The Solo Traveller's View

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Road Trip Stop Chiemsee

Saturday, 25 January 2014

I take the motorway towards the Austrian border and Salzburg, but turn off towards the village of Prien and the Chiemsee, a large lake. The land is covered in a thin layer of snow that fell over night as the temperature dropped towards zero. Driving on the right-hand side of the road with a British car is not a problem, but the lack of winter tyres may soon turn out to be one. So far, luckily, the roads are clear.

How to take a ticket from the machine at the large parking lot near the piers? With the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, one must lunge through the passenger window to reach the button, taking care not to slip off the pedals in the process.

The next ship tour around the lake begins at noon, leaving ample time to wander along the promenade. There is a lovely winter mood, with gulls perching on snowy piers and the light reflected on the cold, grey water.

6_Anlegeplatz Prien


Then the tour ship Berta arrives and gathers up a surprising number of people braving the cold on this bleak day. She delivers us to the Herreninsel, the largest island in the lake.

A twenty-minute walk along a smoothly tarmacked path through the woods leads to the hidden castle of Herrenchiemsee, a pet project of Ludwig II of Bavaria. This sensitive, creative and introverted king used extravagant building projects to escape from the sordid reality of political intrigue and power games.

Ludwig II felt much more at home in an ideal world of legend, music, art and architecture. In 1873 he acquired the island as a setting for this impressive castle. It was built in homage to Versailles as a miniature copy of that grand chateau and its gardens and was designed to be a temple of glory, dedicated to Ludwig’s idol Louis XIV. Every imaginable luxury was lavished on the building, and King Ludwig paid for everything from his own coffers, thus amassing a huge personal debt.

7_Schloss Herrenchiemsee

Schloss Herrenchiemsee

Work began in 1878 and continued for seven years, yet castle and gardens remain unfinished. King Ludwig’s exhausted funds and sudden, unexplained death (days after his deposition because of alleged insanity) put an end to his dream.

Even so, the completed parts are impressive. The guided tour of about thirty minutes takes us through extensive state rooms, clad in many-coloured marble panels and furnished with massive lead-crystal chandeliers reflected endlessly in huge, gilded mirrors, parquet floors inlaid in intricate patterns with costly, scented tropical woods, colourful frescoes and priceless embroidered draperies, as well as a collection of precious clocks and a table designed to be set near the kitchen below stairs and then hauled up by mechanical magic.

But King Ludwig II also integrated the newest technology in his building projects, like cleverly disguised central heating and running hot and cold water. Furthermore, he was a pioneer of the beginnings of social security. The workers on his castle projects could join a society that would pay a certain sum per day of illness, and carry the costs of the wake and a mass in case of death.

These days, the castles that led to Ludwig’s financial ruin are Bavaria’s main attractions and have paid for themselves many times over, drawing millions of visitors each year from all over the world …

Intrigued by this king’s tragic story, I decide to learn more about his life and visit the museum in one of the castle’s wings. Apparently, Ludwig II envisioned flying machines from an early age and later ordered various engineers to work on this idea, unaware that such a feat was not yet technically possible. Unfortunately, this dream of his was later used as one of the most damning arguments in the report ordered by his ministers to prove Ludwig’s unsound mind. However, when Bismarck was approached by the conspirators, he dismissed the report with the verdict that “the Ministers wish to sacrifice the King, otherwise they have no chance of saving themselves.”

Indeed, Ludwig II was considering replacing them all, for their constant opposition to his projects irritated and frustrated him. So the ministers, preferring to act quickly, commissioned a panel of four eminent psychiatrists with an investigation; and although not one of these doctors had met the king, nor ever examined him, their findings were that the king suffered from paranoia and was no longer fit to rule.

“Suffering from such a disorder, freedom of action can no longer be allowed and Your Majesty is declared incapable of ruling, which incapacity will be not only for a year’s duration, but for the length of Your Majesty’s life.”  

The detailed files of the king’s personal physician, who strove to show that there could be no question of mental illness, were dismissed unread.

