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Karen and Compass, Phe and Me - On Roads without Lines

Graeme Robin ...Travel in France, Belgium and Switzerland

Graeme Robin travels the world in his trusty old Fiat Tempra, and writes about his journeys. If you enjoy reading this, you should consider buying Graeme’s second book

‘Karen and Compass, Phe and Me - On Roads Without Lines - Book 2 Covering Graeme’s four month journey through:

ESTONIA AND THE BALTIC STATES, POLAND, UKRAINE, HUNGARY, ROMANIA, BULGARIA,TURKEY, GEORGIA, GREECE - over 300 pages, with more than 600 colour photographs!

To buy BOOK 2, visit: http://www.perendale.com/browse/travel/robin


About Me I was born in 1937, married Barbara in 1963, but lost her to a dreadful cancer 43 years later. I felt as if the world had stopped. Life was suddenly not as precious as it had been. I didn’t care that much. But a change sort of evolved. I travelled to Europe. I bought an old car. Then a GPS. Then a compass. That made four of us – Karen (the robot voice on the GPS) and Compass (just that), Phe (for Fiat - a 1993 left-hand drive diesel sedan) and Me. Suddenly it was not “I” but “We”. It was

“Karen and Compass, Phe and Me”. We started to drive around Scandinavia, Iceland, the Arctic Circle and into Russia all the time on minor roads, avoiding the major roads and highways as far as possible – in other words,

“On Roads Without Lines”.

We were just wandering around on winding, single lane roads often unsealed, through small towns and villages, seeing the people at their normal everyday lives and work. Trying to get a feel for each country – trying to put a tag on it. I took a lot of photos and kept a daily journal. So a book evolved. Book 1. Had this suddenly put meaning back into my life? It felt good so instead of selling Phe at the end of the first four months I kept her for another four months of journeying this time behind what used to be called the “Iron Curtain” and another book evolved. Book 2. It felt good so instead of selling Phe at the end of the second four months I kept her for another four months of journeying this time around Spain, Portugal and Morocco and another book evolved. Book 3. It felt good so instead of selling Phe at the end of the third four months I kept her for another four months of journeying this time to Italy, the Middle East and the Balkan Peninsular and another book evolved. Book 4. All have been marvellous experiences of discovery - so good that I would like it to continue for the rest of my life! How long is this old bugger going to last!

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


AN OVERVIEW This blog was started just three months ago in November 2010 with just one purpose in mind, and that purpose was to establish a market on the internet for the sale of my books dealing with our travels to various parts of the world. Along with my publisher – Perendale Publishers in the UK – it was decided that we should try to establish an international following on the internet via a blog. We could do the same as many others and just talk about nothing nonsenses day after day, but we decided that it would be better to recount the experiences from our most recent journey so the blog could give our growing band of followers an insight into countries and cultures through my eyes and ears. These are the eyes and ears of a single ordinary person travelling without the assistance of professional photographers, or media managers, or tour planners, or experienced producers etc. I am an amateur – although becoming a very experienced amateur – and just happen to be discovering things along the way and my writings are intended to take the reader along the same path of discovery that I am travelling. Our approach has been an overwhelming success, so much so that we now have Book 2 – the journey from Estonia, south through eastern Europe as far as Greece – available in either a printed hard copy, or in a PDF form from the internet, or alternatively as an Ebook, once again via the internet. Many, many thanks to our followers for their generous support. It became a natural extension of the daily blog for Perendale Publishing to create a separate “Blog Book” for each country. They have simply compacted each of the daily blogs into a small folder and formatted it in a similar fashion as a regular book. Details of these Blog Books are shown on the right of this daily blog. As for the future, we expect to have Book 3 – this one covers the journey through France, Spain, Portugal and wonderful Morocco, ready for sale mid year and to have Book 4 – and this daily blog will be its foundation – available by the end of the year. Please don’t ask about Book 1 ! ! ! ! – Lets just call it “writers block!” But getting back to the point. Yesterday I wrote about the closing days of our journey in 2010 and starting today, and running for the next couple of months or so, I propose to set down a record of our travels from the beginning of that journey, that is from Heathrow to Italy, then down through Italy on to Sicily, then across the Mediterranean to the small North African state of Tunisia. The next country was Albania and it was Albania that led off this blog in November last. So by then we will have done a full circle but not quite in the correct sequence. So here goes! I hope and trust you will stick with the four of us (and maybe put your hand up for a copy of Book 2). Cheers..............................................................Graeme Robin Sunday and Monday 19th July I was a little late getting away this year because of the rigmarole of getting visas in Algeria and Syria. I got a Syrian one without too much of a hassle – a 90 day visa with multiple entries, which means I will be able to enter (and leave) as many times as I need to within that particular 90 day period. But Algeria was a different kettle of fish and in the end I had to give up altogether - too hard. They wanted specific dates and specific hotel reservations covering each of those dates, and that sort of detail just does not fit into my sort of journeys. I want to free-wheel. I did give it a good shot though and the final straw was when they wouldn’t accept the names of youth hostels in towns where I couldn’t find a hotel. At one stage they told Joe – at Ocean Grove Travel – that the temperatures in the 40’s would be too hot for this old man! Shove it!

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com

France, Belgium and Switzerland

It’s Kick off time - for the Fourth Journey to Italy and the Middle East


So the immediate plan is to head to Italy for a few weeks to have a good look around, then Sicily, across the Mediterranean to Tunisia, and then somehow get across to Egypt and from there on to as many countries of the Middle East as possible. I doubt we will cover it all in four months. It was Qantas that did the honours this year as Malaysian Airway prices had leapt ahead a bit – but you can’t help but compare and I reckon that the Malaysian tucker was better and the crew more friendly. But this could change flight by flight I guess. I arrived at Heathrow at just after five in the morning. The flight from Melbourne had taken only twenty two hours including an hour and a half at Singapore airport. I was out of Heathrow well before six and on a bus for Woking and then a train to Basingstoke and a cab to The Lefthand Drive Place where Karen, Compass and Phe had been cuddled under a blanket for the last eight months of the English winter. It was just terrific to meet up with them again and I am sure Phe gave me a wink as well as a smile. I reckon she saw that old movie “Herbie goes to Monte Carlo”. Remember Herbie that old VW beetle that was all but human? Well Phe is a bit like Herbie but Hollywood hasn’t discovered her yet! I was actually a bit early for Colin – one of the bosses – but it took a while to unpack and then to reorganise Phe plus a first run down to the shopping centre for an ATM and some pounds Sterling. It was, as always, a bit awkward driving a left-hand drive again after eight months and especially in England – it will become easier when we are on the Continent with all of the other left hand-drive vehicles. A good chance to say hello to Karen as well – not that that mattered a hell of a lot because all she said after eight months in her box was “ Please drive to the highlighted route” You would reckon she could think of something just a little bit warmer and welcoming than that! Dour old man Compass sat in his spot on the dashboard and said nothing – but he never does! Even though I have visited Basingstoke a number of times there is no way I would claim to know it well and in fact I needed Karen to actually guide us to the shopping centre itself – which she did on her ear, easily, no rust, no spluttering just a perfect ten out of ten I parked Phe in the shopping centre’s multi level, took the lift just one floor down, found and robbed a bank, then back up to the car-park again – no Phe! Where the hell is she! I retraced my steps but still no good. What a bugger! It has happened before and it has been a big problem. I was sure I was in the right place but she wasn’t there! Of course I must be wrong either that or she has been stolen – but who would want to steal an ancient 1993 Fiat! “With no disrespect Phe, but this shopping centre car-park is full to overflowing with modern cute little cars and you are not a movie star yet…....”

