Having just taken you through some of my travel experiences in Northern Europe in the 70s, now we’ll head south to explore the different adventures I had in Southern Europe and around those Mediterranean beaches.
But before we get to the archeological ruins, art galleries and nude beaches, I first want to tell you what I’ve come to be aware of through writing these posts. My days on this and other trips then, and even now, followed quite a clear and predictable pattern.
I would begin each morning by eating as much of the “Continental Breakfast” as I could. Plenty of pastries, bread and coffee were on hand and, if we were lucky, some cold cuts and hard-boiled eggs. During breakfast, I would write postcards back home to friends and family, ticking their names off my list.
I’d assess my money situation and see if I needed to go to a bank to cash another travellers’ cheque. Since every country in Europe used a different currency, the delicate balancing act was to make sure you had enough local cash but not have too much left over by the time you left that country which would then need to be exchanged, usually at a poor rate. All a big hassle.
So you can understand how travellers’ cheques fell out of favour once ATMs and credit cards came into broader use in the 80s and 90s. And how delighted tourists were when the Euro was introduced in 1999.
The curriences I dealt with on the trips I’m about to describe included the French franc, Swiss franc, Italian lira, Greek drachma and Portuguese escudos. As I was living in the UK at this time, I had to develop an easy formula for converting each currency back to pounds (£) in my head to figure out what things “really” cost.
I would further prepare for the day by reading whatever guidebook I had on hand to investigate the history and culture of place where I was. Before the proliferation of the more youth-oriented Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, I relied heavily on the ubiquitous, expensive and rather stuffy Michelin Guides (now called The Green Guides to distinguish them from their Red Guides with those famous star ratings for restaurants). But I did love their beautiful and always very accurate maps with walks marked that I would rigorously follow.
My first Michelin Guide – Austria – was bought for my 1974 trip to Vienna which I described in a previous post. The last one I bought was for New York City in 2006 by which time the Guides were including hotel and restaurant information, a break from their previous style. My most used Michelin Guide was the well-thumbed one for Paris, a city I visited multiple times in the 70s and 80s. For my last visits in ’94 and ’98, I splurged on a new edition.
For better or worse, I wanted to tick off as many sites from the Michelin Guide as I could. But that sometimes meant that I rushed too much, sometimes failing to fully soak in the beauty and meaning of what I was seeing. Looking back, I wonder if I prioritized quantity over quality.
In this post, you might be relieved to know that I am not going to list the dozens of glorious museums, art galleries and churches I did visit which Michelin Guides told me to go to and which kept me very busy during my daytimes.
Typically, after a day of touring a city, I would return to the hotel, freshen up and head out for Part Two of my day – the gay part. Starting with dinner, I would attempt to find a cheap restaurant either by sight or from a recommendation of a fellow traveller that had a bit of a local buzz – and hopefully not just be full of other tourists. There I would predictably order the cheapest or second cheapest meal on the menu along with one beer or flask of wine.
After dinner, I would search out the gay bars, cruising spots and other nightlife hoping to meet the locals – and other tourists – for chats and, if I was lucky, hot sex, as I was still a horny 26 year old young man at this time and ready for adventures. And, as I’ve talked about in other posts, I also wanted to do my bit for The Sexual Revolution and liberate myself from the straits of straight society, so to speak. Given that I was “easy”, I was able to achieve my goal without much difficulty.
I enjoyed meeting these strangers not only for the sex but also because through them, using my English or French, minimal Italian and later German, I could learn more about the life of the city than I could ever find out from a Michelin Guide.
As well, everyone has their story and, I, being curious (nosy) by nature, wanted to hear theirs. If the guy was a fellow tourist, we might meet up the next day to explore. Or even agree to travel together for a few days or more…maybe even have a mini travel romance. That would enable me to at least have a guaranteed dinner partner which was better than being the solo diner in a corner table with my guidebook.
But how would I find these men? I would refer to my handy Spartacus Guide: the Bible of the Gay Men’s World.