It all makes the words of Richard Wagner, who met with Ludwig II in May 1864, seem prophetic:

“Heute wurde ich zu ihm geführt. Er ist leider so schön und geistvoll, seelenvoll und herrlich, dass ich fürchte, sein Leben müsse wie ein flüchtiger Göttertraum in dieser gemeinen Welt zerrinnen … Von dem Zauber seines Auges können Sie sich keinen Begriff machen: wenn er nur leben bleibt; es ist ein zu unerhörtes Wunder!”

(“Today I met with him. Alas, he is so handsome and ingenious, soulful and magnificent, that I fear his life must melt away like an ephemeral divine dream in this vulgar world … You cannot imagine the magic of his eye: if only he remains alive; it is too great a miracle!”)

Ludwig II had found in Wagner’s operatic work the kind of fantasy world that appealed to his imagination, and he became Wagner’s generous patron and the saviour of this obstinate, rebellious and debt-ridden composer’s career. Reports about King Ludwig’s peculiar habits observe reproachfully that the king shunned public shows at the theatre and instead ordered private performances for his solitary enjoyment. But the king himself confided that he could not possibly enjoy a performance and immerse himself in the story while being stared at by the crowds who followed his every expression through their opera glasses – surely perfectly understandable and a sign of normality rather than eccentricity.

That this king was too sensitive to withstand the expectations and duties his role placed upon him is further illustrated by his aversion to war. Nevertheless, he was forced by a treaty with Prussia to do battle against France in 1870. After the victory, Wilhelm the First was proclaimed German Emperor – in Versailles, of all places – and Ludwig considered this an insult to the French people. He refused to take part in the celebration, thus making himself more enemies at home.

He was critically aware of his situation, as shown by another quote where he reflects on the fact that he acceded to the throne at the age of eighteen.

“I became king much too early. I had not learned enough. I had made such a good beginning (…) with the learning of state laws. Suddenly I was snatched away from my books and set on the throne. Well, I am still trying to learn …”

Today it is widely believed that Ludwig was an innocent victim of political intrigue. His cousin Sissy, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, knew him closely and held the view that “The King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently, and thus perhaps spared him so terrible an end.”


Winter Mood

Foyers Gorge, Loch Ness, Scotland

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Exploring Foyers

Monday, 26 September 2011

More heavy rain fell in the night, but the morning is brightening. I have checked out and sit in my car, studying the road map, unsure of where to go next. There are now several options. I could continue along the coast to Aberdeen, drive up to the Cairngorms National Park, or investigate the south shore of Loch Ness. Unsurprisingly, I find that I want to do all of these things! I begin by driving back to Loch Ness, to which I find myself rather attached now that I have learnt so much about it.

On the way I pass a James Pringle Weavery, closed down several years ago and turned into a tourist attraction. In the small but interesting exhibition, an old man demonstrates the working of a semi-automatic loom by pedalling steadily. The machine makes a great noise and the shuttles fly back and forth. Because there are no other visitors, he takes a break to have a chat and tells me that he has been a weaver since he learnt the trade at his grandfather’s side, from the tender age of ten. His grandfather’s grandfather had been a weaver too, like so many people in the area, but now there are only about thirty weavers left in the whole of Scotland, reportedly producing high-quality cloth for the Arab market.

His tale is another version of the familiar story of exploitation, encountered earlier in quarry and mine: not getting paid for the whole yard of cloth produced, only for a percentage – in this case because of ‘shrinkage’. The weaving families had to buy the looms and other necessary equipment from the mill owner and paid it all off over many years. They set up the large looms in their tiny cottages and lived around the edges. All the family was busy with the washing, carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving of the wool, but they were not allowed to buy wool or sell cloth independently. Their pay was spent on supplies provided by the mill owner who also set the prices, profited from every single transaction and effectively owned his work force. The only possible escape from this form of slavery was through emigration – usually to Canada, the United States, South Africa or Australia – and was mostly chosen by younger sons who would not inherit the family loom.

