First adventures in Europe

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By 2017-04-08

Rajiva Wijesinha

I went straight on to England from India after my Advanced Levels in June. In those days one could enjoy almost unlimited stopovers, so I visited a number of European capitals, where my friends had arranged for me to stay with them. But of course I went exploring, and managed to see much of Greece, and several places in Italy, plus much else before I landed in England, in September.

Athens 9th July 1971

I meant to write as I arrived but I went for a vast walk through the city and I was too tired when I got back to do anything but sleep. And then, next morning, I left on a trip and returned only last night.

I went first to Corinth by bus, saw the ruins of ancient Corinth, and also climbed up the citadel where there's a fort used in turn by all the people who have ruled Greece, including the Venetians and the Turks.

There I met a German who was on a tour too, and we went together to Mycenae, stayed the night there, and next morning, with a German couple from Munich, went to the excavations there, which include the Lion Gate before which Electra performed and the Tombs of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

From there I went on to Argos where there's another fortress on a rock, up which I climbed without following the road, so that I was worn out and very homesick by the time I reached the top. The view however, was lovely, and I managed to get a lift down to the town.

From there I went to Navplion, stopping on the way at Tiryns, the ruined palace of Hercules. I stayed the night at Navplion and next morning climbed up that citadel too, which was very nice, though there were 999 steps. I also went to a Byzantine Monastery a little way from the town where an old nun showed me around, both of us talking bad French. In the evening I had a swim and went up the smaller mount of the citadel.

Slept under pine trees

Next morning I went to Epidaurus, went round in the morning and slept under the pine trees in the afternoon. In the evening, in the theatre, I saw one of the old tragedies put on by the National Theatre of Greece. It was translated into modern Greek but I managed to get hold of an English version just before so that I understood what was happening. It was a superb performance. Afterwards, just as I was getting desperate because all the buses had been booked, I managed to get a lift back to Navplion, in the uncovered back of a car, which was very nice.

On the 5th I went to Sparta and Mystras, where there is another citadel, with monasteries and churches on the way up, full of frescoes and icons and chandeliers. It was quite tiring going up and I missed the bus back but I managed to get a lift. However, I had to spend the night in Sparta. Next morning I went to Kalamata along a lovely road through high mountains, sheer grey stone at times about you and then huge pine trees. From Kalamata I went straight up along the coast to Pirgos and from there to Olympia. The ruins there are wonderful and so is the museum.

It's the same at Delphi, to which I went next day, getting there only at night after a trip by ferry across the Corinthian gulf so that I really saw everything yesterday morning. I returned to Athens in the evening and went around a little more, ending up at the Acropolis for it was a full moon night. I felt a bit bad because I returned only at midnight, and Calogirou was already in bed.

Too expensive

I stayed in Youth Hostels throughout except at Sparta, and ate very little but travelling is expensive and I've already spent over 10 pounds. I am hoping to go to the islands of Mykonos and Delos tomorrow but perhaps it will be too expensive. Today I'm staying here because my feet are really sore and I'm lazy to walk much more. It's a bit difficult managing without a car after having got used to being driven around.

Could you please tell Thatha that Calogirou will write to him about the monkey after she consults her son. She intends to be away from Greece till the end of October, so she doesn't want it till then. Also tell Mum that Mrs Bhatkhal was very ill in Bombay, hadn't been able to leave her bed for 15 days. I forgot to tell you that Mohan looked after me very well, and took me for dinner to the Taj, where I heard the Jetliners play and felt quite patriotic.

Rome
25th July

I've had a marvellous time here, as you know already. I've been rather lazy though, since I could easily have left a day or two ago, but it all turned out for the best, as a letter arrived from Shirley Amerasinghe asking me, if possible, to postpone for a day or two. As it is, I'd already arranged to fly through Florence and Milan, for just $1 more, with a train trip to Venice, only getting to Geneva on the 31st. Andrew said Geneva had hardly anything and I'd be happier doing nothing here than there, so I've had quite a few afternoons and the whole of today lying down and devouring Billy Bunter and Enid Blyton, with two conscientious dips into Lawrence Durrell.

