For one hopelessly ill-concealed reason or another, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in France recently. And I don’t mean chic, metropolitan, art-gallery, fashion-catwalk France - all Chanel and bright lights. It’s true that Paris is uniquely lovely and exasperating and arrogant and delightful - but Paris is not France in the same way that London is (thank heavens) not England.

I’ve been a regular visitor to Paris for some years now and feel more or less familiar with its sights and sounds, its pleasures and frustrations. But, more and more, I have been seriously puzzled by the city’s relationship with the rest of France. My friends there give me the impression that real life - culture, art and civilisation - end abruptly at the city boundaries and that what lies beyond is a desert of charmless rustic provincials living in a countryside best viewed in Impressionist paintings in the Louvre or the Orsay.

It’s a version of the ‘north of Watford’ syndrome to which all Englishmen must become accustomed if they do not live in London or the south-east - only far, far worse. One of my Parisian friends never leaves the city except in an emergency. Others reluctantly leave it only to visit relatives or friends, and then only after they’ve made strenuous attempts to find an excuse not to go or have been threatened with disinheritance if they don’t.

I’m ashamed to say that I know someone who didn’t even attend his sister’s funeral in La Vendee (in western France) because, after being on an exclusive restaurant’s waiting list for months, he had finally bagged a table. And what difference would it make to his sister? She was, after all, dead.

I’m not sure that a Londoner - or someone from, say, Sevenoaks - would be quite that contemptuous of the rest of England.

I’m not even sure that contempt is the right word here. Perhaps Parisians do look down on the rest of France. Perhaps they are ‘afraid’ of what they might find if they ever manage to leave the Ile-de-France. Or perhaps the feeling is a shade more positive than that; that Paris offers them everything they will ever want so there is no need ever to leave it.

All of this - the overblown praise of Paris and the matching scorn heaped upon the rest of the country - was, until recently, of purely academic interest to me. But my recent times in France have been spent far from the sophistication of Paris. I’ve been staying on the edge of Beaujolais country, about as far north of Lyon as it is west of the Swiss border.

This is deepest rural France. This is the France of goat’s cheese and countless wineries; of red-tiled farms guarded by arcades of cypress trees; of village pastry-cooks and distant hills. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the people who live here are as contemptuous of Paris as Parisians are of them. Paris est bien/Pour chat et chien - ‘Paris is good for cats and dogs’.

To local people here, the French Revolution happened in Paris - along with almost all the other bad things they’ve learned about French history. Paris is actively resented for the wealth it sucks out of the rest of France and for the limelight it always appears to be in.

In a weird and deeply unsettling reversal of my experience with my Parisian friends, rural French folk distrust and dislike the selfsame Parisian arrogance which many foreigners find so beguiling and so ‘typically Parisian’.

The resentment felt on this side of the Channel for the London-centric nature of English cultural life is as nothing compared to the destructive tension between metropolitan and rural France. I met several people who had never visited the city in their entire lives, and who had absolutely no intention of ever doing so. Pursuing the subject with them was counter-productive; why on earth would they ever want to visit Paris? They looked at me as if I was out of my mind to even suggest such a thing.

French people themselves are, of course, aware of this discord and many have tried to explain it. I was told, for example, that, at the time of the Revolution (1789), almost half of the people of France didn’t even speak French and, to many, the creeping victory of languedouil over languedoc is still resented outside Paris, and especially in the south.

(The reference here is to ‘languedouil’, the part of of northern France where the word for yes was ouil, now oui. In southern France - ‘languedoc’ - the word for yes was oc, which has now disappeared.)

Others cite a catalogue of Paris-based cultural and economic oppression which, to many rural French folk, is still going strong. Provincial capitals like Lyon or Marseille or Bordeaux are, they say, regarded very much as second-class cities by Parisians and my experience in Paris seems to confirm this.

If Londoners habitually ‘disrespected’ cities like Manchester, Bristol or Newcastle in this way, there’d be civil war in our green and pleasant land.

My biggest problem, as an outsider, with this French scenario is that it is so wasteful. Paris is a beautiful city and France is a beautiful country. And yet the citizenry of both waste so much effort sniping at, and begrudging, each other.

If only they would stop and look around, as outsiders do, they might see things differently....

