You are sure to recognise John Carter, who was a familiar face on TV for many years, presenting popular travel shows such as the BBC’s ‘Holiday’, and ‘Wish You Were Here?’ on ITV. Now aged 80, John is still actively involved in travel and his new book, “Gullible’s Travels”, will be published in July, filled with a collection of hilarious stories and behind-the-scenes anecdotes from his long career as a globetrotting travel journalist, all told with his trademark easy-going humour and a genuine passion for his subject. However, as he himself admits, on occasion, the exact details may be a little hazy: “Early in my writing career,” he says, “I was told by a veteran hack that, to qualify as a bona fide ‘traveller’s tale’, an anecdote must be 100 per cent true – and 99 per cent unbelievable.” John’s engaging stories are all based on his personal experiences, of course, however far-fetched they may appear, and no doubt some of you will have found yourself in similar situations over the course of your foreign travels!
We hope you will enjoy reading the following very funny chapter taken from John’s book, and if you’d like to read more, we are delighted to offer you an exclusive 25% discount on your copy of John Carter’s “Gullible’s Travels” – simply visit www.bradtguides.com and enter the code TITAN at the checkout. This offer is valid until 31 December 2016.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Throughout the 1960s I travelled extensively around Eastern Europe. Though the Iron Curtain was firmly in place and the Cold War at its chilliest, those Eastern nations were trying to build up a tourism industry. They needed the hard currency it brought, and although under normal circumstancesthey reviled the hyenas of the wicked capitalist press, they had learned to live with the fact that they required help to promote tourism.
On one occasion, my travels took me to Bulgaria. It was a destination I approached with some caution, as fellow journalists had, on previous visits, tangled with the authorities, and come off worse. I was urged to do nothing which might upset my hosts who were, to put it mildly, suspicious of Western journalists – in fact, were paranoid about us. But to be fair, we were just as paranoid about them.
I flew into Sofia on a Balkan Airways flight, an experience which was more or less what I had anticipated. Nothing out of the ordinary happened until the plane landed and came to a standstill a little short of the airport building. Then an announcement was made to the effect that we should now hand over our passports to the flight attendants who would pass through the cabin and collect them.
Now this was a trifle unusual, and caused some concern among the holidaymaking passengers. It caused me more than some concern, as I was aware of my dodgy status in the eyes of my hosts.
As the passports were being collected, a set of stairs was wheeled up to the aircraft door. As soon as it was opened the passports were handed over and taken away by a uniformed official.
Then we waited. About ten minutes later two rifle-toting soldiers appeared at the front of the aircraft. One of them was holding a passport. An announcement was made asking that passenger Carter (pronounced ‘Kair-tair’) should make himself known to the cabin crew.
I raised my hand. One of the soldiers came down the plane towards me, indicating I should leave my seat and go with him. He was not smiling. Nor was his chum. Nor was I.
I left the plane, with every passenger watching my departure in stunned silence. Down the steps we went. The soldiers fell in on either side of me and marched me towards one of the airport buildings. We did not go inside, but swerved to the left and made our way to the back of the building – out of sight of the aircraft, I noted with some concern.
There, in a long straight line, were all the suitcases from the plane’s hold. A man in a black suit, with a trilby hat fixed firmly on his head, indicated that I should identify my bag.
I did so, and stepped forward to pick it up. The man in the hat gestured me back and ordered one of the soldiers to bring the bag as we all walked into the building where a pair of Customs officers waited, grim-faced and unsmiling.
All sorts of thoughts were racing through my mind. Had they planted something in my suitcase that would enable them to lock me up for a couple of years or so? Was I, with or without suitcase, going to be taken for a ride to some secluded spot where my body would never be found? Was I perhaps going to be arrested in order to be exchanged for some Bulgarian spy who had been nabbed in London by our lot?
As I was trying to sort out my next move, one of the Customs chaps stepped forward. His right hand came out from behind his back. He was holding a large lump of chalk. He brought it down on to my case, scribbled a symbol upon it, then stepped back.
The man in the hat suddenly beamed with delight. As did the Customs chaps. And the soldiers.
‘Welcome to Bulgaria, Mr Kair-tair,’ he said.
I had just experienced the VIP welcome, Bulgarian style.
