Finding ourselves back on Jugoslavia’s apology for a motorway, thumbs pointing northwards we were enthralled to see a beautiful British Racing Green 3.8 Jag with wire wheels cruising past. Wonderously it slowed smoothly to a halt reversing back towards us seemingly empty inside apart from two Greek looking guys in the front. Amazingly they were two Cypriots, boys made good, heading back to London to the restaurant they owned in Stoke Newington having visited their families in Nicosia, no doubt to impress with their smart green motor. This looked too good to be true - a bit of style at last.
Belgrade was a dismal place, Serbian shit hole - abiding memories of poverty and ground down people and that was before their genocidal tendencies surfaced in plain view many years later.
You could buy individual cigarettes or slices of bread from street vendors as many couldn’t afford a full packet or loaf. Many products were made by state factories such as Jugo Cola, Jugo tyres, Jugo beer and biggest joke Jugo cars and they were all crap. Any youthful tendency towards socialism quickly evaporated. This glimpse behind the Iron Curtain was a salutary lesson that rooted us robustly in the West.
There was no way we could risk another border crossing let alone incarceration in a Jugoslavian jail. We could have been fall guys all along for all we knew.
In retrospect it was a life shaping event as coming so close to the sordid reality of hard drug abuse in such otherworldly circumstances it engendered a deep revulsion that has never left us ever since.
Some people think I am too soft but I’m hard line when it comes to drug addiction founded on this Jugoslavian experience and subsequently the death of a close friend who took the slippery slope.
Allegra and I could watch no longer and huddled on a log at a discrete distance. Horror story over we crept back chastened into the van, not a word spoken, and retook the road. There was no peep from the hippies who, thoroughly spaced out, were entirely unaware hours later of the emerging silhouette of monstrous bleak blocks of soulless flats that loomed as daybreak beckoned on the outskirts of Belgrade.
On the pretext of searching for a good breakfast at a refuelling stop we took our leave and cut short what should have been the ride of a lifetime
Disgorged in a field we got our first look in the dim lights at our fellow travelers; apart from Frederik, two male studenty types and a Swedish girl they’d picked up en route.
It soon came apparent that this wasn’t a pee break as two hippies produced a camping gas stove, spoons and substance from tin foil as they rolled up their sleeves - and this was not going to be a cooking masterclass - as they tightened their tourniquets and searched for their veins. I was relieved that Ingrid settled for a spliff as she was cute and Frederik turned aside.
We’d left some nasty episodes behind - Angry Angus, the teargas and the military police but what happened next topped the lot. We got on well with Frederik the principal driver who invited us to sit up front squashed on the bench seat, like a padded church pew, noses to the screen, as we trundled through the night peering into the darkness down the beam of the old Volkswagen’s fading headlights. By 2.00 in the morning we’d gained more knowledge about Copenhagen than you’d ever get from Lonely Planet when rudely interrupted by a plea from the back for a stop
Frederik and companions were returning from Turkey and running short of cash. They’d offered a lift into Austria as an opportunistic gesture in return for a tank of petrol. At 800 miles it was a mind boggling deal and besides it was getting dark. They intended travelling through the night, sharing the driving, with us snuggled down in the rear.
The anxiety inside the van was tangible as we passed through the customs post, a mini-version of Check Point Charlie, armed soldiers loitering in soviet style uniforms and silly caps. But after a superficial search we were waved through.
Few people had been behind the Iron Curtain then. Full of apprehension not knowing what to expect, a shabby Danish VW Camper pulled up. Jugoslavia next stop.
Josip Broz Tito, president of what was in effect a communist police state was a hero to many in the West. Famously he’d kicked out the Germans and cocked a snook at Stalin by dint of his independent style of nationalistic socialism and resolutely refusing to be swallowed by the Soviet block.
He’d lately opened the borders to Westerners, thus, crammed in with a bunch of hippies, we nervously approached the Jugoslavian frontier.
Fast forward, Athens and Angus behind, heading north in central Greece in an old truck, getting dark.
Need a safe camping spot but too spooky by the roadside for Allegra. Walked deep into a wood, climbed a fence, peace and privacy. This’ll do. Perfect!
The black night enveloped us. We fell asleep exhausted.
Early next morning we were crudely woken by a jeep - we had stumbled onto a military airfield, were bundled into the back and removed for questioning. Bamboozled by the gulf in language they soon lost interest, returning us to the highway, courtesy of the Junta. Close shave.
One can’t leave without climbing the Acropolis which holds sway over the teaming city, high above the fumes and squeeling tyres of the mental traffic.
Surmounted by the Parthenon it’s a must visit wonder, best experienced at dawn before the crowds. Whilst elegant and dignified, a marvel built nearly 500 years BC as a temple to Athena it’s a superstar without a skirt - beautiful legs but missing her girdle. How Lord Elgin managed to con the Ottomans into letting the marbles go is baffling. How would we feel if the Magna Carta had been spirited away in the other direction?
Angus shell shocked mumbled ‘Who are these guys?’
‘They’re my Sacred Band. Don’t mess with them, it’s not worth it’ I warned.