After all, substantial numbers of disaffected Anglo-Saxons have seen fit to up sticks, migrate across 20-odd miles of open water (at the very least) and settle in France. Estimates of the number of British expats living there vary between half a million and 750,000. That’s at least the equivalent of a city the size of Manchester or Sheffield or Leeds. Or about three Newcastles.

About 18 years ago, I numbered a couple of Sheffield friends - Chris and Joyce - amongst those migrants. They sold up and abandoned south Yorkshire for the green hills of the Dordogne. When I asked them why they went, it quickly became obvious that they were besotted. A decade of francophilia finally got the better of them and they joined the steady trickle of English families for whom the pull of France becomes irresistible.

And now that I’ve spent some time there myself, I’m beginning to see how Life in France can be so mesmeric and seductive. This has been the first time in my whole life that I’ve spent time in a foreign country and not been on holiday.

And it’s not all cognac and baguettes. The grass on the other side of the fence is truly never that green once you get up close.

Life in France can be fraught - to say the least - even if you’ve only been there for a short time. They drive on what is obviously the wrong side of the road, they eat snails and frogs (they really do), they speak an opaquely impenetrable language, their radio and tv are wondrously awful, their plugs only have two pins, there’s no Waitrose or Morrison’s and it gets very hot.

Over the next few weeks I hope to be able to tell you how well I am coping - or not coping - with my occasional Life in France....


....will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 7 July at the Yellow Coffee Van, near the Swirle on Newcastle’s Quayside. Mike and Pauline (who own and run the Coffee Van) are looking forward to greeting us (for some reason). Please make a good summertime effort to be there or I’ll be terribly humiliated. And we don’t want that.

And anyway, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

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


For me at least, much of the enjoyment of going on holiday lies in the planning and anticipation of it. You know the kind of thing; seeking out and booking accommodation and transport, investigating local sights and excursions, reading guidebooks and scraping the web (as I'm told it's called these days).

All my adult life I've got a terrific buzz of excitement from this pre-holiday activity - even to the extent that ( - and I'm loathe to admit this - ) on more than one occasion, I've actually enjoyed organising and looking forward to a holiday more than I've enjoyed the experience itself when it finally arrived.

That's how prone I am to planning a holiday to within an inch of its life. By the time I get to wherever I'm going, it's felt like I've been there already; I've anticipated it out of existence.

My Grand Tour, of course, lent itself particularly well to all this. After all, I had to find and book lodgings in lots of places, and then investigate train times and tickets to get me from one place to the next. But even before any of this, I had to make the most important decisions of all: which cities did I want to visit and could it all be done in the fifteen days I'd allotted?

And so the listing process began....

Madrid, Prague, Stockholm, Rome, Barcelona, Venice, Budapest, Lisbon, Cologne, Florence, Vienna, Copenhagen, Berlin....

It didn’t take long for me to realise how incredibly badly-travelled I was. I lived on the world’s most historic, most culturally diverse and dramatic continent and yet, at the age of 61, I had not visited any of the cities on what was becoming an embarrassingly long list. Australian students on gap-years had seen more of Europe than I had. It just wasn’t good enough.

As you can imagine, it took several weeks of wholly enjoyable research to whittle the list down to a sequence which, I thought, could be managed in two weeks. This original schedule had me travelling south-eastwards from Cologne to Vienna - a nine-hour train trip.

After two nights there soaking up the waltzes and the schnapps, my timetable hurried me on to Venice, where I allowed myself another two nights of cultural immersion.

Then it was on to Florence (3 nights), Rome (3 nights), Milan and Paris (1 night each).

I must have been out of my mind. In fact, many of the people I showed my schedule to said so quite openly. I was told that I couldn’t possibly do any kind of justice to any of the cities on my list by organising such a whirlwind, if-it’s-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium journey.

They also questioned whether I loved trains enough to spend quite that long travelling on them.

And they suggested I may well return home in a state of sightseeing- and travel-induced nervous exhaustion.

Faced with this barrage of justifiable scepticism - and the wry smiles of my friend Sue - I spent a weekend (with Sue) re-thinking the exercise. For a happy couple of days we pored over the Thomas Cook European Railways Map (a wonderful piece of kit) and re-drew my route in a way that made it humanly possible to achieve.

It was Sue’s idea to omit Vienna (too far east) and Rome (too far south) - neither of them near the top of my list of ‘desirables’ - and instead ‘drop-down’ through Europe to Italy via Munich and Verona, two cities not even on my original list. She also suggested that I use my ports of call as bases from which to make day trips.

