Table of Contents
Travelling to Iraq is the account of my grandfather’s overland journey from London to Baghdad in the 1950s (taken and abridged from his unpublished autobiography). After accepting a post at Baghdad University, he set off with his erstwhile friend David on a trip that would inspire me many years later on my own overland adventures across Europe and Asia!
London to Baghdad – Setting Off
Prior to leaving Baghdad my friend David invited me to share the driving on the overland return journey in a car which he had bought in Wales. I jumped at the offer although I had never driven a car or entertained the thought of owning one. While on leave I took driving lessons and obtained a driving license. All was in place for our 5,000 mile trip across Europe and Asia Minor.
We crossed from Dover to Calais in September allowing time to arrive in Baghdad for the start of term. Our first stop was Bethune in northern France where we spent our first night. In a local bar I saw a notice which captivated me and which I have never forgotten; Si le bon vin rit dans tes yeux ta femme taimera miex (if good wine laughs in your eyes, your wife will love you more). Not always true.
In the 1950s there were no autoroutes and the main highway passed through every town of any size and some smaller. To help pass the less interesting parts of the road we brought a collection of Penguin paperbacks among which was a collection of Evelyn Waugh.
Sharing the driving in two-hour stints gave the passenger time to enjoy the scenery and/or to read. Across northern France and into Switzerland we were soon rolling along the shores of Lake Geneva. Through Vevey, where I was to live and work a few years later, and to Martigny where I enjoyed the finest chips I have ever tasted. Over the Simplon Pass and the border town of Domodossola.
Then to Milan which we passed through without stopping. At Verona, we stopped over and were highly impressed by the town and the delight of dining al fresco on a warm Italian evening. This memory remained with me and was to be enjoyed often in coming years. We strolled around the piazza under the shadow of the coliseum and marvelled at it all.
From Verona, we continued along the Po valley to Padua where we visited the basilica of St.Anthony. Then to Venice where we garaged the car on the outskirts and searched for a modest hotel which we found in the Albergo Suisse. We were quick to begin our sightseeing and went straight to the Piazzo San Marco, the hub of Venice.
The Duomo and the Doges Palace occupied many hours and we saw more paintings by the great masters than we knew to exist. Venice we found to be beyond compare and in later visits confirmed this. In fact, it is more enjoyable each time I see it.
From Venice, we travelled along the coast to Trieste and observed that we were no longer seeing English tourists who had been thinning out by the time we reached Venice. On leaving Trieste we entered communist Yugoslavia where we were surprised by the almost complete absence of motor vehicles.
We continued through Zagreb to Belgrade where we stayed in an imposing hotel in the town centre. From our window overlooking the main square, we could see a policewoman on point duty directing a heavy traffic of bullock carts. There were no cars.
After a stroll around the precincts we dropped into a bar where we sat having a beer and across from us was a blond woman in company with an older man who soon got up and left. She came over to our table and introduced herself as the Blue Angel, a singer in the bar we were in.
The woman had come to Yugoslavia with the German army during the war, her husband being a Wermacht officer. He had been killed or returned to Germany without her and she was making a living as a bar entertainer. She told me that the man she had been with was a paying customer but that she would like to sleep with David free of charge. He was a blonde and appealed to her.
She suggested we return in the evening to hear her sing and when she discovered that we were travelling to Iraq she expressed a desire to come with us. We beat a polite but hasty retreat and did not return in the evening when we found ourselves, instead, in what seemed to be an army officers club. We ate and drank well and no one questioned our right to be there.
Leaving Belgrade we headed south for Greece. The countryside was bleak and, at intervals, there were lookout towers armed with machine guns and searchlights. The main highway was unsurfaced and was crossed frequently by streams flowing down from the hills. These streams were bridged by means of planks.
A river crossing on the road from London to Baghdad
Somewhere south of Nis a large section of the road had been washed away and presented us with what could have been a major problem as there was no obvious alternative route. Fortunately, the river was very low and the missing road was no more than a couple of hundred yards so we decided to take a chance and drive along the river bed. David drove (his car) and I waded in front on the lookout for deep water or rocks. We made it onto the solid surface and continued to Skopje where we arrived quite late at the only hotel.
