• Brian Simmons

Men in long dresses and girls in bikinis

Embarking on this new way of life was a real eye-opener, given that apart from a few scout camps and a couple of weeks at Butlins with friends I’d never really been away from home - certainly not seriously AWAY, as in hundreds or even thousands of miles. So, while that first trip was just a two-week cruise, to me it was no less exciting for that.

After three days at sea and with memories of the disastrous deck party beginning to fade, we arrived at the port of Casablanca in the early morning with an apricot glow silhouetting the outlines of the nearby town. Observing the scene as the ship berthed I heard for the first time in my life the eerie sound of at least four muezzins calling from nearby minarets while below I could see what my wife has always called ‘men in long dresses’ bustling about on the quay prior to the gangways being connected.

There were dozens of camels tethered in groups, some with their front and rear legs hobbled whilst being loaded with goods landed from the many smaller and clearly local cargo vessels.

However a lot of goods were also being loaded into lorries so it was soon apparent that most of the camels were actually there to lend an air of exotic authenticity for the arriving passengers, many of whom were almost falling over themselves with excitement to get ashore and pay the smiling ’men in long dresses’ for the privilege of riding what looks like the world’s most uncomfortable mode of transport. Meanwhile, the less adventurous but perhaps wiser ones ran feverishly about with their cameras recording it all for posterity or at least the family album.

Once the passengers were ashore the ship seemed strangely deserted and although we crew had to work a rota of duties to ensure everything was suitably spick and span for their return we were also allowed off the vessel for strictly controlled periods of shore leave.

Casablanca was fascinating and although I’ve been back there since as a tourist I’ll never forget that first visit. The thing that struck me most of course was the heat, even close to the water. Also, the frenetic activity associated with our arrival and the pervasive smell of fish in the port area mixed with the occasional whiff of exotic spices. Less exotic though was the incongruous odour of diesel fumes as the wind veered around to bring the exhaust emanating from the ship’s funnel back on-shore.

Being a predominantly Muslim country it was obviously far more difficult to find alcoholic drink so it was here that I first tasted mint tea.

Now this wasn’t out of a packet or tea bag but was actually concocted by the infusion of a generous bunch of mint sprigs in boiling water and usually included an even more generous quantity of sugar.

Often mint tea was available right on the street served in small thick glass cups, which you can hardly touch because they’re so hot. The locals though seem to have developed asbestos fingers.

Much nicer and far more atmospheric are the tearooms frequently tucked away in odd corners and where the tea ritual is more respected. Here the tea is brewed in silver or pewter teapots with felt cosies and the glasses are often contained in metal holders. Far more seemly, and what’s more you are even allowed to add your own sugar.

I remember one we found was actually on the top of the old city wall and accessed via a narrow and well-worn stone staircase within the wall itself. There was an arrangement of small booths of different sizes screened by wooden slats painted a wonderful cobalt blue but now mostly faded by the north African sun to that soft pastel shade much favoured by the Homes and Gardens fraternity. Canvas tent-like canopies provided shade and the seating was brightly coloured cushions on low stools or banquettes. The small booths were clearly intended for more intimate tête-à-têtes, although at that time in Morocco tea and coffee shops customers were mostly male.

Some were occupied by larger groups playing cards or dominoes and others appeared to be having serious business meetings.

The bustling Medina in Casablanca

We also made the almost mandatory visit to the medina, the old walled town with its dark, mysterious and slightly intimidating souks. The Arabic word souk originally refers to an open street market, a major feature of which is the absence of any fixed prices.

This is where tourists are so often found locked in intense bouts of bartering with local traders while they argue over what amounts to a couple of pence. And all this for something that in other circumstances they wouldn’t have given a second look. Funny what holidays do to us

If time ashore in Casablanca was limited for the passengers it was more so for the crew and it wasn’t long before I was back in the plate house as dinner service got under way and Himalaya slipped her moorings on the next leg of our trip to Naples.

I regret not making more of the city but I don’t suppose I’d ever heard of Pompeii or Herculaneum, either of which would have been worth a visit, as I now know having visited them both in later life. What I do remember is that with the exception of the impressive old Art Deco Ocean Terminal building I didn’t much like what I initially saw and decided to use my day off on a trip to Capri. I’ve no idea at all why I did that apart perhaps that Mum used to sing a song about Capri or perhaps because I knew Gracie Fields lived there.

None of the other guys wanted to go so I found myself virtually alone on the little ferry heading out into the Bay of Naples beneath the looming cone of Vesuvius. The day was blistering and still, with only a few horsetails of cloud in an azure sky. And below, the only sound above the low hum of the engine was a gentle hiss as the bow sliced through the glassy water. I was transported and delighted beyond words. Wonderfully alone but not lonely.

On landing I immediately found a small bar and nursing a cold beer I honestly believed I was in heaven.

