This is the image I love best from my days with Bert – the Kombi van – and with my younger siblings as travelling companions in the mid 1970’s. So it’s worth repeating the photo from Part one of this story – https://travellingtherese.com/2022/05/31/bert-the-kombi-van-part-1/
I was 23, Kate was 20 and John 17. What idyllic, fabulous days they were together, and there’s been more laughter for us in recent weeks recalling our adventures while travelling in Bert in England and Europe, through to Greece.
The conversation has led us through a maze of collective memories, some that had been lost in time and tenaciously dragged out from our memory banks. The photograph was taken shortly after we crossed from Yugoslavia into Greece. I thought a kind Greek took it for us, but Kate says I took it myself on a self timer. I had to google 1970’s Pentax cameras to see if they had self timers. They did indeed, so I guess she was right. As we moved into Greece, I’d decided to try using some black and white film. I had it processed many months later in Afghanistan, and sadly the processing ruined a lot of the photos. This was one of the survivors.
The jumper I’m wearing in the photograph was a beautiful royal blue in pure Australian wool, knitted especially for my trip to Europe by a wonderful Greek lady in Hobart, Tasmania – Mrs Maratharkis, the mother of one of my best friends. I always knew her, and still do, as Mrs Maratharkis. I asked my friend her mother’s christian name the other day. It’s Katina, a craftswoman when it comes to knitting. She was mortified when I asked her to make my jumper three times bigger than my then tiny frame. My reasoning was that I was heading to a European winter, and I’d want to layer under a roomy jumper. Mrs Maratharkis was not happy with this reasoning, but with a multitude of frowns, she proceeded with the project and delivered an exquisite jumper that I still have today.
Greece was our escape from the northern European cold. Still chilly in northern Greece, but warming up as Bert drove us south.
The ancient port city of Thessononiki, on the edge of the Agean, was our first major Greek city – arriving in early March. Our first night there was memorable – camped on the beach in Bert after we found the local Youth Hostel Association closed. My hunt for a toilet the next morning is detailed in my May 13 blog – SUMIMASEN, TOIRE WA DOKODESU KA – or – Excuse me, where is the toilet?
We stayed several days in Thessononiki, exploring around the walls of the old city and its ancient ruins.
Thessononiki is special for me because that’s where I discovered my favourite Greek desert – semolina custard topped with filo pastry. My first taste was at a shop in the centre of the city that baked trays and trays of this desert, sprinkled with icing sugar. No other food on the menu – just this desert. The aroma coming from the shop can only be described as heaven! The shop owner told me in limited english that it was Creama pie. For years afterwards, I thought this was actually Galaktoboureko, although the addition of a honey based syrup at other eateries confused me. I knew so little about Greek food back then. In fact, the desert was BOUGATSA – a recipe that originated in Turkey and came to Greece during the five century long occupation of Thessononiki by the Turks. Or there’s the other version – it came from Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, when that city was under Greek rule!
I’ve tasted bougatsa many times since, including a return visit to the shop on a subsequent visit to Greece. Bougatsa is also a desert I’ve learnt to cook myself for when I yearn for it, but am nowhere near a Greek restaurant.
What has this all got to do with travelling with Bert, you might ask. A lot, because exploring Greece with Bert was like opening up the layers of phylo pastry – a delightful introduction to an amazing new and affordable world of food – simple combinations of simple ingredients to create sensational taste experiences – oh, and Greek orange liquor, ouzo and retsina – at 23, my introduction to alcohol! Greece, in the 1970’s, was the ideal place for a foodie traveller on a shoestring budget. Cheap, cheerful, culinary magic.
We had a lemon tree in our backyard when I was a kid. I earned pocket money by gathering lemons we didn’t need and selling them to Jimmy, a greek immigrant to our town who ran a small supermarket. I thought lemons were only good for sprinkling on fish – or mum’s medicinal lemon and honey drinks to combat a cold. Jimmy, no doubt, knew the intrinsic value of a fresh lemon. If only he had shared Greek food and recipes then, my culinary education would have been accelerated!