This annually-revised guide was first published in the early 1970s and continued until just a few years ago and it can still be found online. The editors of the Spartacus Guide relied on people sending in reports from all around the world about where gay men could meet other gay men inside and outside. From those reports, the editors compiled, in 5 languages, extensive lists city-by-city along with descriptions of each country’s laws and customs around homosexuality, pointing out what places were safe and not safe. Not surprisingly, not all of the listings were accurate but I only needed one or two to be right to get to meet the locals.
Enough of my routines. Let’s get on with this.
LISBON – May 1975
My time in the Gay Liberation Front had led me to want, simply put, a world with more socialism and greater equality for women and racialized and sexual minorities, to use today’s terms. Therefore, the bloodless “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal on April 25, 1974 – a military coup in Lisbon which overthrew the authoritarian Estado Novo regime leading to a social democratic government – greatly inspired me and many others. That important date continues to be a national holiday in Portugal.
When looking for a fun and exhilarating place to travel to for the Whitsun week holiday in 1975, my friend Nigel and I took off to Lisbon to check out this new socialist country, just out of a repressive dictatorship.
The city was still alive peppered with posters from the revolution. We felt the excitement that was still in the air.
This was my very first time in a country with a Mediterranean culture and its very attractive Mediterranean men. That was an added bonus – along with experiencing for the first time the delights of al fresco late night dining on the winding streets of the Old Town.
Touring Alfama, its Old Town, during the day and night was intoxicating with its stone staircases where we easily could get lost but we never minded that. We eventually made our way up to the Castelo de São Jorge for a wonderful view over the city.
At the castle, we noticed a local young man, José, wandering around up there. After exchanging glances, he came over and started talking with us.
“Do you two mind if I practice my English with you?”, he said in English that didn’t sound as if it needed much practice.
Always willing to help out fine, young men, Nigel and I agreed. Over the next few days, José spent time with us proudly showing us the city’s historic sights. Given that he was also gay, at night he could give us a local’s view of Lisbon’s somewhat hidden gay scene.
As would happen with some of the men I met on my vacations, we kept in touch and I hosted him on two visits to London to see us a few months later and two years later. In return, we were able to show him London’s daytime and nighttime sights.
My First Nude Beach
Nudism was certainly not something I was brought up with. Nor were most North Americans. However, I must tell you that the swimming classes for the boys in our high school were held in the nude, as they were in high schools around the country. I know you won’t believe me, but, yes they were. And don’t get me started on the YMCA’s back in those days.
We high schoolers all felt it was a bit weird. But it was normal for the times (ask any 70+ year old North American man), so we didn’t ask any questions. It filled my unacknowledged gay self with equal amounts of fear, trepidation and delight when I actually had the nerve to take a peek. In the lesson before each Pool Class, I would have to repeat to myself: “You will not get a boner. You will not get a boner”. I was so terrified, the mantra worked.
Therefore my first visit to a nudist beach on this trip was not the first time I’d swum nude. But it was certainly the first time in the sea. From an “official” gay beach. It was an experience I would return to often as Europe had plenty of them given that it was a continent that certainly had less prudish attitudes to the body and its display.
I eventually found that most nudist beaches had a gay section – usually the furthest away from the point of entry involving long walks to get there; probably to ensure privacy. There would often be a cruising section behind the beach in the woods or fields for adventures.
I’m not sure that Nigel and I would have had a Spartacus Guide on this visit to Lisbon, but we discovered, probably from our young friend José, that “Beach 19” was one of these gay nudist beaches. Excitedly, we headed out by bus over Lisbon’s magnificent Golden Gate bridge-like just re-named Ponte 25 de Abril (formerly the Ponte Salazar) to the seaside town of Costa da Caparica. As expected, it took us some time to walk to the gay section, but it was worth it as we met men with whom we could mingle.
After sunning and swimming, we walked back together to the seaside town and had some snacks for, it seems, 110 escudos – about £2.
These new friends gave us more stories about gay life in recently liberated Lisbon. Dressed once again, you’ll see in the photo that we were wearing bell bottoms which I’m sure you know were de rigueur at the time.