Information panels on the history of Scottish clans display the famous McNames with their corresponding tartan colours and plaid patterns, as well as illustrations of the old warriors in the full glory of their garb. I cannot help thinking that they must have been very sure of their manliness to go prancing around in skirts, as well as coldly disdainful of the prevailing climate conditions.

There is also information regarding the Whisky Trail, a route that takes visitors to famous distilleries in the area. Rather amusingly, this Whisky Trail is sponsored by the Automobile Association AA (Alcoholics etcetera?). It is the same association that issued a handy book of excellent road maps, the ones that guide me on this trip. Printed on its back is the notice: ‘The experts at the AA have created these maps to help you navigate Britain’s roads safely and easily’ – especially after sampling some whisky at all these distilleries, I suppose! The Automobile Association’s daring combination of road travel and Whisky Trail sponsorship makes me wonder if Scotland could possibly have its own, separate, special laws concerning drink-driving too.

The inadvertent humour continues at the traffic light of a building site, where a large sign proclaims: ‘Pedestrians push button and wait for green man’. I sit in my car, waiting for the lights to change, and laugh delightedly, wondering which one of his many forms the mythical Green Man might assume at this crossing. Will he show his face, surrounded by foliage, as the spirit of nature, the personified triumph of life after the dead months of winter? Will he surprise children in his newer guises as Robin Hood or Peter Pan? Or will he reward patient pedestrians by meeting them in more esoteric form, as a guide to the personal transformation and inspiration that are also in his power, and associated with his name? I want to push that button, just to find out.

The drive along the south shore of Loch Ness is splendid! I am pleased that the single track road between Dores and Foyers is without traffic and I can crawl along as slowly as I like, for I find myself visually stunned by the steep, rocky woodland bank on my left and the view across the loch on my right. I arrive in Foyers and discover that this is a famous, if barely advertised, sightseeing spot. It certainly isn’t marked as a place worth visiting on my up-to-date AA map. Maybe because it lacks a distillery?

Nearby, a tremendous waterfall plunges into a gorgeous gorge; a spectacle that inspired Burns, Keats and Wordsworth, to name but a few famous visitors. And here at last I find a car park and a well-maintained footpath through unbelievably and indescribably beautiful woodland, leading down to the waterfall.

Foyers Gorge, Loch Ness, Scotland

Foyers Gorge

Uplifted, my soul reaches out in an attempt to embrace the glorious beauty that is spread all around me. In this particular place, more than in any other I have yet visited on my journey, I find the nearness of nature in its untamed and varied splendour almost overwhelming. In my youth I took the beauty of the natural world for granted, but these days I find that this easy acceptance is often replaced by a sense of awe and wonder, and a questioning of how: How is all this beauty possible? Who composed this great harmony?

The path that leads down to the lakeside is a Red Squirrel Trail, but no squirrels are to be seen. They must all be enjoying their midmorning nap. Instead, I find myself wandering through the sequence of topics from our Botany lessons as fungal fairy rings spread out amongst billowy clusters of moss under bracken that is just turning golden, and the air is so pure that lichen grows on the conifers in splendid abundance, its fronds and lobes scattered like jewels across my path.

Picking them up, I feel their delicate texture and then run my fingers over the rough bark of a Scots pine by way of comparison. After years of indoor living, this intense exposure to the natural world has a miraculousness about it that appeals strongly to my sense of touch and reminds me of my childhood. In those far-off days, stone and soil, bark and leaf had to be touched and felt to be more fully understood – and so it is now.

Red Squirrel Trail, Foyers, Scotland

Red Squirrel Trail

Towards the end of the afternoon I take the A9 and follow it through great scenic splendour into higher hills. Once again I drive without a clear goal. Just picking a road and a general direction is enough. In the evening I reach the Cairngorms National Park and the village of Kingussie, where a surprise awaits. The B&B I approach has a Swiss flag above the door, and the landlady turns out to be from Zurich, like myself. This is unexpected, to say the least!