First a pint in a local where the drinkers welcomed us with applause being aware of the road conditions. Back at the hotel the proprietor asked us to be quiet and showed us to two beds in a darkened room where we were not long in getting to sleep. When we wakened we discovered there were half a dozen sleepers occupying other beds.
After a fill of petrol, we continued on our way south. The road was poor, there is a superhighway now, and it took us several hours to reach Gevgelija on the border. This was a very small place about a mile from the frontier so we went on in the hope of entering Greece before dark. The barrier was closed and guarded by armed militia who could not be induced to let us through even though we tried to convince them that we were in the diplomatic corps.
So back to Gevgelija where we made for the local bar and something to eat Omelette was our usual choice as there was little to be had that was cheaper. Having eaten, we sat over a beer but our peace was soon disturbed by the entrance of four large and tough-looking peasants, apparently a father and three sons.
After making inroads on a bottle of schnapps they got on to the small floor where they gave a very good exhibition of Greek dancing. Through the haze of schnapps, they focused on us and lumbered over to our table introducing themselves as Macedonians, not Greek and certainly not Yugoslavs.
They were quite friendly and more so when they learned that we were from Britain. Of course, we had to join them but, pleasant though it was, we found it not good preparation for the following day’s motoring.
A Bad Decision
In the midst of the reveling, we were approached by the barman who confided in us that as his was the only hotel in the vicinity we would be staying at his place for the night. A fairly reasonable assessment of the situation but one to which we, very unreasonably, took exception and which led us to spending the night in the car. We drew lots and I picked the short straw having to sleep in front curled round the steering wheel.
Early, very early, in the morning we were welcomed to a new day by knocking on the window. It was the customs officer on his way to his post and asking for a lift. Unfortunately, we did not plan on an early rise and declined to perform for which uncharitable act we were to pay later.
When we arrived at the frontier we met the customs officer of earlier acquaintance, all smiles. “Please empty car” “Everything?” “Yes everything and the boot” This amused us for the best part of an hour after which we crossed the no-mans-land between the frontiers hoping for a clear run.
This was not to be, for at the Greek frontier post we were met with “Empty car please” Clearly a friend of the Yugoslav official. Having completed the formalities we descended from the mountains to the Aegean Sea and Thessaloniki where we celebrated on kebab in a café on the waterfront.
We had considered the roads to be bad during the previous days but what lay ahead beggared description and sometimes the road disappeared into fields to reappear where least expected. It was in one such field that we had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing a Greek shepherd boy playing on pan pipes while watching his flock.
We approached him in the car to ask for directions but from nowhere came a vicious sheepdog which hurled itself against the car in a rage. We retreated glad of the car’s protection. Then on through Kavalla, Xanthi and Komotini to a small decrepit town called Alexandropoulos where we spent the night.
In searching for accommodation we pulled up at what appeared to be a low-class hostel and I climbed the stairs to the reception with the uneasy feeling that I had made a fundamental error which was confirmed as I approached the desk.
On casting a glance around the room I found the walls lined with chairs and in each was a girl whose function I could only guess. With lowered head, I made for the stairs to continue searching this time with success. On the following morning, we had breakfast in a fly-blown café in the main square which looked like a town in northern France after a First World War battle.
The road was now appalling. A series of deep muddy potholes which permitted a speed of no more than 5 to 10mph. We stopped about noon in a village where we had the car cleared for passage out of Greece.
After a meal, we continued at under 10mph getting nowhere and darkness falling. Our objective was Istanbul but we had not even reached the frontier when we saw headlights approaching rapidly. What could make such progress under such appalling conditions was soon found to be a tractor with wheels large enough to cope with the road conditions.
Brush with the Iron Curtain
The driver, who spoke good English, asked where we were going and, when told, suggested that we return with him to the town we had just left. His explanation was that we were getting near to the Bulgarian frontier and any navigational error could take us too close for comfort. At that time Bulgaria was behind the iron curtain and they did not welcome strangers.
On arrival at the town, we were established in a hotel by our guide who, giving us time to wash, returned to take us for a meal in a very crowded restaurant. He was accompanied by a friend whom he introduced as his boss. The guide had formerly owned the business in which he was employed but went off to join the partisans during the war. He returned as an employee in what had been his business and with no rancour or bad feeling.
It was quite late when we had eaten and we were tired but our host insisted on taking us to a film in an open-air cinema, a film in Greek without subtitles. We eventually turned in but he was there in the morning to see us off.
