Berlin, oh Berlin. Outside of the photos my memory from staying there is pretty much completely blank now. All I remember is that it was an absolute highlight of the 10 weeks I was in Europe; apart from the incident with the drunk, and my diary doesn’t help fill in gaps. Berlin is one of those cities; along with New York, London and Dunedin that is implicitly linked in my mind with good music; Bowie, Lou Reed, Eno, Killing Joke, Nick Cave, Neubaten, all have recorded or lived there. A number of my favourite novels have been set in Berlin, and that thrill of East meets West, of mystery and intrigue was one of its key attractions and I was very much looking forward to visiting, and am equally looking forward to going back.
Before we continue it is important to remind that this October 1987; the Wall was still up and the East was very definitely a foreign country. West Berlin was an island surrounded by East Germany, and according to my notes there was a 300km drive north of the border, crossing. I don’t mention any hassle or delay getting into East Germany, just that we drove straight to Berlin.
Over the entire trip we shared the driving, with each of us having a full day behind the wheel. I don’t recall any hassles on the road apart from almost being killed in Greece, just the regular occurrences of getting lost and massive traffic jams. One thing that has stayed with me is we only had 7 cassettes. Maybe we only had 7 cassettes that the others liked, I can’t believe I didn’t have some of my own music. In my diary I frequently reference lying in bed listening to music on my Walkman and I wouldn’t have listened to those tapes. I remember we had The Angels, Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits, The Long Ryders but not the other four, though they would be a similar style I am sure. I think the driver got to chose what cassette was in the machine on their day behind the wheel.
I don’t remember a huge amount of what we did in Berlin, we spent some time in the lovely Tiergarten, where one of my favourite photos of the trip was taken, with the others throwing leaves in the air and me standing watching. I am ever amused when I see photos of myself from 30 plus years ago and see that my dress has not changed at all.
We entered and exited East Berlin through the famous Checkpoint Charlie; you have to return to the west via the checkpoint you entered. My notes say it took us 90 minutes to get across, you have to exchange 25 German marks for the same amount of East German ost marks, though the currency of the East is worthless and you cannot take any back to the West. Apart from food there is not much to spend money on.
It was a weird place, obviously at the time it was an authoritarian communist state and very different to the freewheeling west, and I imagine it looks a lot different now. The area near the border, the unpainted and unapproachable eastern side of the wall was bomb sites and rubble, left clear or cleared after the wall went up in ’61 as a visible boundary zone.
I had someone take a photo of us in front of the wall on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate.
I liked East Berlin though, I noted the people were friendly and it was cheap, that the food was low quality and there was little to do other than walk, visit museums and eat. We bought sausage.
Now knowing she was pregnant Deana decided to go back to London; travelling in a crowded van, sleeping in a tent on roadsides and eating cheaply and simply, I won’t say dodgily, but… these were not ideal conditions to be carrying your first child. I imagine the rest of us were also drinking a lot as well, so probably not ideal van-mates. I know we, or I, certainly drank more after she had left as it is mentioned on numerous occasions later in my travel diary. As Deana had already travelled Europe and I hadn’t we agreed that I could spend a couple of weeks in the van and see a bit more before returning to London. Deana caught a train back from Berlin, and apart from being late had a successful trip.
It was our last night together, we had all eaten in the centre of Berlin and Deana had to wait for the train which was leaving quite late in the evening. We bought a bottle of wine and found a bench the Kaiser William Memorial Church to sit and drink it. Not long before we were finishing a drunk guy came up to us slurring away in German, he grabbed the almost empty bottle that was standing on the ground in front of us. Someone, I think it was Trudy jumped up and gave him a mouthful, and he retaliated by taking a swing at my head with the bottle, I was still seated. He missed with his swing so threw the bottle at us, his throw missed too and the bottle smashed on the ground. Fortunately, he staggered off on his way and gave us no further trouble. It was a bizarre and unsettling experience, and thankfully, the only threatening event in all of my travels. The others got the train back to the campsite on the outskirts of the city and Deana and I waited for the London train, with me eventually deserting my pregnant wife in a McDonalds in Berlin’s central main train station so I could get the last train back to the campground. She was more capable than me to be fair.