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


After walking around and around for more than half an hour I stopped a lady to ask her for directions back to ‘car-park A’ which I thought may have been the one and not ‘B’ and ‘C’ were I was at that moment. Well she was so good. She walked me all over the place. She listened to my pathetic clues as to what signs I had seen and what bank I had robbed – even tried for help from the information desk. Then on to the stairs and not the lift to the place I was so sure I had been before – but I hadn’t – because there Phe was just where I had left her. What a dopey old bugger I am and especially in this country where the language barrier that I so often blame for misfortune didn’t come into play. I am really only recounting this episode to remind myself just how nice some people are. This lady could not have done more – could not have been more helpful, and all to a total stranger (who shook her hand and kissed her cheek in gratitude when Phe was discovered – and with a scratchy beard last shaved, what, 30 odd hours ago). Anyway I appreciated her help and reckon and hope that her karma will see her through life. I was up and away from the Left Hand Drive Place just before midday heading for Dover with my good friends Karen, Compass and Phe. And it felt good, but I can’t help wondering what lies in store for us during the next four months. I am a little nervous especially when I think about the Arab countries in the Middle East although I did enjoy my time in Islamic Morocco last year. Even the thought of driving in Israel has the heart fluttering a bit, but I have had the same feelings of trepidation before and it has always come to nought. It is one of the tremendous advantages of driving a car through strange lands, because the changes to the landscape and even to people, the way they dress, the way they talk and the way they live is so very minuscule while driving that you hardly notice the progression – it is so gradual and slow. An aeroplane would be totally different, leaving say Australia or even from an airport in England, and then a few hours later walking through the glass doors out onto the street and into a car to start driving around Tel Aviv, say. I don’t think I could do it. Years ago, Barb and I flew from Perth in Australia’s west, directly to Johannesburg in South Africa. We arrived at around ten o’clock in the evening and I remember how uneasy I was. All we had to do was to get a taxi from the airport to the pre-booked hotel – simple – but Barb was holding on to me so tight and I was trying to appear calm and not nervous. It was hard! But as I said, by driving a car we tend to creep up on the changes so very slowly they just don’t seem to happen until eventually you look back and realise the extent of change. A very comfortable way to travel. Maybe it’s the little things that get you. It’s amazing how the mind adapts to driving a car with the steering wheel on the left but cannot cope with having the indicators worked by the left hand and the wipers worked by the right hand – exactly the opposite to my car in Australia. So many time we were going into a turn and instead of the indicators, the windscreen wipers came on! Drongoe! Just remember the indicators are nearest the door. I also reckon it solves a lot of problems by looking to the left first . Anyway we made Dover before three and the ferry wasn’t due to sail until a quarter past five so there was plenty of time to find an internet cafe and tell the kids that all was okay. And the hour and a half voyage from Dover to Boulogne offered the chance for forty winks here and there too. Boulogne was just as I had remembered it and the hostel was friendly and French.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Day one had finished so a couple of beers in the hostel’s bar and off to bed for a sound sleep!

France - We are in the North and not far from Paris Tuesday 20th July I woke early this morning with the realisation that I had left home for four months and had forgotten to turn the electricity and the water off at the mains. What a dummy! Lucky there are beaut neighbours around to clean up my mess for me and lucky there is such a great system such as internet and emails to make contact easily and quickly. That wasn’t the only reason for waking early. The other was to decide whether to go east to Belgium – there is an escalator there that I would love to see – or do the cautious and correct thing and drive Phe back to see Dr Henri, that great young mechanic in La Rochelle over on the Atlantic coast of France. There is still a ‘clunk’ coming from the front suspension. Back in November when Phe went under his spanner for a couple of days, he thought the noise was coming from a worn tie-rod end but that must have been an incorrect diagnosis because the tie-rod end was replaced but the ‘clunk’ is still there, and seems to be getting worse. Well, just for once, “cautious and correct” won out, so we are heading west today – maybe halfway – and will try for a bed at the town of Vernon. There is a youth hostel there. We were on the road straight after breakfast at around half past eight on a warm still morning and straight into the fresh rolling country of northern France. Time to pull out the shorts and sandals.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


What a picture at this time of year. Many of the towns and villages are showing heaps of civic pride with garden beds full of colourful annuals in big pots and beds along the road and around the street trees, and the countryside has the startling contrast of fresh, green, young corn anywhere between half a metre to one and a half metres high, some broad shiny leaves of the sugar beet, and trees all over just like southern England yesterday, all of this contrasting with acres of golden grain crops and the brown paddocks of dry pasture that had given up it’s hay into those huge round bales that seem to be the go these days. Lovely. And the driving was good too because the country was rolling, just gently rolling, so the roads were meandering all of the day – very few straight stretches. Karen did a good job in keeping us off the tolls and the motorways, although she did foul up at one point in the early afternoon. I had forgotten that in France everyone – and I mean everyone – seems to knock off for lunch in the heat of the day between twelve thirty and three. I was getting dry too – well it was pretty hot! Our only air-conditioning is to have both the front windows right down – and in every village we drove through I was watching out for a shop where I could buy a coke or something – but they were all closed, so I organised Karen to find a Mickey Dees for us – they are sure to be open. Yes, this remarkable piece of crumpet can even do that – find the nearest McDonald’s restaurant. Well the upshot was that we came to a spot where the road was being dug up and a detour was in place – but in the detour we managed to got lost! However, the ever confident Karen will help us out by suggesting a road that led past the local cemetery.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