The only thing we could offer him as a token of our appreciation of his hospitality was a sealed tin of 50 Players cigarettes and could not have given anything better. His eyes lit up and he swore he would have one only on special occasions. Greek cigarettes were at that time of extremely low quality and of coffin nail quality.
London to Baghdad – Turkey
This time we achieved our goal and rolled into Istanbul before dark the same day. We stopped at the famous Pera Palace Hotel and here we passed three days exploring the ancient Ottoman city.
We crossed the Galatea Bridge, a remarkable structure floating on pontoons and noted for its food shops and small restaurants. Alas, this feature of Istanbul has since been dismantled to make way for a modern bridge. The St Sophia and the Blue mosques dominate the skyline over the Bosporus together with the Sultans Palace and in each we spent only enough time for a short tour.
We then crossed the Bosphorus into Asia Minor by ferry, there being no bridge at that time, and landed at Scutari which was the site of Florence Nightingale’s first hospital.
Our road now lay south into territory which had been closed to outsiders since the end of the 1914/18 war and had just been opened a year prior to our trip. We were therefore one of the first travellers through southern Turkey for some 35 years, a fact which was manifest in the reactions of the inhabitants of the country through which we drove.
*If you want to read about crossing from Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan now, you can check out this blog*
Our first stop was the capital Ankara, a city in two parts; ancient and modern, the former being by far the more interesting. As we arrived on a Friday evening we were obliged to delay our departure for three days in order to present ourselves at the British Embassy. The reason for this now escapes me. We did make good use of our time exploring the old quarter which was built on a hill and had some very old buildings primitive in style. Leaving Ankara we found the roads to be no more than wide dirt tracks with obvious consequences when we were overtaken by Turkish trucks driven by madmen.
This was inhospitable terrain with little habitation. On the way south to the Taurus Mountains we encountered little traffic most of which was heavy trucks moving in clouds of dust at great speeds. Lunching one day in a small village we performed our normal routine of examining the cooking pots before placing our order. (On one occasion we were met with a cloud of flies when the lid was lifted.)
Whilst eating in a shrub-enclosed area on the pavement a crowd began to gather and had reached sizable proportions by the time we left. A path to the car was cleared by policemen and we were applauded as we walked the gauntlet.
Then to the Taurus Mountains through the Cilician Gates, a pass through which Alexander the Great led his armies three millennia ago in search of conquest in the East. Skirting Tarsus, no mean city, and birthplace of St Paul, we dropped down to the Mediterranean and our first taste of civilisation at the beautiful port of Iskenderun.
This was a complete change from the terrain through which we had been travelling since leaving Venice. We spent but little time in Iskenderun but enough to appreciate the warmth of the sun and the very pleasing waterfront.
London to Baghdad – Syria
Our way then took us through Syria and we spent our first night in this country which has suffered so much since then. The dusty city Aleppo hosted us and we slept in a seedy hotel within sight of the great citadel. South to Hama where the giant and ancient waterwheel continues to turn in the waters of the Orontes then Homs.
Then to Homs and the nearby Krak de Chevaliers, a 13th century Crusader fortress, in a remarkable state of preservation. At Damascus, we spent one night before setting out across the Syrian Desert for Baghdad.
London to Baghdad – The End of a Journey
Travelling to Iraq five thousand miles across Europe and Asia Minor at a time when tourism was in its infancy and package holidays aspired to no further than the Costal del Sol. In later years our route became that of the hippies en route to the poppy fields of Afghanistan and there is now a metalled highway through Yugoslavia and Greece where once there was no more than tracks in the earth.
Back in England, I took a temporary job which was quite unsuitable in a company producing equipment for the food industry. Nevertheless, I decided that I would take it seriously and enrolled in a course of metallurgy. An evening course and not at all demanding. At the same time I kept and eye on the job market when out of the blue I received an invitation from the Colonial Office to join the staff of the West African Cocoa Research Institute.
Thinking of Visiting Baghdad?
Baghdad, and Iraq in general is somewhere I am very keen to visit sooner rather than later, not least to see where my grandfather lived and worked all those years ago as well as the ancient site of Babylon.
If you want to visit then check out this recent guide to Visiting Baghdad from Christian at Unusual Traveler, who spent time in the city in March 2019.
About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.