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Jo'Burg Days: Travels Of My Younger Self

...I was lucky to travel around Europe before the tsunami of mass tourism hit and destroyed so much of the essential flavour. Moreover, I did it alone, and was able to experience countries and meet the locals on a one-to-one basis, and not as part of a coach tour or a noisy group of 20-somethings whooping it up and drinking themselves silly....

Read this splendid column and you will readily agree that Barbara Durlacher was born to be a travel writer.

To read more of Barbara’s articles and stories please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/joburg_days/

A far better title would be “Travels with My Aunt” but as this has already been used by Graham Greene, I opted for a paler imitation. For all that however, I remember the travels of my younger self with great affection and feel that through an unexpected twist of fate, I was lucky to travel around Europe before the tsunami of mass tourism hit and destroyed so much of the essential flavour. Moreover, I did it alone, and was able to experience countries and meet the locals on a one-to-one basis, and not as part of a coach tour or a noisy group of 20-somethings whooping it up and drinking themselves silly.

Europe from 1950s to the ‘70s was breathlessly surfacing from the worst of WWII, although there was still bomb damage visible in parts of London and some of the European cities. Gaps in rows of office buildings or terrace houses were masked by all-enveloping ‘Rose Bay Willow Herb’ sprouting from every crack and covering crumbling walls and outsize wooden props in a haze of pinky-mauve. In Naples near the waterfront there was one gap-toothed hole where the cellar was dangerously open to the sky. Not a warning notice to be seen, but it seemed that the happy-go-lucky (or frustrated) Neopolitans where living with this danger until the time came that the feuding politicians reached a compromise and repaired their city.
Luckily, the ravages of war faded the closer one got to the Eastern Mediterranean, and on one memorable journey I travelled from London to Athens on the ‘Magic Bus’ for £29 return, (see my story ‘The Magin Bus’ in Openwriting). On another occasion, I took the train from London’s Victoria Station to Venice and then onwards by ferry through the Corinth Canal to Istanbul and the Golden Horn long before it was fashionable to travel to Turkey. On the ship from Piraeus I met an attractive American girl who confided that she was going to meet her fiancé. Proudly flashing her left hand where a very small diamond ring glittered, she said how much she loved her American fiancée and how she was looking forward to getting married.

Then, as we stood at the ship’s rail waiting to go ashore and she scanned the waiting crowd, she could not recognise a single face. Turning to me she burst into tears saying, “I can’t even remember what he looks like, and I’m not sure I want to marry him. I’ve made a terrible mistake, I want to go home!” and rushed weeping down to her cabin.

The sights and sounds of Istanbul were magical in those days, although the filth and stench and squalor were far removed from the sanitised conditions travellers expect today, and the extreme poverty of 1970s Turkey was startling even to one accustomed to conditions in Africa. One day, leaving Sirkeci Station, I saw a labourer struggling under the weight of a huge sofa on his back. He staggered slowly away attempting to earn a few coins delivering it to an address somewhere in the suburbs. Poor man! How this terrible hard-labour must have shortened his life, to be forced to such extremes to earn a living, indicated the most abject penury. That he could find no other employment was dreadful, and yet the onlookers were utterly indifferent to him and cursed him to get out of their way.

Visiting Topkapi, the Sultan’s Palace with its lovely view over the Golden Horn and the minarets of Asia was mind-boggling. In those days the museum with its treasures seemed utterly unprotected; I did not notice any security guards or CCTV; the windows were not barred, and the showcases bore no evidence of electronic sensors or alarm wires. On the other hand, when I saw an uncut emerald the size of a small cabbage in one of the cases, I became rather sceptical as to whether these ‘precious jewels’ were real or just bits of coloured glass. If the latter, then certainly there was no reason to worry about security. At that time, the naming of the exhibits left a lot to be desired and, if my memory serves me right, many of them were not indexed at all or if they were, it was in Turkish and incomprehensible to a foreign visitor.

There were quantities of the most beautiful Chinese Porcelain; enormous tribute bowls and beautiful wide flat dishes in the most delicate celadon ware decorated with beautiful scenes of Chinese life were, to my mind, far more valuable and important than the ‘jewels’ in the display cases. The very fact that these enormously fragile and costly items came overland all the way from China, travelling by mule and horseback and arrived unbroken as a gift to the Sultan indicated the value placed on them. Possibly, the jewels were not considered in the same light.

But oh, the terrible palace toilets! There was only one woman’s toilet and this was of the old-time squat type and the cubicle had none of the amenities one expects to find. No paper, no towels and no washbasin. Simply a water tap, situated very close to the ground and an empty jam tin – and then, it was up to you to do what you pleased with what was provided. It was not long before I learnt to carry a small cake of soap and a quantity of tissues and toilet paper in my handbag, as one never knew what to expect. It was the same in Italy and in France, so Turkey was not alone in being out of step with the times.

An exhausting night journey by bus brought me to Izmir and then a tiny ferry took me to Chios off the coast of Turkey. Here I visited a beautiful old monastery high in the mountains. Travelling the winding approach road the taxi passed a shepherd surrounded by his flock and guarded by his huge Akbash watchdog. The shepherd wore a strange garment made of thick grey felt and shaped like the sack old-time coalmen used to protect their heads, except that his garment reached to ground level and was thick enough to stand alone. Made to withstand all weathers from snowfalls to torrential rain and summer’s heat, they must be extremely heavy, especially when wet, but are certainly weatherproof!

On a visit to Princes Island in the Bosporus a 20 minutes ferry ride from Istanbul, I took a clip-clopping drive along the sea front in a dusty, tobacco smelling open carriage. As the small bunch of artificial flowers nodded stiffly in a glass holder on the dashboard, the three moth-eaten feathers on the spavined horse’s head nodded in agreement. The driver only spoke Turkish, so communication was impossible, but the old wooden houses and the all-pervading peace provided a pleasant break from the frenzy of the Istanbul streets, the clanging of the trams and the hooting of the ferry boats. Despite the discomforts, Istanbul is a city I would visit again; to savour the modern Turkey and splash in the ‘frozen fountains’ of the sacred hot springs at Pamukkale and see the ‘Fairy Chimney’s of Cappadocia – there’s lots to see and plenty to do; it would be wonderful to see it all again.

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