At some point in the Spring of 1975, Lester Venter and I were chatting over a pint somewhere in Fleet Street. The subject of Summer hols came up. Turned out we were both planning some adventure in Europe. Moi à deux, M Venter en famille de quatre. Lester was one step ahead of me (as usual) as he had a bright red Kombi, registered in Bern, Switzerland.
My bottom line had been a promise to Carmela that our escape from Durbs-by-the-Sea would be mitigated by visiting her bestie and visiting Papa's birthplace in Italy. Lester was keen to acquire an Andorran stamp in his passport. I'd never heard of Andorra but it seemed like a proper caper when he explained it.
We tentatively agreed to pool our resources and head South. But first we needed to establish that our party of 6 would get on together. A few UK day outings proved that we might just make it across the channel without incident. We didn't plan too many house rules but Mr Venter insisted that we entertain the driver on long stretches.
In return he would tell us the tale of Whisky Rabbit, his fluffy friend from the platteland.
One notable thing about this trip is that, in 2021, neither of us remember too much of the detail. I can recall with some accuracy a few vignettes but not always the sequence in which they occurred. I have quite a few fuzzy photos, though, and will attempt to construct the yarn in some sort of joined-up way that seems plausible.
It is likely that at least three of us, Susi, Lester and I, were looking forward to alcoholic beverages at vastly reduced prices. Duty in the UK was formidable to the extent that the cheapest bottle of wine in a London supermarket was somewhere in the vicinity of £2. Duty of £1 a bottle accounted for about half of an entry level Côtes-du-Rhône or Rioja. So we were keen to stop at a farm stall before camping for our first night somewhere in the middle of France. Imagine our joy when encountering dodgy looking bottles of red with dodgy looking stoppers, all for a mere 50 centimes, i.e. about 5 pence.
It was totally disgusting but we drank it that night anyway, vowing to budget 10p a bottle from then on. It was an illumination to us that alcohol undercut soft drinks by some margin in France. This remained the case at least until 1983 when Shelley-ann and I bought a case of litres of Coca-Cola in Luxembourg and kept them in our hire car throughout a tour of France. Coke is not particularly refreshing after sitting in a car at 30 degrees C for a few hours, let alone weeks.
I remember reaching our destination on the outskirts of Andorra as the sun was going down the next day or maybe a few days later at 11PM. We got our stamps but I've long since lost that passport, sadly.
The following are a few pics from Andorra. The only one of real significance is of Carmela grinning bravely after a night in our extreme-weather mountaineer's tent. The sun came up and blazed away very early in the morning. The same pic is the only one I have of the Ventermobile with its red bum.
There was an incident passing from Andorra into Spain. Maybe the superheated tent had something to do with it. Carmela, usually with her bright smile and eager to please, became most ornery when passing through the Spanish border post. As you can see from associated pictures, I was the least reputable-looking member of the party. But hippies we weren't and we had children with us. The Spanish officials were relatively bland as far as they were generally reputed to be. But it was a Kombi. They poked around a bit in amongst our payload. This incensed my wife.
"What are you looking for?" she demanded of the officers. They only spoke Spanish and probably didn't understand but they got the gist of the tone in her voice. Even so they didn't up the anti too much but this diminutive Seffrikkin/Italian was determined that if they wouldn't, she would.
"Are you looking for diamonds," she snapped contemptuously. Now there was one word they did understand. "Drugs," may have been another but thank goodness she stopped short of that.
We certainly understood their gestures as we were instructed to unpack the red bus, stacked to the gills as it was with meticulously packed luggage and bedding for a month. They made a cursory inspection of six people's belongings before signalling that we could move on. We still had to repack the Kombi but, by all accounts, we got away lightly. Carmela had to endure at least an hour of Coventry but was allowed back into favour after peering winsomely from a xarcuteria.
How we got here from there is shrouded in the mists of time although recollections of a Guardia Civil officer in his funny hat, looking incongruous on a moped on the outskirts of Barcelona are clear in my mind. I remember Lester pointing him out to Cornelia and Christoph. I have dim recollections of hugging the coast from there to St Tropez, certain that we'd spot Brigitte Bardot topless on the beach.
En route I seem to recall pausing at Lloret de Mar, because it had a castle and a beach, and then again at Port Bou near the border with France. It was there that we experienced one of those waiters who know something you don't and take some pleasure in luring their patrons into a trap.
I think Lester and Susi had gone in search of postcards leaving us to teach Cornelia and Christoph some new sign language. Aperitifs were planned for their return. I mentioned this to the Spanish waiter who reappeared as soon as the Venters did.
"Large or small?" he demanded.
"Is that even a question?" Lester looked at me with ill-disguised contempt when I pointed to an empty pint-sized glass on the waiter's tray. It now seems a bit out of character on my part but I think I thought that the pint was the "large". After all, in London, one either had a pint or one had half-a-pint.
Lester was more specific.