Now a stream of Swiss dialect floats through the Scottish air and I am welcomed like a long-lost friend. There is also a lovely cat, adding her presence to the general delight, and the room could not be better. The landlady proposes to share her supper with me, so we sit down in her cosy kitchen for a good chat about our homeland and the circumstances of our lives that brought us together here. And although my Swiss German is exceedingly rusty after so many years spent in England, it limbers up as the evening wears on …

Read more in ‘Reports from the Road’, a tale for explorers of Great Britain – solo or not. Clicking on the cover will take you there:


Readers‘ Comments:

“What a beautiful picture you paint! I only wish more English folk would appreciate all the wonderful things they have on their doorstep.” – S. Thompson, UK

“I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of your exciting and colourful reports about the places you visited. Your descriptions made me want to visit those places too.” – Jo L., UK

“Your descriptions of Scotland are wonderful.” – Emma T., UK

“Beautiful account! I’ve read a few journal entries and loved each one. You have a wonderful way with words, bringing the places and people to life. It has been a pleasure. Thank you!” – Penny F., UK

“While reading this wonderful account of the author’s rambles around Britain, I could envision what she was seeing and experience her days along with her. I felt her gaining strength day by day as she walked further and further. And felt her frustration when she had trouble finding a place to sleep some evenings. If you enjoy travelogues, this little volume is for you! And if you travel alone there are hints on what to do, and what not to do.” – J. Fender, US

“The soft way of traveling. There is something really special about Fabienne Wolf’s way of letting you participate in her trip around Britain – solo, which means getting in closer touch with things in her very sensitive way.” – C. Schauer, Spain

“I just felt as though I was there, standing next to you, seeing it all. Thank you!” – C. Bourke, UK

“I ordered both of your books from Amazon and loved the first one immensely! And now I have started the second volume on your solo cruise. Your reminiscing and experiences are wonderful, as well as your adventures on and off the ship. Thank you!” – Jane F., Beaufort SC, US

Retirement? - Mekong, Vietnam

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A Day on the Mekong

Day 59 ~ Saturday, 3rd March 2012 ~ sunrise: 6.05am ~ sunset: 6.02pm ~ wind: 2, light breeze ~ weather: sunny ~ temperature: 33°C ~ distance travelled since Nha Trang: 207 NM ~ in total: 21,765 NM
Aurora docks in Phu My at eight o’clock in the morning. The air temperature is already twenty-nine degrees Celsius, and it is sure to get even hotter. Today’s excursion is the ‘Mekong River Experience’ – an exclusive tour for two groups of six passengers only. It is a three-hour drive and some hundred and eighty kilometres each way. First we head through Ho Chi Minh (He Who Brings Enlightenment) City with its adventurous traffic, and then out into the vast plain of the Mekong Delta.

Saigon 2

Ho Chi Minh City

In the countryside we pass rice fields dotted with farmsteads and family tombs, where dogs play and little boys run with kites. The buildings of both town and countryside are thrown together in a variety of styles, often in a cheerful ramshackly way that narrowly avoids squalor.

Family Tombs in Rice Fields

Family Tombs in the Fields

By the time we arrive in My Tho, our limbs are numb. We take a brisk walk around the harbour building to stretch our legs before boarding a motorboat that takes us across the opaque waters of the Mekong River. We pass another Japanese suspension bridge (they seem to be everywhere) as well as a floating fish farm, and soon we arrive at Thoi Son, the Unicorn Island, for a leisurely walking tour along shaded footpaths.

Mekong River Boat

Mekong River Boat

Our first stop is at a honey farm, where we are shown frames of honeycomb with bees swarming all over. Invited by the landlady to sit in the shade of a pillared roof, we are given a tasty honey drink to sample. It is prepared in small glass tumblers at our table, and now our guide demonstrates how to toast in Vietnamese: “Mo (one), hai (two), ba (three) – yo!” … and down it goes! We practise our first words of Vietnamese eagerly. A tasting of propolis, honey and delicious peanut brittle follows, and then we have the opportunity to buy these delicacies in support of the local economy.

