On the wing…

Yes folks, that’s Crete below and non-paid placement of airline advertising as I depart this beautiful island.

So what great profound insights did I gain from this trip, apart from researching the book?

The most obvious is the comparison between these locations forty years apart. Many of the countries we visited back then were under Communist rule (good in theory, bad in practice) and life has definitely improved – they have food and freedom for a start!

Back then, most of Europe was still very ‘foreign’ – almost no-one spoke English, there were no signs in English and tourists had not yet become a bankable commodity. So there was a sense of real adventure and, in the main, local people were interested and welcoming.

Travel is now a global obsession, it’s easy and comfortable, every need it catered for. Obviously this is to the detriment of many popular destinations which are being crushed by the sheer numbers of visitors.

The worst I encountered was Prague; a fairytale city that is now suffering an overload of visitors and souvenir shops. The only time to explore the old city is very early in the morning while the hordes are sleeping because by lunchtime you can hardly move.

Tourism can consume the soul of a place, and then it becomes an imitation of itself with just the bits tourists want to see, and Greece is almost entirely dependant on it. But perhaps we need to spread ourselves more widely, share the love and bring a little affluence to the many places not on the tourist route, and probably more ‘real’ and interesting.

Travelling solo was essential for me on this trip but one of the issues is that, if you don’t want to end up locked out of your accommodation or miss trains or get pick-pocketed or whatever,  you have to be hyper vigilant and check everything three times – and that gets exhausting!

The benefit was that I met all sorts of interesting people, a couple of whom will stay in touch. But a little time alone does make you appreciate how important and valuable your friendships are. Relationships that take a lifetime to build and become the lifeline that can haul you back to safety when you’re adrift. Invaluable and irreplacable, the true riches of life.

So, play-time is over and it’s down to work!

Chania, Crete.

Well, that was intense! Train from London> Paris> Nuremberg>  Berlin> Prague> Vienna> Innsbruck> Verona> Bologna and then a flight from Milan to Chania in Crete for five days to gather my wits.

Since my first trip to Greece in 1978, I’ve always wanted to go back but never quite got around to it. There is a special vibe about Greece that I can’t quite describe, but if you’ve been there you’ll know what I mean. There’s a sense of timelessness and a lack of intrusion from the outside world – although I’m sure that’s just an outsider’s view since Greece has ongoing economic woes.

My accommodation in a studio in the sophisticated town of Chania was a world away from my youthful experience living on a beach. I did catch the occasional glimpse of the old Greece but, due to the growth of tourism, a lot of the chaos and general disorganisation (which had its own sort of charm) has disappeared. Perhaps on more remote islands it still exists. I hope so.

 

Beneath Bologna

I’m nearing the end of my journey now and feeling ready for the stability of home. I had a couple of days in Bologna, which is a beautiful city with lots going on. Everywhere you look there’s amazing food and people enjoying themselves.

I have the growing sense of being on the periphery of everything, partly as a result of three weeks of travelling alone but also because moving from one place to another is a ‘Tinder’ approach to travel. You find it harder and harder to settle, always anticipating the new fresh place.

I have become more aware of other people on the periphery and on every street corner an African man is begging for money. I talked to a few of them to find out what the story was. They are from Senegal, Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria and on the move either because it’s dangerous at home or no work. We read about this in the media, but it’s heartbreaking to see young men looking so defeated by life. Desperate times living illegally in a strange country where you are far from welcome and no real prospects for the future.

It’s easy to sympathise but harder to empathise because we can’t ever imagine our own lives being this way or even intersecting with the lives of disenfranchised people.

As they say, travel does open the mind especially when you look beneath the surface.

 

Bella Italia

I’ve been back to Italy a few times since the first trip in 1978, but never really made comparisons between then and now.

There have been such incredible changes to the whole travel experience over that time. Now we can book everything online, download tickets to our phones, have the convenience of credit cards and cash machines and use Google maps to find our way.

In 1978 we arrived in Italy on the ferry from Corfu to Brindisi and drove to Naples and then to Rimini where we ran out of money and had to sprint non-stop back to London.

Driving through Italy back then was fairly nerve-wracking (as ever) and you couldn’t leave the car unattended for fear of it being broken into or stolen and had to fork out for security parking.

Cash was king then (1624 lira to £1 according to my little notebook) and let’s not forget that every time you crossed a border there was a new currency to contend with. Banks were more trusting and we cashed British cheques in banks all over Europe.

Our map book covered the whole of Europe, so we were perpetually lost. We fairly much had to make do with where we ended up, which led us to unexpected places and meeting people through constantly asking directions.

What is constant is the incredible Italian food and the wonderful architecture. Even the most humble B&B has spectacular marble floors and staircases. In Verona the pavements are made great slabs of ancient pink marble and in Bologna the arch covered pavements are different patterns of terrazzo.

To me, Italy still as magical as that very first visit.

