THE ST GOTTHARD PASS

European Holiday, 1968

When we journeyed to Rimini we did not fly the whole way to Italy, nor (for some reason) did we make the entire journey by coach. We flew to Basel in Switzerland from Manchester airport and got a coach from there. We travelled through Switzerland and as we came down on the Italian side of the Alps we passed the beautiful Lake Como. (Since then I have discovered that the smaller and more intimate Lake Sarnico is even more beautiful.) The tunnel that allows road traffic to avoid the highest part of the St Gotthard pass was opened in 1980; we crossed it 12 years earlier, so we experienced the real mountain heights. The views were spectacular and, although it was high summer, there were still banks of snow along the roadside in the highest parts. The road had a precipitous drop on one side and there were many U turns as it snaked up the pass. The most alarming part was when our coach collided with another vehicle as we rounded such a switchback bend. Fortunately it was only the wing mirrors of the coach and the lorry coming the other way that became entangled, but that was bad enough. I am irresistibly reminded of the closing sequence of The Italian Job, a film which came out the year after our adventure.

I particularly remember all the little Fiat 500s going up the pass; maybe because my car at home was a Fiat 500, or perhaps it was because they all had their bonnets open to help their air-cooled engines. This was at the rear of course, and being air-cooled they must have easily overheated in the lower atmospheric pressure of the pass. The fashionable colour for cars in 1968 was mustard yellow, and in my mind’s eye I can still see little yellow Fiats struggling up the St Gotthard pass. It was a busy road until the tunnel was built; now it is deserted and to venture up it is a lonely challenge that only a few brave souls attempt.

We had arrived in Basel by BAC 111; in that plane we all sat facing backwards, which is the safest way to fly. The only other time I have faced backwards on board a plane was on an RAF VC10 on a flight to Germany in 1986. We got on our coach before daylight and we had breakfast by Lake Thun at a café built on a wooden pontoon over the water. It was still in the early morning air and beautifully peaceful as the mists rose over the lake. It was my first visit to the continent as an independent traveller. The continental breakfast of coffee, rolls and very sharp jam to British taste buds was a welcome meal. The next stop where we could stretch our legs was across the Alps in Milan, near the cathedral. My memory is of sitting outside a café, thinking how expensive a glass of Coke was – but this was in the centre of the city. You could only take £50 abroad at the time; that was ample but it made you very aware of how much you were spending. A similarly expensive drink was bought in St Mark’s Square, Venice, later in the holiday.

I was going abroad with my friend Bill Wragge. It was my first overseas adventure as a gown-up, though not as an adult; we were just 19 years old – still minors at that time. Our base was a hotel in Rimini. We spent a day or two sun-bathing by the Adriatic, but we soon tired of that, even though there were plenty of attractive Italian girls on the beach.  One girl in particular was especially attracted to Bill, following him into the sea every time he went in for a dip. Nothing came of this brief infatuation however; the language barrier proved too great. Perhaps more memorable was a morning spent at the locomotive yard at Rimini railway station. By the summer of 1968 the age of steam was over in the UK but in Italy most of the locomotives were still steam engines. They were of a strange appearance to our British eyes. To us the oddest, but very attractive thing, was the flower beds between the tracks where locomotives stood awaiting coal and water. You could not imagine geraniums lining the tracks in a motive power depot in Britain -no way!

Rimimi Post Office was an impressive piece of architecture built in the Art Deco style; being built between the World Wars it was an icon of Mussolini’s Fascist state. It still stood proudly in all its right-wing glory in 1968. There were sculptures on the outside of bundles of fasces and all the people depicted had severe expressions and square jaws. I suppose the building is still there, but maybe it is no longer the Ufficio Postale.

Joe Mason and Bill Wragge, Rimini 1968.

Joe Mason and Bill Wragge, Rimini 1968.

My photograph shows a cheetah taken in Rimini. The animal was earning its keep by posing with tourists while its owner pocketed the cash from the snaps. You cannot see the thick chain which safely restrained the big cat, nor the drugged nature of the poor beast.

No visit to northern Italy would have been complete without a visit to Venice, and we went on a day’s coach trip. We arrived in the Grand Canal in a vaporetto (a motor launch) but we had to experience a gondola ride. There appear to two rival groups of gondolier, one in natural coloured straw hats and the other in black ones. They are surprisingly large and are expertly navigated by a single oar. Near St Mark’s Square we discovered an art gallery with all sorts of valuable paintings (including the inevitable Canalettos) which you could walk right up to. The rooms were empty of security guards and indeed devoid also of any members of the public except for me and Bill. I am sure it would be very different if I went back there today.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF TIMES PAST

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