I don’t recall a lot of our trip moving south towards Athens. Food became a daily delight, because in Greece, tavernas were well within our meagre budget. We dined like royalty on delicious Greek tucker every day. My education about Greek food blossomed. And the people – so welcoming, such warmth. We weren’t simply travellers passing through. In Greece, we felt at home.
We were mesmerised by the abundance of ancient ruins and old living villages en route. In Australia, a house built in the 1800’s is ancient! So to visit archaeological sites dating back 4000 years was amazing.
I drove Bert into the mountains to see Delphi, regarded by ancient greeks as the centre of the universe – the site of the 4th century BC Temple of Apollo, once home to a legendary oracle. Delphi is a town on Mount Parnassus, and the road back then wasn’t easy for Bert. But we got there without a hitch – arriving on a day with few other tourists about.
I wanted to go to the ancient monasteries at Meteora, perched on top of giant natural rock pillars. But I was astounded to find that, at the time, women weren’t allowed. John later visited by himself. I understand women can view them now, but they must adhere to a strict dress code. I know now there are also a few nunneries there. Perhaps I could have visited them?
I have absolutely no idea how I managed to tackle the drive through busy chaotic Athens to reach the YHA (International Youth Hostels Association) hostel. I clearly remembering arriving there though. Driving up a very narrow back street near the hostel, Bert came face to face with another vehicle that refused to back down. In a flurry of greek, the angry driver insisted I reverse Bert back down the street, indicating we were idiots because it was a one way street. I didn’t actually understand a word he said, but gesturing wildly, he left no doubt about what he was saying. Flustered and feeling like an idiot tourist, I hit reverse. My mind was in reverse too. How could I have made such a mistake? Navigator Kate was also in denial as she double checked the street map.
Backing up the kombi was not my forte, so it was a careful and slow reverse journey with the oncoming vehicle and angry driver ….well..still oncoming! Once clear of the street, we pulled up to double check our street map and road signs. The little street was indeed one way, and Bert was driving in the right direction! But never argue with an angry greek driver. Luckily, he was long gone by the time we figured out we had the right of way. We drove back up the little street with a righteous air of authority!
Athens and the YHA hostel was to become our base for exploring Greece for many months to come. When not in use, Bert resided on a street close to the hostel. No parking tickets, no restrictions on length of stay. And never touched!
I was so preoccupied with snapping the photograph above in an Athens market that I got in the way of a fruit cart and it ran over my foot. The nearest I’ve come to the broken toe.
We were told the building used by the YHA in the ’70’s had been Gestapo headquarters during the German occupation of Greece in WW2. The address doesn’t tally with the location of the Gestapo HQ given on the Internet today. But deep in my memory banks is an explaination for that. I just can’t retrieve it! All three of us remember clearly being told it had been the Gestapo HQ.
“That’s what we were told at the time. It might have been rumour rolled into myth rolled into Chinese whispers,” says John. “I can tell you the lower floor flooded once or twice, which gave me cause to descend to the basement as part of the cleanup. It didn’t take much to imagine men chained to walls. I blame that on watching too many war movies. It’s possible the only captives ever kept down there were cleaning products.” John got to know the building well, staying on to work at the YHA for six months. For a while, Kate and I went back and forth, visiting the islands, touring Greece in Bert, and gathering a few other travellers with us along the way.
Strange business did go on in that building, which is no longer used by the YHA. The drivers of a fleet of Mercedes on their way to Eygpt seemed to come from Germany every two months during John’s six-month stay.
“The local contact was a short squat Eygptian receptionist at the YHA. He insisted there were no drugs involved and it was to dodge import tax when taking the cars into the Middle East to sell. He invited me to become a driver, but it smelt dodgy. He never went himself, for instance. I used to play backgammon with him, and he cheated as often as he needed to, disguising it by moving really quickly. I didn’t trust him as far as I could throw him,” John says.
Kate recalls “My reasons for saying no was the fear we would accidentally damage a Mercedes. Later I found out the cars were likely to be either filled with drugs or black market items. Blissfully naive, we were lucky not to get into trouble.”
Unlike my siblings, I personally was not approached to be a driver. Perhaps they thought my driving skills should be limited to Bert? It would have been a firm no from me, anyway.
