Fairytale Lake Bled

By road to Yugoslavia in 1966

The ball hit the back of the net. Geoff Hurst had scored a hat trick. The whistle blew. England had won the World Cup and much of the rest of the day was spent in a mildly alcoholic celebratory haze! Six of us, all chemistry students studying for our doctorates at Manchester University, had decided to spend our last summer together in a camping journey across Europe to (what was then) Yugoslavia. After driving south through a wet and soggy France in a Mini-Van and an Austin A30, we stopped for a couple of days in St. Tropez. Our aim was to watch the World Cup Final on TV, soak up the atmosphere of this fashionable resort and, just maybe, catch a sight of Brigitte Bardot! This extraordinary woman, at the time the most ‘scandalous’ movie star on the planet, was then living in St. Tropez with Gunter Sachs, German playboy and her third husband. Of course we never caught a glimpse of the lady, but we did enjoy the town’s Tahiti Beach and the rather special ambience of this very French seaside destination.

Our route took us across the Riviera with a brief stop in glamorous Monte Carlo for some world-class ‘people-watching’ in front of the Royal Palace and the Casino. Then, after driving along the Formula 1 circuit, we crossed the border into Italy to camp in the small town of Cuneo.

Here we discovered for the first time on this holiday, that inability to speak the local lingo was no hardship if you could communicate using the universal language of international football! By the end of the next day, in northern Italy’s sweltering heat, we were refreshing ourselves in Lake Garda. This was a dip made with some trepidation, as the lake water was very turgid – a possible indication of a high microbial concentration.

Romantic Venice was our next port of call and despite the decidedly pungent aroma of the smaller canals, we rapidly became enchanted with the city’s highlights – St. Mark’s Square, the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge and the Doge’s Palace. Considering it was peak season, there were remarkably few tourists. Mercifully, the large cruise ships that now daily disgorge thousands of passengers all over Venice like a plague of ants were not a feature of 1960s tourism!

Keen to reach Yugoslavia, we motored in hot, muggy weather through the attractive city of Trieste and across the border to a campsite overlooking the sea in Opatija. This was our first experience of a communist country and we expected problems at the frontier. Surprisingly, after a casual passport inspection, the border guards cheerfully waved us on our way.

The poverty of rural Yugoslavia became immediately apparent, but the benefits of tourist ‘dollars’ had clearly impacted positively upon Opatija as there were modern hotels and a host of thriving bars and restaurants. We spent our first evening at a hotel dance imbibing far too much Slivovic (a lethal Plum Brandy). We had been given advance warning of the dangers of this particular liquor – but hotheaded 23-year-old students always think they know best. We ignored the good advice and suffered humongous hangovers the following morning!

It was a beautiful drive down Yugoslavia’s spectacular Dalmatian Coast (the region now known as Croatia) through Rijeka and Split to Dubrovnik, our main holiday destination. Often called the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, we immediately fell under Dubrovnik’s magical spell.

We camped on the nearby Lapad Peninsula with its superb beaches and easy access to the city.

During our two weeks in Dubrovnik, we explored all its nooks and crannies, walked on its ancient walls, danced in its night clubs, took boat trips to nearby islands, listened to the region’s vibrant folk music and, on the hottest days, sipped ice-cold beers at cafés overlooking the stunning main boulevard. We soon met students from many different countries so our social life often continued well into the early hours!

Because of its strategic position, Dubrovnik has had a long and interesting history, dating back to the seventh century. For hundreds of years, the inhabitants cunningly managed their affairs between the competing interests of Venice and the Ottoman Empire.

In 1918, it was incorporated into a new sovereignty of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – which later became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia under the Communist rule of Marshal Tito.

The tragic Balkan Wars of the 1990s caused enormous damage to Dubrovnik old town, but it has since been rebuilt and in recent years has become one of the Mediterranean’s most prominent tourist destinations.

All too soon, it was time to leave this idyllic location and our homeward route involved heading inland into what is now Bosnia, stopping briefly to watch boys diving off Mostar’s famous river bridge – a supreme example of Balkan Islamic architecture.

Sarajevo, the most ethnically and religiously diverse city in Europe, was our venue for a late lunch. It is the only major European city to have a mosque, Catholic Cathedral, Orthodox Cathedral and a synagogue in the same neighbourhood! We particularly enjoyed exploring Sarajevo’s exotic ‘Turkish’ market. Our campsite that night was in the beautiful Yugoslav lakes region at the pretty town of Jajce with its photogenic waterfalls.

We bumped and jolted our way through miles of country roads the following day in the company of lots of locally-made Zastava 750/850 cars (the Fiat 850 in disguise). This little car, nicknamed “Fica” in this region, played a major role in the 1960s motorisation of Yugoslavia, due to its affordability.

At last we reached a decent motorway that sped us through Baja Luka, Zagreb and Lublijana, to our destination that evening at Lake Bled – now part of Slovenia. It has a perfect fairy-tale setting with a castle on an island in the centre of the lake. The shores were a hive of activity as the following week Lake Bled was hosting the World Rowing Championships.

Early next day, we did manage a dip in the lake before leaving to cross the border through the mountains into Austria and torrential rain. Most of the Austrian Tyrol was under water and the awful weather followed us as we toiled our way over the very steep Triebener Tauern Pass, where we were forced to stop to let the car engines cool down!

At Salzburg it was still raining, so after a squelchy night under canvas we drove directly into Germany, and under more leaden skies eventually reached the wonderful city of Heidelberg, home to the country’s oldest university.

Our campsite was close to the River Neckar, so we kept a wary eye on the water level as flooding was forecast. A hilarious evening was spent with some local students in a German/Chinese bar where the jukebox was playing the summer’s hit singles – The Beatles “Paperback Writer”, The Rolling Stones “Paint it Black” and Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”. Under clearing skies we then journeyed through green and pleasant Luxembourg and into Belgium, the day’s unexpected highlight being an unusual roundabout at a town fête. Instead of wooden horses going round and round and up and down, it had real ponies walking in circles. Brilliant for the kids!

We were now exhausted and the rain re-commenced. However, before catching the ferry back to England, we felt that we just had to explore the ancient Flemish medieval city of Bruges and enjoy a boat ride on its picturesque canals.

Bruges is a beautiful city and this was a most enjoyable end to our memorable 3,000-mile return trip across Europe. Amazingly, the Mini-Van and Austin A30 had managed to complete the journey without a breakdown. All these little motorcars had demanded was a simple diet of petrol, oil and water. Perhaps British 1960’s automotive engineering was indeed better than its reputation at the time!

By Nigel Wright

Overview of the city of Dubrovnik
Fairytale Lake Bled
The beautiful main thoroughfare in Dubrovnik
St. Tropez seafront in 1966
Dalmatian Coast near Dubrovnik
Author (on the left in fashionable Bob Dylan hat) celebrating with German and Yugoslav students