, just an ordinary little working town. They had one big claim to fame however they made the most desirable chairs. We longed to take one home, but common sense prevailed.
I shall never forget the wonderful feeling of getting off the train at Chiavari late in the evening when it was dusk, and feeling the beautiful balmy warmth of the air, but above all the sweet perfume of the flowers. I think it was orange blossom. It was totally sensuous. When we got into the hotel they took us to their outdoor restaurant with it’s roof of vines and brought a bowl of fruit and water to wash them. Nowadays you just can’t imagine what a wonderful sight it was, in England at the time, grapes were a huge luxury only bought to take to people in hospital, and peaches only came in cans, the contents eaten with evaporated milk.
As always I had my drawing pad with me and my trusty Pentel. I did lots of drawings but only a few dog eared ones survive. While we there we took the train or walked to Rapallo, Santa Margarita and Sestri Levante.
Above Santa Margherita from the sea front. Below Sestri Levante
Below the beach in Rapallo
Neither of us were the type that wanted to sunbathe on the beach. I’m always on the lookout for events and in Chiavari there was one. The town square was fenced off until dusk, during the day the town bakers had been shuffling backwards and forwards from their shops to the square. You had to buy a ticket to be allowed into the square where there was a band and dancing, all lit by fairy lights. In the middle of the square there was a large hidden structure. At the appointed time there was a fanfare and the mystery was revealed, it was a giant cake about twelve feet tall! The bakers had made it in pieces on trays and then fitted the units together. It looked magnificent and everybody was given cake, washed down with Chianti and accompanied by laughter and good humour. I still have no idea what it was all about but it was fun and traditional. How I wish I had my drawings. Ultimately although we enjoyed ABROAD what we were longing to see were the galleries, the great paintings and pieces of sculpture and this wasn’t a good area for that. Of course we made more trips to Italy later. More of that further on.