Amongst regular travellers at the Athens YHA were refugees from Lebanon. A couple of them worked at the hostel, and one young bloke was a hairdresser. He earned extra money by offering cheap haircuts on the roof patio. I opted to have him cut my hair short. Best haircut I’ve ever had.
On another occasion, staff held the ’breaking of the 40 day Easter fast’ with a midnight feast on the roof patio of the hostel for staff, featuring lamb on the spit. As John was a hostel employee by then, Kate and I were invited. It remains my most magical Easter memory. Greeks were holding open air midnight Easter feasts on rooftops throughout Athens. Lights were on everywhere. And the aroma of the roast meat wafting through the night Athens air was unforgettable.
I gather the eyes of a lamb are a delicacy in the Middle East, and the two Lebanese offered one to me. I politely declined.
While in Greece, Kate and I took on Nanny jobs for wealthy families – mine in Athens, Kate’s on Rhodes. Kate had wonderful employees. Me – not so much. My situation turned out to be tricky, and I became quite fearful of remaining in the household. Luckily, John was still working at the Youth Hostel, so I rang him for a rescue. I concocted a story that my brother and I had to return to Australia urgently because of a family crisis. They let me go when he turned up at the front door, but they never paid me for the 24/7 hours I had worked there over a three week period. It was upsetting, but I was glad to safely get out of the situation.
On one trip to the Greek Peloponnese from Athens, Bert was loaded up with six people – myself, Kate, two blokes from Adelaide, an American guy and a girl from Britain. John remained behind, working at the Hostel.
We headed to visit Olympia – home of the first Olympics in 776 BC. Unfortunately, I ended up spending the day there lying ill in Bert with a passing virus, while the others toured the town and the remnants of its ancient structures. In one of those amazing coincidences in life, one of the Adelaide blokes ran into his parents’ next door neighbours – Aussie Greeks visiting their home village in the nearby mountains.
They insisted we visit the village the following day. They failed to tell us the village was very remotely located, and the mountain road there was rough and not sealed – Bert’s biggest challenge since the Yugoslavian climb! Everyone aboard, except the driver, had to get out to give Bert a helping push uphill! I handed over the driving job to one of the Adelaide boys, Paul, as it was too tricky for me to attempt. Bert was definitely not designed as a 4WD.
We were invited for lunch at the home of the ’neighbours’ extended family. Half the village seemed to turn up to take a gander at us, including the local greek orthodox priest. The meal conversation turned to stories of a massive earthquake that had destroyed the village some years earlier.
And then the dining table began to rock. I thought it was the Adelaide boys having a bit of fun, jiggling the table after the earthquake tale. They thought they had consumed a little too much of the village’s rather strong home made liquor!
We quickly realised our assumptions were wrong as the Greeks in the house all raced to the front door – the quickly fleeing priest ahead of the exodus. It was a strong earth tremor, and I will never forget that priest, in his black flowing robes and Kalimavkion (priest hat), racing down the front steps to the safety of the street! Luckily, there was no earthquake damage.
We continued to explore back roads on the Peloponnese, pulling up by a river near another small remote village for the night. Two of us – myself and the American – walked into the village to buy food supplies. The villagers were very surprised to see us. Tourists never visited them. On learning I was an Australian, they refused to let us pay for anything. Australian troops, left behind on a withdrawal of forces from Greece in WW2, had fought with local partisans. The Aussie soldiers had gained such huge respect amongst the mountain villages and had gained legend status. The villagers seemed eternally grateful to all Aussies thereafter.
The villagers gifted us food supplies, refusing to take any money. They also insisted we join them in drinks. Now, as mentioned earlier, I had only just abandoned my tee totaller status on my arrival in Greece, and was a novice alcohol drinker. But to refuse, given their generosity and welcome, would have been extremely impolite. Ouzo came out and then their locally made and incredibly strong hooch alcohol. It was my first taste of Ouzo, which was mild next to the locally made alcohol. We didn’t make it back to the campsite until after dark. I can’t say that I walked back. More a slow stagger – a desperate attempt not to crawl!
