It was bad forgetting a torch. As we stepped off the ferry from Dover it was already dusk. There was some confusion about the best way out of Ostend; maps were consulted or rather our one and only map. I peered half-heartedly, I’ve never been good with maps and in any case we didn’t know where we were going. South to the sun and a free and easy lifestyle with the general idea. When you’re hitching you can’t plan in more detail.
We got a lift that first night to a small Belgian town called Leuven. Again there was discussion, indecision about where we should sleep. We were 18 and had £50 to last forever. We hadn’t bought a tent having decided that it was too heavy to carry.
As I said it was bad forgetting a torch. We ended up sleeping under a lorry. I took some convincing I can tell you that the driver wasn’t going to suddenly materialise and drive over our slumbering bodies. Opposite our lorry was a row of small terraced houses. In the middle of the night there was suddenly a commotion. Cars pulled up; people came out of their houses. Unseen, we watched as a small coffin was unloaded from a large black car and carried into one of the houses. We later learned that a coach carrying local school children had crashed on its way to Austria. We had witnessed the return of their dead child.
Next morning, we were soon across the German border and found ourselves in Frankfurt. World Cup fever was beginning to get a grip and I snaffled three World Cup Willie beer mats from a bar by way of souvenir. Bed that night was under a bridge near the autobahn and it was cold.
It was a different story entirely the next night. The Youth Hostel in Salzburg was run on military lines by a large, humourless and sweating fraulein. Still, I suppose Salzburg was quite romantic. That is until we came to leave. We walked to some leafy suburb and began the ritualistic thumb waving. We’d had very little trouble so far, in getting lifts quickly. Some drivers were chatty and interested giving me a chance to practise my German, others were silent. But on this occasion, it was six hours before we were finally rescued. Did we not know, our bemused driver enquired, that it was the World Cup final lthat afternoon? Yes, you know the day England beat West Germany, Geoff Hurst hat trick and all that. Well we didn’t.
However, scenery-wise our journey became more interesting from that point as the car had to go on a train through a tunnel under the Alps. It was July but there was snow on the mountains at Badgastein. I began to stress about our chances of a lift as it was a tad rural. But, joy of joys, a Yugoslav businessman picked us up. He was going to Riyeka and took us right down to the Adriatic coast; he even bought us lunch on the way.
Riyeka was beautiful, all faded Italianate glamour. It also felt a bit more foreign, and thus scary, so we treated ourselves to a night in a small hotel. Then it was onwards down coast to Split and on to beautiful Dubrovnik where a local guy let us sleep on his boat in the harbour for a few nights.
Due to the proximity of Albania, we caught a ferry from Dubrovnik to Corfu and for the first time we felt we had arrived somewhere. Corfu, luckily, had a youth hostel. It was a breath-taking, old manor house in a tiny hamlet and was run by the most laid-back Greek. At night, we joined locals in the one little bar to drink ouzo and kumquat and dance. The real thing, not the show they put on for the tourists nowadays. Then by day the proprietor would take whoever wanted to go in his minibus to the nearest beach. In the burning sun we would scramble down from the road through the olive groves with the heady scent of wild thyme to join a shifting population of youngsters sleeping on the beach.
A pattern developed to our days. As soon as it became too hot to remain in our sleeping bags we would leap into the sea. We would swim and talk and lie in the sun. There was one taverna catering mostly for Germans from the small campsite behind the beach. When the day was at its hottest we would sit on the shady terrace, making a salad and bread last the afternoon heat. More often than not we would finish the leftovers from the Germans’ tables. Observing this, one memorable man ordered chips all round – bless him! After four or five days the desire for cool sheets and a shower at the youth hostel would draw us back. That was life for five weeks one summer long ago.
From Corfu we hitched to Athens. I left England with one jumper, one sleeveless linen dress – from Selfridges in London as it happens, one t-shirt, sandals and a pair of jeans. The zip went on those quite quickly – in Germany I think. A Greek nicked my jumper from the beach in Igoumenitsa and the scandals broke in Athens. The temperature was agonising and I was forced to leap from shadow to shadow barefooted. At night the heat on the 4th floor of the Athenian youth hostel was stifling. It did have its compensations though as it overlooked an open-air cinema.
From Athens we caught the ferry from Pireaus to Brindisi. That was a funny old journey. Loads of youngsters were sleeping on deck and in the middle of the night some bloke, who was cycling round Europe, jumped over my companion and inadvertently landed in the middle of my stomach.
Italy was a whole different ball game to Greece, or anywhere else we’d been for that matter. Straight away people were warning us not to sleep rough – telling us of banditos or pistoleri – so we didn’t.
Next day, two Italian businessmen picked us up. They treated us to a memorable lunch in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Sadly, it quickly became necessary to extricate ourselves from the car. They had plied my boyfriend with drink, intent on trying it on with me.
Then Rome. We met a guy in a bar who said we could stay at his flat. In the middle of the night another guy appears in the room with a flick knife – turns out it was actually his room – we left Rome next day.
I remember some flashy cars. Then ending up in hospital in northern Italy in Lecco not far from Milan. Was it appendicitis? Was it an infection? Nobody knew and nobody spoke English. They drew pictures in Biro on the sheets to explain the operation they intended to perform and took away my passport. Hysteria quickly followed and an English-speaking doctor’s wife was sent for. Three scary days later I retrieved my passport and we left.
Having left the Sun and with very little remaining money we were anxious to be home. Our second longest wait, five hours, was at the Swiss border. Then some scary driving in the mountains. Sleeping in a hut full of hay – an itchy experience. But soon it was back to Germany and boring Belgium to get on the Dover ferry. It was October now. I was tanned, blonde, eight stone something, barefoot and wearing an extremely grubby pale blue Selfridges dress. Those were the days!