LONDON was the ‘Mecca’ in my young days, says Elaine. “Now my kids don’t even know the place. They’re off to Australia, doing a round the world tour, working in Bangkok...”
My Throwback Thursday column last week on foreign holidays of the past really struck a chord with readers, many of whom remarked on how the world has shrunk since their younger days.
Elaine recalled: “When I first went to London in the ’60s it entranced me — all that history, all those places to see. I must have spent every spare minute sightseeing.
“I remember getting The Good Cuppa Guide and checking off all the ‘in’ places to have a trendy cappuccino.
“There was one little place in a lane off Wardour Street kept by two old Welsh ladies who sang hymns… I was too late for Coffee in a Coffin, alas, which was one of the first to open, in the ’50s. I believe the young Cliff Richard went there…
“Also, I got the Good Loo Guide which was such fun. It told you where to find a completely pink Ladies (was it Le Bistingo in Soho?), how to get to the ones in the Ritz or the Dorchester, and all kinds of other zany facts.
“Go over on the Innisfallen, take the train all the way up from Fishguard to Paddington, and the whole world seemed to open up before you.
“Gosh, I remember going into Biba in Kensington, and down the King’s Road on a Saturday afternoon. And you could earn such a good wage working as a temporary secretary. I went to the Josephine Sammons Agency in Piccadilly — they had a big poster up everywhere saying ‘Josephine Sammons Needs You!’, a parody on the World War I recruiting sheet.”
Elaine added: “I remember coming home on the boat with a suitcase full of trendy clothes, even a pink feather boa, and thinking that this travelling thing was definitely for me.”
Travelling around Europe by train was also growing in popularity, with Eurorail passes available from local agents like Barter’s from 1959 onwards.
With these, you could cross the continent through many countries, discovering France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and more.
Travel was pretty basic, recalls Linda, with sitting up all night in a crowded compartment the norm, and all too often you were turfed out in a strange city in the dawn, sleepy and exhausted and with no idea of where to go next.
“But you did see some wonderful places. I remember glimpsing the twin spires of Cologne Cathedral from the train window, and the excitement of walking out of the station in Paris and seeing all those amazing buildings.”
Remember that iconic movie Before Sunrise, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who meet on just such a train, and spend one night together in Vienna? That was the dream of most young travellers in the ’60s.
Those who could afford it took a sleeper. In the UK you could catch the Flying Scotsman at King’s Cross late at night and wake up in Edinburgh next morning, while on the continent, the plush Wagons Lits took you through several countries while you slept.
“I woke early,” says Fionnuala, “and we were in Switzerland! We had breakfast in the dining car and the attendant spoke absolutely every language, and gave you change in the correct currency! It was amazing.”
Ah yes, currency. Remember that? You might only have been travelling in Europe, but you still had to have several different bags of coins and notes to get around.
Francs in Paris — the franc was devalued in 1960 with the new unit equal to 100 older ones, but the old coins remained in circulation for some time, and many smaller shops and street markets marked both prices on their goods for the convenience of customers.
Schillings in Vienna. Pesetas in Spain. Portuguese escudos. Forints in Hungary, lev in Bulgaria, lei in Romania....
You didn’t usually get as far as Russia with its rouble. But you did need to exchange your English notes (much more acceptable in Europe than Irish ones) for the local equivalent. So you carried travellers’ cheques.
These had to be applied for at the bank well in advance, and then individually signed in front of the cashier, before you stowed them safely in your rucksack and kept the note of numbers somewhere else, in case they were stolen or lost (a flooded river, an overcrowded train, any one of a hundred accidents).
“You weren’t always able to change them either,” contributes Barry. “You would get to a town, stony broke, and head for the nearest bank, where they would hold up their hands and shake their heads regretfully.
“On one occasion I was desperate, skint, and starving. Eventually a local police station fixed something up — can’t remember how or what — and I was in pocket again!”
