In this blogposting...
*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Second Day



I have never thought of the English as being particularly diffident or self-effacing. Indeed, our more outdated history books are littered with examples of Churchillian immodesty; we civilised the noble savages of Africa, India and elsewhere - and, where this was not possible (as on Tasmania), we wiped them out altogether, for their own good; we domesticated the antediluvian wildernesses of Australia and Canada and installed County Councils there; and, in so doing, we bequeathed to the world one of its most grotesquely difficult languages then sat back and laughed while Johnny Foreigner mispronounced almost every word of it.

In one important respect, though, we score more highly than many of our continental cousins in the modesty league-table; the naming of our streets.

In many parts of Europe - or so it seems to me - there is an unsettling tendency to give quite ordinary streets and alleyways the most astonishingly grandiose names. Whereas we shy and unassuming English are content with names like Vine Place or Northumberland Street, Claypath or Ocean Road, the City (and sometimes even Village) Fathers across the Channel seem to have an irresistible urge to commemorate some long-forgotten local hero or utterly unimportant historical event by naming a street accordingly.

Thus you might find yourself walking along Stefanos Papandropoulos Street in some otherwise unpretentious Greek fishing village; or October 28th Street in a small hilltop town in Italy.

Puzzlingly, local people don’t seem to be aware of how inappropriate this is to the sensibilities of English eyes and ears. Any self-conscious Briton would be deeply embarrassed to say he lived at number 14, Sir Harold Wilson Street. If I lived at number 54, Tuesday 17 March 1956 Street, I would move.

What is genuinely irritating is that, if you take the trouble to ask a native who Stefanos Papandropoulos was, or what exactly happened on October 28th, they don’t know.

This curious European tendency bubbled to the surface again during my last few hours in Brussels, and in an unexpectedly English way, to boot.

I was busy sampling a couple of Belgium’s famous - and on occasion, infamous - beers outside a small bar just off the Grand Place. It was my Grand Tour’s first morning and I wanted to make sure I had the train-times correct. My railway map of Europe was spread out on the table in front of me and I was salivating at some of the prospects ahead of me, when I was accosted by a couple of Poles. (Not something you will hear me say very often.)

For some unaccountable, and probably mystical, reason, they knew I was English and asked me how the street we were on had acquired its name.

Their question took me by surprise - firstly, because I couldn’t understand why they had asked me (of all people) and secondly, because I did not actually know what the street’s name was.
The answer to both these puzzles was forthcoming when I looked up at the side of the building opposite and discovered that I was taking my beer-fuelled pleasure on Rue Jerome K Jerome.

For a brief moment I felt like a character from some surrealist fantasy. Two Polish tourists were asking an English tourist how a street in Brussels got its name. I was trying to formulate an inoffensive reply when I suddenly realised who Jerome K Jerome was. Slowly, the scant information I had been storing deep in the part of my memory marked ‘Information You Will Probably Never Need’ trickled forth. Jerome K Jerome was the author of Three Men In A Boat, one of the most popular comic novels of its, or any other, age.

And that’s not all. I suddenly remembered a listener to BBC Radio Newcastle calling us one day (probably as part of a ‘Tell Us Something Interesting’ challenge) and informing us that the ‘K’ stood for ‘Klapka’, a name our caller found so impressive that she gave it to her cat, which had just died.

Suddenly, the Polish Question was thrown into relief. ‘Klapka’ sounded vaguely Slavic. As unlikely as it seemed, it could, I supposed, be possible that the famed author and journalist, whose reputation rested on his lugubrious, bone-dry Englishness, could have had a dash of Warsaw in there somewhere.

Despite all this, though, I couldn’t answer the Question. Why on earth should the good burghers of Brussels think it desirable to name a not unimportant street in the centre of their city after an Edwardian English comic writer?

My Polish fellow-tourists (Steffa and Gyorg) were obviously a little nonplussed when I was unable to provide a solution to their problem. As recompense, I offered to buy them a glass or two of the same deceptively strong ale as I was drinking. I didn’t have to ask twice, and over the next hour or two, we got to know each other quite well. That’s what Belgian beer does for you.