Another larger town we came across on the Peloponnese also welcomed us with food and drink because of the Aussies in our group – same reason – the reputation of Australian soldiers fighting alongside local partisans in WW2. They simply couldn’t do enough for us, and were delighted we were visiting.
This particular town had been targeted by the Germans in retribution for a partisan attack. Most of the townsmen were hiding in the surrounding mountains from where they launched partisan attacks on the Germans. The punishment by German troops was quick. All males remaining the village – mostly elderly and young boys – were lined up and shot in a mass execution.
I had visited Dachau concentration camp earlier on our European trip with Bert, and that was a sobering experience. Yet, I found myself more profoundly impacted by what had happened in that small Greek mountain town. Probably because I was there in the town, talking directly to relatives of those murdered. It seemed so personal.
In the mid ’70’s, Greeks still had strong ill feelings towards Germans. They told us ’we rip off the German tourists because of what Germany did to us. We make the Americans pay because they are rich and never seem to know they are paying too much. The British we are fair to. And the Aussies – we treat them extremely well as our friends“. We told the lone yank in our group to tone down his American southern drawl!
Eventually we came to what would become Bert the Kombi van’s final resting place at what was then a small coastal town – Methoni – on the southern tip of the Peloponnese. Kate and I camped in Bert on the beach front, with the others in our travelling group sleeping in tents and sleeping bags nearby.
I understand Methoni is now a big tourist centre. But then it was a small sleepy town, with little tourist traffic. And it was where I left Bert with Kate, who had gained employment at a local cafe.
I headed back to Athens and onto visit the Middle East. Another story, another time.
While I was gone, the Adelaide boys became local heroes when a major bushfire threatened the town. The locals didn’t seem to have any experience in fighting bushfires, which are a feature of every summer in Australia. The boys led the fight against the fire, joining the locals and giving advice of fire fighting strategies. Methoni was saved.
And then, with well meaning intentions, they decided to give Bert a little mechanical love. A little more oomph with spark plugs and other bits and pieces replaced in an engine upgrade. Result – Bert spat the dummie and died. Paul (Adelaide) – now, like me, in his senior years – recalled this week: “Ah, Bert – I knew him well. My memory says the piston blew & went through cylinder wall, resulting in obvious tragedy.”
In those days, if you brought in a vehicle to Greece you had to take it out again or give it to the local Government vehicle receiving centre – which, in this case, was just over an hour’s drive away from Methoni in Kalamata. The quick wits amongst you will note that I had already left Greece without Bert. He was on my Australian passport, while I had used my British passport in leaving to gain a cheaper airfare.
But, I still returned. Bert, the Kombi, had become part of my family, and I needed to send him off well.
When I arrived back in Methoni, I found that the ever helpful Adelaide boys had stripped Bert of everything sellable to boost my funds, seeing as I no longer had a vehicle. The seats were being used for comfort around the communal beach campfire. The battery was used to provide some light for campers by the beach.
So, it was a tow job to Kalamata, where an incredulous Government official inspected Bert at the receival station.
”You’ve got no hub caps,” he said. ”No, it never had any,” I replied. ”You’ve got no seats,” ”It was a very cheap car,” I said, perched on top of a box the Adelaide boys had installed as a front driver’s seat.” “No spare tyre.” And so it went on as he listed all the missing features of a VW Kombi. Finally, standing at the front of the van, he said incredulously ”You have no engine.” What could you say to that? I was actually dumbfounded, as I didn’t realise the boys had removed the engine. So it wasn’t too difficult to give my ’dumb girl knows nothing about cars’ look, and he let it go at that.
And so I left Bert. He had reliably taken us thousands of kilometres – he had served us with with only a few hiccups. The starter engine going in Yugoslavia, and failing to withstand an mechanical onslaught by a couple of well meaning South Australians.
Did Bert rust quietly away in idylic Greece, or did some enthusiast buy him from the Government yard and restore him to VW glory? There’s so many old VW’s still on the road. I’d like to think Bert is amongst them – treasured and loved. Maybe even made it to Australia! But missing a green knob – still cherished by me.