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Europe ‘73

Colin Sage's report on his trip abroad, for which he obtained some assistance from the Ian Dear Memorial Fund

Well, thanks to the generosity of the administrators of the Ian Dear Memorial Fund, I managed to see part of Europe this year. With fifty quid in my pocket and clutching a one way air ticket to Amsterdam, I left Bristol on Monday the 16th of July.

On consideration now, I think it wasn't such a 'great' thing to do; after all, people are hitching their way through countries such as India, Nepal and Afghanistan, and I was only crossing the channel.  One the other hand, I hadn't visited a foreign country before (apart from South Wales) and I speak only Bristolian, so to me anyway it was a bit of an adventure.

I stayed my first night in London and on the following day flew from Gatwick to Schiphol airport; supposedly the most modern in the Western world - but my pack soon jammed up the conveyor belt which delivers passengers' luggage - thus ending that claim; I caught a bus to central Amsterdam and found some accommodation quite easily. The following days, I spent looking around; the most interesting sights being the Van Gogh Museum; the Stedeljik Museum and the red light district - the latter being the most expensive.  All the streets in this area had hundreds of women (no exaggeration!) lining each side, selling their wares.  Prices?  On enquiry I found out that they start at 30 guilders (approx. £5) for a fifteen minute conversation.

I suppose the highlight of my stay in Amsterdam must have been my visit to the Heineken Brewery.  It is such a desirable visit that one has to start queuing at around nine in the morning, but I certainly recommend it in spite of the wait. A quick look round the works (the guides don't bore you with technicalities - they know you're only there for one thing!) and then you're into the staff canteen with half an hour to sup as much as you want.  Waiters bring round the halves of lager (not too efficiently, it should be said!). They must have known that a B.E.C. member was there.  However, by asking (telling?) the plentiful American tourists for their drinks, it is possible to down about four pints in the time allowed.  The waiters have a really nice way of kicking you out - that is, they snatch your glass out of your hand, especially if it is full. Still, for one guilder (15p) it is a nice way to spend a morning.

The next day, I moved to Arnhem to see a collection of Van Gogh's works - then to Rotterdam for a couple of days which was unimpressive apart from its harbour (the second busiest in the world.)  Finally, I arrived in Maastricht, right down in Southern Holland in the enclave that juts between Germany and Belgium.  The influence of these two countries is particularly noticeable in the architecture of the buildings, especially the churches.  Another reason for visiting the town was to visit the extensive series of catacombs of St. Pietersburg.  These catacombs have been mined since Roman times, when they were first used to provide stone for fortresses but - apart from the occasional blasting by the Netherlands Cement industry - they are now no longer used. However, they are particularly interesting for the visitor.

Covering stone walls are some huge works of art, especially portraits of the royal family and such notables as Voltaire Sir Walter Scott and Napoleon have all inscribed their names in the soft rock.  The catacombs have a total length of over 200 km and stretch over part of Belgium.  A successful smuggling trade went on some years ago and the authorities, determined to stamp out this practice, sent groups of policemen underground. However, the smugglers, knowing every passage like the back of their hands, had no difficulty in making detours to avoid the gangs of shouting singing, lamp-swinging policemen.  Now, of course, in the days of the E.E.C., smuggling no longer exists.

Anyway, I next headed for Brussels, but ended up in Anhverpen, then hitched into Ghent. I arrived on the French border four hours after leaving Maastricht, so I didn't really get to know Belgium.

I met a guy from Amsterdam on the border and we stuck together for a bit. In fact, he was very useful because he could speak fluent German, French, English and Dutch.  We spent a night in Lille then next day headed for Paris.  Hitching is very difficult in the North of France, but we were very lucky and we made Paris in a day.  Our first concern was to find a place to stay, and after a few metro journeys and a lot of walking, we found a relatively cheap hotel.  That night, all the people in the hotel went out for a meal and I had my first decent meal since leaving England.  Red cabbage with mayonnaise, roast chicken with chips and a salad and ice cream with loads of bread and a bottle of red wine.  Total self-indulgence!  Luckily, this restaurant is known to be the cheapest in Paris and for 11 francs 50 (£1.15) it was certainly worth it.  Not only the food but the atmosphere of the place and the people, the whole scene impressed me immensely.

The next few days were crammed with the maximum amount of sightseeing.  The Louvre (the Mona Lisa was a disappointment) Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Jeu de Paume Museum, Notre Dame cathedral, Luxemburg Gardens and the Catacombs (there will be an article in the B.B. on these - Ed.).  I really enjoyed Paris and would have liked to have stayed longer but time and finances did not permit.  In fact, Paris is really expensive.