Thus it was, on this fourth morning of my Grand Tour, that I made my way to the Hauptbahnhof - the central station - and boarded the train for Regensburg.


Regensburg had not been on my original list, either. Its inclusion on my schedule was entirely fortuitous - and wholly due to the BBC.

On Saturday mornings there is a travel programme on Radio 4 and, a few weekends before my Grand Tour was due to begin, I accidentally heard it. By chance, the programme’s subject was Germany. Why, it asked, was a country as scenic and as historic as Germany not more popular as a visitor destination?

Naturally, I listened intently to the two Germanophile guests extol the virtues of the country. It whetted my appetite for my upcoming Tour. Towards the programme’s end, the presenter asked them each to nominate a city that deserved more visitors than it got. One of them suggested Marburg - too awkward for me to reach from Munich. But the other guest sang the praises of Regensburg.

And I was delighted to find that my Thomas Cook European Railways Map showed that it was easily accessible from Munich. In fact, the journey took about an hour and believe me, it was worth every single second.

Because Regensburg is beautiful. I mean really beautiful. It is a perfectly preserved Renaissance German city.

Its beauty is not of the ‘monumental’ kind like, say, Bath or Oxford. Its charm lies instead in the narrowness and intimacy of its old streets; in the confused jumble of rooflines (like, say, Whitby); the lovely mixture of architectural styles and the accidental harmony of the many pastel colours used to paint the housefronts. There is no ‘town-planning’ in Regensburg; no one architect or designer has imprinted their ideas or image on the city; no committee has decided what should go where.

Instead, its tight, friendly streets jostled with each other for my attention. I wanted to wander up all of them - just to see where they went - and largely succeeded (because Regensburg is not a big city).

The Altstadtbus (‘old town bus’) deposited me in one of the three small squares that pass for ‘grand’ in such a tightly-packed city. I was gobsmacked; seriously. I gawped at how beautiful the buildings were. I gazed all around me at the street-cafes and the people wandering round eating ice-cream and smiling in the sunshine. Each narrow lane, lined with luscious cheese-shops, bakers, grocers and everyday emporia like estate-agents and record-shops, led to at least one other equally enticing street.

The city is easily walkable and sprinkled throughout are its historic stopping-places where a wide-eyed visitor like me can soak up its views and its atmosphere.

And, after a while, its atmosphere was making as much of an impression on me as its streets and buildings. Regensburg was the friendliest place I visited on my Grand Tour, up there with Cologne for the quiet, good-humoured and very genuine welcome it gave me.

In the Tourist Information Office (housed in the awesome mediaeval Old Town Hall - straight out of the Brothers Grimm) I was invited to take any literature I wanted, for free.

A baker gave me two apple cakes for nothing as long as I talked to him about the rivalry between Newcastle United and Sunderland - which I was quite happy to do, given that his apple cakes looked so delicious.

My glasses needed a small repair job and the optician I found fixed them for me for free - and also washed them for me and gave me two new glasses cases, cleaning fluids and cloths.

It was as if Regensburgers were saying ‘Welcome to our city - what’s taken you so long?’

I would have been stumped for an answer. Ich weiss nicht - ‘I don’t know’.
But I offered up prayers of thanks to that Radio 4 guest as I stood on the Steinerbruecke - the old ‘stone bridge’ across the Danube, guarded by the tower-house in the picture - and looked at the city’s waterfront; the jumble of warehouses, customs-houses, mansions and quays with the twin spires of the cathedral rising up majestically behind them.

(Twin west spires or towers was a popular design in mediaeval Germany; this was my third encounter, after Cologne and Munich. Many of the churches I passed in the train featured it, too.)

Almost nestling right under the bridge is a feature close to Regensburgers’ hearts; the best sausage-smokery in Germany (or so they reckon). I asked for - and got - the ‘sausage of the day’ in a thick, heavy bap and tried to eat it as I walked back up to the cathedral square.

It was awful.
Sitting at yet another street-cafe ( - Regensburg calls itself the most northerly city in Italy - ) I spent an uplifting - if raucous - hour or so with the four students you see in the picture: Derg, Thom, Peter and Krek ( - Regensburg is an important university city, too).