That part was okay but as is often the case the road on the other side of the cemetery was not the best – in fact it got worse and worse until eventually Phe reckoned she had had enough and called for a U-turn. I never did get to have that drink so was really as dry as chips by the time we arrived at Vernon mid arvo. As we moved into the centre of northern France the agriculture got even more serious with a lot less trees and wider expanses of crops but at the same time we seemed to be going through an endless stream of small villages one after the other.. There were a few cattle around but that’s all – just a few – so I have to assume that the bulk are shut away in stables and barns to concentrate on doing what they do best, making milk or making meat – or maybe both at the same time. I am old fashioned I know, but I would far rather see these girls and boys out eating grass for all they are worth. But “modern” always seems to win these days. I have to admit that the cows that I do get to see don’t seem to be particularly interested in eating grass, they are often just lying around or maybe huddled in a group, whereas at home, the majority that only get to eat grass seem never to be full – always want more – so from that you would assume that pressure feeding does a better job in producing what the farmer wants. France is all the way into nuclear for electricity production. I understand there are 72 nuclear power stations in France, and this was borne out today with only a few wind generators maybe six at a time – no big extensive wind farms like in Spain particularly – and it surprised me that I spotted not one solar generator on a roof leave alone big commercial farms, once again, as they have in Spain.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Nothing could be further away from the science of nuclear power than this tranquil scene but it is nuclear power that turns the lights on, even here. We are heading for a hostel at the city of Vernon which is to the north-west of Paris – only 12 kms away – where there is a youth hostel. I have picked up a directory of all the Hi hostels in France (written entirely in French) but just for once dear old Karen cannot recognise the address, so it came down to parking Phe and then asking directions. Well I struck it lucky with the first bloke I asked. He was also parking his car, was friendly and had a good English – what more could I ask! Unfortunately he was not a local so didn’t know the streets of Vernon, but suggested 100 metres up the road there was the Museum and the people there should be able to help. “But leave the car here where parking is free” he advised. Along a bit there was a cafe that was open so I stopped for a thirst quencher (Coke) and showed the fellow the directory but he didn’t know the street so couldn’t help. At the museum the man behind the counter had no English either and didn’t recognise the address. I was about to give up when the original bloke from the car-park, who must have come especially to visit the museum, popped up and started to talk to the counter man in French and after a few words was able to tell me in his English that to find the street I wanted “Just follow the Seine under the bridge for about one kilometre”. As easy as that. In the last few minutes I have learnt a couple of things. The first is that this bloody big river that we passed over is the Seine and the second is that some Frenchmen are friendly and helpful and some are not. The counter man seemed to be friendly and helpful but hid behind the language by indicating he didn’t know the address and it wasn’t until the car-park bloke talked to him in French that it became quite evident that he knew exactly where this street was all the time. I reckon this may be a little French thing.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Another instance but on the lighter side, I had stopped for fuel and was not sure if it was a regular petrol station or one of those that required a special plastic card rather than cash, so I left Phe in the queue and walked to an elderly guy in front filling his car and asked “English – do you speak English”. He said “No, I only speak French.” So I turned away when it then hit me and I turned back to see his grinning face – he was pulling my leg, and enjoying it. At a small town earlier today I had stopped at a shop to top up the French sim card in the mobile phone, but as it was at least two years old, I had the feeling that it may have expired. Anyway, the lady behind the counter understood enough English and sign language to be able to sell me a 5 euro topup but not too good when I asked her to put it into the phone. It was another customer who kindly took the phone from my hand and started to listen to the French prompts and key in the numbers. As it happened it wouldn’t work even though she tried a number of times and it was only when I wrote down and showed her the date when I last used the phone that they both agreed that the sim would be dead by now. I had to ask once more for the hostel address and this time picked on a family group who were picnicking at the river’s edge and their teenage son pulled out his mobile phone, dialled up a street directory and showed me exactly where the youth hostel was and how to get to it. Simple. It always seems to be when Karen doesn’t have the answer, that I make the most contacts with the locals – but boy, it can be frustrating and makes me appreciate her good advise when she is able to give it. It was after six o’clock by the time we had checked into the hostel down by the water. It’s still hot so I reckoned that right now would be a good time to take a spell for a couple of hours, a time-out to reflect on life, with a bottle of wine, a baguette, some cheese and a park bench at the edge of this mighty old river – the River Seine. It would have been a romantic setting had B been here to share the wine and the eats, but without her I decided to trade the wine, bread and cheese, for a couple of lukewarm tinnies and a bag of chips –not very classy but nice all the same. It is hot and humid today and even just standing in the direct sunlight is enough to bring up a sweat, so it is extra nice to sit in the shade of the big trees that line the riverbank and watch the river drifting by.

The Seine is not an idle river though as there are all the pleasure things you would expect, like canoes and kayaks, little hired out yachts, a jet ski or three, but also the muscle of the river – the barges plying cargo from points way upstream and points way down-stream.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


There were a few birds to watch as I sat on the park bench beside the river. Sparrows of course, black birds a little smaller than a crow, homing pigeons that have lost their way home, some doves, a few swans, and big flocks of starlings. I also saw a pretty little of pigeon or dove with a white necklace. A great way to while away and hour or so. It will be quite a long drive from here to La Rochelle, so this morning I banged off an email to the only bloke at the Top Garage who has some English, Lal, to confirm that Henri will indeed be there later this week and will be able to fit in a consultation with my dear Phe, but so far there had been no reply. At the same time an email to my good friends, Mary and Bernard in Villedieu in the south of France to ask if we could meet up at the weekend. No reply to that email either so far. Maybe in the morning. Another snag is that the hostel at La Rochelle is full up tonight anyway and barring a cancellation it will have to be a hotel bed somewhere else in the town.

France - but a False Start - a U-turn - a Hesitation - And off Again Wednesday 21st July By seven o’clock I was ready for an early start as it will be a long drive from here to La Rochelle and it would be good to get there mid afternoon if possible. Last night’s hostel was quiet and clean and comfortable but there was no breakfast and neither was there an internet connection, so the first stop this morning will be Mickey Dees for a light breakfast and the free wifi access that they provide in all of their restaurants in France. First set back. There was one in town and Karen found it quickly enough but it doesn’t open until half past eight. Bugger. I couldn’t believe it. Half past eight! Oh well we can hit the road and find another in an hour or so – not so much for the breakfast but to check the emails. It was close to eleven when we stopped at another McDonald’s, ordered a wonderful egg and bacon muffin plus orange juice and coffee and logged on. Whamo! “Henri no longer works at Top Garage!” This was not the reply I was looking for but that was the one I got! Another bugger! Now what! It’s no point driving all the way to La Rochelle to see an unknown mechanic – I can find one of those anywhere on the way, maybe better to wait for Italy even, so it looks like Belgium after all. What’s more, the second email that had floated in through the ether during the night told me that this coming weekend was no good for Mary and Bernard but the following weekend would be fine. “Paris? How about we go to Paris, Phe?” I don’t really want to go to Paris but it is sitting there, just around the corner virtually. This French Hi-hostel guide is a real battle with not a word of English but I see there is a hostel at Cepoy-Montargis, a city that is around 100 kms south of Paris. Perhaps we could stay there tonight and then organise a bed at one of the Paris hostels for tomorrow. I know from experience that they are very busy and often full to the eyeballs at this time of year, so to hedge the bets I emailed and enquiry to all three of them that offered parking for Phe. But I can’t just sit around the golden arches all day waiting for a reply so we will try for Cepoy and play it from there. (A phone that worked would have come in handy right now) It was around one o’clock by the time we left McDonald’s heading south east – not quite a U-turn but by the time we leave for Belgium, we will finish up having driven in a wide circle right around Paris. A little better planning would have been helpful in this case and a reminder that you can’t expect everyone else in the world to fit into your plans all the time.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


I was taken by this old church sitting out in the farmland quite a way from the village and the strange fact that there was not a single window! Even hard to spot a door but I suspect there is one behind the shrubs just inside the gate. The countryside is still stunning with grain, and hay providing the golden browns, and the sugar beet, potatoes, corn, lucerne and trees the vibrant greens. Then the start of fields of sunflowers for an occasional splash of yellow. The harvest is in full swing with the grain being stripped and hay being baled and spray irrigation for the corn – busy, busy, busy, for the farmers.

