This travelogue comes from a typewritten manuscript that my sister found in her son's bedroom in Morpeth, near Newcastle, England. None of us have any idea where it came from. It is an anonymous first-hand account of a holiday from London to France, Germany and Belgium, taken in late August and early September 1955.
For the benefit of non-English readers, I have added three footnotes.
Martin Guy, July 2004.
On August the twenty-ninth at nine-thirty we left Victoria Station London in the boat train. Our holiday had begun. Next to us sat a very dark gypsy like woman. She had a very sad leave taking with her son. She wore a dark red skirt and a scarf wound round her head. An Englishwoman brought in a young French girl, very subdued - 'could she have a seat if it wasn't claimed?' Farewell Francoise. In the space of half an hour the subdued Francoise had collected three young men friends, and all laughed and smoked. Perhaps there is no age limit for smoking in France!
We arrived at Newhaven and passed quickly through the Customs, and out into the sunshine. A French boat "Lisieux" - white paint and seagulls. Packed but not uncomfortable, and the sea with hardly a ripple. Seven Sisters receding into the mist. Goodbye England - white cliffs and green fields. Newhaven in the sunshine then only seagulls all the way and an occasional tanker. Quite a breeze but still sunny. Sitting crosslegged on a deck were a Scottish girl and a Frenchman. She in green cord(1) trousers and mustard jacket - he in black jeans and purple shirt. They ate rolls and jam from a jar with a spoon and played chess on a miniature set. On deck chairs lining the rail were swarthy Italians - the girl with huge hoop earrings and tight laced trousers. Behind me a Cure in long grey robes played naughts and crosses with a young boy. A huge man in a kilt strode the deck. Constant babble of Frenchmen and over the loudspeaker "Would you please take empty bottles to the bar - we know you won't take full ones!..." Down below music and heat. First sight of French Coast - straight high cliffs and the sweep down to Dieppe.
Everything here needs painting but paint would spoil the effect. Tiny wooden shutters and coloured lights. High narrow cafe 'Jean d'Arc' Did she ever go to Dieppe? From the boat straight on to the train - standing in the street - how much higher it looks - narrow compartments and leather seats. We wave to people high up on balconies watering window boxes. Bright colour against the peeling wood. The sea air makes me sleep. We pass little broken-down buildings and fields with what looks like neglected orchards in them. Sometimes a huge field curving right down to the railway - no fences. The train makes an incessant roar. Streams of brightly dressed passengers stagger from compartments to restaurant car and back again. A Cooks Travel Agent searches for his party. A woman in purple transfers, one at a time, eight cases from one end of the train to the other crying "Mon Dieu" at intervals. Two bearded Frenchmen reminise [sic] at the rail. An English gentleman describes the route to his two children. We crowd into the corridor for a distant view of the Eiffel Tower.
We cross the Seine and then the sweep into Paris - we seem to circle the city. St Lazarre 6.0 p.m. We have arrived. Station Hall full of small tables and flowers and stalls selling ten varieties of sausages. We decide to walk to the hotel. Traffic everywhere - silent but dangerous. Outside a cafe a huge crowd. A Gendarme ringing up from an emergency call box. I push to the front. Two men arguing and one youth slumped in a chair - drugged or stabbed and quite limp. I escape quickly. We walk up Avenue L'Opera and exclaim over articles in windows. Mostly unpriced. Dolls in lace and velvet - white ivory elephants and ashtrays - black inkstands and powder compacts - perfumes - silks and leather goods. Interspersed every few yards are little lottery booths, and of course cafes. Past the Louvre and across thte Seine. We see the famous Pont Neuf and then enter the Latin Quarter. Darker and quieter. Narrow high streets - cracked walls and antique shops. Past a fountain and a park and we are there at the Gay Lussac Hotel. No English spoken - Entrés - up five flights of worn red carpet and shaky bannister. Small room with high French windows and Venetian blinds opening to a balcony. Stand on the balcony and you understand Paris. An early night, for tomorrow we go up the Eiffel Tower.
