After three excellent days of seeing Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower and the other sights of Paris, Doris and I, Roger and Shirley and my mother’s little car headed out of Paris going south towards Marseille in July 1950. We went through countryside very similar to England and at lunch time, we stopped and bought bread, ham, cheese, fruit and wine for lunch. We stopped by a little stream and had a great picnic lunch. As we got back to the car, we were just in time to catch a guy getting our bags off the roof rack. He ran off with one bag and Roger and I chased him through a vineyard. We noticed he no longer had the bag and he got away. We searched all over that vineyard but could not find the bag and finally had to give it up as lost. My luck was to find it was my bag with the few clothes I had brought. Fortunately I had kept my money in my pocket. I later bought a few clothes on the trip but we were all pretty casual.
We camped that night in Orange, a small town 20 miles from Avignon. This was our first camping night. We had two separate rooms for guys and girls at Pontoise and Paris but we seemed to mutually decide that it was time to pair off. I knew I did not want to share our little tent with Roger and I guess we all had the same thoughts about each other.
In the morning, we decided to drive to Avignon for breakfast. We stopped at the remains of a 12th century bridge (the Pont d’Avignon), and next to it was a new bridge and a park. We have pictures of us washing in the river and with Roger and I sitting on a rock and shaving. We saw the Palais des Papes which was the home of catholic popes in the 14th century.
We got to Marseille, the oldest city in France, in the afternoon, looked around the docks and headed east along the coast to find a campsite. We found a really nice town called Le Lavandou, named for fields of lavender grown there, and found a great place to camp on the cliff above the town. We pitched our tents and went into town to find a restaurant. I remember the meal we had because it was the first time I had ever had ratatouille.
Back at the tents, we were greeted by two gendarmes telling us we could not camp there. Shirley, whose French was better than the rest of us, chatted up the two guys and they became quite friendly. We gave them some wine and that helped them to decide we could stay as long as we left in the morning. They told us to be sure to go to the Isle of Levant at St Clair, the next town. When we got there, we found that the island was a nudist island.
Every mile we went, we came across lovely little beaches until we got to a bigger one at Cannes. We had all of our meals by the sea and were amazed how few people were on these fabulous beaches. In later years, when Doris and I returned, there was hardly room for us on any of those same beaches. In 1950, there were so few tourists and whenever we saw another car with GB plates on the back, we blew the horn and waved. It was rare to see English people but there were lots of Scandinavians and a surprising number of Australians. We later found that Le Lavandou was famous because “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” was written in a bar there.
The beaches at Cannes and Nice were much larger but still sparsely occupied. We did see a few topless ladies on all the Mediterranean beaches. Nice is the capital of the French Maritime Alps, but it is at sea level. We found a small lodging house in the back streets of Nice. The next day, we went further east to Monte Carlo in the Principality of Monaco. We knew we could not afford to stay there so the plan was to look around all day and get into Italy to sleep. We had been told Italy was much cheaper in everything, including gasoline. The Monaco Bay is a relatively small curved beach with mooring for luxury yachts. The biggest yacht there, we were told, belonged to King Farouk of Egypt. (He was forced to abdicate two years later in 1952 and his infant son became King Fuad II in the Egyptian Revolution.) We tried to photograph the yacht but an Arab guard chased us away.
Late in the afternoon, we left Monaco heading for San Remo in Italy. At the border an armed guard told me I could not enter Italy because I did not have a visa. My passport was issued in Gibraltar and clearly said I was a “British subject by birth,” but you do not argue with a man with a gun. They told us where to get the visa in Monte Carlo, so we headed back.
To complicate things, I ran into a car that was doing a U-turn in the middle of the road, when we came down a hilly curve. I slowed enough to reduce the impact, but our roof rack slid forward and we could not open any of our doors. We had an argument in Flemish, French and English with the Belgian driver, through the window, until he helped us get out. He had a dent in the side of his car but we really had no damage. (A year later, in England, I got a letter from a Belgian lawyer, but I sent it back saying, “not known at this address.”)
When we got back to Monte Carlo, to our amazement, we found a little hotel near the beach that was quite reasonably priced. We walked to the Casino to see the well-dressed rich folk going in. Our surprise was that many of them were dressed like us, so we also went in. Knowing nothing about gambling, I bought one thousand francs worth of chips, ten one hundred franc chips. Doris and I watched the roulette table long enough to have a try. I put down two chips and said, “trente-cinq et trente-six,” meaning one chip on each number. The croupier put them both on thirty five. Before I could get him to change our bet, the wheel stopped on thirty five and I was given seven thousand francs worth of chips. We quickly cashed in and spent the rest of the evening enjoying watching people losing money.
In the morning, we quickly got my visa and we had another nice day cruising along the sea-side road to San Remo, where we camped without incident. San Remo is famous for its annual music festival. The next main town was Pisa, with its leaning cathedral tower. We could not climb it because they were worried about it continuing to lean a little more each year. For years, studies had been made about what methods could be used to stop it leaning more. In 2008, a team from Imperial College, London successfully stopped it and stated that it will be stable for 200 years. They could have straightened it but the authorities would not let them because they like the tourist’s money.
As we followed the Mediteranian coast, the next major stop was Rome and we were checking to see how many days we had left. We were having the time of our lives and knew it could get even better, but that’s another memory for another day.