It also encourages you to accede to requests like ‘Will you hold this cigarette lighter while I take your picture?’ without wondering why. See above. QED.

I undertook to research the Polish Question and get back to them via email and I’ve been as good as my word. I have conducted extensive research on the subject and have sent Steffa my promised email. It said ‘I still don’t know.’

Do you?

I had earmarked my last couple of hours in Brussels to visit the Magritte Museum - I’ve been a big fan of this highly-eccentric Belgian Surrealist painter for many, many years - but instead, I wasted it wandering around the fine and graceful old city centre with Steffa and Gyorg.

No matter. One of the preferential Grand Tour ‘rules’ that were developing in my mind was that, great tourist sites notwithstanding, I would do whatever felt right at the time, wherever I was. And it felt good to wander aimlessly around the Grand Place with my Polish friends. And wandering aimlessly - and discovering unexpected things - seemed to be their speciality. It was Steffa who accidentally discovered the hidden excavations of Bruxella, the ancient and mediaeval city beneath our feet.

And anyway, not visiting the Magritte Museum had given me a reason to return.

A holiday like this is, of course, dependent on timetables and the next stage of my Tour was beckoning to me by midday. My train to Cologne.

As it pulled out of the station and headed east, I opened my notebook to record my impressions of the city I was leaving. Amongst them were...

‘Immaculate and untidy...very friendly indeed....lovely postcard shop selling pictures of trains and nothing else....can you get real Belgian waffles in Newcastle?....underground trams....nowhere to sit....amazing variety of food on offer - and great beer....’

Belgium isn’t a big country and by the time I’d written up my notes, the train was approaching the German border. Within minutes, we had pulled into the station at Aachen.

To my mind, there is a peculiar and very special group of cities. Once illustriously famous and celebrated, they have sunk - or are at least in the process of sinking - into unaccustomed obscurity, eclipsed by history. Avignon, Istanbul, Naples and many others fall into this category - and Aachen, too. Once the proud and powerful centre of Charlemagne’s vast empire, it now lies peacefully unnoticed in its lovely valley. Its attractive old streets, grand bridge and mighty cathedral bear witness to its former greatness.

Charlemagne based himself here because the city stood at a vital trade-route crossroads of northern central Europe. It still does. Just a few miles away lies the point where three countries meet - Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Indeed, Aachen is one of only a few places to have two unrelated names; the French call it Aix-la-Chapelle.

And it was while I was noting this in my book that I realised how ‘literary’ my day was becoming. Jerome K Jerome had already surfaced unexpectedly in Brussels and here I now sat looking out over the city to which the famous Good News was brought from Ghent in Robert Browning’s awesome poem....

‘I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;

I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;

‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;

Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,

And into the midnight we galloped abreast...’

Browning’s description of Roland, the tireless horse in the poem, is my favourite part.

‘And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back

For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;

And one eye’s black intelligence,—ever that glance

O’er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!

And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon

His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on...’

How They Brought The Good News From Ghent To Aix was so popular at the time that it spawned a craze for breathless ‘galloping’ poems, the best of which is The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Edwardian children learned these poetic gems by heart.

Academics and poets alike have made many attempts to find out exactly what the Good News was, but to no avail. It seems we will never know.


The semi-industrial landscape of northern Germany is not inspiring. The land is fairly flat and the factories and shopping centres too close together to give the visitor an idea of the surrounding countryside.

The approach to Cologne is equally unsatisfying. Endless blocks of badly-designed houses and flats reminded me very forcibly indeed of the total destruction of the city at the end of the Second World War and of how very quickly it had to be rebuilt.

Worse yet, the train ground to a halt in one of the city’s faceless suburbs and remained there for twenty minutes. I found myself staring into someone’s living room while they watched the German equivalent of The Weakest Link. I began to wonder why I had bothered to book a night in Cologne.

But as the train finally pulled away over the River Rhine, I remembered why I had wanted to come here. There before me stood the immensity, the grandeur and the power of Cologne Cathedral. In one fell swoop the city redeemed itself.

Well, almost.