Barry still has a drawerful of little plastic bags, each holding the former currency of a now euro-based country. “You don’t like to get rid of them, somehow…” (None of us had even heard of Estonia back then, much less travelled there, but it surely had the most engagingly-named currency ever — the EEK! In full, that’s Estonian Kroner, but EEK is lovely, isn’t it?)
Your money bought food, souvenirs if you could afford them, accommodation, and postcards to send home.
Remember sending postcards? They were the only way to keep in touch with friends and family. Most offices had a dozen or more bright cards displayed on their notice boards from absent colleagues, while parents waited eagerly for a notification from heaven knows where to reassure them that their child was still in the land of the living.
“It was a bit of a bind really,” confesses Paul. “Not only did you have to spend your carefully-hoarded funds on the cards themselves, and write them, but you then had to find a post office — not always an easy matter — and buy the stamps too.”
Paul was one of those who finally made it to Kathmandu in the ’70s. “I remember posting all the cards in the centre of town, and not one of them ever got to their destination. I was told later that it was common practice for locals to retrieve them from the box and steam off the stamps!”
Making a phone call was only considered in extreme circumstances and involved incredibly complicated games with phone cards, call boxes, and unintelligible instructions. No mobiles or texts back then.
Taking your car to Europe became popular from the ’60s on, but it was by no means as easy and comfortable as it was later to be. Cars didn’t have air-conditioning as standard. SatNav or GPS didn’t exist outside Bond movies. You used atlases and maps to find you way, having done much of the research at home during the winter. (Incidentally, the test for a Rolls Royce chauffeur pre-war was being able to fold a full-size map quickly and efficiently while in the vehicle.)
“You had to jump through hoops for continental insurance,” recall Michael and Ann, “and for Spain there was some sort of bail bond which was a real nuisance. But you didn’t mind looking it all up beforehand and planning the route on atlases. That was part of the fun really, and it was good for your orienteering skills. Nowadays, when you just tap something on the screen, your brain isn’t doing anything for itself, which can’t be that good.”
Finding somewhere to stay became a bit easier with the growth of travel agencies, but you were still dependent on those brightly-coloured brochures which promised sun-kissed beaches and wonderful views from your balcony. All too often the reality proved very different.
“Today, you can check TripAdvisor or a dozen other sites to see reviews and reports, but that wasn’t available in earlier days. And if you travelled without booking, then you took the chance of finding somewhere with a vacancy as evening drew on.
“Gosh, we were close to despair more than once,” admits Richard. “And on one occasion we had to sleep in the car. It was freezing cold and no fun at all. If we had had modern technology, of course, we could have found somewhere easily, but such things weren’t even thought of then.”
Backpackers relied on word of mouth, on travel tales passed on at hostels and wayside inns, to find good places to stay and to eat.
We got plenty of nostalgic memories from readers, who remembered when air travel was glamorous, expensive, and utterly desirable.
“You really felt like somebody when you were welcomed on board,” sighed Mary. “They treated you so courteously.”
And of course friends and family could come to see you off, wave from the balcony, and meet you right off the plane on your return. What a hope these days with all the heightened security. Necessary, of course, but nonetheless, everybody agreed that air travel today is a stressful experience, not a pleasant one.
You dressed for the occasion too, says Helen. “I would always look out my best things for going on a plane, even if it was only to Dublin. It was the done thing.”
One has only to remember Elizabeth Taylor, swathed in gorgeous glamour at Heathrow in that classic 1960s film, The VIPs. And when her flight was delayed due to fog, no sitting gloomily on the floor of a crowded hall. She and her fellow travellers were swiftly conveyed to a luxury hotel. Ah, sic transit gloria mundi…
So have things changed for the better? Air travel is certainly safer and swifter, not to mention cheaper. You can go to most corners of the world that our parents never dreamed of (we are, obviously, talking here of normal circumstances, not the current situation this summer).
Contact with home and with friends is a simple matter, as is the posting of a picture from the top of the Jungfrau or St Mark’s Square. Swipe a credit card, prepay the rail ticket.
But haven’t we lost something? That sense of adventure, of exploration, of reaching the unknown? Tell us your opinion! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.