Chapter 37: Adventure Holidays, 1964
It was around this time that ‘Adventure Training’ was becoming important in the Army to develop planning skills and adventurous experiences amongst soldiers. This was something we had done as a family for years and we were about to embark on one of the best. Stuart Burge, our theatrical friend, had been invited to produce a play in the castle at Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia. It was during the school summer holidays. He would not be allowed to take any of the money earned out of the country, so the money due would be well used in paying to take his whole family with him. Could we join up with them there? Dates fitted perfectly with the timing of my own change of job from Catterick to Southern Command in Wilton.
This was a stable period of Yugoslav history. The country, formed in 1929, was now led by the wartime hero Marshal Tito and was a Communist country that refused Russian domination. It had become popular amongst more adventurous tourists.
There was a very busy week. We packed up in the north, despatched our furniture, handed over our quarter and repeated the process in reverse in Wilton. Loading the car with our camping and other needs we drove to my parents in Rye and collected the two boys from school. We then flew, car and all, from Lydd to Le Touquet in France. Now that this option has gone one has to face the queues and crowds of roll-on ferries. This was a wonderfully quick and easy way to start our journey. We only had to drive 1500 miles over the Jura, the Swiss Alps and overcome the testing and unknown obstacles of Yugoslavia! This was long before the age of motorways and many minor roads were used.
Camping skills improved as we went. Our second night was near Geneva and we moved on to Chamonix hoping to drive through the new Tunnel du Mont Blanc, only to find that it was not yet finished. The old route took us over lesser mountains to Martigny in Switzerland and up to the Great St Bernard tunnel at 8000 feet. The none-too-new car was beginning to feel the strain. This was long before the motor industry discovered that there was much money to be made by regular servicing. Making regular oil changes made no problems, but for the rest one drove until something went wrong and then carried out a roadside repair. Stuck on an upward hairpin it became clear that the clutch was failing to disengage. A minor adjustment enabled us to move on. A garage in Martigny had no quick solution but thought that, with care, we could limp up to the 8000 foot Great St Bernard Tunnel and beyond until expert help was available.
We then followed the Val d’Aosta through a number of ski resorts I was to know well later and then the miracle; there was a motorway in the Po valley. We camped beyond Ivrea with our confidence much restored. Packed up and away by seven in the morning we pushed on to Venice and managed to meet the Burges who would embark on the Yugoslavia for Dubrovnik that afternoon. We told them our story and our intentions. My Borgward car handbook showed that there was an agent in Trieste. It was an interesting place and it made sense to enjoy exploring it whilst the car was repaired. Our camp was in a delightful site at Sustiana, just short of the main city. There was swimming, boat trips to the city and good services.
Arriving at the car agent the next morning, it was a Monday, he told me that he now dealt in Volvos. However the short, cheerful and efficient mechanic made his check and said he would effect a repair by 6pm next day. One organisation ran the hotel, restaurant, bathing beach, camping facilities and all in the main part of Sistiana bay.
The four children paddled and swam whilst the parents established camp. I walked over to see how they were getting on and was able to grab Claudia from a small pier when she got out of her depth and began bubbling up and down with a startled look on her face. Fatal accidents can happen in simple ways.
Stranded or not this was an ideal place to stay and the children were blissfully happy.
The final link to Dubrovnik was not a great distance but the journey was a testing one. The Yugoslav roads at first were adequate if rather patched and the country hilly and wild. The wide Krk River had to be crossed by ferry, but we arrived in Split, the capital of Dalmatia in good time to set up camp. Split has the finest harbour on the Adriatic coast with a broad bay and safe anchorage. Travel there from earliest times used sea-lanes. In this way it became a Roman colony in 78 BC. The Roman Emperor Diocletian created a palace there, of which little remains. Four separate Roman leaders managed separate areas of the Empire at that time. Our only complaint was that the camp area was covered in intrusive white dust and the ground was as hard as nails.
We set off early the next morning on what the AA described as ‘the bad part of the journey’, though Split and Dubrovnik are only 100 miles apart. We passed through Omis in its narrow gorge. With its fortress and sheltered inland waters it had been a pirate lair, conveniently placed to the south of Split and emphasising the importance of honest and criminal sea travel in earlier times. After some 40 miles we reached Podogra to discover that a major new coast road, shown on modern maps, was under construction to Dubrovnik. There was no access for travellers. We took the alternative road indicated, which edged along the shore, getting narrower and narrower until it ended altogether.
Returning to civilisation we encountered an obliging German with a map. His advice was clear and to the point:
It is almost impossible to get to Dubrovnik by car.
The roads were very bad and climbs went straight up cliffs.
A strong car was needed.
If we were foolish enough to persist, he would describe the route and the hazards.
