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*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Second Day
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: SECOND DAY
BRUSSELS TO COLOGNE
SATURDAY 20 MARCH
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 Indeed, our more outdated history books are littered with examples of Churchillian immodesty; we civilised the noble savages of Africa, India and elsewhere - and, where this was not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.’
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.
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.
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