Tasting a Honey Drink

Tasting a Honey Drink

Following a path into the gardenlike grounds, we reach a place where benches and tables welcome us in the shade. A selection of locally grown fruit is served here: pineapple, pomelo and mini-bananas, as well as the more exotic jackfruit, sapodillas and milk apples. All of this makes the heat bearable and we enjoy each treat in turn. Musicians with traditional instruments arrive and accompany four young women who sing folk songs for us, mostly sad ones about the lover leaving to go to war.

Folk Music Performance

Sad Songs of War

Our motorboat is waiting to take us further down the river, to a place where we change into small, Sampan-style boats. These are rowed along a narrow canal by two women in conical hats, and this waterway is part of a maze of similar channels, extending along the side of the riverbank. The upright leaves of water coconut provide shade, but sunlight drips through their tall fronds in patches and dapples the mud-brown water with gold.

This is so cool!

This is so cool …!

Rowing Granny


Let the Women work!

A Nap in the Shade

It is wonderful to glide silently along these greenish tunnels, hidden from sight, and I find myself imagining childhood adventures in this setting. How marvellous it would be to have one’s own little boat to explore these waterways from dawn to dusk! ‘Huckleberry Finn’ comes to mind, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ … Much too soon for my liking our destination is reached and we must disembark. The eyes of an idle man by the jetty light up expectantly as I get out a couple of dollar bills for the boatwomen.

Now we follow another footpath and see pineapples growing on their stalks, a farmhouse built from carved coconut wood, and a bicycle leaning in the yard. Scrawny black hens are scratching the ground around it. At a small family workshop, a mother-and-daughter team produces delicious coconut candy. The young son handles a python fearlessly and poses for photographs, while the man of the house just hangs about and watches over his family’s enterprise.

Cutting & Wrapping

Making Coconut Candy

Would You Like to Hold

“Would you like to hold?”

Set in flowery grounds, a beautiful restaurant awaits us at the end of our walk. It is intensely hot now, humid and well into the thirties, but a cool, welcome breeze moves through the open hall where we are served an exceptional meal.

To the Restaurant

To the Restaurant

A gorgeous elephant ear fish from the river, encrusted in herbs and almond flakes, is plucked apart at our table by expert fingers and rolled in rice paper with thin slices of cucumber and pineapple. An enormous balloon of crisply fried rice paste is cut into segments and heaped on a plate. Its unfamiliar taste is divine. An array of spring rolls is pinned, hedgehog-like, to the skin of a sliced pineapple. Generous helpings of steamed rice and seafood follow, and a plump king prawn is shelled for each of us by our waitress. Everything is so delicious that we all eat a good deal more than we normally would. What a treat!

and how to make them

Rice Paste Balloons

After the ample meal we find our motorboat waiting at the end of the adjacent pier and clamber aboard to be taken back across the river. The Mekong looks as sluggish as we feel, its waters seemingly immobile. Because the tide is high and pushing upstream, the wavelets hover undecidedly and it is impossible to tell which way the river flows.

Mekong Houseboat

Mekong River Houseboat

On the long drive back to Phu My, most members of our group lie down on the benches of the minivan for a nap. Although feeling drowsy myself, I prefer to watch as the scenery of this fascinating country rolls by. A little girl in pink, transported on a motorbike in the protective enclosure of her father’s arms, gives me a big smile and a wave.

It is absorbing to watch the Vietnamese as they move about on their motorbikes. Here is a young couple with cute twin toddlers, one strapped behind each parent, with a red heart handpainted on each cheek of their tiny facemasks. (We learnt that most women and girls wear facemasks and gloves, even in this heat, to prevent their skin from tanning.)

Then there are the lovers, her head resting on his back, arms clasped about his chest, and a proud look on his face. But acquaintances and business partners, sharing a bike, manage to leave plenty of space between their bodies in formal uprightness.