As for the wonderful Maria, whom you also see, and who allowed herself to be the subject of their ribaldry because of her appalling English.....

When children are asked to draw a house, they almost always draw the type of house that very, very few of them actually live in. It has a front door in the middle, four windows - two upstairs and two downstairs - and a chimney with smoke coming out of it. The vast majority of these children live in semi-detached or terraced houses or in flats and, presumably, what they draw are ‘aspirational’ houses; houses they dream of living in.

Regensburg is like that. If you were asked to imagine the perfect Germanic city, you would dream up Regensburg. It’s stunning - in a very aspirational and dreamlike way.

I felt genuinely sad when the time came to catch the Altstadtbus back to the station. On the train back to Munich, I opened Hildie’s notebook and wrote simply...

I’m in love.


I was genuinely surprised to discover that Regensburg stands by the River Danube, which I tend to think of as an east European river. A plaque in its honour by the bridge told me just how wrong I was. So, for the record.....

The Danube is 2,888km long, of which 2,415km is navigable, and is a lifeline for over 200m people.

It rises in Germany and flows through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine before entering the Black Sea in Moldova.

It is truly Europe’s Amazon or Nile.


I spent my third and final evening in Munich with Frank and his sister Thea. We went back to Der Pschorr, their favourite hostelry. Once again I was hopelessly over-indulged with wiener-schnitzel and a little too much local riesling.

By closing time, I was pleasantly squiffy and, despite meticulous directions, got completely lost on the way back to my hotel. Thus giving the lie to this blog’s tagline...

Not all those who wander are lost.


....will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 7 July at the Yellow Coffee Van, near the Swirle on Newcastle’s Quayside. I’ve received a message from Mike and Pauline (who own and run the Coffee Van) saying how much they’re looking forward to it. So I think it’s true to say that a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Be there or be nowhere.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com

NOTE: I posted the original version of this blog late on Tuesday evening, 8 June.
Within hours, I had received comments, calls, texts and emails about Alex's life and times.
So I decided to telephone him today, both to refresh my memory and to ask a few further questions. As a result of this telephone call, I have today re-drafted
the part of this posting which tells his story.

In this blogposting...

*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Fourth Day



Munich is quite a City - with a capital C. There’s a lot more to it than the Oktoberfest.

On the train from Cologne an enthusiastic young couple had been singing its praises to me. They told me that survey after survey has, apparently, shown that Munich is Germany’s favourite city and a recent poll of its readers by Time magazine put Munich at the top of a list of the most liveable cities on earth. My friends on the train, and a few others who joined in, went into raptures about its artistic and cultural life, its joie-de-vivre, its opulence.

The lateness of the train meant that I had to sit smilingly through what seemed like hours of Munichophilia. Together, my fellow-travellers managed to set the place up as something between the Garden of Eden and Emerald City.

As a matter of fact, I had begun to discover some of its qualities even before I’d set foot on the station platform. Its setting - clearly visible from the train as it draws nearer to the city - is almost unimprovable. It’s surrounded by mountains, forests and lakes, many of which are visible from its central streets, too. Almost within metro distance there are national parks, fantasy mountain-top castles, ski resorts and dark forest drives.

And you only have to spend a few minutes in the city centre, as I did on this busy Monday morning as its citizens went about their business - to realise that Munich is prosperous, wealthy and cultured. It teems with expensive-looking boutiques, restaurants and street-cafes. Well-turned-out Munchners throng its streets and lanes well into the night - even in late March. You get the feeling that the city knows how to enjoy itself and ‘show off’.

Munich has four - four - art galleries of international importance. Both BMW and Siemens have their HQs here. It has one of Germany’s topmost soccer teams and has hosted the Olympic Games (albeit the tragic Games of 1972).

It has a self-consciously relaxed, cosmopolitan, metropolitan, ‘capital city’ feel about it; a feeling which, moreover, hits you right between the eyes almost at once.

The pleasing jumble of lanes and alleyways that make up what’s left of Munich’s altstadt (‘old city’) sits happily beside its well-restored and rebuilt boulevards and great public buildings. There are so many street-cafes that you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a city much further south, on the Italian or French shores of the Mediterranean. It’s a happy and apt coincidence that the Italian for 'Munich' is Monaco.