First Continental breakfast. Coffee and rolls in the bedroom. Morning air on the balcony. Opposite a 'He' man in underpants performs exercises - A young girl dreams - below in the street the tables and chairs are moved out to claim pavement for the day - the fruit stalls are heaped up making a splash of colour in the river with a beautiful rose window and a Nun at the door collecting francs. Walk by the river - wooden boxes clasped to the wall selling old books and poor paintings. Plane trees countrify the river and the barges are newly painted dull green, black or chocolate. Fruit lunch in a garden by the left hind foot of the Eiffel Tower. We go up the tower 984 ft. for 8/-.(2) We post a card from the top. Small souvenirs, copper models of the tower play 'I love Paris' and the 'Moulin Rouge'. Ten francs to go to the lavatory but quite an experience. Mist over the outskirts of the city but Sacre Coeur like a white marshmallow in a coconut cake city. Walk past exclusive boutiques to the Arc De Triomphe. Unknown Soldier's grave with the ever-burning light. View down Champs Elysées. Trees - shops - cafes, but I prefer the smaller streets. Bought silky scarf at 'Marie Louise'. Walk across Place de la Concorde scene of many massacres - three times as wide as Stockton Market - and entered underground for Montmartre. Small expensive cafes. Fish in lighted tanks in the windows - caught in silver handled net by manager and on your plate fresh and fried in ten minutes. I had a small melon in a bed of ice. Walked up hundreds of steps, dark streets with cats to Sacre Coeur. Floodlit a pale biscuit colour. Great pure white dome and Paris adolescence surging round the base in the dark. Magnificent view of Paris lights.
On Wednesday we went to Versailles. Tremendous palace and vast gardens. Peculiar timeless feeling. You expect to see crinolined ladies coming down the seventy foot wide staircases. Grand Trianon - Marie Antoinettes home - Pink and blue marble with pink and blue flowers in the garden.
Back to Paris and a meal in the Palais Royale district. Cost the price of three, but a meal to be remembered. Three waiters bearing silver salvers and a huge leg of lamb sliced before us - sauces and strange mustards all in a boxed off avenue on the pavement. Cheese that cannot be described but cannot be forgotten.
Thursday we walked by the river and saw quaint shops selling lead models of 17th Century Parisian figures who used to throng the Pont Neuf. Also shell figures of great delicacy and intricate in detail. Then to the Louvre. Hall after hall of marble statues - black marble setting for the perfection of the 'Venus de Milo'. Long avenue of Art with ardent copyists. 'Mona Lisa' backed by red velvet and on either side long windows with red velvet window seats and views of the Seine through the branches of the plane trees.
Lunch by the river - peaches, apples and French pastries and a long sleep in the sun. Fishermen that never seem to catch anything. Beggars haunt the warm river banks and sleep on piles of rags. Dogs and children splash by the Pont Neuf in the oily water. A woman walks past nibbling from a thin, yard long roll of crispbread. Walked up Rue Sebastopol to the flower market but Fish market smells triumphed and we hurried through - not a nice part of Paris - street women chatting on corners waiting for the sold out and wallet full stall men. Bought fine lacy handkerchiefs and toured big store but not the charm of the small shops. Rue Montorgueil narrow crowded street lined with fruit barrows. Bought French nougat and then found delightful restaurant 'Chez Josette'. Delicious concoction of cheese, ham and tomato followed by nut ice-cream. Up above, two trumpeters practised one theme over and over. A walk in the dark to the Eiffel Tower. Like a huge black crab in the sky or a visitor from Mars. Home with grapes to bed.
Friday morning we left the 'Gay Lussac' and took our luggage to Gare De L'est. I bought a black plate - ceramic ware and then we bought fruit for our journey to Strasbourg. In our hurry we left three large peaches in the shop. Interesting train journey through rich wine country and then a contrast in chalky dry country. Met French School teacher in corridor who was returning from Spain. No shorts allowed there. Through tremendously long tunnel with workmen picnicking in the gloom. Repairs going on so we crawled through. Wooded country beginning and the smell of pines. Peasant women in bright flowered dress entered carriage with huge basket of tiny yellow fruit. I asked if they were plums and she said Mirabelles and heaped both our laps full. I can still picture her as she leant forward all bulges in a yellow frock with brown flowers and scooped handfulls of the yellow fruit from a wicker basket. It was later in the holiday when I remembered those mirabelles and wished I hadn't eaten so many.
Strasbourg after six hours. Mistake with hotel address but after crossing a dark canal twice we found it. Red quilts and a balcony again - first floor and a view across a large square. We walked through the town recrossed the canal and saw the cathedral spire shooting up. Across the street a band of black men playing jazz. Found dark entrance - all black wood and dim lights. Tapestry Strasburg costumes through the ages round walls and soft French music playing in the gloom. Almost like a smugglers den and men in boots and dark jerseys coming in and out and whispering repeatedly. Delicious cheese. It was called 'Under the Sun'.