So they allowed us into their countries, and we travelled around taking copious notes and attending meaningless meetings, which allowed the local bigwigs to scoff and quaff at state expense on the pretext of promoting their little part of the embryonic tourist industry.
We wrote many articles which helped popularise their new resorts, and after a while – when they realised we were, by and large, a fairly harmless bunch – the moles planted by the security services were replaced by genuine drivers and interpreters, and they stopped bugging the hotel rooms.
By then, we had all completed many fact-finding missions, returning home with our photographs and notes, our leaflets and brochures and impressions garnered from dozens of interviews and conversations, both formal and informal. And all sorts of other stuff, too.
Some of those impressions, and quite a lot of the ‘other stuff ’, proved interesting to people back in London who were professionally required to be interested in such things, who had had informal chats with some of us before we departed on our jolly jaunts.
But none of that ever made it into print.
My favourite destination in those days was Yugoslavia, which was still held together by the force of Tito’s personality, but already showing strong signs of an independent streak – a refusal to be dominated by the Soviet Union. I had a lot of fun in Yugoslavia – and a few adventures. One of those small adventures, which I wrote about all those years ago, began when I flew from Zagreb to Dubrovnik in a DC3. It had a clock on the bulkhead between the cockpit and the passenger cabin, and its seats were individual armchairs in uncut moquette. Then, Dubrovnik airport was nothing more than a large field with a single, grass-and-gravel landing strip and a windsock on a tall pole. Its buildings were a couple of wooden cabins under the trees.
As we walked towards those cabins, two men drove out in a flatbed truck, transferred the bags from the plane’s hold to their vehicle, and drove back to dump them in a rough pile beside the cabins.
My suitcase was not in the rough pile. So I took myself off to a bench under a pine tree and sat down to await developments. What happened subsequently was more than a little surreal…
The hefty lady in the bright national costume skipped up to me and thrust forward a large bunch of green grapes.
‘No thank you,’ I said.
She breathed deeply and the peasant blouse with its gay embroidery rose and fell with slow menace. Then the grapes were thrust forward once more.
‘No thank you,’ I repeated.
Another formidable lady approached, her long black skirt sweeping the grass. She had a basket of figs and a red hat, and a huge yellow tassel bouncing on her equally ample bosom.
‘No thank you,’ I said to the figs.
Then the first lady turned away and called the Yugoslav equivalent of: ‘Hey, Charlie, come over here a minute, will you?’
Charlie was a small chap with scruffy overalls, a large moustache and wrinkles – lots of wrinkles.
‘Hello, Charlie,’ I said.
‘Hello,’ said Charlie. ‘Are you English?’
I said I was. Just arrived on the plane from Zagreb. Going to Dubrovnik. During the flight, I realised I had mislaid my passport and now it appeared that my suitcase was missing, too.
‘Don’t worry about the passport,’ said Charlie. ‘It’ll be in a pigeonhole behind the reception desk in your Zagreb hotel. Because they don’t need it for internal flights, foreigners always forget to collect it when they leave.’
The moment he said that, I realised he was absolutely right.
‘Do you have any more problems?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Except to tell these pleasant peasant ladies that I don’t want to buy their grapes or their figs. Could you oblige?’
‘Actually,’ he said, when they had gone, ‘you don’t need to worry about your suitcase, either. It’ll be on the next flight.’
And it was, along with a lot of people who pounced on a pile of unclaimed cases from our plane.
As two flights left Zagreb for Dubrovnik within fifteen minutes of each other, nobody bothered to match up passengers and bags. As long as they all eventually ended up in that field near Dubrovnik, the authorities reasoned that there was no problem.
As I walked towards the bus with my suitcase, I looked for Charlie to say farewell, but he had wandered off and was sitting beneath a tree with two friends, a bottle of wine and the sort of conversation that needs at least six waving arms to give it momentum.
By this time the sun was sliding into the Adriatic and the light fading swiftly as we bounced over the rough coast road to Dubrovnik and my hotel, the Imperial.
‘Do you make a habit of losing your passport?’ the receptionist asked in a frosty tone when I presented myself at her counter.
‘How did you know I had lost my passport?’ I asked.