FAQs

Talk about serendipity! Today in Verona, I was thrilled to happen upon this beautiful beast which is exactly the same model of Saab that we took to Europe on our 1978 trip.

Ours was green and we bought it because it was a left-hand drive and would be ideal for the trip. Although, I look at it now and think how inconvenient is a two-door car for three people? You never think of these things when you’re young.

I thought I’d address some of the questions I’ve been asked about this excursion:

Is the book going to be about the two trips forty years apart?

Not at all. The story is about the friendship of the three characters. I had a few different ideas of settings for the story and then realised that I had this prior experience from the late 70s and thought it could be an interesting and unique setting for the story.

Could it end up like a travelogue? 

I sincerely hope not. I spent a month in France for each of the previous novels – The French Perfumer and The Yellow Villa and the places I visited there were to create the setting, not intrude. Research needs to be invisibly woven into the story. This one is a bit more complicated because of the movement but I’m hoping that the momentum of travel itself will play a part in the story as well.

Are the characters based on the people you went with originally?

Definitely not. Back then, my travel companions were my (then) partner and my best friend (sadly we have lost contact and I’ve been unable to find her). One of the negative aspects of that trip was that, although we had all lived together for the previous year, those two were fed up with each other and argued – a lot!

Isn’t it expensive travelling around for research?

Having travelled with my family (who now have to pay for their own travel) solo travel is relatively economical, although not as glamourous as you might imagine.

All my accommodation has been hostels and small B&Bs, mostly with shared bathroom so the occasional ensuite is cause for excitement. All the journeys have been by train and public transport, which is also reasonably priced. I usually have one meal a day in a restaurant or cafe, and have something simple for the other meal.

I will lash out on a special/iconic bar or restaurant and pay an outrageous amount for a drink or lunch – because, to me, that’s an experience worth investing in.

Do you find it lonely travelling solo?

Travelling alone is easy and simple but more importantly, when you’re solo you meet people and have conversations because you make the effort to do it. But travelling alone for me is time sensitive, I’m happy for a week or two weeks, now in the third week I’m now longing to see a familar face.

I would find it very difficult to concentrate and observe places if I had a travelling companion. And if I had two of them who were arguing… well, that’s another story!

Do you know what you’re looking for and where to find it?

I wish! All I can do is be open to the journey and hope that ideas will come and locations will be useful somewhere in there.

Do you take notes about buildings and scenery etc?

I take a lot of shots with my iphone, as a record and because I enjoy sharing them on Instagram and this blog.  It gives me a sense of purpose when I’m wandering around a new place and takes me down little side streets.

I also keep a note of any ideas that crop up in an Evernote notebook which is an app on my phone and my laptop. These might be character or plot ideas or anything I see that is relevent. You can add text or images, so it’s really handy to keep everything in the same place. I currently have 90 notes in my Sixty Summers notebook.

Do you work on the book while you’re travelling?

Hmmm… if I can. It’s sometimes difficult to have a sense of continuity or perspective. I do try to lay down 500 words a day but it’s just not always possible. Don’t want to miss what’s going on outside – or my train!

 

The Apple of my Eye

My only memory of Vienna, from forty years ago, is of a pastry. Not the palaces or cathedrals or museums – just an apple turnover.

I vividly remember all three of us standing in the street gazing at a window display of pastries, and in particular that apple turnover. It looked so fresh, the pastry light and crisp, and, back then, it would have been filled with freshly stewed apples.

I could almost taste it, but I didn’t that day.

Pastries were out of the budget because the deal was that we would travel until we ran out of money. It was essentials only, and we had to stick to that.

You can see these bad boys are pretty exe today but, nevertheless, I did indulge in a Himbeer Harmonie (raspberry harmony) which was every bit as delicious as it looks. A box shape with sides of paper thin dark chocolate that contained a chocolate and raspberry mousse.

These pastries were at  Cafe Central, a classic Viennese cafe established in 1876 and once frequented by Leon Trotsky and Sigmund Freud among others.

A wonderful taste of Vienna, worth the forty year wait.

Prague Revisited

I realise that forty years is a long time but the difference between Prague when I visited in 1978, and now, is astonishing. Back then the Czech Republic was Czechoslovakia under Communist rule, grim times with not enough food and nothing to buy. We camped outside the city and the first night had all our food stolen from under the tent flysheet. Heart-breaking to think people needed to steal food, it was really nothing very exciting.

Today, despite it being extremely cold (-8 this morning) the old town was packed with tourists wandering the cobblestone streets, admiring the architecture of this beautiful city which was first established almost 1000 years ago.

The difference between travelling then and now is so dramatic, first the ability to use Smartphones as we do at home with GPS and translation apps. To be able to find your way around easily, find accommodation, get train timetables, book an Uber. I use the translation app that hovers over foreign text and translates to English (how clever is that?!) so you actually know what you’re buying at the supermarket.

All these innovations have taken some of the adventure out of it and made the experience of travel more comfortable – I just can’t decide if that’s a good thing, or not.