One of the grain crops have plants that are a little darker, on the brown side of golden and quite high – maybe a metre – and from a distance look light and feathery. There are small black seeds in pods that don’t have a strong taste when bitten – maybe sesame. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Pay attention to your driving you goose! There was a big truck coming towards us full of timber – sort of like a logging jinker – and I got too far over to the right and dropped both of Phe’s right-side wheels into the ditch! She was sitting on her belly so the front drive wheels just spun around in fresh air when I tried to move forward or backwards. She was stuck and stuck fast!

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


A third bugger and it’s only early afternoon! It’s a narrow road (without lines) but there is the occasional car going in each direction. The first, a lady driver, had no tow bar or evident latching point for my tow rope, so she smiled and wished me luck (I think) and drove on. A young bloke on a motor scooter stopped and I was sure he said he would be back in five minutes, but I never saw him again. A man in a van was the next to stop and help. Phe moved maybe 10 cms but then my tow rope broke. I tied it back together but it broke again. Bloody thing wasn’t going to do the job, so I thanked the van driver and he went on his way. Then another bloke in a small van, but he didn’t have a rope either, but did have a little English which helped enormously when a tractor came down the road. But the tractor driver didn’t want to do anything because he reckoned that Phe would tip over if he tried! What rubbish – and I reckon he never intended to try in any case.

A picture is worth a thousand words! Who said that! He suggested the van driver should go to a garage not far away for professional help and the van driver asked if I would go with him. “Yes” I said. But he had two big dogs in his van, both barking frantically and when I went to pat one of them through the half-open window the bugger bit me! Nothing much – just brought blood but nothing more. I reckon the van driver understood exactly what I meant when I said “Not bloody likely” when he invited me to get inside. Nice bloke though, and he flagged down a lady driving in the opposite direction and convinced her that she would be safe with this old fart if she were to drive me to the garage in the village just a couple of kilometres away. And she did, but to no avail. The mechanic there was too busy to help. I think that’s what he was telling me because he had no English and my French doesn’t include words like ‘ditch’ or ‘stuck’ or ‘tow rope’. That really was a shame because he had a tilt tray truck in the yard with all the ropes and pulleys for dragging cars up onto the tray so it would have been a five minute job for him and his truck. I didn’t spit the dummy or anything like that, just set out to walk back to Phe – she will not have been stolen that’s for sure. Mind you I should have wound up the windows and locked the doors shouldn’t I. Maybe the walk was my penance. “Then along came John – big bad John”. What made me think of that song? Maybe because there were two blokes and one of them, the driver, was big, and the van was big, but neither of the blokes were ‘bad’ and neither was the van! And they probably didn’t answer to the name “Jacques” either. I couldn’t sign language “Have you got a tow rope because mine is no good and keeps on breaking”, so thought the best way was to tie mine back together, hook it up and let them break it again at the first tug – which they did. The big driver found a strong rope under a heap of rubbish in the back of his van, hooked up and out she came. Wonderful!

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Many many thanks to ‘Big Bad John’ and they rode away into the sunset leaving me to check that Phe was undamaged after the ordeal. We must have been stuck there for almost two hours. Serves me right. I need to take more care. Sure it was a big truck but I didn’t have to get over as far as I did. Oh well we are back on the road again and all in one piece. The country flattened out after that with many different grain crops – certainly wheat, then possibly oats and barley and the sesame if indeed that is what it was. Poppy seed perhaps? And there was a black crop with seeds like peas in a pod but hard – I couldn’t crack a seed with my teeth. Karen is right on the ball today – she brought us directly to the front door of the hostel in the small town of Cepoy. Pretty too sitting on the canal that runs right up to Paris and presumably joins with the Seine. There are half a dozen boats – in England they call them ‘narrow boats’ – tied up nearby with people travelling as you would do with a caravan on land. They live on-board and have bicycles for when they want to move around.

Cepoy is a lovely village and the hostel looks a little like a derelict mansion from the outside, but inside it is comfortable enough – except that it is 48 stairs up to my room behind one of those little dormer windows on the second floor. They were not particularly friendly at the hostel but the Turkish husband and wife team who run the ‘Cepoy Kebab’ are beaut. Just a young couple with a terrific little four year old daughter who couldn’t help smiling at me whenever our eyes met – and that was often enough because I guess with my funny way of speaking, I was a bit of a novelty to her. I put a euro in her hand before I left – but asked her father for his okay first. She is the same age as our youngest grand daughter.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Paris Thursday 22nd July Today’s a day for Paris. “Just the one day?” I here you ask, and I reply that one day will be heaps enough for me but certainly not enough for the millions of tourists that seem to be there today and probably every other day of the year – well especially now in the summer months. A great thing that did come out of it though, was that I got on top of my fear of the underground, or the Metro as some people call it. People have told me over and over again that it is easy, convenient and very simple to use but I guess my mental block has kept me thinking that it is scary, difficult and a place where I could easily perish simply because I could not get out! There was a touch of that but it all worked out fine in the end. This is a comfortable and quiet hostel at Copoy and with a train from nearby Montargis, express for just an hour into the outer suburbs of Paris, it seemed like a good idea to leave Phe in the car park at the Montargis station rather than battle for car-parking in the big smoke – just go in for the day and return to Copoy tonight. On the ride in I noticed more and more just how many trees are growing in this country. The villages and towns are so full of trees that it is difficult to see many of the buildings. Great. I had noticed the same thing about England too. Even in the heart of Paris the big trees are everywhere. The end of the country line from Montargis was above the ground and in the daylight at Bercy, then I had to take a few escalators down, down, down into the bowels of the metro to somewhere. A kind woman in front of me in the queue showed me how to make the ticket machine work so then it was just a matter of riding the lines to see what happened. The first line was the wrong line – it was green and should have been purple. The second line was purple, but I went the wrong way and further out instead of into the city centre. But after these mistakes I had it figured out and all of those people who had said it was easy, convenient and very simple were spot on right. Who said “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks” - Woof! Woof! Mind you the destinations were good but the journey between destinations was completely and forever, forgettable - except for the layout of the train.

