Memory Lane Robert Ponsonby
60 -odd years ago I boarded a train at Victoria station that would carry me and a musician friend on the first leg of a journey to Belgrade. A Yugoslav interpreter, met at the Edinburgh Festival, had told me how we could then get to Dubrovnik and up the Dalmatian coast to Venice. That was alluring but reaching Belgrade meant nearly 48 hours of increasing discomfort. In Tito’s capital, though, we were made welcome, embarrassingly so when we were guests at a performance of Labohème, our only costume anoraks and holiday trousers.
The day-long journey to Dubrovnik was enhanced by the spectacle of a red doubledecker London bus on the move which even the wildest speculation could not explain. We reached the coast after dark but could find no accommodation, finally settling for deckchairs in the garden of the hotel we had hoped to occupy. In the morning we explored the town, a little Venice without canals but with the open sea at its walls. Next day there was a Homeric storm and a sunset which turned the sea a wine-dark red. Small steamers carried us northward and at every port young men came aboard, all with close-shaven heads. They were conscripts and on the quaysides family and friends sang sad Slavic songs of farewell.
We put in at Korcula, which though interesting could not compare with Hvar, whose beautiful piazza, all honey-coloured stone, was dominated by a handsome church. Enchanted, we spent several days there, soon falling in with two young Croats. Once we asked them to keep an eye on our rucksacks while we swam. After we had left Hvar I found in my diary an entry which translated: ‘You have been nice and I wish you all the best and good time in our country. Eduardo. Hvar, 1952.’
Our last port of call was Rab, a lovely small town whose cathedral had a touching weather-worn Pietà over its west door. At Rab we had our last swim. A spectacular lightning-storm dazzled us on our way to Rijeka, whence trains took us to Venice, for both of us our first experience of that ravishing city.