For me, one of its most exciting and impressive sights, though, was the famous Viktualienmarkt (‘food market’), which sprawls across an open square near the Marienplatz. It’s packed with stalls selling provender of limitless variety and description. Cheese, fruit, vegetables, seafood, wine, beer, honey, fruit juices in any combination you like (I tried banana with pineapple and honey - it was scrumptious), plants and flowers, bread and cakes, soup, sweets and chocolate.

Bunting and flags fly everywhere, brass bands really do play oompah-music and the weisswurst (German ‘white’ sausage) is delicious (but only if eaten before midday).

In the Viktualienmarkt Munchners grab an hour to do their food shopping. They buy their weekly house-wreaths here and have their lunch leaning against a counter at one of the numerous ‘soup kitchens’.

And, as you can see from the picture, they also record tv programmes there - specially for people who don’t know what to do with a stick of rhubarb.

The street entertainers were of an uncommonly high order, too. In this one single day of idle wandering and exploring, I saw two Russians in full Red Army uniform singing those sentimental Cossack folk-songs that always end in tears, a man on a unicycle, a small theatre group performing what looked like Macbeth, a choir of Bavarian children singing a song that sounded like - but wasn’t - The Happy Wanderer, two motionless statue-people...

So....on this sunny, early Spring morning, which one was Munich? Garden of Eden or Emerald City?

It was both. And, like both, it had a darker, less ‘polished’, less marketable side, as every city does. And it was only as I wandered round its streets and squares that Munich’s less savoury, and regrettable, place in history emerged.

Munich was the birthplace of Nazism.

In 1920 Hitler proclaimed the odious 29 articles of the National Socialist Party at a mass rally here and in November 1938 the appalling Kristallnacht was promulgated on the balcony of the Town Hall by Hitler himself. Thousands of Jewish shops and other business were wrecked and looted; 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

The holocaust started in Munich. Dachau is a few minutes away by train....

Which reminds me...

There was a street-entertainer I almost forgot to mention. His name is Alex.
In the middle of Munich’s busiest shopping street, Alex was playing an orchestral xylophone (as you can see in the picture). I have to tell you that it was one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. It was mostly ‘xylophonised’ versions of piano classics like Rondo All Turca or Chopin’s waltzes but he also managed to transform pop songs and jazz into fantastical musical treats.

He played with a gentleness and deftness of touch that brought the instrument to life. He made love to it. I could almost hear the xylophone breathing and sighing as he played. I was transfixed, along with a good many other passers-by. I stood there listening to, and admiring, his musicality for over half an hour.

I even asked him if he played requests. He had just played a little Bach and it reminded me of the first piece of Bach’s music I ever heard: the Preludium in E major. He played it at once, right through and from memory.

I bought one of his CDs and as he was signing it, I decided to invite him to have a coffee with me. At the time, I thought that there would be little chance of his accepting my invitation. This, though, was a ‘go for it’ kind of holiday - so I went for it. And I’m glad I did.

I helped him to load his xylophone into the back of his van and then we retreated to a nearby coffee shop.

Alex’s accent was American, so my first query had to be how a middle-aged American ends up playing a xylophone in a Munich shopping street.

And as he talked, a few minutes turned into most of the afternoon. My coffee remained undrunk as I listened, so I ordered another. The second cup went cold, too. Because, as Alex told me his story, the darker side of Munich made its presence felt. He was living proof that the city had something to be ashamed of.

Alex is Jewish.

Late one night in 1941 his grandparents were taken away by the Gestapo. Alex’s mother - Ruth - hid in a dustbin when the attack happened, and remained there listening to the screams and the verbal and physical abuse.

She never saw her parents again. She was eight years old.

Utterly alone, she made her way to the house of a gentile family her parents had known. At great risk to themselves, they took her in and arranged for her, and another Jewish schoolchild who had been orphaned that night, to be taken to Switzerland.

She stayed there until the end of the war, ‘adopted’ by a shopkeeper in Geneva. Her new ‘parents’ were very musical and she learned to play the piano and the violin there. This love of music stayed with her all her life. Alex believes that it was the only way she ever found of expressing her emotions and memories of the night her parents disappeared.

In later life, she would pass on this love of the expressiveness of music to her only child.

At the end of the war, Ruth - as part of a large group of other Jewish school-age refugees, was transported to the USA, where she was informally adopted by a Jewish family in New York City.

She married a violinist with the New York Philharmonic in 1955. Alex was born in the Bronx ten years later.