The result is clear to see from the last picture in the sequence above. I had already consumed my pint and it is standing next to Lester's two litres as a reference point while he is starting to show some signs of wear.
I don't think the other four were too pleased with us because we were planning to continue on to our first proper restaurant meal on tour. The paella was marvellous, mate.
Predictably, it wasn't Brigitte's week for being in St Tropez. In fact, the whole place was beginning to look a bit jaded. Although it hadn't deteriorated that much that the campsite-on-the-beach wasn't still overrun with wealthy Brits.
All that was left was to take a gratuitous picture of Carmela in a bikini on the Côte d'Azur before moving on to our next campsite, in the hills above Nice.
That night Christoph became ill. Quite seriously so and had to be taken to hospital in Nice. Thankfully it was nothing worse than measles but he had it quite badly. Lester and Susi were told by the French medics that they needed to keep him quiet for a week and to stay in the same place. The Venters suggested that Carmela and I should go off on our own detour if we wanted to see our friends in Italy. We'd all rendezvous in Genoa at a given date and travel together to Switzerland and then back to London.
The two of us caught a train to Rome sitting in the corridor for the overnight journey. We couldn't afford to reserve seats at the last minute.
From Rome we intended to cross the Apennines to Chieti, just short of Pescara, the city at the end of the line. We managed to board the train with a little time to spare when I think I made Carmela's holiday. This Italian chap of about our age came up to out window and clearly wanted to ask us a question:
"È questa seconda classe," he asked.
"No, Pescara," I responded, mustering my best Italian accent. I saw his face contract into bafflement and Carmela trying to suppress a shriek of laughter.
I'm not going to spell out what he asked me because it's kinda obvious when one can see it in print so I'm hoping readers will have a bit of fun working it out for themselves.
Carmela was still hiccoughing with suppressed giggles when we arrived, 4 or 5 hours later, at Chieti Scalo station. Thankfully delightful Diana was there to greet us at the station and apologising for the size of her car when she saw the size of Carmela's suitcase. Should have brought the "beeg" car, she said. She grew up in Durban but her English was delightfully rusty.
We were transported into the womb of the Tacconelli family and treated like royalty for days on end. Homemade pasta, picnics in the Apennines. The beach in Pescara and the lovely town of Chieti (Alta) itself. Only pictures can do it justice so I'll cut the waffle.
Diana and Carmela reunited in the Italian alleys. Carmela had never been to Italy before (above).
They took us on day trips to the beach at Pescara and up to the Chieti old town (below). We didn't know this before but many Italian towns were originally built on hilltops, often for defence, and then expanded later at the foot of the hill, hence Chieti Scalo (lower). One of the delights of Italy is that there are so many of these picturesque market towns that many of them remain relatively undiscovered to this day.
Wherever these young women went, they seemed to attract a fan club of admiring girls. The younger the girls the more curious they seemed. Seventies fashion was by no means ubiquitous.
Getting to the Apennine picnic was rather more nail-biting. Diana's fidanzato, Giancarlo, had sussed that I was a bit of a petrol-head and "treated" me to a ride up the mountains in his bleeding-edge Fiat del periodo, the rally-winning 124 Abarth Spider. It was the coglioni di cane and I certainly wished I had a pair of the same as we tore up the mountain pass, using all of the road. It turns out Giancarlo, normally a mild-mannered aristocrat and banker, also did a bit of rallying in his spare time.
Pictured below (L) Famiglia Tacconelli: Papa, Giancarlo, Diana, Carmela and Mama (R) the flying Fiat on top of the Apennines ... my heart rate beginning to return to normal.
Above (L) it was hot up there in the sunshine (R) Walther Tacconelli, Diana's younger brother, was feeling left out although Carmela's not too sure about where his hand is about to go. To be fair, Walther was a tall chap and Carmela not quite so. I think he was still at school at the time and full of fun.
Our sojourn East of the Apennines was short and time came all too soon to wish the Tacconelli family farewell and head South to the place of Papa Toscano's birth. The bus trip was full of mountainous splendour, introducing us to the classic villages hanging precariously beside the road. The journey must've taken about 4 hours. I remember Naples being a bit of a shock to begin with. It was impoverished and we'd been warned about petty crime. Thankfully we came out of it unscathed. Perhaps it was the attraction of the children to the young women in 70's fashion I mentioned earlier.
The following picture is the one I like to call my "Back Street of Naples" shot. It's quite grainy and it's washed out in places, which I think is fitting to the subject as well as the general Blog theme of Fuzzy Photos.
The first picture above was fairly representative of the narrow streets. Some of them had washing strung across the street but I was unable to locate one from my archives. Then there are more admiring children. I must make it clear that not one of the children in any of these pictures asked for money or was begging in any way. I noticed this in poorer, but not destitute, parts of Africa, too. Children seemed to like being in photos. Final pic speaks for itself after a long hot day.