We found no fault with his advice but pressed on all the same. We had already covered seven miles of mountain cart track, so had some idea of the problems. The initial climb into the mountains had the appearance of a goat track with primitive improvements. There were many hairpin bends as we squeezed past lorries and buses perched high on craggy mountains. Put in more modern terms this was partisan country, wild and arid, without the partisans. Such habitation as there was scraped a living by agriculture that did not deserve the name farming. Small areas were cleared of rocks for the purpose. Here and there immense stacks of rock stood beside small signs of cultivation. 15 or so miles in the hour was good progress. Arriving at the coast we were soon sent inland again. In this fairytale land nothing is normal. We had to cross a bridge over Dubrovnik’s substantial major river, which surges out from its underground source at the foot of the 4000ft mountain further inland. Our shore-side camping area was soon reached, red dust not white this time, and we settled in for the night.
It was soon apparent that Dubrovnik was a very special mediaeval walled city with cool narrow streets and fine renaissance buildings. The ancient port was too small to serve modern ships so did not suffer the degradation of later development. Geography proved to be its protector. To the landward side steep and rugged mountains made offensive access difficult. To the west, however, lies the Adriatic, an important sea route from the earliest of times. Slavs ruled Dubrovnik before the 7th century with an influx of Latin refugees in early times. By the 9th century rule was exercised by Byzantium. Fortified as it was, it withstood a 15-month siege by an Arab fleet. In 1000 AD it recognised the Suzerainty of the Republic of Venice and trade prospered. In the 17th century disastrous earthquakes caused immense damage. The Republic was abolished by France in 1808, only to be taken over by Austria six years later. In 1918 Dubrovnik, the age-old city, became part of Yugoslavia.
As a centre for keeping our combined party actively busy and interested for a fortnight Dubrovnik could not be bettered, but description must be limited. Campsites are always a help as mixing with strangers is all part of the experience. This is particularly valuable for children. The variety of nations, shown by their national car markings, was exceptional, many visitors coming from central Europe. The common factor was that all our cars had suffered and we were better equipped than most for helping with minor problems.
We had several excellent beaches, primitive boating, and swimming in the clearest of temperate waters, the exploration of battlements, fortifications and fine buildings. We visited neighbouring islands and botanical gardens. The lively open-air market was always entertaining and festival open-air concerts and ballet were provided for our evenings. The young Lucy Burge, a future principal dancer of the Ballet Rambert, was more critical than the rest of us. Stuart Burge spent rehearsal time at the Lovrijenac fortress during the morning and again in the evening. We watched him at work organising crowd movement and other activities. Othello was impressive, Desdemona appealing and Iago well played but a full performance in Serbo-Croat was not for us. By night we watched an early satellite cross the skies.
It was a great asset to have together two families that knew each other well. One open-air restaurant got to know us well for lunch. The five boys would stride to one table, four girls would take another and the parents chose a third. The food was simple and popular and evening repasts produced fine local wines. It was fortunate that Stuart brought the organiser of the Dubrovnik Festival to lunch. Costa is the only name I recorded. Not only was he a most interesting man, but he enlightened us on the road system of the area. If we set off in an unlikely direction to the Southeast we would climb into the mountains on a metalled road and then on lesser country roads to ancient Mostar ‘in gaunt and rugged mountains’ with its many mosques and ancient bridge. This 400-year-old structure stood sixty feet high and rested on Roman foundations. Working our way to the coast to camp luxuriously on grass surrounded with pine trees. We were on the islet of Trogir which, like many coastal sites, had a long history, being founded by the Greeks in 300 BC. It was Byzantine for many centuries and Roman for several more. An aged man who showed us the Cathedral treasures was delighted to find that we were English. He patted me on the shoulder, said “English very good” and presented me with two postcards. At this time Marshal Tito had broken with Stalin and Titoism prevailed. For the inhabitants of Yugoslavia this seemed a more relaxed and friendly authority than Communism. We ended a long day’s driving near the industrial city of Pula to meet Sheelah’s brother and family, planning a few days in Venice together on the way home.
We had been encouraged to fit in a visit to Postonja in Slovenia. The Skocjan Caves were indeed exceptional. With a private guide we were let in through a steel door in a cliff face, and descended to the first cave with well-lit stalactites of many shapes with appropriate names, transparent curtains and those producing musical sounds when struck. Then there were silent caves and others with rushing water. We crossed a gorge by a bridge with a drop of 300 feet below us and a further 200 feet clear above us. There were caves lived in by prehistoric man and hair-raising tales of the activities of speleologists. A breed of blind fish that had lived in the dark for millennia was pointed out.
So into Italy, to the Lido de Jesolo near Venice where we rejoined the Eagan family. Here we had sand, sun and sea, but best of all an approach to Venice by sea through the islands to the entrance of the Grand Canal. We became enthusiastic sightseers for two days and continued the education in Lausanne at the excellent Swiss National Exhibition, then on to the French coast and home.
Adventure Holiday? Yes it was. Adventures involve risks and there were two occasions where alertness and quick reaction saved the day. We sympathise with those who are less lucky, both parents and those who give time to lead groups of the young.