My first impressions on leaving the station were not good. Opposite the station exit stood a range of commercial buildings of the same style of nondescript unworthiness found in Coventry or Portsmouth (God forbid). Under unimaginable pressure, the city’s postwar administrators built a ‘new’ Cologne that looked, at first sight, dull and utterly uninspiring.

But once again, the awesome cathedral rides in like the cavalry to save the day. Its ancient walls and twin west towers rise to dizzying heights within yards of the station exit. I just had to sit down and look at it. And it rewarded my gaze with countless little spires and gargoyles, soaring windows and flying buttresses - and those two mighty towers that have become the city’s trademark.

Inside the cathedral there is a small photographic exhibition about the rebuilding of postwar Cologne and it’s a very sobering experience to see just how completely the entire city was destroyed - except for the cathedral, which, like St Paul’s in London and our own cathedral in Durham City, escaped every attempt by the enemy to bomb it into oblivion.

As everybody knows, history is written by the people who win. I have read many times that there is still controversy amongst military historians as to whether the wholesale destruction of beautiful German cities like Dresden and Cologne was strictly necessary so late in the war. As I walked through the cathedral’s surroundings towards my hotel, I wished that someone had stayed the hand of the Allied bombers. I know that that is easy for me to say at this distance in time and emotion, but I say it nonetheless.

Not all of the ancient city was rebuilt as insensitively as the commercial centre, though. The quickest route to my hotel involved a leisurely ten-minute walk down the west bank of the river and there, the planners had reconstructed what the bombers had destroyed. The river’s embankments are lined with old-fashioned merchant’s houses, beer gardens and restaurants.

And that wasn’t the only way my walk gave me a flavour of the ‘real’ Cologne. Almost everyone I encountered - walkers, cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers, idlers - greeted me with a smile and Guten Tag, ‘good day!’. I genuinely felt that they were glad to see me. That may sound crass and even a little corny, but it’s true. By the time I reached my hotel, there was a definite spring in my step.

I decided I liked Cologne.

My decision had been influenced not just by the cathedral, the embankment and the people, though. An inefficient German architect had something to do with it, too.
To reach the river from the station, you have to cross a small, brick-paved square - you can see it on the photo above. Today, there were security guards posted all round it, preventing people from walking across. I asked a particularly handsome one why this was so (in my helpless broken German). He told me (in perfect English) that the city’s new Concert Hall lay underneath the square and that pedestrian footsteps can be heard quite clearly from within the hall.

Apparently, the architect now works as a signalman on the railways.

So I had to walk round the square (not a problem) because there was a rehearsal in progress below it.

A rehearsal? Yes, for tonight’s grand concert, he told me. Tickets for which would be going on sale at five o’clock.

I couldn’t resist it. I invoked Grand Tour Rule One (‘do whatever feels right at the time’; see Brussels, above). I walked to my hotel, installed myself therein, clipped my eyebrows (as you do) and dashed straight back to the hall.

I bought one of the last few tickets. Schumann’s First Symphony and Nielsen’s Fourth, to be performed by the North Rhine Symphony Orchestra. I couldn’t believe my luck. All this and some world-class music, too.

Yes, I liked Cologne a lot.

And what I ate before the concert made me feel even happier. Have you ever tried Iced Spaghetti? From what I could deduce, you boil up some spaghetti in the usual way but with loads of sugar. Chill it. Then cover it generously with ice-cream, chocolate, banana, strawberries - whatever you fancy. It sounds a bit weird, I know. But it tastes as sunshiney as Cologne felt at that moment.

And everywhere the quiet, unforced friendliness. The greetings and the smiles. The warmth and the welcome. While I ate my Iced Spaghetti I took out my SCL again. ‘Are the Germans dour and humourless?’ I put a very big, heavy No in that box.

The concert was wonderful. The hall was vast, sumptuous and full - the way a concert hall should be. I’d never heard the Nielsen symphony before, either. It ends with a kind of duel between the percussionists; six kettledrums on each side of the orchestra fighting it out in a thundering crescendo. I was transfixed.

But the evening had not quite ended. As the crowd poured out of the concert hall, the bells of the floodlit cathedral began to chime, as if on cue. I sat down on a bench outside the Great West Door, looked up at the towers rising up into the darkness above - and just listened.