A few brightly painted little boats danced on the sparkling clear water while on the jetty a couple of old fishermen repaired nets. Three black clad grandmothers stood gossiping nearby and, gesticulating wildly to make a point then collapsing into gales of cackling mirth at some joke which judging by the sidelong glances at the old men on the jetty was largely at their expense.

I set off to walk up from the port following narrow paths that climbed steeply between pretty houses. Passing stone walls, terraces of vines and heavily laden fruit trees I found myself remembering the Wordsworth verses about “wandering lonely as a cloud”. I was very happy.

Ambling up the hill behind Capri town that hot September morning was one of the most blissful experiences of my young life. Apart from the family holiday on the Adriatic coast a couple of years before, I had never been anywhere so caressingly warm and to me, so idyllically beautiful.

By the time I left the bar it was almost eleven o’clock and the temperature was rising rapidly. Crickets were chirping madly in the olive trees and among the grapevines planted on the steeply terraced hillside. The heady smell of Mediterranean herbs hung heavily in the hot dry air while the scent of lavender wafted up from the self-sown seedlings accidentally crushed underfoot as I followed the winding stony path behind and now high above the old town.

It was the sense of being apart but not lonely that was so entrancing and I just loved the idea that no-one I knew had any idea where I was. It was incredibly liberating and has been one of the great joys of travelling ever since.

After perhaps a mile or so of climbing, the enclosing walls ceased and I reached something of a plateau where the disintegrating terraces of bygone times were neither tended nor mended. And the orderly and luxuriant planting gave way to rough scrubby vegetation and dry gravely soil. Here the view opened out and I turned to take it in.

Immediately below, the terracotta tiles and white walls of the old town toasted in the sunshine while beyond, the shimmering blue water of the bay stretched away towards the hazy port where, in a few short hours, I knew I must re-join the ship and the real world.

However, I was far from done with Capri. Following a scarcely discernible route across the scrub I eventually picked up a downward path, larger this time and more suited to a donkey and cart than the narrow path I’d come up. I imagine that these days it’s more likely to be used by the four wheel drive fraternity heading for the hills. That’s assuming that the scrubby plateau hasn’t been developed into an extension of Capri town. I’d rather not know.

The route down was less tortuous and consequently steeper so that I very quickly started to feel it in my knees and thigh muscles which by the time I was back in the town were on the verge of letting me down. So once again I sought out a little bar, this time in a shady back street, where I took on board some more fluid, this time of the non-alcoholic variety, a salad Niçoise and some lovely crusty bread.

I also picked up a discarded tourist map of Capri from which I learned about the Blue Grotto that could only be entered from the sea. How fascinating!

Half an hour later I was back down at the port and quickly traced the little jetty with signs for boat trips to the Blue Grotto. Apparently it was a sea cave with a very restricted entrance that could only be entered from the seaward side but then only when the weather was calm, which thankfully, it was at the time.

There were just two other people interested in taking the trip; a couple of Australian girls, backpacking their way around the world which I guess in the early 60’s was quite unusual.

Within a few minutes we were chugging our way out of the harbour where to my surprise I discovered that even on a glass smooth sea a small motor boat can bob about in quite a lively fashion. I imagine the distance was barely ¾ of a mile but that can take quite a few minutes which was time enough to discover a bit more about the 2 girls. They were both 22 and had been travelling for just over a year and to my great envy were actually staying in a little pension on Capri itself, not just for a day, but for a whole week.

Suddenly we had arrived at what looked at first, just like a cliff face until our skipper pointed out a dark shadow that was the cave entrance. Cutting the engine he took up the oars and with consummate skill brought us closer to the cliff. I could certainly understand why this would not be possible in anything but the calmest weather.

The cave mouth was barely 3 feet or so above the water and we had to virtually lie down in the boat as it slipped from the brilliant sunlight into what at first was total darkness accompanied by a dramatic drop in temperature. After a few seconds passing under the rock (although it seemed longer) the boatman told us to sit up and I will never forget that first sight and understood immediately why it was called the Blue Grotto.

It was as though the little boat was floating on a lake of quicksilver, in area probably about the size of a couple of tennis courts. So not exactly vast, but quite significant.

The water was the most amazing iridescent turquoise colour and as our eyes became accustomed to the light we could see it was not dark at all because the whole of the water surface was a light source that illuminated the cave roof with an eerie pale blue light.

At the boatman’s suggestion we reached out and slowly dipped our arms in the water. The effect was remarkable. They turned silver. By immersing them slowly, the tiny air bubbles that remained trapped by the small hairs on our skin caught the light transmitted by the water from outside the cave and lit up like thousands of tiny bulbs. It really was the most amazing sight and was of course the reason why the whole lake surface shone with sunlight transmitted through the water into the cave from outside.