The pretty sheila just happened to get in the way of this photo of inside the train.The photo was supposed to show the interior of a Parisian suburban train which has no divisions at the end of the carriages – just one long tube from front to back. It would be difficult for loutish behaviour to go undetected.

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There are the double decker hop-on and hop-off tourist buses in Paris and they cover the inner city with four routes. I travelled on three of them with a few hop-offs and then a few hop-back-ons but I spent much of the time looking at the people who were looking at Paris. And there were plenty of those.

entre stage though, is the River Seine – never far away from the important features of the city. But this is not the idle river that adorns but does not contribute, this is a working river even here in the middle of Paris with huge barges carrying anything from shipping containers, to sand, to demolition rubbish. I would be hard pressed to estimate how many trucks are not clogging the roads because of the volumes carried on the river. And these mighty barges all the time battling for space with the tourist boats of all sizes running up and down the inner city area continuously. Similarly the rail network seems to be a major contribute to the logistics of the country shifting new motor vehicles for example, from the factories to the market with row upon row of speciality built rolling stock, some loaded and some empty, sitting in the rail yards – another heap of transports that are not on the roads.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


“How about I meet you under the Eiffel tower at one o’clock” Barb and I came to Europe on an organised tour way back in 1995 and places like the Eiffel tower and the Arc de Triomphe brought back memories as did the Notre-Dame Cathedral. This time I lit a candle and sat for a while in that enormous cathedral and watched as the flame gradually dwindled away to nothing. That’s exactly what happened to our life together. Its not fair.

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Paris - Back for a Second Dose Friday 23rd July Coming home on the train last night I got to thinking things through, and have decided to drive into Paris today and spend a night at one of the youth hostels and try to see something of Paris other than the mainstream Eiffel tower and the Bastille. Perhaps we could then head off to Belgium tomorrow.

The word Fontainebleau is a word I have known since I was a kid – never knew anything about the place, but just loved the sound of the word. Well, there is a Chateau Fontainebleau in the town of Fontainebleau and there must have been 20 tourist buses parked outside as we drove past this morning on our way to Paris. I made the hostel booking before saying bye, bye to Copoy. The Parisian hostel was large and full of nationalities from all over the world – some friendly and some not. I reckon these days I fit into the latter group because I just don’t seem to be bothered with the young people who get ready to go out on the town at ten o’clock – about the time when I am thinking of hitting the sack - and then sleep through most of the next day in preparation for the next night. They could have stayed back home and saved a heap of money. Grumpy old bastard – maybe it’s you that should have stayed at home!

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Just a glance up a side street and there is a piece of Paris coming at us through the mist. You may gather that I reckon I have made a mistake and wasted a day coming back into Paris for a second time. And you would be right. This is not my thing. I like the open spaces where the people I come across are those tending to their own lives as best they can without the big city’s pressure. Paris is a beautiful place. But! You are right! I am a grumpy old bastard - everyone else in the whole world loves Paris, how come I don’t? That’s something for me to think about! Maybe I will be over it tomorrow.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Out of France and into Belgium - and a beautiful spot at Bouillon Saturday 24th July We are heading for Belgium today,and what a wonderful day it finished up being! I loved it! Just the experience of free-wheeling along and being surprised by the unexpected. We left Paris around half past eight and I set Karen the task of taking us to Bouillon, in Belgium , BUT . ......

. . . . . . . .via the Champs Elysees – well we have driven past the Kremlin on the Red square in Moscow, and past Bogey’s gin joint in Casablanca so we shouldn’t miss the chance of driving along the Champs Elysees of Paris. . . . . .

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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .around the Arc de Triomphe and back to where the grandstands are being erected to seat all of the spectators who will watch the concluding sprint of the Tour de France tomorrow. Maybe we should have come in last night when there would have been seven lanes of traffic going around the roundabout that is the Arc de Triomphe – that would have been a real challenge – but this morning, Saturday about nine, there is hardly a soul. The first of a million tourist buses has dropped it’s passengers, but that’s about all. Hardly any walkers, no joggers, no one out for a bike ride on this beautiful Saturday morning. How come this place is so dead at nine o’clock? We did a couple of laps up the Champs Elysees and I thought of the pride the bike riders will have tomorrow morning as they compete down this last leg of such a gruelling event as the Tour de France. Some say that “winning isn’t everything; but coming second is nothing.” I don’t agree and I am sure that even the last rider over the finish line will remember the final stage down this Champs Elysees for the rest of his life. After having beaten the pelaton by at least 24 hours, Phe followed Karen’s instructions and weaved her way towards the east through Paris and eventually out of France.

We don’t get to see that many birds in Europe - but this flock have to be something else. I wonder what they are? Starlings or similar. Certainly this is a major lunch menu that the farmer has to provide. Karen and Compass, Phe and Me have been travelling for a while now – in fact this is our fourth major journey together, and we have never planned in advance, never researched, other than getting information from time to time from other tourists like ourselves. The thing that tends to track our route is the booking of a bed for the following night. On each one of our journeys I have used the world-wide guide for the Hi youth hostel organisation and once I have decided the direction of travel for the following day, look to see if I can find a youth hostel that suits that general direction. Maybe I could do the same with hotels or caravan parks, or palaces – I don’t know – but there is no directory for such places. For instance the hotels in any particular town are all listed on the internet (and they are even in Karen’s stupendous memory) but seldom are they qualified by star or by cost. The same goes for the palaces (bring your own princess) I am sure, and the caravan parks say “bring your own van”. In other words the youth hostel system is somewhat unique. And don’t be misled by the word “youth”. Last night there was me plus two other blokes in a room with four bunks. I was up early this morning and fancied a glass of water. There was a glass of water near the handbasin that I could have used – but it had a set of teeth in it!

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But cutting back to the chase. There is a hostel listed in a Belgium town called Bouillon which is just over the French border – not too far from Paris and far enough to get some good information about the Belgium “boat lifter” thing I mentioned earlier. I have not rung ahead for a booking as the French sim card is dead, so we will have to take pot luck and if the place is full we can try for a hotel or maybe move along a bit to the next town. The run through France was in two stages really. The first part was over almost flat land and on a road that was divided with two lanes each way. Then it changed to a single lane and much better when we got into some rolling country. Very pretty. As from the last town in France before the border, almost immediately, the road started to run uphill, and more uphill, and more uphill until we really were in some hilly country. Over the border into Belgium – just a roadside sign, nothing else – and the winding road into Bouillon itself.

There is a river and a little flat land either side, then Karen took us through a number of hairpins to our hostel up on a hill overlooking the river, the castle, and the town. This is what I was getting at when talking about planning and research. Because I had no knowledge and certainly no expectations about this place. It was such a surprise – a pleasant surprise – a discovery! Bouillon may have been a secret kept from me but there are a hell of a lot of people who are well in on the secret because the place is full to the eyeballs. And I don’t know why.

