For whom the bell tolls – it tolled for me on this holiday –
In 1961 I was invited once again to accompany my friendly schoolmaster for another trip to Europe, but this time it would be southern Spain, staying in a hotel rather than YHA. We’d moved up market. I was also asked if a friend of mine would like to join us because the group would be larger than the YHA group the previous year.
We used the train service this time from Merseyside to Dover, and had our fill of the smell of steam and blackened smuts suspended in the clouds of smoke from the engine.
A ferry carried us to Calais, in France, where we boarded a coach to take us to Sitges, in Spain.
The coach crawled through the late evening town traffic until it came to the motorway (freeway) at which point the driver flawed the accelerator and we were truly on our way to sunny Spain.
The excitement of the trip began to fade as evening became night, and the chatter of the students drifted in to sleep. I tried to sleep, but the movement of the coach and the smell of the plastic seating, caused my travel sickness to return.
The occasional whisper as a student pushed another’s head from flopping on their shoulder would interrupt the steady throb of the coach’s engine. Every couple of hours the driver would take a rest by calling his colleague who sat close to him. During the change over process the coach didn’t stop. The current driver would stand gripping the steering wheel, while keeping his foot on the accelerator; his mate would slide in behind him, place his foot on the accelerator, and grab the steering wheel. The first driver would then move away to rest and sleep. It was a sight to see, and very smoothly accomplished so that the speed (about 100 km / hour or 60 mph) didn’t alter. I’m not sure how many of the students watched this change over; perhaps it is just as well that many, if not all, slept through the process. Seat belts were still in the future.
The single-decker coach was modern for the 1960’s, but nothing like today’s intercity coaches. The only time we stopped during our road trip to Spain was for toilet breaks. If anyone required a toilet the driver would be warned and the passenger would have to ‘hold on’ until we reached the appropriate place. On stopping everyone was told to leave the coach, even if they didn’t wish to visit the toilet, and walk around the car park area. It seemed a good idea at the time, but then we had the problem of counting everyone back on board in the half-light of petrol stations or a café’s poor outside lighting. Our schoolteacher leader would count everyone at least twice, and then get me to count the students again, once all were onboard. The last thing he wanted was to write to a parent and tell them that their daughter was lost somewhere in France.
The total distance from Calais to Sitges is about 1350 kms (865 miles) and from memory it took us around fifteen hours.
It was not until lunchtime that we arrived in Sitges only to be told that the hotel did not have enough rooms for all of us, and they (the hotel) suggested that two ‘guests’ sleep in a small apartment near the hotel. Our leader asked if I, and the other ‘helper’ (who was my friend) would mind sleeping in the apartment, because he wanted to keep an eye on the younger members of our group, in the hotel. We were quite happy to agree because the whole idea was a new adventure for us.
Sitges is located on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, about thirty-five kilometres south of Barcelona. It was a very pleasant town with a church on a headland that jutted out in to sea. The beach was very clean, and not too crowded. I have no idea what the place looks like today, but I have happy memories of Sitges.
The famous Sitges church Sant Bartolomeu I Santa Tecla in the background
& perhaps a walk along the beachfront.
Trips were arranged to various places of interest including a bullfight at Tarragona, sixty-five kilometres south of Sitges. I believe the authorities have renovated the old bullring and now it is used for Castells, or the building of human towers – see the picture below. Also music festivals and sporting events are held there today. I don’t know if it is still used for bullfights. In a way I am glad that I saw the bullfight, because the experience put me off bullfighting for the rest of my life. At the time of my visit to the bullring everything was new and exciting, including the next experience.
While in Sitges it rained heavily one night, the first time in months. The day after the rain my friend and I met a group of semi professional boxers from Liverpool. They had camped in a dry riverbed, and all was well for a few days, until it rained and the river washed away or damaged much of their equipment. They had ridden to Sitges on their motorbikes.
We recognise some of their names, and once they found out that we were from Merseyside (Birkenhead is across the river from Liverpool) they asked a favour of us. They wanted to ‘camp’ in our apartment for a couple of nights while they sorted out their gear and fixed their motorbikes. We had plenty of space and thought that it wouldn’t be a problem, so they moved in to the apartment.
The boxers went out on the first evening and my friend and I had our meal in the hotel with our group of students, and returned to the apartment to go to bed, which was around 10.00 pm. The sun, sand and seawater had tired us out.