Right at that moment, I couldn’t believe how extraordinarily lucky I was to be in that city, that night.

Not all those who wander are lost...


...will take place at Birkheads Nursery on Wednesday 2 June at 1100.

I’m very conscious that some of the chosen AGM venues might be difficult to get to for some truckshunters. Please leave a comment in the Comments box if this is so for you.

And remember...a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Post comments on this blog or email me:

In this blogposting...
*Robinson's Grand Tour: First Day


I feel as if I know the East Coast Main Line better than the back of my own hand. This is hardly surprising when you consider how many hundreds of times I’ve travelled along its hallowed tracks since I left home for London well over four decades ago. It’s probably only a slight exaggeration to suggest that you could plant me anywhere along its route and I would know roughly - or even precisely - where I was.

As the 0832 train carried me southwards over the Tyne and I realised my Grand Tour had actually begun at last, it dawned on me that this route, so familiar to me over so many years, was covered end-to-end in unusual significance that morning. It was launching me into the Great Unknown and within hours, its comforting predictability would be replaced by wholly unfamiliar lines, crossings, points and stations; the view through the window would not be so easily ignored.

Perhaps, after all, I’d taken my train-window view of England for granted for forty years. Perhaps I’d even ignored it a little too much. As the train took the gentle, slow curve into York station, I realised that, although much - like the stately view of the Minster - had not changed, a very great deal had. Trading and industrial estates outside Newark and Retford, vast sports complexes and shopping malls south of Doncaster.

And poor old Peterborough. On my teenage journey south all those years ago, it had been a rather sleepy provincial English city that few people really noticed, despite its noble and historic cathedral (where Mary, Queen of Scots, no less, is buried). Since my salad days, though, it has quadrupled in size. The cathedral’s low towers and small, spikey spires now jostle for attention with office blocks and shopping centres. And still...nobody really notices Peterborough.

As the train rushed me across the featureless wide-skyed fens I became almost uncontrollably excited. Hitchin, Stevenage, Hatfield. Soon I would be in London. All I needed to do was cross the road from King’s Cross (which king? where’s the cross?) to St Pancras (who??) and Eurostar would whisk me away to new adventures.

But first, there was the little matter of my checklist...

My Stereotype Confirmation List (SCL) already needed updating. Had there been a ‘typical’ English train passenger annoying everyone by talking loudly and at great length on a mobile phone?

Check. Yes, there had indeed.

She boarded the train at Doncaster and almost immediately telephoned an unfortunate lady called Sharon who, along with the rest of us, was given a blow-by-blow account of Ms Doncaster’s truly horrendous week.

It turns out she had a met a Sheffield man called Terry who wanted to buy a house in Bradfield which, as everyone knows, is far too far from the city centre. Ms Doncaster, on the other hand, had her eye on a house in Netherthorpe, where there was much more life and activity. Such was the rift between them that they even slept in separate beds on the last two nights.

(I’m not making this up.)

As the details of her time in Sheffield became more and more shamelessly graphic, so the embarrassed squirming of her fellow-passengers became more and more obvious. The beleaguered Sharon was finally able to find an excuse to cut the conversation short so, just after Peterborough, Ms Doncaster called her mother who had, apparently, been looking after the dogs (Sherry and Brandy). The whole of Coach B (the ‘quiet coach’) then found out that Ms Doncaster Senior’s neighbours had been complaining about the activities of Sherry and (especially) Brandy. The awesome Ms Doncaster’s advice to her mother was to tell the neighbours where to shove their complaints.

Interestingly, it was exactly the same place I wanted her to shove her mobile phone...

I checked the box marked ‘stereotype confirmed’ and moved on to my next list.

I had come armed with lists of various kinds. All of my Grand Tour’s train times and fares, all of my accommodation addresses, who not to forget to remember to send cards to. And a checkbox list to remind me to take a photograph of every train I travelled on and every station I visited. I know - I suffer from SID (Systematic Idiocy Disorder). So, obeying my own instructions to the letter, I took the picture you see above.