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Sure, there is the river with paddle boats and so on, and there is the castle, but that’s not a rarity in Europe, but there is no sea and no beach and yet the people here look more like holidaymakers rather than tourists. I am sure there are occasions when we just motor past a world renowned heritage centre completely oblivious to its existence – but then there is today!

Belgium - Major canals on a flatish country Sunday 25th July Yesterday afternoon the lady at the Tourist Information centre was really good and after quite a search amongst the stuff stored out the back, found a couple of brochures – in English – regarding some curious contraptions used in Belgium to lift boats from one canal level to another – the ‘vertical lift’ and the ‘sloping lift’. These are not just “peanuts” because we are talking about big vessels of over 1000 tonnes being lifted 75 metres up to the next canal. The other good thing she told me, was that they were on this side of Belgium – only two hours away in Karen’s language – and so close enough to make a day trip out of it and return to this hostel at Bouillon for a bed tonight. Karen managed to steer us to a village fairly close to the vertical lift by around eleven o’clock and I asked a couple of fellows standing outside the pub where to go from here. I had the brochure with a picture of the lifter, and one of the blokes signed for me to wait while he got in his car and led me right to the place. That was nice. No English – just being helpful and friendly. We got there just in time for me to take a ride on a boat that was going to be “lifted”.

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All this has to do with canals – and canals are big time in this country of Belgium with big barges carrying all sorts of stuff all around the country. We all know that water finds it’s own level and even “Plumber Phil – the Dill” can’t make water run uphill! Normally a series of locks are used to lift vessels up maybe 10 or 15 metres at a time. Well these two ‘lifts’ are able to lift a vessel – up to 1350 tons in weight – more than 75 metres to the next level of the canal.

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The first one – the vertical lift – was completed in 1977. The boats that want to be transported from the lower canal up the 75 metres to the upper canal level are locked into a sort of bath and the whole bath - water, boat, and all - is lifted by huge motors and wire cables to the higher canal where the gates are opened and the vessels sails merrily away. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


In the case of the sloping lift it is much the same procedure except that in this case the “bath” is on wheels and is dragged up a 75 metres slope (by cables) much the same way as a shopper moves from one floor to the next with his trolley on the escalator. I rode the boats in each instance but it was a bit of an anti-climax really because there was no feeling of the enormity of the project. But a great experience just the same. Both these sites are in every day practical use by moving vessels of all shapes and sizes along the canals, but they are also tourist attractions with a video presentation covering the construction back in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, like the French, the Belgiums weren’t quite able to bring themselves to doing an English version or even adding English subtitles, so a lot of the information went over my head. A shame really, after all of the effort and expense of design and construction of the project in the first place. For example I didn’t find out why it was that each of the systems used pure force to do the lifting. They were using dirty great big electric motors, pulleys and heavy cables for the lift. In each case there were two separate canals, and had the lifts been connected surely the weight of one bath being lifted could have been “counter balanced’’ to a degree by the other bath going down. A fraction of the energy! There must have been a reason back in 1977 – but right now it beats me! There is a small village not far from Tintagel in the south of England where there is a sloping “elevator” that carries people up and down the cliff face in a sort of “cable-car”. Nothing extraordinary about that, I hear you say. But this one is powered by water. It has been built right next to a stream that tumbles down the cliff to the sea below, but some of the water is diverted and used to fill a reservoir in the “cable-car” – just enough water to ensure the weight of the water, cable-car and passengers is greater than the weight of the matching cable-car down at the bottom. An automatic and controlled counterbalance, so that, as the heavier top one descends, it raises the lighter bottom one up. At the bottom of the hill the water is released back into the stream and the process repeated with the other cable-car now up at the top of the hill. Another thing that intrigued me was to work out how each system was plugged. What I mean by this is that there is one canal 75 metres higher than the other – and this canal has to have a plug in the end of it or all the water would run out! Then the bath, with a boat in it, comes up from below, connects to the top canal and the plug is pulled out – hardly a drop of water is lost. Very crafty? How do they do this? Many people wouldn’t care, but I, for one, would like to know just how they managed to make this connection – hardly a drop of water was spilt! I am pleased I have made the effort to look at these two sites because they are part of a major system used by Belgium to transport all manner of goods from one point to another. Sometimes the canal has to run over the top of a road or a train line – so they have built a watertight bridge to hold the water and to carry the vessels and of course in so doing have kept tons of traffic off the roads and highways. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


It was just after five by the time the sloping lift presentation was finished and that meant there was time to get to the distillery before they closed the gate at nine o;clock. Unfortunately the last guided tour was at four o’clock so it was only a quick walk around the museum – once again, no English – and I was unable to get any good oil on how I could make my own apple or pear brandy when I get home. Would have been good too.

It took almost as long to get home as it took to get there and in hindsight it probably would have been better to have stayed the night in Brussels rather than going back to Bouillon but there was a cold beer and a bought salad waiting for me in the Bouillon fridge – that took some beating!

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Belgium - the Mighty Rhine and then touching onto the Majestic Alps of Switzerland

Monday 26th July I was really undecided about which way to go today. It’s Monday and I have arranged to be at Villedieu, down in the south of France near Marseilles, on Friday evening to spend some time with my good French friends, Mary and Bernard, so between then and now there are four nights to fill in. One of the temptations was to do nothing and go nowhere at all – just have a day or so off in this beautiful Belgian town called Bouillon. I got talking to a couple from Germany and they said that Treis-Karden is a lovely town and that a bit further on I should visit the “most popular castle in Germany”. “People come from as far as Japan especially to see this castle!” They gave it quite a rap. So I took them at their word and we set sail in the direction of Treis-Karden in Germany.

This is in the town of Arlon on the Belgium side of the Luxembourg border – a lovely place set in some beautiful countryside. We are moving from Belgium into the state of Luxembourg and the country is just terrific to drive through – trees and winding roads everywhere – and I mean forestry type trees, the sort that go to the sawmill to build houses and furniture and toilet paper etc. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


I spoke to a local and said there seemed to be very few people around. He said “They are inside doing the washing”. “I don’t understand” I said. “Washing the money” was his reply and then it dawned – money laundering! A joke Joyce! The houses in Luxembourg are colourful and western in appearance. The country is really pretty and of course being quite small it seemed to be no time at all before we were out the other side and driving in Germany. But then the weather turned against us and it started to drizzle and then to rain steadily. There is nothing more pointless or depressing than touristing in the rain! You can’t see much beyond the windscreen wipers and the photos just don’t happen. It probably would have been dry inside the castle but I didn’t give it a chance to find out and set Karen a course to a youth hostel in Karlsruhe. We will leave the “most popular castle in Germany” for next time.

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Tuesday 27th July It was the right move yesterday to clock up a few miles in the wet weather and today was just a short drive over the border into Switzerland to the town of Schaffhausen. We arrived around twelve and Karen found the hostel first shot, yet again – but it is not open for check-in until five o’clock.