To resume – on the 20th, I went to the Vatican, the museum from which they threw everyone out at 1.45, and St Peter's - they were both much better even than I'd expected - the Sistine Chapel is so clear, even though the pictures are so high up - and the museum, with all the things the Popes stole through the years. Incidentally that old fox Pius XII managed to get himself buried opposite St Peter!

Unfortunately, they don't let you into the Vatican Gardens without special permission and St. Anglo's castle was shut, so I went on, with a few peeks into churches by the way where occasionally you find something lovely, to the Coliseum again, and climbed right to the top this time. I thought it wasn't worth 150 Lira the 1st time, but I'd got a card from the Youth Hostels that gave me free entrance by now!

Locked rooms

On the 21st I went to Ostia, and met an archaeologist who knew Maranzi and Sigiriya and Ceylon, and showed me some of the locked rooms, which was very interesting. Then, on the 22nd, after getting my ticket changed and seeing the baths of Diocletian, I stayed at home during the afternoon, as I did on the next day, after a vast walk through this neighbourhood which was Mussolini's showpiece. Yesterday I went to Tivoli, which was super, with all the fountains in the garden, and a little gorge some way off with grottoes and a huge waterfall and the ruins of villas and tiny temples, and also to the Villa Adriana with heaps of beautiful ruins, groves and ponds with passages under them and so on.

Frankfurt
11th August

I shall write from Denmark to someone to reach Ceylon before this so I'll only tell you about a rather exciting incident. As you know, I went to Czechoslovakia from Munich. They make one change $5 a day, but the Trade Commissioner with whom I stayed said that, as I'd stayed with a diplomat, I could get back my hard currency and also that I could buy my return ticket with the Czech money. However, they wanted German marks on the bus and, though I had enough dollars and pounds, I asked them to wait till I'd changed my money back at the border.

However, at the border, despite the diplomat, the man said I couldn't exchange the money and that I could – he used the German 'kann' as far as I remember, though I can't be sure – either buy something with it or deposit it in the bank for heaven knows what.

What mattered to me was changing it back to hard currency, and since I couldn't, being determined not to cash my traveller's cheques, I decided to get a lift – there were heaps of German cars there. I'd just got into one, with my passport stamped, with the now useless Czech money in my pocket – I'd decided against buying wine or something since I didn't want to drink it and it would have been silly carrying it about and trying to send it home – when the policeman jumped out and accused me of trying to smuggle it out. Then, for 15 minutes, he pretended to be very busy and made me wait, in the course of which I realized I had to leave the money in the country and it was illegal to take it out – having been concerned about getting back the original hard currency I'd exchanged, I'd quite ignored the importance of the money they had made me buy to the Czechs.

Quite innocent

Anyway, at last I was asked to sign a statement that I'd tried to smuggle their money which I refused to do, being quite convinced that I was quite innocent and that it was their fault for not having had anyone who spoke English. I was certain by now that I'd thought he was only trying to be helpful with his 'kanns' since I didn't know what to do with the useless money – though probably I was too concerned about not being allowed to exchange to think at all about the Czech money itself! I'm not sure myself, it seemed so unimportant at the time.

When I refused to sign he grabbed my passport and told me I should go to prison. I'd been quite alarmed at first but by now I was righteously indignant so I went on insisting to the big boss who also said he didn't know English – I'm sure he did. In the end they returned my passport without the signature but kept hold of the money and I decided to give in since it was getting late.

didn't let the matter drop

I'd already decided to hitch and, as that had been my passage money, I wasn't really down, but I rather regret losing it, it comes to over 5 pounds – 218 crowns. If you don't think it's too silly, draft a letter from me to the Czech Embassy in Ceylon placing a claim for the money, just so I can feel I didn't let the matter drop. Sign for me so that you're not involved!

I walked over the border to Germany and the guard there asked me where and how I was going and I said I was hitching to Frankfurt upon which he arranged a lift for me in a tour bus of a small village near Cologne that was also on its way back from Prague.

It was delightful and I began to love the Germans even more. They dropped me off near the airport, and Mr Handy picked me up from there, though I spent ½ an hour walking in the wrong direction, although there had been a signpost just in front of me.

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