The three of us (Whoops! What a give away!) had decided to hitch down to Marseille for sun, sea birds, wine etc.  On the way we slept out behind service stations or under trees - but we got there in the end.  It was a b…. to get out of Paris, as it was to get anywhere.  I think France was made certainly without hitchers in mind.

Marseille.  Midden of the South.  A more horrible, filthy, violent, unfriendly city I have never seen. As we were moving south, I had this vision of a huge expanse of blue water - the Mediterranean Sea - but the first thing I saw on the coast was a petrol refinery pouring out filth with all the surrounding beaches dirty and the water full of empty bottles.  It strikes me that either there are a lot of shipwrecked people on lots of islands waiting to be saved or that the French don't give a damn about their environment.  I think the latter is the most probable.

We stayed in Marseille for a week, swimming and sunbathing and drinking dirt cheap wine that tasted like dirt.

Finally, we split up. I moved West towards the Pyrenees and the other two went to St. Tropez.

Hitching out of Marseille was difficult.  I spent the best part of a day going 20 km and was in the process of giving up when I got a lift that I was soon to regret.  I had only been standing at a particular spot for a few minutes when a van came along and stopped.  Using 90% of my French vocabulary and muttering "Je suis aller a Arles" I stumbled into the van, dragging my pack after me.  Inside the van were half a dozen kids, the oldest of which was doing the manoeuvring. The rest of the space inside was taken up by boxes of fruit.  What followed could only be compared to something out of the 'Keystone Cops' films. Most of the corners were negotiated on a maximum of two wheels and we would go along straight roads swaying from side to side.  Trying desperately to sound as casual as possible I enquired why we were travelling in such a manner (being careful not to use the word 'dangerous') “It’s because we've got a flat tyre." came the reply in French.

"Oh!“ I said

I decided to stick it out for as long as possible and we finally made it to Beziers, although we demolished some road works in Montpelier on the way.  After that, I thought that nothing could frighten me, but only the very next day.

I stayed with the kids overnight and then next day got a good lift to Toulouse.  Again, a bit of a problem getting out of the city, but I made it to Tarbes where I stayed a night in the most modern Youth Hostel I have ever seen.  I noticed that the people were much friendlier now, quite striking after Marseille.  When I arrived at Orolon St. Marie, people seemed surprised that I was hitching in the Pyrenees alone.  A grocer gave me a bag of bruised fruit and a man offered to buy me a beer - everybody was really friendly.

Now I was nearing my destination - Saint Engrace.  Waiting about twenty minutes, I got a lift all the way.  The people who gave me the left bought me a beer in a cafe and then took me right to the campsite.  I had finally arrived.

My first impression on arrival at the camp site was that a bomb had hit the place.  I later learned that it was always like that.  Most of the people were either at the EDF hut or on the plateau, but I soon learned the position from Albert (?) and others.

A group of Poles had gone down Tete Sauvage on the Monday and had not returned.  Bill Brooks had gone in the EDF early on Wednesday and hadn't found them.  The remaining Poles decided to get a rescue together, but things were very disorganised. That night, I crashed out reasonably early.

Next morning, I awoke to a torrent of abuse being directed at some unfortunate who had chanced to cross the path of the person who was screaming the abuse.  For a moment I thought I was in the Belfry and then, realising that in fact I was under canvas, I crawled from my tent to face a most horrible sight.  Camping next to me was NIGEL TAYLOR.  Further down were Ken James and Aubrey (W.C.C.)

That morning, I was elected (by Nigel) to climb the nearest mountain (we were surrounded by the things) with a walkie talkie and try to set up some form of communication with the plateau. After a hair raising climb, I found the battery in my radio was flat and so, most annoyed, I went back to the camp site, meeting Dave Yeandle on the way.  The remainder of that day and the subsequent days, I festered away because of the position with the Poles being stuck and nobody really knowing what was going on.

Finally, the Poles were located and rescued after being underground for six days, and I finally managed to go caving.  With Dave and Carol Tringham and a guy called Jonah, I made my first descent of the P.S.M. We went in EDF up to the Lepineux shaft and back, which took us eight and a quarter hours.  I am not going to describe the cave because I shouldn't be able to find enough superlatives to use.  Just say that I was very impressed!

The next day I went up to the plateau - walking into Spain - and wandered around.  The best of British to Hannibal and his ruddy elephants! (I thought it was the Alps he crossed - Ed.).

Finally, I left the camp site for home.  Got a lift to Pau then hitched towards Marseille.  My first lift was with a guy who acted very suspiciously.  He kept touching my leg - I don’t know what for!  Then I had an amazing lift to Orleans, from which I caught a train to London.

I arrived back in Bristol on Thursday 16th August, after covering nearly three thousand miles.  Not that far really, but I had a damned good time.  Again, I'd like to say "thank you" for the money, and I hope you don’t think I wasted any of it.  Perhaps when I'm a millionaire!