Industrial Fair the next day so the noise in the square at night was dreadful. I stood on the balcony at 3 a.m. and watched the lorries below. Motor bikes seemed to be starting up every two minutes.
On Saturday we crossed the border between France and Germany. - Women duller plainer - different atmosphere. Change to small local train with seats for Black Forest district. The plains to the Rhine on the left and on the right wooded hills topped by castles. We guessed a place and walked three miles to get right inside. Delightful hotel with flower boxes on the sill. Large quilts in pink and white cotton and mushroom ommelette [sic] for supper. Hills behind us and all around - and below our window a stony brook playing music all the evening. Long bullock carts and mowers - men and women side by side in the evening air. The last land home - bullock carts under our window down the village street - across the church square and turning off to small farmyards. A walk in the evening past timber yards - clean sawdusty smell and the noise of crickets in the grass like hundreds of knitting needles and sewing machines all going full blast. Back to the village where the new grey stone church was outlined against a red sky. Inside, the blue glass windows give a cold yet awe-inspiring feeling. We are in the village of Neuweier famous for wine-making. We slept early with the windows wide, and the church tower looked down on the square and the brook sang as the last bullock cart came home. The lace curtains veiling the geraniums on the sill - the crisp pink cotton against the cheek.
On Sunday we breakfasted early. The hotel is called 'The Grapes.' We walked slowly up a long winding path between woods and vineyards with apple trees growing by the roadside and always a stream at the side. After two hours uphill we reached Yberg, a ruined castle on the hilltop behind Neuweier. The top was flat with small tables set out beneath the trees and views all around. Baden-Baden in the valley, high peaks bare and wooded and the long sweep to the plains where fast flows the Rhine. Climbed the old tower - Roman origin - besieged by flying ants - a stinging swarm covered us and we beat a hasty retreat. Ate German Apple Cake and then had adventure. American couple and Inn proprietor involved in car crash. John acted as interpreter and we went racing down the hill to the scene of the crash. Three German Police came and all talked at once. Inn proprietors arm bandaged. American woman referred to him as 'the boy with the wrap on his arm'. Police carted them off to Baden-Baden and a more accomplished interpreter. We toiled back up the hill to pay for our forgotten apple cake. The car had turned upside-down and was perched on the edge of a high cliff. Early morning, before we came out, the square had been full of Church goers. When we returned it was full again, but church for the day was over. The noise of German laughter and gossip is heavy and hard. It went on and on. Beneath our sill a group sang a German song so sweetly - mens voices harmonising in the dark with the brook for an organ and the hills looking down. A golden moment before the earthy laughter and the crash of glasses triumphed. The maids in traditional blouses and pinafores with red shining cheeks - their embroidered aprons flying back and forth between the old men, and older old men each with a bowler hat and a beard recounting stories, many of the war, to a younger audience. The thick smoke and the small soft Dachshund that licked my hand: Young farmers and peasant girls laughing in the dark outside and lines of washing hanging under the eaves in case of rain: The strong smell of apples in the street as they were crushed in an old barn and the juice bottled.
On Monday we caught bus through beautiful valley of Lichental - woods and rocks all the way to Baden-Baden the famous watering place. Drank some of the hot water - ghastly - and window shopped. I bought a raffia bucket bag with a cane handle and John a black pot. Beautiful treelined walk with exclusive shops either side and open air concert at the end. The Spa is in a park on one of the wooded slopes. Small green umbrellas dotted all over were night lights among the trees. Walled in stream below the high white hotels but not the charm of the little village. Back to Neuweier and liver for supper. Woman held sides to show us what it was - suspiciously Horsy. Storm at night - thunder over the mountains and lightening behind the church tower. The brook loud and high and the rain on the cobbles below.
On Tuesday the rain was still coming down and the valley looked cold and uninviting. All the hotel, down to the youngest member of the kitchen staff grouped on the steps to wave goodbye. Last glimpse of bullock-cart in the rain and the little red cheeked maid in traditional dress waving from the steps of 'The Grapes'.