After a few days more of absorbing the sights and smells of Lisbon’s Mediterranean atmosphere that I knew I wanted to repeat, but never actually have, we checked out of our Hotel Flamingo and headed home.
LONDON to MYKONOS – Summer 1976
London-Paris-Bern-Milan-Florence-Arezzo-Rome-Marina di San Nicola-Naples-Ischia-Sorrento-Capri-Pompeii-Brindisi-Corfu-Athens-Mykonos-Delos-Athens-London.
This marvellous six-week rail and boat trip was a return to my backpacking/keeping-on-the-move travels as I’d done in southeast Asia back in 1973. It started by me buying a Eurorail pass for £39.75 that took me all the way from London to Brindisi in southern Italy. On the way, the pass allowed me to stop in as many cities as I wanted where I would stay in cheap hotels or hostels. To save even more money, I would occasionally sleep on an overnight train. If I was lucky, I might even get to rely on the kindness of strangers and find a place to sleep in a new friend’s bed.
So much happened on this trip and you (and I) don’t have the patience to hear it all, so I’ll just give highlights and impressions.
First stop – Paris
Given that in London, I had been involved with the Gay Liberation Front and I was now a member of the GLF and Marxist-influenced Gay Left Collective (more on that in another post), I was familiar with Le GLH-PQ (le Groupe de libération homosexuelle – Politique & Quotidien) which was its equivalent in France. Through that political connection, in Paris, I met up with Mozart, Guy and Michel from the the GLH-PQ who had kindly invited me to stay with them. Naturally, we all slept and danced together at one point or another during my week’s stay whilst exchanging our thoughts on Marx’s dialectical materialism, the class struggle and how it all related to gay liberation. Even as we were visiting the Palace of Versailles!
Random Paris Diary Entries
These random entries in my diary indicate how busy I was daytimes and nighttimes. It was thrilling.
Tuesday, July 13 – “Walked around Marais to Place des Vosges – to Gare du Nord. Met a Nathon and back to his place. Bought roses and returned home for dinner with Mozart, Michel and Guy. Then to La boîte “Dix-Huit” for dancing; played “Danse de Tapis” and saw drag show. Very sexy time. Home Very Late. 14 juillet celebrations already started.”
Wednesday, July 14 – “Sleep ’till 12.30. Have b’fast with drive with Guy to Versailles, its park, Le Hameau de Reine and the Trianons. Return to eat with Guy, Mozart, Diago and Marcel in Marais. Then to Le Rocambole for dancing. Learn custom of never asking another to dance – just dance close to them! Home at 4.”
Onto Switzerland and Italy
I left Paris and took a day train to Bern on which I apparently “necked with a Finnish guy”. The next morning, after an evening of unsuccessful cruising (“what’s the matter with these people?”, I declared in my diary, now to my shame), I took a walking tour of this pretty capital city with a river wonderfully winding its way throughout and visible at every turn. I visited its infamous “Bear Pit” (Bärengraben) which, after decades of pressure from animal rights organizations, I now learn has been closed down and a much larger park has been built for the bears with more humane conditions.
Leaving Bern by train, I had my first ride through the magnificent Alps on a very clear day which was even more stunning than I had imagined. In Milan, on the roof of its Duomo overlooking the city, I met chatty and fun Jerry from Chicago and we spent the next few days exploring the day and nightlife of Milan and Florence and each other. We discovered that the outdoors gay scene in these Italian cities was much more active than the indoors scene in clubs and bars. Whenever we did learn of a gay bar and actually tracked it down, it often was close to empty and disappointing.
The “outside scene” was where it all happened. As this was both our first trips to Italy, we were confused to see so many fashionably dressed men of all ages, proud of how they looked and, showing it. Strutting their stuff, especially between 5pm and 7pm. This seemed very gay to our North American/Northern European eyes but, of course, they couldn’t all be! That didn’t stop men maintaining eye contact longer than we were used to whether they were straight or gay – which made the whole picking up thing more complicated. We used to know what staring meant, along with The Glance Back, but the rules were different here. We had to become accustomed to these new Mediterranean ways.
