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Travel: accidental tourism

At this time of year, in the lull between "travelling seasons", I cast my mind back to journeys past, the best of which involve incidents and encounters that could not possibly have been anticipated.

The Croatian city of Dubrovnik, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, holds a special place in John Carter's heart . Photograph: Shutterstock
The Croatian city of Dubrovnik, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, holds a special place in John Carter's heart . Photograph: Shutterstock

Serendipities. This was certainly true in Dubrovnik, now in Croatia but, in 1964, part of Yugoslavia - a country held together by the force of Tito's personality.

I arrived by bus from Sarajevo, via Mostar. Hot, dirty, hungry, thirsty and in a foul mood. It was my own fault for trying to cram in too much, but I relished the prospect of a hot shower, a meal and a chance to recover before getting down to work the following morning.

I didn't know that my visit coincided with the city's arts festival. My friends in the tourist office decided that, after I had sorted myself out, a spot of culture would improve my mood. So, unexpectedly, I spent that evening watching Hamlet, performed on the city ramparts by The Young Vic Company from Bristol. The following evening I sat beside Margaret Truman, daughter of the former US president, at an orchestral concert. Very serendipitous.

Portugal holds similar memories, though I never established the identity of the English family I met on my first visit to the Algarve. I had driven from Lisbon, staying overnight en route. At the time, there were perhaps half a dozen hotels in the entire region, few restaurants, no tourists, indifferent roads and an overwhelming air of lethargy. When I drove down farm tracks to reach the shore, people would come to their cottage doors because the sound and sight of a car was so unusual. When I mentioned tourism to the owners of small restaurants and bars, they had no idea what I was talking about. As far as they were concerned, beaches were places you laid out fishing nets to dry.

Then, on one of those wide and empty beaches, I encountered two little fair-haired girls playing on an upturned boat. Their mother sat nearby. They were English. Her husband was based in Lisbon - whether at the British embassy or as a businessman, I never learned - and would be driving down to join the family the next day.

"We love it here," she said. "So peaceful. I hope it never changes." I still have the photograph of those two little girls who, by now, must be in their sixties. The empty land and beach behind them is the resort of Carvoeiro.

There was a sort of serendipity, too, in a long-ago visit to Crete which had become popular as a result of a 1977 TV drama called Who Pays The Ferryman?, filmed in and around Elounda on the north coast.

We rented a villa in the resort of Aghios Nikolaos. My three children, then in their teens, enjoyed the sunshine and swimming, the restaurants and lively evenings in and around the harbour restaurants and bars. The only drawback, for me, was that British visitors (like us) were overwhelming the resort. The fact most of them called it Aggie Nick didn't help. I did not want to force feed the children a heavy dose of culture or history, but had hoped to encounter more of the "real" Greece.

Then someone suggested an excursion to the island of Spinalonga. We clambered into a boat with a dozen others and sped off, being treated to a commentary in doubtful English by our bearded skipper. When he mentioned the island had been a leper colony, the adults looked grim. My three, and the other youngsters in the group, were delighted. To them, the site of a leper colony was not macabre, but adventurous.

So we walked around the island, peering into ruined buildings and stepping over broken tombstones. There were even skulls and bones, bleached by the sun. The children had the time of their lives.

There was a time when, for me, Austria meant ski resorts. I was younger and fitter and enjoyed sliding down mountainsides. But I grew older and less fit and inclined to enjoy Austria outside winter - discovering in the process the pleasures afforded by many of those ski resorts when the snow had gone. Walking wasn't the sole objective, but walking took me from one small community to another by way of meadows and tracks.

The wild flowers were staggering in their variety and profusion, and the air was so fresh as to be intoxicating. It amused me to take the ski lift to the plateau above whichever resort happened to be my base, and descend gradually in contrast to the downhill speed of former years.

John Carter presented Wish You Were Here on ITV and BBC One's Holiday.

TRAVEL NOTES

Ramblers Worldwide Holidays has inclusive holidays to Dubrovnik, the Algarve, Crete and the Austrian Tyrol. A Week Around Dubrovnik costs from £715 (Apr-Oct), including flights from London Gatwick and seven nights half-board. Along The Algarve Way is a seven-night holiday from £899 (May-Oct) including flights from Gatwick, Manchester or Birmingham and half-board in four-star hotels. A Week In Crete (May-Nov) costs from £785 including half-board accommodation and flights from Gatwick, with a Heathrow option available in November.

Visit ramblersholidays.co.uk or call 01707 331133.

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