‘Where are Charles and the others?’ I demanded.
‘We had a bust up in Thessaloniki’ he stuttered.
Angus had marched out impetuously making his way to Athens. After we were ejected in Belgium rancour festered en route through Jugoslavia. Whatever happened, Angus on the loose had to be stopped. I gave the nod. ‘Entáxei’ is all I had to say and Markos’ friends in a phalanx, dragged the wretched Angus from the arena never to be seen again.
I was enjoying a tasty souvlaki with our Greek friends when I was roughly gripped from behind by my shoulders rather too close to my throat for comfort - it was Angus, two sheets to the wind, effusively claiming me as his long lost friend.
Despite the drunken bonhomie Markos saw the warning lights straight away as I recoiled from this unwelcome embrace. He sprung forward pinning the dickhead back in a wrestler’s hold. Angus, anger rising, huffing and puffing struggled vainly to break free.
‘Is he troubling you Stéphanos? We can deal with him if you like’ Markos offered supportively.
There was no sign of Charles and the rest of Angus’ group. We beat a tactical retreat to Markos’ table; better with greater strength in numbers. Angus, too pissed to notice us, lurched about on the dance floor to the growing irritation of the other dancers. Oh my! the Greeks can drink but they don’t embarrass themselves in the way some Brits can.
Markos and his friends were such good hosts that with flowing conversation and wine we soon forgot about Angus who’d since been ushered off the dance floor.
The rest of that balmy evening passed without incident until...
It came as a giant relief when free dancing took over in the 60’s from the ‘twist’ onwards; no rules, stepping on toes or tricky routines.
That’s why I adore Greek dancing where everyone comes together in a series of circles, hand-holding, leg slapping. Difficult to get entirely wrong.
We must have danced with virtually everyone in the wine fuelled gyrating crowd - except one. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Angry Angus, who’d dumped us in Belgium had joined the circle on the far side. Ominously he looked the worse for wear being dragged around by the dancers either side...
I’ve been through many phases in my love-hate relationship with dance. Watching the dance floor at Daphni jogged my thinking. In early years it was a cissy thing for boys; ballroom dancing classes in my teens with Sally Rose in the Methodist Hall destroyed my confidence - she was a sturdy farmer’s daughter, older than me, much taller and quite well developed if I remember correctly through my steamed up glasses. I had two right feet and my eyes were level with her ample 36 DD breasts. Leading her around the columns in the Hall was worse than avoiding dodgems.
Markos invited George and ourselves to a celebration, promising a mad dose of bouzouki and plate-smashing at the Daphni Wine Festival. Thus we set out on bus No6 to the wildest party ever. I couldn’t help thinking how well groomed everyone looked!
Even the po-faced Junta dared not kerb the crazy revelry at Daphni; a modest fee opened the floodgates to unlimited wine from all over Greece and whirling bouzouki.
Everyone seemed to know Markos from his stand in Omonia Square; with a host of introductions we became the centre of attention with Markos presiding over the dancefloor.
Markos was ruing a bad day. Sales were miserable but George, a passing acoustic guitarist from Liverpool was persuaded to hold an impromptu street concert. A huge crowd gathered as our fledgling band belted out ‘Yellow Submarine’, our favourite marching song, amidst other Beatle’s classics. Magically the display of combs vanished like sand in an hour glass. Markos looked like the Greek cousin of the Cheshire Cat. Our begging tin overflowed with drachmas, enough to sponsor a hostel in the Plaka - bed on the roof, of course, blessed with a view of the Parthenon through a thicket of television aerials.
Insulated from mainstream Greece we had little means of following the turmoil on the mainland that had gripped the nation in the wake of the Colonel’s coup d’état on 21 April 1967. Reports circulated of mass arrests and torture by the Junta.
On arriving in Athens it became immediately clear that things were terribly wrong. Student protests had been viciously surpressed in Omonia Square just the day before and teargas hung in the subways.
In this climate we met Markos, the comb seller, whose pitch everyday outside the main station displayed a dazzling array of combs spread on the pavement.
The Mercedes bus was so battered and bruised it might just have been abandoned by the Germans - bulging with locals taking their wares to sell in Rethymnon, plus children and livestock, a veritable Noah’s ark on wheels. Our rucksacks hoisted on top with other passengers’ belongings, looking like weird icing on a cake.
Crammed in among the bodies we tackled one of Europe’s most hairy rides over giddy mountain roads and hairpins, vultures gliding alongside awaiting any false move in grisly anticipation. The passengers though couldn’t have been less concerned, chatting merrily as the bus swung round the tortuous bends.
We’d teamed up with Thomas and Kai for over two weeks now which was hardly what Allegra and I had intended on our unofficial honeymoon. Zipped together on the roof that night we agreed sotto voce to strike out on our own to Athens to mix culture and romance without the hun in tow.
Cars then were as rare as a eunuch’s balls so we opted to take the midday bus to Rethymnon to find a ferry. After a few beers we said auf wiedersehen, embraced our comrades sadly and met the bus standing at the foot of the hill....