The next thing I knew was when a rifle butt struck me in the back. From a deep sleep I was brought suddenly awake and tried to protect myself. A soldier, or militia, in a green uniform, was indicating that we should get up and get dressed. We did, very quickly. While getting dressed I could see another soldier looking over our balcony in to the street. Before we went to bed we had two potted palms, one each end of the balcony. It appears that our boxer friends had returned from a night out and decided to have a pot plant competition (the pot plants were very heavy) to see how far they could be thrown from the balcony.
This picture illustrates the small balconies and the narrow Sitges streets.
The soldier pushed my friend and I down to the street and motioned for us to pick up a broom each and to start sweeping the street.
He had a rifle and I had a broom – I began to sweep the street. The boxers had been ‘corralled’ along a wall by additional armed guards.
It appears that after throwing the potted plants the local neighbours called the police, who, when they arrived met the drunken belligerent ‘boxers’. Not wishing to get in to a fight, the police called the army, (General Franco was still in charge of Spain). Shortly afterwards my friend and I were sweeping the street.
The army tried to get the boxers to start sweeping up their mess, but when a guard pushed one of the boxers; the boxer threw a punch and flattened the guard. That was it!
We were quickly ordered in to a line and surrounded by armed troops and marched off to the local police station. The boxers treated the whole thing as a joke and started to sing ‘Working on a chain gang’ and other prison type songs. My friend and I were not at all happy at being included with our drunken acquaintances.
At the police station I asked to see the British consul, but the Spanish police were not having anything to do with consuls, particularly a British consul. At that time the Spanish government was demanding that the British return Gibraltar to Spain, so the police were quite happy to lock us all in a small cell below street level. The cell was square shaped with three solid concrete walls, the outer wall having bars high up over a small window, where we could just see the pavement if we held on to the bars and pulled ourselves up to check the street outside. The fourth wall was a wall of iron bars, which also contained the door. The cell was not large enough for us all to sit down (nothing to sit on anyway) and the toilet was a hole in the corner of the cell on the outside wall, without the usual cistern, pan and seat.
The two side concrete walls had graffiti scrawled across them, and some Spanish words, which I couldn’t understand. It was a depressing place and it smelled of urine and other waste products. We organised ourselves to be as far away from the toilet area as possible. My friend and I were left in the corner near the meeting of the iron barred door and the concrete wall.
The boxers kept singing, for what seemed hours, until they eventually stopped as they slowly sobered, and realised where they were.
On the floor we used a large oblong piece of bread which was used as a football, and tapped from one to another. Not that we could kick it far, considering the smallness of the cell, but it did help to pass the time. I tried to sleep standing up and then I tried as I squatted down, but this brought too much pressure on my knees forcing me to stand again.
The grey light of dawn brought some relief, because in the cellblock there was only one small light bulb that glowed by the main door into the underground cell area. Perhaps we could make someone understand our need for the British Consol in daylight.
As daylight strengthened the outer door of the cellblock was unlocked and a guard entered. We asked for food and something to drink. The guard pointed to our ‘football’ and bent down to turn on a water tap over the toilet. Leaning over the toilet we were just able to catch a single handful of water. The other hand we used to balance ourselves away from the open toilet hole. The cold water was welcome, but I was concerned that it might not be normal drinking water so most of mine went on washing my face to try and get rid of the tiredness.
The now sober boxers, asked to see the officer in charge, and when the officer, who spoke English, arrived, they spoke up and told him that we had nothing to do with the damage. It was obvious that my friend and I were much younger than the boxers, and after a few minutes the officer opened the cell door and let the two of us out. He relocked the door just in case the boxers thought of escape.
My friend and I were taken upstairs and told to stand in front of the officer’s desk. He then lectured us and told us to behave while in Sitges, and that he didn’t wish to see us again. We quickly agreed with everything he said, although later I considered that we were only guilty by association, and innocent of any wrongdoing, unless helping fellow British travellers was a crime. At the time we would have agreed to anything just to get out of that stinking cell.
We were able to get back to our apartment for hot showers and a change of clothes, before making our way to the hotel for breakfast. We acted as if everything was normal, even though we did yawn a lot. I didn’t tell our leader because I didn’t wish to add to his worries, nor did I want our adventure to get back to our families.
The rest of our time in Spain was sightseeing local places of interest, sun bathing on Sitges beach and eating. All holidays come to an end and it was another fast drive to Calais, ferry to Dover, and the train home with a great suntan and the experience of being a gaolbird.
The Spanish holiday was my last overseas trip for over a year, because I knew that I had final examinations before leaving HMS Conway in 1962 and the results of this examination would determine the shipping company that I’d join – if any shipping company would have me.