This is a stunning part of Europe. In the south of Germany the mountains rise up out of the flat plains and carry us over the border into Switzerland – and we all know about the Alps of Switzerland. Then there is the River Rhine which at more than 1200 kms is one of the longest and most important rivers of Europe. It has it’s source deep in the Swiss/Italian Alps and then becomes the border of many European states. It divides Lichtenstein and Austria, Austria from Switzerland, Switzerland from Germany and then separates Germany from some of France before cutting across the Netherlands to empty out into the sea near Rotterdam. We have been following it for the past few days so this afternoon with some time to fill in, we chased it further upstream to where it comes out of Lake Constance. It actually feeds into the self same lake around 50kms up the track at the corner where it joins Austria, Switzerland and Germany.

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I’ll bet the folks living here in the 1940’s were very nervous being in ‘neutral’ Switzerland and having Hitler’s aggressive Germany only a few hundred metres across Lake Constance. That’s Germany in the near distance. And what’s more, this particular area at the north of Switzerland is almost like a small island or a peninsula almost completely surrounded by Germany except for the narrow “neck” that is Schaffhausen.

This is the Hi Youth hostel at the town of Schaffhausen, a part of Switzerland but sitting right on the German border – all but surrounded by Germany. Tonight there is an outdoor performance by a theatrical group in the courtyard of the hostel. My exclusively English speaking brain meant I could not understand a word that was being spoken – but the locals did, and by the applause they must have enjoyed the performance no end. Labels: Arlon, Karlsruhe, Lake Constance, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, River Rhine, Schaffhausen, TreKarden Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Switzerland - from Schaffhausen to Zurich to Lucerne and the close to the Matterhorn Wednesday 28th July

We were up and away in good time this morning and heading for Matterhorn country down in the south of Switzerland. The youth hostel last night was just average even with the entertainment outside in the courtyard, but using this type of accommodation each night suits me down to the ground even though the standard can vary a little between one hostel to the next – and especially from one country to the next. The best aspect is that they are all listed in a brochure covering each particular country. There is normally a map showing the location of the hostels and it’s great to be able to pick one that lies in the general direction of our travel. It is better still if I can ring ahead the evening before and book a bed. That means it matters little what time we arrive – takes the pressure right off just in knowing that the bed is organised. They most times have a variety of rooms – maybe a single, but often double for couples, and almost always the dormitory type with 4 or more bunks beds to the room. I prefer the dormitory (toilet and shower down the hall) because of the contact with other travellers and also the price – most critical to my budgeting especially being away from home for such a long time. I couldn’t manage the cost if I had to rely solely on hotel rooms. And another great thing about the youth hostel is that many of them have a kitchen where you can prepare and eat your own food alongside other guests – and save a big quid on restaurant eating of course. That hasn’t happened so far on this journey unfortunately, but maybe things will be different once we start touristing in earnest when we reach Italy. Last night was a good example. My dormitory room had ten bunk beds and nine were occupied and at least four by women. It may sound strange but everything seems to work out alright in situations like this. As it happened I only got to talk with two of the other eight – a mother and daughter of Japanese origin, who had been living in Canada for more than twenty years. They were travelling by train for five days in Switzerland and then going to Italy for a while. It was the mother that made mention of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps – a feature that had completely passed me by until she mentioned it. What do I know about the Matterhorn? Bugger all! But maybe all that will change in the next couple of days because as soon as she had told me, I set the plan in place for tonight’s stop to be at a town of Fiesch – a long trek from here – but as close as we are going to get to the Matterhorn with hostel accommodation. I hope for a clear day tomorrow, not like the last couple of afternoons when the drizzle and low cloud made touristing very difficult. Karen is in control again with instructions to stay off the motorways and toll-roads, so she will be taking us on a three-leg journey today. The first will be to Zurich, then to Lucerne and finally from Lucerne to Fiesch, not far from the Italian border.

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This is a beautiful country – just so green. Impossibly green really when you consider we are only just past mid-summer. Am I being a nasty old bugger in wondering why all of the Swiss cows are not outside eating this lovely green grass instead of being locked away in some smelly old barn being force-fed fast-food to make them produce more milk? Instead, the grass is cut, dried and bailed into hay and mixed with all manner of other things to save the cow all of that trouble of having to bite and chew. On the few occasions when I saw some milkers out in the open, they looked to be fat and lethargic and many were lying down just tired out from the long 100 metre dash from the barn to the paddock. I guess there are some things we are better off not knowing about when we spread our butter and slice our cheese. The industry will argue that they have to increase production with more and more mouths to feed in the world each year – an argument that is hard to challenge.

We drove around the big smoke of Zurich for quite a while and took a few photos but I can’t say that the city grabbed me to any degree. Lucerne on the other hand is a beautiful place. Lucerne has the Swiss Alps in the background and the lake lapping right up to the edge of the city.

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The covered flowered bridge that is a pedestrian walkway from one side of town to the other, is pretty, but today the railing of the road bridge got in the way of the photo from the car – finding a Phe-park was absolutely impossible. I had mixed emotions because the sight of the covered flowered bridge and the lake and the cathedral, cut hard as Barb and I had enjoyed this city when we were here on our Globus bus tour of Europe way back in 1995. I remember our time here as if it was yesterday. The walk in the streets and the shops, over that flowered bridge, how we were crook on the price of a cup of coffee and reckoned we were being ripped off (and after all of these years I reckon the Swiss are still ripping us tourists off) and the big church with the twin steeples on the side of the lake not far from our hotel. We had made friends with an American couple, Joanne and Byron, and the four of us had enjoyed the town and a boat cruise on the lake but particularly the trip to the mountain top of Pilatus – up by cog train and back down again in a cable car and chairlift. This was the highlight of our European adventure in Barb’s eyes I think. None of us had any inkling of how short our futures were to be. Joanne died with a cancer just a few years later, then Barb, and then Byron within a year of Barb. There has to be a message there somewhere – something like “live for the day because who knows what tomorrow will bring”. Maybe it was fitting that the weather today should be drizzly and misty – sombre. It has been sad being here today, but it was good to come back even if only to revive those memories.

Graeme Robin travels the world in his trusty old Fiat Tempra, and writes about his journeys. If you enjoy reading this, you should consider buying Graeme’s second book

‘Karen and Compass, Phe and Me - On Roads Without Lines - Book 2 Covering Graeme’s four month journey through:

ESTONIA AND THE BALTIC STATES, POLAND, UKRAINE, HUNGARY, ROMANIA, BULGARIA,TURKEY, GEORGIA, GREECE - over 300 pages, with more than 600 colour photographs!