At the risk of making a huge generalization, I found that the further south I went, the more the heterosexual men were able to contemplate having some kind of sex with another man as long as they were the “active” one. In other words, f**king another guy or getting sucked off by another guy didn’t make them gay. The “passive” one was the homosexual, not them. Northern European/North American men would have a hard time not to question their own sexuality if they had any kind of sex with another man.
I think this also explains why, here in Italy, the “inside” gay bar scene was less evident than the outside cruising scene. Why go to a gay bar (and perhaps be seen by someone) when you could “innocently” cruise men outside for sex. See what I mean by complicated??
Amedeo & Gianni
Some of you might remember me talking about Italian Amedeo, who had been my flatmate in London. He was now back in Italy, living in Arezzo, near Florence, and he and I had arranged to meet up. What a difference it made to have a local person show me around, especially since Amedeo was such a kind and gracious host.
Part of Amedeo’s graciousness was to introduce me to a friend of his, Gianni, who was doing his military service. We clicked. As the three of us sat in one evening watching the 1976 Summer Olympics broadcast from Montreal, Gianni asked me if I could help him write a kind of a love note that he wanted to give to an English-speaking friend of his along with a gift. I was happy to help him out wondering who this other lucky fellow was.
What a surprise it was when, the next day, Gianni gave me the gift and the note that I had myself composed!
He then talked about how much he’d fallen in love with me.
“But how you could fall in love so quickly?”, I asked, as it certainly wasn’t my style.
“I did and I wanted you to know it.”, Gianni replied.
This delightful gesture warmed my heart and I still have Gianni’s note and the gift, a 45 rpm record, as you can see, both signed by him. Our relationship obviously didn’t last long. I hope he found more stable and longer-lasting love for himself.
Rome and Beyond
You can guess what I would see and get up to in Rome, so I’ll skip that. But I will tell you about Susan. At this time, I was a Sociology lecturer at Uxbridge Technical College on the outskirts of London. One of my favourite A-level Sociology students was the very keen and enthusiastic Susan – a dual Italian/UK citizen. When she heard that I would be travelling through Italy, she kindly invited me to stop by and visit her family who summered at a beach community near Rome.
I reached her by phone and she said,
“Take the 5 pm bus from main bus terminal in Rome and I’ll meet you at the stop in our village”.
Not knowing exactly where I was going, I thought her stop would be the end of the line. But it was only by chance that I saw her out my window standing by the road. In mangled Italian, I yelled to the driver to please stop the bus. Who knows where I would have otherwise ended up.
This world of well-off Italian youths summering by the seaside was certainly a very different one from what I had been experiencing. But I was happy to tap into it and I appreciated her family’s overnight hospitality. This visit also gave me my very first swim in the Mediterranean. How do I not have a photo of that?!
But I do have this photo of my second swim in the Mediterranean in a far corner of the very romantic-sounding island of Capri. I had travelled south to Naples where I stayed a few days, exploring its environs with Christian from France whom I’d hooked up with in Rome. We took a ferry from the resort town of Sorrento to Capri because we’d read there was a gay beach on the island. We had to work hard to find it and, when we finally got there, all we found were lots of rocks and one other person!
From Naples, I took the overnight train to Brindisi, a port town on the Adriatic side of Italy. I searched for and found a compartment that was nearly empty which would allow me to sleep. But, just as the train was pulling out of the station, a bevy of Italian soldiers piled into the compartment and filled up all the seats. Damn, I thought. But, in fact, it turned out to be very pleasant as the soldiers wanted to try out their English with me and hear my story so we chatted and shared food and drink. Eventually, the lights were dimmed and we all fell asleep leaning up against each other. I had wonderful dreams, waking up as the train pulled into the station.
To Corfu and Athens
From Brindisi, I boarded an overnight ferry to Corfu – the big island off the coast of Greece – and that sleep was not nearly as peaceful. I stayed a few nights in Corfu which involved renting a motorcycle for the second time ever in my life. Falling back into my role as a teacher, I zoomed around the green island with three young Italian tourists. As it was their first ever trip outside of Italy and they certainly didn’t have any guidebooks, they were happy for me to take the lead in showing them around. Two of them threw up late one night from drinking too much but I guess that could be expected.