Alex spoke a lot about his mother; how she was, by turns, lively and full of laughter then taciturn and sullen for days on end. As Alex grew up, Ruth increasingly expressed a determination to return to Munich, the city of her forefathers. It was her one ambition to try and find the place where she had hidden in her dustbin.

She brought Alex up to fear no-one and to hate no-one. Somewhere in her heart - and despite her unspeakable ordeal - her ambition to the day she died was to take her son ‘home’ to his roots.

And she had been equally determined that the visit would be in a spirit of forgiveness and understanding.

Ruth did not achieve her ambition. She died in 1993.

But after her death, Alex took on board her homeward-bound dreams.

Alex has a soft and gentle voice. To hear him shout - or even to imagine him losing his temper at all - is unthinkable. But as he told me about his eventual pilgrimage to the city of his mother’s birth, it was touched with tones of compassion, sorrow and love. To me, they were the sounds made when a heart breaks irreparably - sounds ignored or even unheard by the world as it passes by.

Alex came home to Munich 15 years ago.

Although he is a highly-qualified civil engineer he prefers to make music with his xylophone for the people of the city.

Music transcends all languages, faiths and political beliefs. Music uplifts, restores and reinvigorates the soul. Music gives pause for thought, rumination and recollection.

And Alex’s music brings sweetness and harmony to the streets of a city which holds, within its smartly-coiffured and comfortably middle-class walls, secrets and horrors of the worst conceivable kind.

Not all those who wander are lost....


... will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 7 July at the Yellow Coffee Van, near the Swirle on Newcastle’s Quayside. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com

In this blogposting...
*Shiraz Engineer (and friends)
Now, cry ‘havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war...

As you may have noticed from the Comments already posted to blog 201, AGM XVI took place as planned last Wednesday, 2 June at Birkheads Nursery (and Secret Garden), not far from Beamish and the Tanfield Railway.

One way or another, it was quite an occasion.

For a start, the sun burst forth in all its June glory and, for more or less the first time in ages, it didn’t feel and look like a wet Sunday in November. The sun has a habit of doing this whenever we hold an AGM at Birkheads. I think someone’s trying to tell us something, although who and what remains a mystery.

Even more notable than the sunshine, though, was the appearance of two AGM virgins (as it were).

Linda Grierson (known by me since Blue Bus days as ‘Linda from South Shields’) graced us with her presence. And it was terrific to see her after all these years. I’m glad to say she retains her off-the-wall sense of humour and all-round good nature from those days; her mere presence brought a lot of affectionate and warm memories flooding back to me.

Of course, that’s exactly what AGMs are all about; the feel-good factor.

Speaking of which, the amazing Alison Best was there for the first time, too. You may remember us featuring her once or twice on Radio Newcastle. She invented what must be classed as a new art form virtually single-handedly: Impressionist Stencilling. I was gobsmacked by its beauty and style from the first moment I saw it and have shown it on this blog in the past.

It was wonderful to have her company at last - and, as you can tell from her Comment to posting 201, she seems to have enjoyed it, too!

If the truth be told, everyone there had a great time. Vivienne, Hildie, Hilary and Gerry (aka our Poet Laureate, J Arthur Smallpiece) collectively reduced the AGM to its usual state of thought-provoking conversation somehow coupled with the joyful mayhem that are the happy hallmarks of truckshunter AGMs.

A toast of coffee and cakes was drunk to absent friends who, I hope, may be able to make the next AGM; see below.

Oh, and Polly came too.

And a big, big thankyou to Birkheads Nursery (and lovely Secret Garden) and its customers for putting up with us yet again.

For several years a couple in Northamptonshire have been collecting, on a purely ad hoc basis, what they consider to be the oddest names of real people. Their list includes:
*Shiraz Engineer
*Dionysius Exiguus
*Jazz Cool
*Muslim Contractor
*Dr Preston Thor Miracle
*Taffeta Scrimshaw
*Marsland Gander
*Alexis Nethercleft
*Florizel Glasspole

As you may have noticed from Hildie’s Comment to posting 201, the date, time and venue of the next AGM have already been set. We will foregather at 1100 on Wednesday 7 July at Mike and Pauline’s Yellow Coffee Van on Newcastle’s Quayside. It’s situated at The Swirle, a few yards east of the Millennium Bridge, beyond The Pitcher and Piano.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com


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

...takes place at 1100 tomorrow, Wednesday 2 June, at Birkheads Nursery. Be there.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.