Unwashed young men in torn trousers and flip-flops zip along at a brisker pace than the dolled-up teenage girls in high heels; their long hair streaming out beneath cute, fashionable helmets as they laugh at a joke.

And then there is the older woman, with supplies for her village store strapped to every possible part of body and bike, and all those boxes and bags increasing the bulk of her vehicle considerably.

All these lives are travelling in brief impressions past my wondering eyes …

Supplies for the Village

“Did I forget anything?”

Visiting so many different countries in close succession allows me to experience a well-known fact in the light of immediate observation, namely that the basic themes of human existence play themselves out all over the globe in hugely colourful variety. Only the human spirit could invent a myriad ways of living Life. Man, woman and child between birth and death, eating and sleeping, learning, working and playing, loving, celebrating, praying and grieving – these are the common denominators of all the cultures in the world.

And yet there is an almost infinite wealth of variation in the way all of this is done. Each ethnic group evolved their own, special style in every aspect of the common themes of life, and they express it in their languages and dialects, their cults, beliefs and legends, their customs and traditions, through crafts and science, cooking and music, dance, literature, art and architecture – and it is this variety we come to see, to appreciate and to learn about as travellers.

Of course this is stating the obvious. But it is one thing to know it in theory, and an altogether different matter to experience that reality in the course of a few weeks with such powerful immediacy: What a glorious place our world is!


Read more in ‘Views from a Cruise’, a tale from the oceans for new cruisers, solo or not, which includes 112 practical tips for life aboard and ashore. Clicking on the cover will take you there:


Readers’ Comments:

“I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your book, ‘Views from a Cruise’. My husband and I have gone on several week-long cruises. It is a very cold January here, and your book made me feel like I went on a long cruise around the world. It took some of the chill and boredom out of what is proving to be a long winter. Thanks again for taking me along!” – Dawn, Wisconsin, USA

“Beautiful account! I’ve read a few journal entries and loved each one. You have a wonderful way with words, bringing the places and people to life. It has been a pleasure. Thank you!” – Penny F., UK

“I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of your exciting and colourful reports about the places you visited. Your descriptions made me want to visit those places too.” – Jo L., UK

“I don’t normally read travel books but came across this one and was very happy I chose to read it. I’ve learned some interesting facts about different countries, but not only that kind of info you would find in the guide books. I felt I travelled round the world myself as the descriptions were very visual.
The author has a very pleasant writing style with quirky and humorous comments. I got quite hooked into it and was curious about what will happen next.
Fabienne describes the cruise ship life very vividly, so if I ever decided to go on such a trip myself, I know what to expect now. I’ve learned about facilities, food, culture events, and how everything is organised. I also found it interesting and encouraging that she travelled by herself, and my impression was that she really enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll do that one day too!
Overall, I think this book is very well written and provides lots of useful information.” – Ivana C., UK

“I really enjoyed this book! I knew nothing about cruising, so I thought this would be a good place to start. I was particularly impressed with the way the author sold almost all and bought a round the world ticket. It proved a memorable experience and I was with her all the way in my own home.
The book held my interest as I read the happenings and activities from day to day on the ship. It never got repetitive. We got the inside story on the passengers and crew. Oh, that was interesting!
Another reason why I was interested in reading this work was because the author travelled on her own. I also travel solo. This book is well worth a read and I recommend it.” – M. Neville, UK

“I ordered both of your books from Amazon and loved the first one immensely! And now I have started the second volume on your solo cruise. Your reminiscing and experiences are wonderful, as well as your adventures on and off the ship. Thank you!” – Jane F., Beaufort SC, USA

“Well written and enlightening! I enjoyed the journal writing style and the day-to-day format including the daily weather, nautical miles and time zone readings. These page breaks make for a very fast read. I dislike long chapters. Fabienne makes her daily observations consistently short enough and interesting, so that you want to read on and on.” – J. Collins, UK