A ferry from Corfu took me to Patras on the mainland and a coach from there got me to Athens.
You can also guess what I got up to in Athens, examining many archaeological sites and exploring their museums. My diary notes that I trekked around the Acropolis and the Agora with “hundreds of locust-like tourists swarming around on the hottest day of the year”.
I did discover that Athens had a gay beach at Varkiza, a vacation spot by the sea about 20 kms outside of the city. Again, the beach was rocky but I did meet charming Carlos from Milan and we spent the evening and night together. I made it to this beautiful and relatively isolated gay beach twice on my 5 day stay in Athens.
A Week in Mykonos
What I really want to take more time describing is my seven day visit to the island of Mykonos, a half day ferry ride away from Athens. Mykonos had and still does have the reputation of being an “in” holiday destination for celebrities and their followers. That included the gays, the one and only such destination in Europe at that time. Although we certainly were still a minority on the island, it was a safe space for us. You couldn’t keep me away.
Mykonos Town was a white-scrubbed big village oozing charm full of winding, car-free streets, harbour-side restaurants and the ability to create a feeling that it’s not actually full of hundreds of tourists, even though it was. The specifically gay bars were few but packed: Windmill, Pierrots, Marquise and the Kastros Bar where we all went for the sunset. I was able to meet gay men not only from Europe but from North and South America and I loved sharing stories in multiple languages. It was a mecca for all of us.
I quickly learned that Mykonos had clothing-optional beaches but they were only reachable by boat at that time: Paradise, Superparadise and Elia. The gays were mainly at the, I thought, aptly-named Superparadise Beach. The facilities were very basic with just one small restaurant. But most of us brought our own food and drinks. After lunch and a swim, people would climb up the rocks surrounding the beach and cruise for sex and adventures. I did make my way up to see what was going on and got good views from up there.
It shows how small the gay world was at the time because, on the beach, I ran into Dick, who had been the gay tourist guide on that cross-Australia coach trip I took back in 1973 that I talked about here. What were the chances of that happening?
I returned to Mykonos once again in 1983 and, by now, all the beaches could be reached by road. And the beach restaurant (shown here) was much fancier. I haven’t been back to Mykonos since. I can’t imagine what it’s like now, 35+ years later. Anyone been recently?
Eugen & Gay Socialist Politics
On Superparadise, I met people from all over Europe but it was with Eugen from Berlin that I hit it off with the most. I’d call it a mini-romance. Chatting away, we soon discovered that we both had had experiences in the Gay Liberation Front and we were both involved in the growing gay socialist political movements in our own cities. He even knew about the Gay Left journal that I was involved with at the time.
We spent the next few days and nights together laying in the sun, having dinners by the sea and dancing late into the night. We were excited to compare our life trajectories and how we got to this point in our lives. This intimacy led to Eugen inviting me to visit and stay with him the following summer in Berlin – which I did. And I wrote about that trip here.
On the final day on Mykonos, Eugen and I organized a group of us to take a ferry to the nearby island of Delos, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the birthplace of the Greek god Apollo, its importance as a mythological, historical and archaeological site in Greece can’t be overstated.
In this post, I had also planned to also write about a road trip to the Mediterranean that I took in April 1979 along its coast in northern Italy and southern France. It would have included the sad story of how my car was broken into once in Genoa (where my tape cassette player was taken but they missed the cash I’d hidden) as well as the story about my car being broken into for a second time just as I arrived in London. I had stupidly left my car parked in the centre of the city with my bag visible on the back seat. Something you just never do in London. That burglary resulted in me losing lots, the most devastating of which was my passport and my camera with most of the photos I’d taken on that trip. I couldn’t sleep for days.
But it would also have included the very happy story of hanging out in a gay bed and breakfast in Genoa with these fine fellows from all over Europe. Anyway, I think you get the picture of how my Daytimes and Nightimes went on these trips, so I’ll stop here.