Our boatman explained that the effect was even more dramatic if you swam in the water which I unfortunately couldn’t do as I didn’t have a costume, but the two girls happened to have bikinis on under their dresses and without any hesitation they stripped off and were over the side in a moment.

The effect was indeed spectacular and extremely attractive as these two shapely young girls swam around like a couple of silver mermaids to the delight of both me and our ferryman. I smiled as I wondered how many times a week he managed to pull that off.

I had a drink with the girls when we got back to the port and then reluctantly took my ferry back to Naples and a pile of dirty plates.

Our next port of call was a relatively short hop in an almost straight line west from Naples and through the straits between Corsica and Sardinia to the Balearic Sea and the Catalan resort of Palamos.

In the late 1950’s tourism had begun to discover Spain and by the early 60s the development of the Costas was under way and destined to continue pretty much to the present day.

Apart from bringing with it much needed income from tourism it also began what in the view of many Spanish, and foreign observers too, was the ruination of a way of life along the Spanish Mediterranean coast. It was less clearly seen in those early years but the rampant over-development of the Costas is now regretted almost unanimously by those with any sort of environmental or social conscience.

By the time I’m talking about, Tossa de Mar, L’Escala and Estartit were already quite well known Costa Brava hot-spots so I cannot imagine what on earth possessed P&O to choose the tiny fishing port of Palamos.

It could perhaps have been an attempt to prove that there were still some relatively unspoilt places that were worth a visit. I guess it’s the classic conundrum. Tourists want to visit the original and unspoilt places, which very predictably then become rapidly spoilt and unoriginal.

Palamos was quite a pretty little town at that time. Little being the operative word as the port was too small and not deep enough for Himalaya to tie up so this great white monstrosity, (for that was to my mind exactly what it looked like in that context), had to anchor off the beach.

Passengers were then ferried ashore in funny little boats that had a gangplank mounted on the bow rather reminiscent of a pelican’s beak. The boats were run up onto the beach and you simply walked on and off. No Problem. Well no problem if you were sober!

Now bearing in mind my immature eighteen years and relatively sheltered upbringing, certainly as far as alcohol was concerned, what occurred that afternoon was hardly surprising. Until then (apart from the Lyme Regis cider and the Butlins ‘black velvet’), a couple of half pints of brown ale had been the usual limit of my experience

So when I went ashore with a bunch of hard drinking new-found ship-mates the result was pretty much a foregone conclusion. My downfall was the local St Miguel beer. Not especially strong in moderation but pretty toxic taken in excess.

And I guess that in trying to keep up with the others whose alcohol tolerance I later discovered was staggering, I probably drank seven or eight bottles plus some brandy. Oh, and of course we simply had to sample the local wine too.

After the teeth started to go numb I just sort of went with the flow as you do and I didn’t really remember much until I hit the water when I fell off the gangplank. I vaguely recalled being hauled in over the side of the little boat amid a fair amount hysterical drunken laughter and dragged back to the cabin. It was only the following morning when, nursing a huge hangover, I got a roasting from the chief steward who, to be fair, was mostly concerned with the fact that I could have been seriously hurt. I guess that he’d seen it all before with young and foolish recruits.

I’d recovered enough by that afternoon to join my mates for a swim but as there was no crew pool on board and being anchored off-shore the sea had to be our pool. The issue was that the lowest part of the ship from which it was possible to get in the water was the well-deck which itself was twenty or thirty feet up. So to get a dip one had to muster the courage to leap off the ship into the sea.

The routine was then to swim forward, climb a few feet up the anchor chain, wave victoriously and then swim back alongside the ship to get back on board. One then had to scramble up a rope ladder to the gun-port from which the little beach ferries left.

Then you’d run around and do the whole thing again. Seems a bit pointless in retrospect but was fun at the time.

Whilst we were thus engaged a couple of English guys came out from the beach on a speed boat to have a look at the ship and in the course of conversation were complaining about the local cigarettes.

We were getting ours on board for 11d (pre-decimal) for 20 Senior Service so I shot back to my cabin and got them a couple of hundred which I sold at a profit but they were still so grateful that they let me have a go on their water skis. Given my sporting track record (not) I was totally useless but it was great fun.

Our final port on the cruise was Gibraltar, which unfortunately I didn’t get to see as I was rostered to remain on board. Have been back there since and I must say it is a distinctly odd experience to cross the border from Spain and find yourself suddenly in this little bit of England basking in Mediterranean sunshine.

However some of us had to stay on watch in order provide a slightly scaled down service to cater to those passengers who had chosen not to go ashore. A few days later we were back in Southampton and my first trip was over.

In the next post I set off on a five-month trip around the world - I can hardly believe it even now that I did that and was paid too (not a lot but that didn't really matter)

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