Long train ride to Mainz - always a woman attendant in the mens lavatory - strange custom!! Mainz depressing - dreadful bomb damage although nature soon softens the jagged edges. My memory - ruins against the sky - heaps of rubble and the faces of the people. Watched barges on the Rhine and fishermen on the river steps catching small fish from the fast flowing water. Unreadable menu in expensive restaurant - unlucky guess proved to be seven pieces of raw pilchard interspersed with raw onion. Fortunately I had a plastic bag. I slipped the cold clammy pieces, one at a time in the bag on my knees. We left and searched for cats!
Wednesday morning we boarded the 'Rhineland' in the sunshine but thick mist over the water turned to drizzle. We ate soup with raw egg floating in it - surprisingly pleasant. Passed the Loreley in a mist of rain but wonderful feeling. The loud-speaker played the famous tune and it was haunting. Just sat... Castles on every peak - strings of barges bound for Basle - black sailed fishing boats and small river craft - cliffs - mountains - vineyards down to the water - small islands in the river.
Arrived in Bonn Beethoven's birth place - clean town. Fast train - blue leather inside - to Köln. Ruins again but many beautiful new buildings especially shops - out of ruin comes creation. Hotel 'Rhineland' behind the station. Wandered down street bright with coloured lights and no traffic. Wonderful leather goods at reasonable prices.
Thursday bought Eau-de-Cologne and visited Cathedral. More beautiful from the outside. Horrid gated confessionals with tombs behind the bars. One with a notice 'Father Kettle back in October'.
Rain again as we set off for Schwelm and a visit to Elisabeth and Franz. Long train journey on wooden seats - thunderstorm - passed famous Wuppertal overhead railway - only one in world that runs high over a river.
On Friday Franz took a holiday from the Piano Factory and we had a lovely country walk in the sunshine. Through market place - fruit - sausages and flowers and then photographs on stiles and haystacks - saw a fox racing over the short wet grass. Late afternoon rain and we ran home. Pink shirt - grey shirt - check shirt over the cobbles in the wet. Through the market, empty save for children squabbling over oranges boxes and rotten fruit - wads of wet packing and paper clogged the gutters and pools spread over the shining cobbles. Tea - salad with strange oils and then goodbye. Journey on famous railway - strange swaying sensation and feeling of space station as you stand on a platform in the sky with the city lights below blinking through the rain.
Slept at the back of the new hall in Essen. I spoke to the friends there with an interpreter - a strange experience. 'Be like Josiah I said - turn not to the right or the left - do that which is right in the eyes of the Lord. Have a wise heart and a willing heart'. Afternoon chatting and then a huge fruit flan with cream. Traditional Obstkuchen - all fresh fruits set in jelly. Evening walk in famous Gruga Park - flowers and weeping willows - long legged birds crossing the lines of the miniature railway - children throwing apples to tame Gazzelles. Sea lions and tropical fruit.
Special night - 30,000 candles lit at dusk - tiny, like fairy lights all over the grass and among the trees - fountains shooting up shaded in blue and green and from the high tower Brahms Lullaby sounding on the night air. Everyone still - a memorable night. Goodbye Essen, train at 12.15 a.m. for home. - packed first and then breakdown at Koln. Changed to wooden Belgian train - unbelievably hard, - air cushion burst - cold - woke every five minutes - no water - beautiful dawn at 5 a.m. delicate pink sky with pale blue mist - Bruges belfry in the dawn. Boarded boat 'Prince Beduin' at Ostende - Cold and windy but pleasant swell. Looked after young nannys' two charges aged 3 and 5. Elderly French governess had difficulties with two spoilt loudvoiced adolescents. Looking back the long white wash - standing on the top deck in my long black plastic mack and a maroon berry(3). Looking forward suddenly the white cliffs and - oh Dover! Train to Victoria then home and a hot bath - shave and shampoo - then bed and school tomorrow.
It is in spare moments - surprising times - in a bus - alone - or jolted by a memory or similarity that I shall remember bits - fragments and lovely memories to keep alive the holiday through the winter. I shall remember first leaving Newhaven when I suddenly realised that England was an island. I shall remember Paris - the faded shutters - the tables on the pavement - the laughter and beggars beside the Seine and then how can I forget the tall pine trees, the larch - the fir, wooding the slopes behind Neuweier or the brook beneath our flower scented windows looking down to the grey church.
I hope in some way you who read this will gain some glimpse of what I felt and saw that late August and early September 1955.