‘The receptionist at your Zagreb hotel telephoned us to say you had left it behind. He is having it sent down on tomorrow morning’s flight. It will be brought here. You have no need to worry about it.’
I should have realised that my itinerary had been issued in triplicate to every individual I was likely to encounter during my time in Yugoslavia. Of course the Zagreb hotel receptionist knew where I was going.
‘I believe you are a journalist,’ said the lady behind the counter. I much admired the ‘I believe’ part. Of course she knew I was a journalist. It would be on those triplicated documents – along with my shoe size, marital status and alcohol capacity.
I confirmed that I was, indeed, a journalist, and I was gathering material for travel articles, though this was not strictly true. I was actually on the run from Italian film companies.
Yugoslavia was waist-deep in Italian film companies making lowbudget spectaculars wherever they could. The hotel in Zagreb had housed two of them, the Gladiatrici crew and another mob making a film about Genghis Khan – at least, I think it was about Genghis Khan. At the time he was a popular subject for the sort of films that had little plot but a lot of chaps with serious beards, strutting around in high boots brandishing scimitars. These films also featured much fighting and, at every opportunity, comely maidens dressed in diaphanous robes dancing in what the director thought was a sinuously tempting fashion. All I know for sure about the film makers in my Zagreb hotel is that they didn’t go to bed until around 3 a.m. and got up at seven to check their equipment, have hysteria outside my bedroom door, and depart for their location in very old buses.
But I could not tell the young lady all this, so I said I was gathering material for travel articles.
‘There is an Italian film company in Dubrovnik,’ she said. ‘They are making a film called The Green Sword of Genghis Khan, with very many local people employed as extras. It is good for our economy.’
I met them next day as I explored the streets. They were, for the most part, young Yugoslav lads in false beards and cardboard armour, giggling furiously and scampering around the ramparts, brandishing their halberds. I peeped over the wall on the seaward side and saw a ship sailing to and fro with another small boat behind it, bearing a camera crew. Then one of the Yugoslavs clonked me with his halberd and indicated that I should keep out of the shot.
If that ancient epic ever surfaces on a late night movie channel, do watch it carefully, because the chap that peeps over the rampart and gets clonked by a halberd is me.
About half an hour later I found myself at the top of what my guidebook told me was one of the city’s ancient towers. But when I compared it with the picture, I realised some twenty extra feet had sprouted from somewhere. It looked a pretty solid sort of tower, not the sort that grows overnight; it must have been many centuries old.
But it was made of canvas.
‘Fancy going up?’ asked a voice. It was Charlie – in armour.
‘No thanks,’ I said.
Charlie told me that the Italian company had built this tower at great expense, and now wanted someone to leap from it into the sea. For money.
When Charlie told me how much, I was half way up the steps, tearing my shirt off for the plunge, but he pointed out the snag. Apparently, in order to survive one would have to leap outwards about fifteen feet before starting to fall, and this was a very tricky manoeuvre. Professional jumpers-off-high-places had flocked to Dubrovnik like migrating swallows when their grapevine had spread the news of the loot to be had. But they had all gone home fairly swiftly on seeing the problem. One Spaniard hadn’t even bothered to get out of his taxi.
The passport turned up in my hotel pigeonhole that evening. A different reception lady examined it closely – especially all the stamps from all the countries I had visited. I was clearly the sort of chap to be viewed with great suspicion.
‘Are you going to report on the film?’ she asked. I said I was not, but she went on as if I had not spoken. ‘It is an Italian company, you know. It’s called The Red Sword of Genghis Khan.’
‘Don’t you mean ‘Green’?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘My cousin is playing a part in it. He should know.’
I was very sorry to leave Dubrovnik, feeling that another week there would have seen me starring in The Purple Dagger of Henry VIII, or at least getting a substantial role in someone else’s production of Genghis Khan’s Last Stand. But I had to go to sample the delights of Split, and the island of Hvar.
A few days later, in the middle of thinking how splendid Hvar was, I saw a pre-war London Transport Green Line bus come slowly into view and roll to a neat standstill a yard or so away from the café at one of whose pavement tables I was sitting.
