Leering Italians and heady freedom: What hitch-hiking across Europe in the 1980s was really like

Heidi Fuller-Love
·6 min read
It was a good idea to steer clear of the Paris Metro - Getty
It was a good idea to steer clear of the Paris Metro - Getty

I was 16, I’d finished my O-levels and had a broken heart. “I’m going to hitch-hike around Europe for two months,” I told my parents.

“That’s nice dear – don’t forget your tent,” mum said vaguely.

Of course I did.

It was an innocent time when the notion of a young woman hitching around Europe seemed a bit weird, but not really worrisome. There was plenty to worry about, of course, but parents of my generation were convinced that everyone was nice and trustworthy, and that suited me.

When I said I planned to travel alone, friends were flabbergasted. “What for? Haven’t you got anyone to go with?” they asked, as if the notion was utterly bizarre.

My brother – for whom females were petticoat-wearing, mouse-fearing creatures who needed a good man to keep them in their place – was even more astounded. “But you’re a girl!” he gasped.

He was older than me – a fan of Rod Stewart and The Osmonds, the poor thing. I was born out of the heady punk years, when you could go out wearing a bin liner and ripped fishnets and no-one (except your brother) pointed out the hole in your tights.

This was the Eighties, a heady time of femme-power, when suit-wearing, cropped-hair-sporting Annie Lennox was challenging female stereotypes and Britain had – gasp! – its first ever woman prime minister. Like Cyndi Lauper, I just wanted to have fun, and skipping through borders collecting inky rubber stamps in my navy-school-knickers-coloured Lion and Unicorn passport was my idea of it.

It was a simpler time. Heidi in the Eighties - Heidi Fuller-Love
It was a simpler time. Heidi in the Eighties - Heidi Fuller-Love

Amsterdam was wonderful, but expensive – my silver guilders dwindled as I spent evenings dancing in dense clouds of wacky baccy at the legendary Melkweg and afternoons in coffee shops drinking cream-topped koffie met slagrom and watching the hippies my father called “long-haired layabouts” tugging sweet-scented whiskers of Drum shag tobacco from ornate leather pouches.

In Paris, where it was common coin for groups of men on the metro to herd you into a corner and touch you up, I preferred to walk. The city was smaller then, and safer, and I spent my days in Châtelet-Les Halles – marvelling at Beaubourg’s avant-garde art installations and admiring wig-wearing transvestites strutting along the rue Strasbourg-Saint-Denis.

A Parisian street in 1986 - Getty
A Parisian street in 1986 - Getty

Lunch was usually a picnic – Boursin and big bars of Felix Potin chocolate on a bench near The Seine – and evenings were spent at The YWCA’s wonderful Cardew Club, originally set up in the 1930s as residential club for theatre girls who were in financial difficulties, but these days a place where gangs of young expats, like me, could meet and mingle with locals.

In the Eighties public transport was fairly cheap across the Channel, so after a few weeks in the City of Light I lit out on a night train for the French Riviera. Dazzled by Mediterranean sunshine and the ear-piercing shriek of cicadas, I got off in Cannes, and stumbled across to La Croisette to join gangs of teens interrailing through Europe, who saved money be sleeping on the beach. After a week of non-stop partying, I stuck my thumb out once more.

Cannes doesn't attract quite so many backpackers these days - Getty
Cannes doesn't attract quite so many backpackers these days - Getty

A friendly farmer took me from Cannes to Ventimiglia, where I crossed over into Italy. Hitch-hiking here was a real eye-opener. Losing a battle with mosquitoes one night whilst sleeping on a bench in the seaside town of Genoa, my head doubled in size. This seemed of little matter to the lascivious Latin truckers who hooted and tooted impatiently as they vied with each other to pick up this foreign female with the face of Quasimodo.

After driving me around the suburbs of Venice for several hours, popping shirt buttons to show me his manly chest mat – ‘Feel it! It is real! Feel!’ – or trying to get me to change gears for him – ‘Put your hand on this stick! Is like me! A real man!’ – my lorry-driving Lothario dumped me on the hard shoulder of the motorway and sped away to find a more willing conquest, leaving me to hike ten miles to the nearest hostel.

Venice was far less crowded then, and grittier. Cats prowled empty alleys, the streets smelt of cigarette smoke and slime, and fabulously downtrodden palazzos were inhabited by austere-looking, black-clad nonnas – I loved it.

Venice was far quieter in the 1980s - Getty
Venice was far quieter in the 1980s - Getty

Despite the constant bum-pinching, leers and lusty comments, I loved the freedom too. Without WhatsApp or social media, and with no smart phone, internet or other means of communication (except for occasional garbled conversations in public phone boxes to reassure my parents that I was alive), home seemed incredibly remote.

My backpack, containing two pairs of shorts, a bikini and a few T-shirts, was my whole world. I’d buy pink cartons of Dreft powder – ‘for a clean you can trust’ – and stop off in dusty squares of small villages to wash my dirty clothes in stone troughs brimming with ice-cold spring water, then write in my diary – or long postcards to my friends – as they dried in the hot sun which seemed to shine every day once I crossed The Channel.

Posing in Venice - Heidi Fuller-Love
Posing in Venice - Heidi Fuller-Love

Life was so simple: no horrible exams; no pesky boyfriends. Each day I’d get up, put on the green or red shorts, with the blue or black T-shirt, then stick out my thumb and see where it took me. Depending on the country, evening meals were a baguette, stangenbrot or stokbrot slathered with crusty taleggio, chunky pate or slices of leberwurst. My bed was a sleeping bag in a field – or occasionally someone’s back garden – where I slept soundly despite crowing cocks, pealing church bells and curious herds of cows. After two months, when I was deeply tanned and had run out money, I reluctantly went home.

My father picked me up at the ferry terminal. His big old Moskvitch seemed smaller, somehow and Dover struck me as tatty and provincial. “Did you have a good time dear – it must be nice to be safe back home?” he asked.

“Yes daddy,” I said, already planning my next adventure.

Read more: Bad hotels, worse food, and clouds of cigarette smoke: What holidays in the 1970s were really like

What do you remember of Europe in the Eighties? Was travel better back then, and, if so, why? Please leave your comments below.