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International Hostals -Sept 2011

I approached the hostelling tour with what I hoped was an open mind and a mild sense of adventure, bearing in mind I do like my creature comforts. However we were still going to be in old Europe and not in the wilds of unpronounceable land like Lawrence Bransby.

After an uneventful crossing and pleasant forested journey we reached our first night's destination of Bouillon in Belgium. It was perched on a hill (which necessitated some nifty not to say sneaky parking strategies) and overlooked a river valley and a fortified town. The castle was floodlit at night and we were entertained by a carillon of bells. Phil and Paul had already had a day exploring the town and reported a favourable impression. All very nice.

The accommodation was also very nice, clean and comfy. Just one problem. It was basically one big dormitory with a minimum of already occupied double rooms. Now, I was prepared on a youth hostelling holiday to be in a ladies dorm now and again. I was prepared for non ensuite rooms and a bit of basic food and facilities. I am very fond of my Mojacar holiday companions but do I wish to share sleeping space with them? Well, no , not really. I felt like Alan Bennett, who, when invited to an encounter group by an American friend, said ” My name's Alan. I'm English and I don't do this” Substitute Kate for Alan.

Of course it all got sorted in the end but wondering what the accommodation would be like lent a certain piquancy to the days travelling for the rest of the holiday!

Our next days journey to Saverne in Alsace very nearly didn't get off the ground as we, along with most of the rest of the club, couldn't find our way out of a paper bag, sorry I meant out of Bouillon.You all know the sort of thing—twice round the roundabout and three times past the Mairie followed by two routes barrées (and that's with four satnavs !) I lost count of how many times we met Vince coming the opposite way. It was more by good luck than management, although Bill disagrees with this bit,that we got on our way. The day was cold but sunny and our morning's route an attractive one of lakes and broad leaf forest. We found a decent hot chocolate stop – a cafe/bar that had a huge collection of - wait for it - kitchen whisks both historical and hysterical displayed on its walls. Why? Soon after this we were joined by the Gilligans who had spent some time lost in a forest and we continued our journey with them. While barrelling through the now more agricultural countryside it occurred to me that the nature of rural France had changed over the years we have visited it. We were unable that day to find anywhere for lunch and we rode through miles of villages with no restaurants,cafes, boulangeries or bars. It wasn't like that ten years ago. Many were closed permanently or for sale - probably asad reflection of the French rural economy.

As we approached our hostel at Saverne we were most impressed. It was a Napoleonic chateau. What was not so impressive was that we were on the top floor. 80 steps up. Full gear and two panniers later, red in the face and panting we were greeted by the cameras of TV Alsace at the top of the stairs. They were filming to promote tourism in the region.Those cameras were everywhere and none of us looked our best. Eileen swears they were filming in the ladies bathroom when she stepped out of the shower! Alan Simister became a bit of a primadonna after the camera woman filmed him and had to be sharply reminded that film stars are not found in Offerton Stockport.

One of the most interesting aspects of hostelling is the variety of people to be met on the way. At Saverne we came across an elderly Geordie who had just finished touring the Napoleonic hill forts of France and who had recently returned from a trip to India on an old Enfield. And I thought Spain was hot!

We were awoken early the next day (Saverne to Pontarlier) by the booming at close proximity of the cathedral bells. No rest for the wicked motorcyclists. This time it wasn't the town we had difficulty leaving but the hostel itself as the warden was convinced we hadn't paid the bill. Fortunately it was all on Dave's computer stick and apologies were accepted. This, like so many of the routes on this tour, was lovely and included the first of many cols and lakes. We stopped for a picnic lunch observed by some very curious cows who promptly did what cows do best thereby curtailing our mealtime and speeding us on our way.

Our next two nights were spent in Grindelwald.I approve of Switzerland - the beauty, the efficiency, the cleanliness - but the prices!! Owing to the price of the euro compared with the Swiss franc it was eye wateringly expensive and I was glad our meals were included. We had soon reached the Swiss border where much debate took place regarding whether we needed a vignette (get caught on a Swiss motorway without one and you'll know about it). However we had fun finding where to buy one from and then even more fun trying to pay for it as they wanted cash and we had limited Swiss currency on us. As it happens John Swainson was right. You can travel through the country without using the motorways although they do their level best with cunning road signs to divert you onto them.

At a lovely lakeside coffee stop I discovered Ovaltine which was I think a popular drink in Britain in the fifties with a song to its credit and is still a very popular drink here especially with skiers. All malt and hot milk. Absolutely guaranteed to send a pillion off to sleep which I now strongly resist after a talking to from Tony Maidens. The countryside was typically Swiss, all pastures and chalets with geraniums , cows with bells, and ancient churches huddled up to new builds.

The Grindelwald Hostel itself is a beautiful old chalet perched on a hillside overlooking the village and eyeballing the North face of the Eiger directly opposite. What a stunning setting. We were in an annex with excellent ensuite facilities but the boys' dorms and the dining room faced the mountain. A fantastic sight at sundown and sunrise. The food was excellent and plenty and there was a truly international feel to the place with hostellers from America, Korea and Japan as well as Europe. I think everyone enjoyed Grindelwald but more of that in a later edition.
Kate Johnson.