Across the Alps.
‘Stick or Twist’ as we crossed the Alps!
In 218 BC Hannibal crossed the Alps with a herd of elephants: two thousand years later I crossed the Alps with a bunch of young bucks! Both expeditions had their sights set on Rome but, in our case, we had come to praise Caesar, not to bury him!
“Oh, and my Inter. Cert. Geography class are coming, too!” Seamus added, as an afterthought.
Our Hannibal was Seamus Lankford, a camping veteran, who had casually mentioned the possibility of a trip to the continent in the school staff room one morning in the early ‘70s. A few of us greenhorns nearly bit his hand off at the prospect of swanning across Europe for the summer and, so, a quartet was quickly formed, Seamus, Brother Colm, Mairtín Fahy and myself. “Oh, and my Inter. Cert. Geography class are coming, too!” Seamus added, as an afterthought. “Whhaat!! All twenty three of ‘em?
And so it came to pass that an expeditionary force of two cars and a school mini-bus set off from Capwell Road on a July morning in 1975 heading for the ferry in Ringaskiddy. Apart from its human cargo, aboard was six large canvas tents, folding chairs & tables to suit, kitchen cooking equipment and utensils, sleeping bags and clothing and, I kid you not, provisions from Musgraves Cash & Carry to feed the lot of us for six-weeks! Even at this remove, over forty years later, my mind boggles at the thought. SIX WEEKS!!!!
an emigration official wanted to channel the lads through the gate marked ‘English Visitors’.
The plan was to head across England, stopping overnight at the Presentation Brothers boarding school in Reading. From there it was but a short jog to Dover and the cross-channel ferry to Le Havre where the continent of Europe would open up to us. An interesting scene was acted out at Customs when an emigration official wanted to channel the lads through the gate marked ‘English Visitors’. Indignant at being taken for English, one bright spark marched up to the official and began,
“Sé do bheata, a Mhuire, atá lán de grásta.
Tá an Tiarna leat. Is beannaithe thú idir mhná…………”
Totally confused, the official allowed us enter the continent through the gate of our choice. From that point onwards, Irish became the official language of the party when dealing with officialdom – though not necessarily The Rosary!
I ran him with the threat of an easy-over frying pan!
Apart from Seamus, camping was a novelty to all of us but the novelty very quickly wore off for me when faced with the prospect of frying 30 eggs every morning for breakfast – in a frying pan – on a single gas bottle stove! One innocent approached me one morning with a request for “an easy-over egg.” I ran him with the threat of an easy-over frying pan! Years later he confessed that the others had put him up to it! Pups!!
We travelled in convoy with the bus following the lead car and the second car riding shotgun behind. We switched drivers daily between the bus and the cars and each car also carried four kids, who also alternated daily. I was driving the bus one day high in the Alps as we passed from France to Italy. The views were spectacular and I really got an appreciation of what the Tour de France cyclists had to endure as they navigated the narrow winding roads that seemed to cling like spaghetti to the side of the mountains. I was blown away at the magnificence of the Alps but was somewhat surprised at the lack of any reaction from the lads sitting in the bus behind me. I glanced in the mirror above me and there they were, gathered in groups, in seats and on the floor, all playing cards! Pontoon!! ‘Stick or twist’ as we crossed the Alps!
they weren’t adverse to strutting their stuff around the pool
And so we journeyed, ticking off all the major sights on the way: Paris and the Eiffel Tower; Pisa and the Leaning Tower; Verona and Juliet’s Balcony; Venice and its slim-line gondolas bobbing at their moorings by St. Mark’s Square. And everywhere we stopped to pitch our tent there was a swimming pool – and just not a Mickey Mouse effort, a true Olympic sized pool with all facilities freely available to us. The lads were in their element as they slowly changed from an Irish wan pale complexion to a glowing healthy Continental bronze and they weren’t adverse to strutting their stuff around the pool before the admiring glances of the local maidens, either.
But we were not without our disasters. Travelling in convoy one day from Florence to Venice, as we drove through the city of Bologna, a drunk driver smashed into my rear, causing the car to plow into a lorry stopped at traffic light ahead of us. Fortunately we weren’t injured, just dazed and confused as the Polizia di Stato took control of the situation. The drunk driver was unceremoniously thrown into the back of a patrol car and whisked away while the remaining Polizia gather around my car and spoke into walkie-talkies. It was obvious my car wasn’t going anywhere – certainly not under her own power – and, still dazed, I watched while she was hoisted onto the back of a recovery vehicle and driven off. I was left at the side of the road with no car, no money, no passports & no language! – just four hungry teenagers who didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at what they had just been through.
We were eventually rescued by Seamus Lankford but the delay while we waited a week or two for my car to be repaired meant we had to abort our plans to go south as far as Rome. Anyway, the heat was getting a bit much for us the further south we went and we were hearing stories of huge crowds flocking to Rome for the Holy Year. This took the pressure off us and we were able relax and enjoy the wonders of the Plain of Lombardy. Florence, Verona, Venice, Piza: all wonders in their own right and we luxuriated in all they had to offer. Between art and architecture our senses were sated before we headed northwards again: up through Austria and across Germany we rambled as we slowly headed homeward.
We had ventured forth before school trips became the norm but I’ll wager there was very few afterwards that ever matched our odyssey. Seamus Lankford was some man to take on such a trip and both he and Bro. Colm have long since gone to their eternal reward. More sobering, perhaps, is the fact that two of ‘the kids’, Arthur Long and Sean O’Halloran have also passed away. May the Lord be merciful to the four of them. Despite all the splendours we saw on that trip comes the realization that ‘we have not here a lasting city.’