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.
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: THIRD DAY
COLOGNE TO MUNICH
SUNDAY MARCH 21
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...
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