The next day the five of us left Berlin and headed south, towards the sun. We didn’t do a lot on the way, this was the road travelled when we went north and a couple of days later we crossed into Austria. Stopping for a while in Salzburg, though it was too crowded to stay so we just carried on, and into Yugoslavia.
My memory of Yugoslavia is not a positive one; there was no specific incident, just lots of little ones and we also a load of hassle, it was my least favourite country. Like East Germany Yugoslavia was a communist state, though not as authoritarian as the former. It was the poorest country we visited, and the first time I had seen genuine poverty; half built houses, car chassis being towed by donkeys, rubbish strewn roadsides, little choice of food and small towns with gas stations with no petrol. Though this was less the case near the Dalmatian Coast where we spent the most time.
At the border crossing all the cars and vans were parked, empty of belongings while bags and vehicles were being searched. Once we had passports stamped and visas bought we went back to the van and unloaded it onto the car park, then waited for the border police to come and check us out; we waited, and waited and waited. Eventually we loaded everything back in again, waited a bit more then drove off. Nothing happened.
Our first night in Yugoslavia was spent in a campground in the Julian Mountains, it snowed and I was very cold in the tent. We headed to the coast the next day.
It took us two days to get to Split on the Dalmatian coast, I note that we were very worried about running out of petrol on occasion as a lot of gas stations had no gas and that we had trouble buying food to cook, though eating out was cheap and easy. I had calamari for the first time and it was the best calamari I had for years after.
It is illegal to free-camp in Yugoslavia, so we found a campground near Split, above the Adriatic Sea and stayed for three days, the weather was glorious and we needed the break. Days to clean and do maintenance on the van, air sleeping bags and do a load of washing.
I remember enjoying swimming and eating and not going anywhere, however it was not really that much of a happy experience. The girls were constantly being harassed by the men, on one occasion as we walked to the beach, a guy in a small group put his hands in his shorts pulled his package out and waved it at the girls. We took to carrying sticks with us to the beach.
One afternoon while walking through the old town our washing was stolen off the line, so the next day we left, carrying on southward. Andrea left us in Split, taking the train back to Munich for a flight back to London as her two weeks were up. That left just me and three sisters.
Our next stop was Dubrovnik. I really liked the old town, though noted that the surrounding areas were really dirty with loads of rubbish everywhere. We could not find a campsite that was open so ended up driving into a closed one and staying the night there. I drank most of a bottle of vodka in the van and was woken up in the very early hours of the morning by the police, sleeping on the ground outside my tent. Thankfully nothing further happened apart from me crawling back in the tent and going back to sleep.
The next day I was driving and failed to take a corner on a greasy bit of road, fortunately I overran into a small car park and didn’t hit anything, or more importantly, anybody. Someone else wisely took over the driving. We drove down to Ulcinj, and could not find anywhere open to camp, it was the 24 October so I guess the tourist season was mostly over. We drove down the very long beach, eventually finding an area of forest near the end. It was really dark, the road was terrible and quite deserted so we decided to park and stay the night, it was the first night I slept in the van and not the tent. In the morning we discovered we almost on the border with Albania and there were land mine warning signs off the side of the road. I am glad we didn’t wander far from the van.
The next four days were spent continuing to drive southward towards Greece. I have one photo from that period, a woman walking a goat on a lonely highway as we drove up and down windy mountain roads.
My diary suggests we drove, illegally camping a couple of times, that the south was poor and I drank a lot; not while driving obviously. There was one further incident. I think we were in Macedonia, we were not far from the Greek border anyway. We were stopped by a police patrol. The police took our passports and then demanded an instant fine as we were speeding. We were driving a heavily loaded ancient VW Combi, there was no way we were speeding, but at least one of them was carrying a machine gun, and we wanted our passports back. We handed over the about £40 and the cops left us alone. Police corruption at its finest.
On the 28 October we drove across the border into northern Greece, and it felt like with some relief.
The final part will be up soon.
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