Truly, St Pancras is a lovely station. When it was built, it had the widest unsupported roof in the world and, as you can see, it’s still pretty impressive. The station’s rebirth as England’s Eurostar terminal has given it a spectacular 21st-century makeover - a kind of digital version of the old-fashioned romance and grandeur of the best Victorian railway stations. King’s Cross - right next door - is a veritable slum by comparison.

I spent a few moments soaking up the magnificence and then it was time to leave London and England. To pass under the Channel and, for the first time, to turn left at Lille and head for Brussels.

To be totally honest, Eurostar trains are beginning to look a little haggard. The tired grey velour seats are starting to peel and the automatic internal doors occasionally stay obstinately shut, automatically.

Nevertheless, this was the first part of my Grand Tour that would take me to new territory, even though the new territory was ‘only’ Brussels.

Belgium in general, and Brussels in particular, get a notoriously bad press in England (and elsewhere, if the truth be told). Most of us have heard the ‘Name a famous Belgian’ challenge - Hercule Poirot seems to be the most popular, and most sarcastic, answer although Herge (creator of TinTin), a motocross biker with an unpronounceable (and unspellable) name and the wonderful surrealist painter Magritte could be added to the list, too. No doubt a little Googling would bring up plenty of others.

Brussels, on the other hand, suffers mightily from being the headquarters of the EU. The city’s name has become a byword - specially in England - for pettyfogging, over-scrupulous bureaucracy.

Neither of these considerations takes into account the real, physical Belgium; what it looks like, how it feels, what are its people like. These were the questions I was most interested in answering...

As Eurostar dashed through the Belgian countryside between Lille and Brussels, I could see quite clearly how well-manicured and even ‘clipped’ it looked, even compared to France - which has its own, Gallic way of tidying up the scenery. All the roads seemed to be adorned with freshly-painted white lines. The farms and villages seemed to have been painted onto the landscape and the occasional small, walled cemetery apparently unlinked to any nearby settlement reminded me of how different this same scenery must have looked during and after the First World War. After all, the Somme and Passchendaele are both in this part of Belgium and its largest memorial is at Thiepval, only a few miles from the railway.

In fact, the country seems always to have been the cockpit of its warring neighbours, even going back to Waterloo in 1815 - before Belgium even came into being. Peace sits uneasily here. I found out from conversations I had in Brussels that the country is even at war with itself right now.

Belgium is, of course, bilingual. In the south (the area known as Wallonia, where I was travelling) they speak French; in the north (that is, in Flanders) it’s Flemish, sometimes unkindly referred to as a mere dialect of Dutch. And, at the moment, the twain look as if they are never going to meet.

For years, Wallonia dominated the economy and politics of the whole country. The sophisticated French-speakers regarded the Flemings as a rough-hewn underclass. Times, though, have changed with the recent financial crisis and industrial Flanders is in the ascendancy. It is no exaggeration to say that, in many ways, the country is falling apart at the seams.

I felt this very strongly in Brussels, a French-speaking enclave trapped in Flanders. Having fought my way through the intimidating throng of drunks and drug-addicts who seem to target all arriving visitors ( - I’m not joking about this; Brussels South is a truly awful station to arrive at - ) I made my way by tram (naturally) to my hotel in the city centre. I was immediately aware not just of the bilingual nature of Brussels but also of its ‘bicultural’ atmosphere. White-collar French, blue-collar Flemish. I can see why the Flemings have a chip on their collective shoulder.

But I only had one night in Brussels and, interesting though its politics and history may be, I was determined to tick all the tourist boxes in the time available to me.

I say ‘all’. People more discerning than me have said how easy it is to become cynical about Brussels. They say that once you’ve seen its great central square - the Grand Place (or, in Flemish, the Grote Markt) you’ve just about seen it all. I’m sorry to report that, in the admittedly limited time available to me, I found no real evidence to prove them wrong.

By the time I’d settled into my hotel, admired the mediaeval flying buttresses of the church over the road, had my first delicious cup of continental coffee and tweezered my eyebrows, it was early evening. So my first sight of the Grand Place was at dusk.
It was lovely. Like all the best places, it outshone all the photographs I’d seen of it. Grand buildings of many dates, including the old Town Hall with its striking tower (a Belgian speciality), enclosing a space big enough to accommodate all the tourists who wanted to experience it. The floodlighting added to the magic, as did the street-performers, the bars, the cafes and the restaurants around its edges and in the narrow side-streets that lead off it.