Every few weeks I have breakfast with Lawrence Hepple, the piano-tuning, speedway-obsessed truckshunter of otherwise sensible repute. There is nothing whatever untoward or salacious about these regular dates. They are rather a noble tradition which began when I was presenting The Nightshift - and doesn’t that seem like aeons ago?

Once a week or so, when the live programme had ended at 0630, Lawrence would turn up at the Pink Palace and we would record a hopelessly undisciplined On Your Doorstep chat on some unlikely subject of local fascination. Afterwards, we would repair to Motorbike Hill to one of the two ‘greasy spoon’ cafes which mercifully open their doors before rosey-fingered dawn creeps over our window-sills (as a colourful friend of mine used to say before they took him away).

The regular repasts we enjoyed there would be recognised instantly and everywhere as a a ‘typical’ English breakfast; fried eggs, baked beans (an American import, surely), tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages, hash browns (another American import), fried bread and a pint of tea. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, that is how the English start their day.

It is not, of course, how the rest of the world starts its day. As far as the English are concerned, the rest of the world has got it badly wrong. The French dunk sweetened bread into huge, steaming bowls of coffee, the Swiss eat nuts on an Alp, the Italians drink very strong coffee with their eyes only half-open and the Germans munch on a sausage bap.

My Grand Tour showed me just how wrong these impressions are.

The Swiss, for example, have a favourite kind of small almond cake which they devour voraciously, along with what looked to me like a small mountain of Danish pastries. (I was going to make a joke here about the Danes eating Swiss Roll, but thought it was just too silly.)

In Italy, a couple of slices of cold ham followed by a small - and very potent - espresso coffee are usually enough to get the day going.

French people really do dunk ‘raw’ croissants into their coffee and slurp the resulting mush - or perform a similar routine with sweet, dry Breton biscuits.

But when German people break their fast, they beat the rest of Europe into a cocked hat.

As I entered the dining room of my lovely little hotel ( - the Lyskirchen, just in case you’re thinking of giving Cologne a whirl - ) I was confronted by the biggest and most varied breakfast buffet I have ever seen or am ever likely to see. At least ten different kinds of bread - including, of course, those mouth-watering ‘heavy’ German breads; huge ewers of fruit juice; a dozen varieties of cheese; jams and preserves that would put the WI to shame; various cooked sausages, eggs (fried, scrambled, coddled and poached); chicken drumsticks; twelve assorted cooked meats; tea (which no-one seemed to want) and coffee (in all its confusing manifestations). It was all very beautifully presented; the boiled eggs had even been dyed different colours. I’m not joking.

I was only halfway through the hundredweight of food I had decided to consume ( - I had a long train journey to Munich ahead of me, after all) when Hanno, the Head Receptionist (he’s on the right in the picture, holding Hildie’s ludicrous lighter) joined me at my table, weighed down as it was with ham, cheese and pumpernickel.

He was a friendly fellow - and one of those people who are immensely proud of their native city. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the ‘other side’ of Cologne; that its citizens consider it to be Germany’s most cultured and ‘civilised’ city - and also its most cosmopolitan and liberal. Hanno told me that, astonishingly, at the last census more than 10% of the population freely ticked the box marked ‘gay’ - a far higher proportion than in, say, Amsterdam, London and many other gay-friendly cities.

It was only then, some 45 minutes before my train to Munich was due to leave, that I discovered that the hotel lay within yards of Cologne’s gay scene - which explained the overwhelmingly (attractively? satisfyingly?) male clientele around us.

But it was too late for me to ‘exploit’ Hanno’s information. My exploration of Cologne’s liberality would have to wait for another time.

And believe me, there will definitely be another time.

As I walked along the riverside to the station, exchanging greetings with almost everyone I encountered, I felt profoundly melancholy. At first unprepossessing (to say the least), Cologne had captured me completely. After one last, awestruck look at the cathedral’s mighty spires, I walked slowly to the ticket-gate.

But I’ll be back.


Here is a short list of some commonly-held misconceptions, fallacies, old wives’ tales and urban myths
*Hair and fingernails continue to grow after a person dies
*The Pyramids and the Great Wall of China are visible from the moon
*a duck’s quack does not echo
*Napoleon was only 5’ 2” tall
*lightning never strikes the same place twice
*German trains run on time

You’ll have noticed that last one.