‘Is there an Italian film company on Hvar, making The Green Bus of St Trinian’s?’ I asked my hostess at dinner that evening. She said there was not, but the bus was certainly real and British visitors got the giggles whenever they saw it. Needless to say, nobody had any idea how it got there.
‘It is strange you should mention Italian film companies,’ she said.
‘There is one in Dubrovnik at the moment, filming an epic about Charlemagne. It is employing lots of Yugoslav extras, which is good for the economy.’ ‘Is there a Yugoslav film industry?’ I asked, choosing not to get into an argument about Genghis Khan or Charlemagne.
She assured me that there was. Indeed, it was flourishing, though the shortage of extras would have to be tackled very soon, as Yugoslavia was running out of young chaps who could cope with false beards and cardboard armour. I suggested this could be done by shipping out surplus members of British amateur operatic and dramatic societies, who couldn’t be fitted into Oklahoma or The Student Prince. She did not take this seriously, which is a pity, as it could have proved a profitable venture all round.
It was at the Motel Paklenica near Stari Grad that the final blow fell. I was in a restaurant beside a country road, eating cubes of meat on skewers which I had learned by then not to call kebabs, when I noticed some men building frameworks beside the road.
‘They’re constructing a film set, aren’t they?’ I asked.
My companion sipped his Grk and nodded.
‘An outdoor epic?’
He nodded again. ‘An Italian company making a film about Genghis Khan’s Silver Sword, Allah’s Green Dagger, Charlemagne’s Mighty Battleaxe, or the Mysterious East in general?’
He shook his head, put down his glass of wine and plied a toothpick with some vigour before replying.
‘Actually, no. It’s a Spanish company, over here to make a Western, The Black Gun of Billy the Kid. And they will employ lots of Yugoslav extras, which is good for the economy.’
I must add a couple of footnotes to this story. The first is that the film Gladiatrici, whose crew I encountered at the start of my trip, was to become an example of the worst kind of sword-and-sandals epic. Its title translates as ‘Women Gladiators’, but it was also known as ‘Thor and the Amazon Women’. On its release in 1963 it was generally judged to be, in the words of one critic, ‘about as bad as they come’. Probably for this reason, scenes from it may be viewed on the internet to this day.
The second footnote is that a few months after that trip, I was back in Yugoslavia, first making my way from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik by bus, then, after enjoying a couple of days at that city’s arts festival, going a little way south along the coast to Sveti Stefan. This tiny fishing village, snug within its high medieval walls, had been transformed into a luxury hotel, with its inhabitants happily relocated to modern homes a short distance away. The old cottages were now suites, and the entire place was a gem, of which the Yugoslavs were understandably proud. I had met the hotel’s manager in London a few weeks previously and, hearing I would be in the neighbourhood, he had insisted I stay at Sveti Stefan for a night or so. And so it came to pass.
A message awaited my arrival. The manager regretted that we could not dine à deux, as planned, as he had unexpectedly to entertain two VIPs. This was not an unusual situation: as I mentioned, local bigwigs and assorted Party officials took every opportunity to gatecrash any kind of event that afforded them free food or wine. They were a monstrous nuisance, the men being boors and the wives, for the most part, unattractive, overweight women with bleached blonde hair, fur coats, and absolutely no English. I braced myself for just such company as I made for the bar where I had been told my host would be waiting. He was.
Beside him was a short, bald man who, I decided, was probably the manager of a local tractor factory, in good standing with the Party. Sitting on a bar stool, with her back to me, was his wife, wearing the obligatory fur, but with black, not bleached blonde, hair. To my delight, the hotel manager announced my arrival to them in English. At least conversation would be possible. As I drew close, the fur-clad lady swung round to greet me.
She was Sophia Loren.
The little bald chap was Carlo Ponti. What followed was a very memorable encounter. Towards its end, when a fair amount of wine had been consumed, I asked Carlo Ponti why he and his good lady were travelling in style around Yugoslavia as guests of the government.
‘I am here to find suitable locations for the many films I intend to make in Yugoslavia,’ he replied, but the twinkle in his eyes told me that wasn’t quite true.
A little while, and a lot more wine, later, he admitted that he and his wife were simply having a splendid, all expenses paid, holiday, and he had no plans to film anything in Yugoslavia.
As far as I know, he never did.