It really was captivating; a perfect place to be spending the first night of my Grand Tour. My elation as I walked around the square and its surrounding lanes was made more intense by the addition of a another feeling new to me. I didn’t feel threatened or intimidated at all. Even on my first evening and in my first destination, I was beginning to notice big differences between English and continental customs and culture.

At first, I thought there was something missing and wondered what it was. It didn’t take long to realise that there were no screaming teenage girls puking and falling over. There were no gangs of drunken lads fuelled by cheap, tasteless lager roaming the city centre. For the next fourteen days my evenings would be blissfully free of what is assuredly a British phenomenon - city centres abandoned after dark by everyone over about 35 who value their lives, sanity and physical wellbeing.

Except in Munich. But that’s another story...

I make no apology if I am starting to sound like an ageing, reactionary curmudgeon. Over the next two weeks my liberal, Guardian-reading tendencies were tested again and again and in various ways and by various people. The comparisons I was forced to make with my native country were often uncomfortable, rarely complimentary.

But for now, I was relishing the strangeness of this confused and confusing city. Pretty but somehow ‘untidy’. The street (where I ate) full of Greek restaurants on one side and Turkish on the other. The ubiquitous waffle-shops and their truly mouth-watering fare. Nothing prepares you for a genuine Belgian waffle smothered in hot chocolate, ice-cream and raspberries eaten ‘on the hoof’ in one of Europe’s grandest civic squares as the floodlit Town Hall clock strikes midnight.

Not all those who wander are lost...


...will take place on Wednesday 2 June. Even though the venue is undecided - put it in your diary. After all - a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Despite the short notice, and only one advance warning on the blog, AGM XV took place as arranged last Friday. As you can see, the convocation was graced with the presence of our Honorary President - the remarkable Ada, who (as it turns out) had something on her mind...

The contingent of lesser mortals included Hildie, Gerry (aka J Arthur Smallpiece), Hilary and myself. Needless to say, the coffee and conversation flowed freely and the assembled truckshunters gave me a couple of hours to bore them to tears with tales of railways and foreign food and mountains and rivers and fields and strange and beautiful towns and cities with awesome monuments...

Thanks to everyone who had the foolhardy courage not to dream up a previous appointment and, instead, turned up to what they must have known would be Ian going on and on and on and on and on about his Grand Tour.

Speaking of which...the thing that Ada had on her mind was my so-far unfulfilled promise to lay it all before you. I was roundly berated as a scoundrel, a charlatan and a mountebank for withholding the tale of my adventures.

The reason for the delay is simple. My adventures have not quite finished yet...



Everyone has a story to tell and, as someone much wiser than me - and with the ability to crystallise a common truth - once said....If you have a story to tell, the best thing to do is to start at the beginning, keep going until you get to the end, and then stop.

And that is precisely what I intend to do over the next few blogpostings. You are cordially invited to join me as I re-live my Grand Tour, my Journey of a Lifetime. It was the time of my life - it really was. And I’d like to tell you about it....



I wish I hadn’t bothered with Geneva.

I wish the train timetables had meshed together more neatly so that I could have gone just a little further (or not quite so far) and spent the night somewhere more ‘compatible’, interesting and exciting. Like a derelict barn, an unused factory or a polluted Swiss ditch.

Just think of it. Geneva. A city whose name is known throughout the world - and for all the right goody-goody reasons.

The Geneva Convention; a routinely-ignored but well-intentioned set of rules about the treatment of prisoners-of-war.

UNESCO, which, considering its role as the arbiter of World Heritage Sites, could have chosen a better base for itself, is here too.

The Olympic Games are organised and administered from Geneva.

The Red Cross (an inversion of the Swiss flag) was founded in Geneva and still operates out of its HQ there.

Even the Large Hadron Collider, which seems to be designed to ultimately give us the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, sits under the city.

And yet, and yet...

Don’t get me wrong (as they say). Geneva is not ugly like (say) Middlesbrough or Bishop Auckland. Its people are not grumpy or unfriendly like the people of, say, er...... It is not untidy or polluted like....