I reckon I travelled on eighteen trains during my Grand Tour. Only one of them was late. And it was a German ‘ICE’ (Inter-City Express) train.

To be fair, it was late in a very German kind of way. ICE trains consist of two sets of eight carriages joined together. When I arrived at the platform I was surprised to find only half of the train waiting there. Eight carriages were missing - including the carriage my seat was in.

My half of the train had apparently broken down so the decision had been taken to run the half that was still in working order. It left on time.

The other eight carriages arrived 20 minutes later and I found myself in the unusual position of travelling on a train only half of which was late.

And it got later and later. Just south of Cologne, at Bonn (the old capital of West Germany), all the lights went out. We were stranded for an hour on a siding in the middle of what looked like the Bonn Cleansing Department’s worst nightmare.

After that, nothing at all could redeem the journey, which thus became even longer than timetabled. To be honest, though, I didn’t care. There was nowhere I had to be on time; I had no connexions to miss. So I could sit back and enjoy the admittedly languorous, snail-paced journey and smile smugly at everyone else’s frustration.

The journey to Munich is a long one at the best of times; you drop down through two-thirds of the length of the entire country. Open fields contrast with distant, heavily-wooded hills. There are sharp differences, as I guess there are everywhere, between the larger, industrialised settlements and smaller, almost unbelievably rural villages along the way. The green-ness of the lush countryside always contrasts prettily with the preference most German people seem to have for light-coloured houses with almost Alpine rooflines.

Another national predilection seems to be for palatial allotments. At home, I was used to seeing rough-and-ready collections of often unkempt parcelled land surrounded by rusty chicken-wire. In western Germany, a family’s allotment is its castle. The sheds are immaculately maintained Alpine log cabins, most of which looked like they could sleep a family of four; every patch has a razored lawn, a larch tree, a flower border and a corner for fruit and vegetables.

Their sheer number and quality is awe-inspiring. Each allotment is a miniature Wallington or Cragside and, collectively, they are a surprising and very satisfying adornment to the passing scene.

Which - I am sorry to say - is a lot more than can be said for many of the towns I passed through that day. I know that railway lines almost always attract the undersides of the towns they traverse, but I somehow expected more from names I had known all my life; Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Augsburg.

And, at the risk of upsetting at least one truckshunter, I feel constrained to report that Ulm - at least from the railway, and apart from its amazing cathedral spire (the tallest Gothic spire in Europe) - looked like an inland German version of West Hartlepool.

We were almost two hours late when we arrived in Munich.


Munich - the capital of the self-consciously proud state of Bavaria - is Germany’s second city; it is, in fact, Germany’s Birmingham. But there, the comparison very definitely ends.

For a start - and on a deeply personal level - Frank doesn’t live in Birmingham. He very much lives in Munich.

I had had the very good sense to arrange to meet up with Frank (which is not a naff name in Germany) via the internet. I did this because it’s always good to be shown round a city by someone who knows it and loves it - and who wants to meet you, get to know you a little and share his love and passion.
I could easily have walked through the twilight into Munich’s central square (the Marienplatz - above) but decided to take the tram instead - naturally. As I waited nervously for Frank to appear, I watched the mechanical figures below the clock in the Town Hall tower come to life as it struck the hour. Before the chimes had faded away, he arrived.

I needn’t have been nervous. Our mutual hug was one of genuine pleasure and delight. Frank was proud to welcome me to his city and I was elated to meet, face-to-face, a man I had only chatted to on a gay travellers’ website before I set out on my Tour. He had organised a special evening for me; it included a tour of the wonderfully floodlit buildings in and around the Marienplatz, wiener-schnitzel at Frank’s favourite bistro (Der Pschorr) and an excursion into the vibrant gay scene of the city.
It was quite a night. One way or another, it banished from my mind all the melancholy I had felt when I left Cologne. It reminded me that my Grand Tour wasn’t simply an intellectual exercise. I was on holiday, and on holiday a little shallowness and superficiality are allowed. I decided to indulge myself just a bit. After all, this was the first day of Spring, and in Spring, even an old man’s fancies are not immune.

I am not known for being coy. But on this occasion....

Not all those who wander are lost...


Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com