To buy BOOK 2, visit: http://www.perendale.com/browse/travel/robin Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Lucerne is a pretty place with much to look at and a lot of things to do. After Lucerne we followed the water of the lake for quite a way south and I was taken with a couple or three marinas that we passed on the way, because all of the yachts and launches had their raincoats on – tarps from bow to stern. So it must rain here – that’s why the grass is s-o-o-o-o green. We are getting closer to the high country and the homes are taking on that typical Swiss look that we can all conjure up in our mind’s eye – dark timber walls, many piles of cut and split firewood, dark red tiled steeply pitched roofs, mostly two or three (or more) stories, underground power so no overhead power cables to confuse the scene, no TV antennas or satellite dishes – and all set in green grass with a backdrop of hills clad in green pines and the snow-capped Swiss Alps towering behind. Then a lake created by a high dam wall and the hydro electricity to power the country, and then another in the same valley on the same river – perhaps there is even a third, but by now we were travelling at 1900 metres above sea level and in the clouds so it was hard to see the road just 70 metres ahead leave alone how many dams there were.

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I am tempted to compare the Swiss Alps with beautiful Norway and also with the Canadian Rockies and I don’t think I can nor do I think I should because each is just so magnificent in it’s own way and should not be denigrated by a comparison of perfects. Then suddenly there is a break in the clouds and the sun is out – just like being in a plane after take-off on an overcast day – and there are the mountain peaks with snow and a glacier. Wonderful and we are driving at 2100 metres above sea level. Once again Karen, that wonderful robotic nerd, takes us directly to the door of my bedroom in the town of Fiesch. The hostel is a big shift in standards from last night – but at twice the price – and is comparable to a good quality motel room with a double bed and an en-suite. The youth hostel itself is only a small part of a big “sporting and accommodation complex” with swimming pools, tennis courts and the like – it’s huge and there are at least four or five large school groups here at the moment. No kitchen or dining room for the guests though, so it’s down town for a bite to eat. Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Matterhorn tomorrow!

Switzerland - the Aletsch Glacier and then the mighty Matterhorn rising 4478 metres above sea level Thursday 29th July I have spent a very comfortable night in our “motel room” in the Fiesch youth hostel. After a chat with the receptionist lady last night it was decided that today should be in two parts. The first part to see the Aletsch Glacier right here on the Fiesch doorstep, and then a drive to the town of Tasch about 60 kms away which is as close as Phe can get to the Matterhorn. For me, it will then have to be a train to Zermatt and a cable-car up into the really high country. Right now, in the town of Fiesch, we are at just over 1000 metres above sea level and first thing this morning, after checking out, we headed for the town centre where there is the first of two cable cars, one after the other, that will transport me quite effortlessly up to 2869 metres to where the Aletsch Glacier has been flowing (very) slowly for many, many, many, years. It’s not a good day and the lady at the ticket office checked on her computer and showed me a live picture from the actual glacier itself to show that there was a lot of cloud around and of course visibility would be poor up there. Down here in the town it had been drizzling steadily since last evening, but I reckoned that I should at least have a go – it may be clear and blue and quite spectacular by the time I arrive. (Tell him he’s dreaming!) Phe is having a rest in the (cold) car park. The first cable car quickly rises to 2240 metres and the only other passenger is heading off to work in one of the restaurants. There was only a slight delay before all the passengers (just me) are loaded into the second cable car which takes us to 2869 metres. We are now in typical high country with nothing but rock and stones and weedy grass. The first leg had a good covering of spruce trees but they have long gone now – just the rocks.

The publicity shots of the glacier have it looking somewhat like a decorated plate under a wedding cake, quite spectacular, but I was unable to replicate that shot so you will just have to imagine the grandeur that would have been, had there been a sun, and no cloud, – and a decent photographer!

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


I love the way some Europeans like to leave their mark on the universe by building little piles of rocks that may be visited by their children or grandchildren or their neighbours or the tax man in years to come. I have seen it time and time again in special places such as the highest point on a road, or the very end of a land, or the tip of an island. I guess they tell their kids to “look for my pile of rocks – it’s 4 paces to the west and 9 paces to the south of X marks the spot - your mum and I built it way back in 1974!” – or something like that. You get the drift.

That’s me on the way back down the mountain. Some people would love to take on the walking trails up in this high country around the glacier even on a day like today when the very light breeze cuts right through the light clothing I am wearing, but I decided to leave the walk for ‘next time’ We were back down in Fiesch before eleven, wasted ten minutes with a Tourist Info lady for little or no reward – I don’t think she really knew a hell of a lot about her own country – and then set out for the second appointment of the day – a visit to the mighty Matterhorn. This was a little more complicated as I could only take Phe as far as Tasch where the road stops, catch a train to Zermatt, and then a cog train to Gornergrat.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


The town of Zermatt is a very pretty “touristy” town and the staging point for a lot of activities centring around the Matterhorn. “That’s it, the Matterhorn, right up at the end of the street!” It must be my blurry eyes because I’m buggered if I can see it! From Zermatt it is a cog-train as far as Gornergrat with a direct view of the Matterhorn – well it would have been a direct view of the Matterhorn had the clouds not been in the way, which unfortunately they still were. I hung around for more than an hour just watching and waiting, but it was not going to happen – well not today any way. At Gornergrat there is a restaurant of course, where a cup of coffee was a good investment even simply to get in from the zero degree temperature outside. The (invisible) Matterhorn rises to 4478 metres above sea level and our viewing platform at Gornergrat is at 3100 metres. I felt very light headed – not giddy – but just a little breathless and light-headed as soon as I got off the cog train. This has never happened to me before and I was a little disappointed as I reckon I’m a tough old codger and everyone else seemed to be acting quite naturally. It had to have been the altitude that was playing around with my system because it didn’t return to normal until I was back at lower levels with Phe – then no problems.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


There was the occasional glimpse of the glaciers and snow around the base of the Matterhorn and as I was trying to get a photo before the curtain fell again, I wondered how today’s photos would compare with photos from the same spot 25, 50 and 75 years ago with all the current discussion about warming and climate change. But I suppose 75 years is no more than a moment in the life of a glacier. For man it is a life time, and for the camera too for that matter.

It was a lot later than I had expected when I got back to Phe – almost five o’clock – so a drive through the Alps to Italy was out of the question for today. We got back to last night’s hostel at Fiesch where luckily they still had a vacant bed that needed filling. This has been another terrific day wandering around the sort of country I have never experienced before and in conditions pretty foreign to my way of life. It would have been terrific had the clouds parted and given me a little glimpse of the mighty peak - but that wasn’t to be. I am thankful that the weather was as good as it was! So it’s to be Italy tomorrow.

Hear more about Graemes’ travels at http://robingrahamtravel.blogspot.com


Graeme's BOOK 2 'Karen and Compass, Phe and Me - On Roads Without Lines - Book 2' is available to buy both in print and online BOOK 2 covers Graeme’s four month journey through: Estonia and the Baltic States Poland Ukraine Hungary Romania Bulgaria Turkey Georgia Greece To buy BOOK 2, visit: http://www.perendale.com/browse/travel/robin


France, Belgium and Switzerland - GR Travel