And then for our only extravagance of the holiday, two nights in a picturesque Praiano pensione. It had been recommended as an Amalfi Coast village without the premium prices. And we could rent a rowing boat. But first we had to get there on the bus along the winding road clinging to the cliff between Positano and Amalfi. The only safety precaution was for vehicles to blare their horns at every blind corner, of which there were many. One of these was directly below the pretty pensione we'd booked for a bargain price. There was a stonking view from the terrace, though, which made everything worthwhile. Even when we flushed the lav and the outflow made a brief appearance in the shower.
"The autobus she stop at dieci di sera," our landlord smiled reassuringly, just as we were checking in and another bus hooted its warning signal.
"Grazie," we chorussed. He hadn't mentioned the deep throbbing of the comings of goings of motorboats between about 2am and 4am. We didn't have an opportunity to ask but found out later from the bus driver on our return journey: "Contrabbandieri di sigarette dall'Africa" he whispered, tapping the side of his nose.
Scrolling back from our departure slightly, daytime at the tiny Marina di Praia waterfront was idyllic. We rented our rowing boat and ate delicious food beside the sea while watching young teenage boys and girls flinging themselves off the cliff into the sea. We decided that, after all, you get what you pay for and this wiped all the tiny inconveniences into oblivion.
Oh and we did allow ourselves one last extravagance: two berths on the overnight train from Naples to Genoa where we would resume our journey with the Venter family. Our rendezvous went without a hitch and we were soon heading up the autostrada to Zürich. Lester was driving and I was in the front passenger seat, ever mindful of maintaining the conversation on long stretches. We'd more or less caught up on the doings of each family during our time apart and I refocused on Switzerland. Susi is, after all, Swiss, as were Cornelia and Christoph.
"The currency," I started up, "As far as I can tell, a Swiss franc is worth about 17p?"
"Ah," responded my compadre with some enthusiasm. It was always good to get him going. He told lekker stories and it took the heat off the passenger. "You mean 17 pence."
"I suppose so? What's the difference?" I mumbled.
"A big one if you believe some Brits," he countered, "I was in a shop in Windsor recently. I was standing at the counter preparing to pay. There was a distinguished looking gentleman behind me in the queue.
"'Will that be 20p?' I asked the shop assistant. Before she could answer, a plummy voice exclaimed behind me:
"'Pee, PEE? It's pence, boy!' this bloke glared at me. I quickly paid and left the shop chastened," my friend glanced across the cab at me meaningfully. It got the in-car conversation going, with everyone chipping in their opinions.
I don't remember much more about the journey to Zürich. Perhaps we went through the Gotthard Tunnel, which takes some of the fun out of the journey but also some of the stress.
We visited Susi's family in Switzerland but my stomach took those few days to turn inwards on itself. I therefore don't remember too much about that bit and I doubt I made too much of an impression on our hosts as I was feeling too weak to make much of an effort with German and Afrikaans wasn't quite hacking it.
Below A day out in Zürich and a tangent to try a selective focus arty shot that clearly didn't work but does show some snow on some mountains in Switzerland.
It was time to end our Grand Tour and return to the realities of life in London where 99.999% of people said 10p rather than 10 pence and more than 67% of voters had two months earlier confirmed their wish to remain members of the European community.
The journey was going to be a long haul and I needed to keep the driver's momentum going.
The Tale of Whisky Rabbit
"So Lester," I prodded, "you promised us the yarn about your cuddly friend."
He settled more comfortably into the driver's seat and assumed a faraway stare:
"Once upon a time when I was a litey, our family lived in a place where we had a substantial garden.
"Our pet was a rabbit. Except he thought he was a dog, or maybe a cat.
"I don't know which but he was fully house trained.
"Most people keep rabbits in hutches or some such but Whisky didn't need anything like that. He never ran away and he only went outside when he needed to relieve himself. He used to hang around with us like any dog would. I think he even slept on our beds at night.
"In the morning he'd hop over to the front door and wait to be let out. We left it open for him to get back in and he'd come bouncing back in when he'd finished his business.
"I seem to remember we fed him in the kitchen and he'd know to go there when he was hungry.
"Life carried on like that for years and we all loved the little blighter, as anyone else would love a dog.
"One Spring we noticed a slight shift in Whisky's demeanour. He began becoming more insistent about being let out. I guess we just put it down to the affliction that comes to anyone with age. That he needed to wee more often.
"But then we started to find rabbit droppings inside.
"Then Whisky started jumping at the door, making a racket to be let out. He started to become more and more antisocial.
"When he came back in he would seem a bit calmer but then even that stopped.
"Eventually someone in the family decided to tail him when he went outside. Turns out he would make his way straight to a bed of wild poppies, eat his fill and stagger back to the house.
"He'd become a junkie.
"We tried everything we could to rehabilitate him but to no avail. He eventually died ... "
Coming soon: Act 4 of the general stuff pertaining to a staffer in a London news bureau and, if that gets a bit too long, a last piece about returning to South Africa via Vienna and Athens
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