And, in a perverted kind of way, that’s the problem.

Geneva is unforgivably dull.

No city as boring as Geneva should ever be granted absolution and admitted to the panoply of the world’s great centres of human population. When you’re in Geneva - and despite the traffic and the trams and the buildings and the scenic surroundings ( - this is Switzerland, after all - ) - you feel completely alone. It feels as if nobody lives there, even though you can see its inhabitants being polite to each other in bus queues right before your eyes.

As I sat outside the only street cafe I could find that was open (and which was therefore quite busy, though oddly quiet), sipping an insipid lukewarm coffee and wondering why my ice-cream tasted so bland, I decided to extract my SCL and add a small annotation.

My SCL was my Stereotype Confirmation List. As part of my preparations for the Grand Tour, I decided that it would be rather jolly to make a checkbox list of all the European stereotypes I could think of so that, on my travels, I could look for evidence to verify or refute them.

How unpredictable and surreal are the Belgians? Do Germans really do as they are told, no matter how obviously ludicrous the instruction? Do Italians really SHOUT at each other, even in regular conversation? Do English people SHOUT EVEN LOUDER under the mistaken impression that this increases comprehension? Are the French good lovers? And many more.... The results of my researches will be revealed in due course - even that last one.

But right now, I have to tell you that the tick I placed in the ‘Are the Swiss as anal and tedious as their reputation suggests?’ box is in heavy black ink. My pen went straight through the paper.

I suppose it’s as well that Geneva came at the end of my Grand Tour rather than at the beginning. It’s lifelessness threw into relief the amazing towns and cities I’d seen and the fascinating people I’d met along the way.

After all, my SCL wasn’t the only preparation I’d made. I’d spent weeks scanning municipal websites. I’d posted a profile on a network for gay travellers so that I might find a friendly face when I arrived in strange and intimidating destinations. I’d asked truckshunters to offer advice on where to go and where to avoid. I’d brushed up on my schoolboy German and - even before I set out - I had given up on Italian and French altogether. (Both those languages can be almost impenetrably idiomatic; a friend of mine once told a startled Parisian waiter that he had a huge wife instead of simply informing him that he was very hungry; you can’t be too careful.)

The preparations for the Grand Tour had, in fact, been part of the holiday itself. Deciding on the route I would take. Investigating train times and buying the tickets online ( - isn’t the internet amazing?). Finding accommodation ( - isn’t the internet amazing?). Buying a few local souvenirs to give to people I met along the way. I even acquired an iPhone.

And eventually, of course, The Day Before arrives. Have you packed enough shirts/socks/kecks? Are they the right ones? What will the weather be like? Do they wear shorts in Italy? Are there launderettes there? Have you got enough euros? Passport? Train tickets and reservations (all 17 of them)?

I slurped a late-night coffee and looked at my badly-packed suitcase. The intimidating excitement made me feel almost light-headed.

For the first time in my life, I was going on holiday alone. For as long as I could remember, there had always been someone with me when I went on holiday. In Scottish log-cabins, on canal narrowboats, in Kyoto, Amsterdam, Seville, Istanbul and Paris, on the Greek Islands. (Wow - what a list. I’ve been a lucky bloke.) There’s always been someone there to consult and consider. Someone to take a photograph of. Someone to eat out with in the evening.

Not this time, though. Not for my Big Adventure. There would be no-one to make sure I got to stations on time, caught the right train and found the right seat; no-one to extricate me from any linguistic (or other) misunderstandings.

I wondered whether I would feel lonely.

I picked up the satchel Hildie had bought for me. It would be over my shoulder all day, every day over the next 15 days. My camera, my notebook (also a gift from Hildie), pens...

No, I wouldn’t be lonely.

Thirteen days later, as I sat outside my Geneva coffee bar, I put my SCL back into my satchel and looked out over the lake. I knew that I had finally realised something which most other people - or so it seemed to me - were lucky enough to learn long before they reach my age.

There is a vast chasm between loneliness and ‘aloneness’. Aloneness has an incalculable value to be treasured and nourished.

Not all those who are alone are lonely and not all those who wander are lost...