France, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia

Bernard Smith and Cathy BirchallIt is really hard to know what to write as we sit here in Rixheim about 20 kilometres from the Swiss border on day 14. Our heads are full of images and experiences already and we are having problems disentangling them into something coherent for people to read. So forgive us as we stumble through the first two weeks of the journey which is still in its infancy in terms of both us adjusting to the daily rhythms and constantly changing environments we find ourselves in. We shall, at this point, do our best to paint some pictures for you to share the time so far.

The final week before departure was truly frantic and even on the morning of departure Bernard was still fussing about the bike and 100 other things. He had packed and repacked the bike so many times I’m sure he knew every little nook and cranny where objects could be stored. With about two hours to go he disappeared out to the garage to have a cigarette and I went out to check preparations with him only to find a mountain of gear sitting by the bike which he had unloaded – in effect all of our camping gear!

Bernard…

I was sitting looking at the bike and everything I knew about bikes was shouting NO, NO, No. There was too much gear, loaded to high and the whole thing looked wrong. I didn’t even want to take it out for a test drive as I felt so uncomfortable with it without even riding it. So I made the decision to lighten the load and ditch things we would do without or buy on the road if we needed them. I had always said that we would, probably, only be camping in Europe itself and by the time we go to Turkey the camping gear would be non-essential so off it all came. At the end of the day our safety was paramount and I wasn’t confident in the amount of gear we were carrying and the effect it would have on the stability of the bike.

Bernard and Cathy with familySo it was that the farewells came and our friends and family gathered for the big off. After two years of planning, thinking and pushing our way through barriers and skepticism we were one-and-a-half hours late leaving. We thought this was good that two years down the line we were that close to departure time!

Tearful farewells were said and hugs exchanged and then we levered our way onto the bike in-between packages and materials strapped down and off we wobbled down the road. No fanfares, papers or TV crews, no cutting of cakes just two people setting off on a voyage of discovery about being visually impaired in a big wide world. At that point it certainly felt very big and very wide indeed.

Right from the first minute Bernard was not happy with the feel of the bike as he said it felt like a beached whale as it was so ponderously heavy and unstable.

We persevered with the bike all the way to say goodbye to my mother and step-dad in Anglesey with no doubt in my mind that he would unpack the whole thing again and start from scratch (which he did the following morning before we left for Ireland).

We spent the evening with my mother (Mavis) and step-dad (John) and discussed our plans and hopes for the journey. Only the next day did Bernard tell me little nuggets of information like my mother talking to him out outside and asking him to make sure he looked after me. The time in Wales passed so quickly and before we knew it the morning was here and we were climbing back on the repacked bike and waving, again, tearful farewells to our loved ones with promises of phone calls and post cards being sent.

Right from the first turn of the wheels on the ground Bernard – for the first time – pronounced he was happy with the feel of the bike as he had, so he told me, gone back to the basics about distributing weight on a motorbike. I did refuse to get rid any of my already meagre ration of clothes for twelve months – although I did sneak in another two pairs of knickers I must admit!

The ferry to Ireland was largely uneventful although the bike did cause quite a bit of interest with the logos and signs on the side as other bikers congregated and talked to us about where we were going. Bernard is usually non-committal about the extent of our journey and merely reduces it to “Out and around for a bit and not really sure – just making it up as we go along”. Talk about understatement!

When we pulled off the ferry on Saturday (Day 2) a couple of hours later we were sitting in Bernard’s sister and brother-in-laws house enjoying Irish hospitality at its very finest. She had even managed to track down a copy of ‘The Rough Guide to Europe’ after a text message winged its way across the channel with the removal of our camping gear. This was to prove to be our bible for the following weeks. Little did we know at the time how invaluable it was to be in finding us a place to sleep at night.

We were only visiting until the Monday when we were to catch the 18 hour ferry from Rosslaire to Cherbourg (on Day four). Day three, as you would expect if you know anything about Ireland, was spent with mountains of food piled on plates as if we were going off never to eat again. It was as if every café and bar thought we looked like refugees from a food starved country. All too soon it was Monday morning and pictures were taken and tearful hugs were exchanged (and that was just Bernard) and we climbed aboard the – again completely – repacked bike. Only now did he pronounce it fit-for-purpose and no longer did I feel it wobble as we set off. It felt stable and much more secure in all ways although it was still a very heavy handful I have no doubt.

The wind was cool as we crossed the country and there was a feel of rain in the air but it never materialized and the engine throbbed steadily as I listened and got used to the sounds and feeling of being on the bike. It reminded of the previous trips we had done to test everything and the whole world seemed right again as I settled into the experience. When we pulled up at the ferry terminal the bike attracted a lot of attention and people could be seen taking down the web address and pointing to the bike with their friends. Bernard let it all wash over him and it left him largely unaffected.

The loading of the bike on the boat consisted of a very steep ramp up to the first deck and there was a genuine anxiety in the voice that came over the intercom system. We exchanged thoughts on the loading and when we were waved to go up the ramp Bernard kept the bike stock still and would not move it until the ramp was completely clear in front of him with no other vehicles in his path.

Bernard…

I was genuinely concerned when I saw the steepness of the ramp as the bike is seriously heavy and all the weight transference when we hit the ramp would put all the weight towards the back of the bike. We had to get up the ramp in one go as the brakes would never have held the bike two-up and fully loaded on such a steep incline. I did think of taking Cathy of the bike and taking it up alone but instead waited until the whole thing was clear and then, and only then, was I prepared to go.

I heard Bernard’s voice through my helmet saying “OK, here we go” and then he grabbed a handful of throttle and launched us up the ramp at a fair old velocity. I nearly came out of my seat but we made it and hit the very slippery upper deck which all the other bikers commented on as well. Before long we were in our cabin for the long crossing.

The next day dawned bright and clear but overcast as we pulled off onto the docks and headed off on the wrong side of the road towards our first stop of the journey – a small town in Northwestern France called Bayeux (famous for its Cathedral and the Bayeux tapestry depicting the rise and death of Harold King of England until an arrow fell from the sky struck him in the eye and he was no more).

We followed the directions and address in the rough guide through the navigation system which took us right to the door of the hostel in Bayeux centre. We eventually ended up staying there for four nights in order to catch our breath, emails, and other trip associated details including the first update written for July.

We never intended to sit still for so long but there seemed to be so much still to do and tidy up before we moved on.

Bayeux itself is very much associated with tourism due to the presence of the famous tapestry and, sure enough, we did the rounds of the tourist attractions when we got fed up doing serious stuff – like sorting out finances etc.

France - Bertha sitting very shiny in BayeuxThe tourist events consisted of visiting the cathedral, the tapestry (complete with audio description) and the Arromanches landing site where the allies built a complete artificial port and poured thousands of tons of materials and vehicles onto its shore in support  of the D Day landings on 6 June 1944. At all the attractions I was free to enter and there was no charge whatsoever. We found this also to be true on many days later at other sites as we moved on.

In the visitor centre at Arromanches one of the staff gave me a Braille information book which had all the details of the landing and the subsequent building of the artificial port and I consumed every word.

France - Cathy reading the story in Braille of the Arromanches landing siteEventually we had completed all of the tasks we need these few days to achieve and it was time to move on. Bernard did say it was obviously time to go as I had learned the layout of the hostel and would often leave him in my wake as I disappeared down the stairs and passages. We repacked the bike on the morning of day 9 and off we set to go to Paris to visit the Guide Dogs address we had found on the internet.

Before long we were deeply embroiled in the Paris traffic and heading down the the Champs Elyse to the L’arc de Triomphe which Bernard had sworn he would not do under any circumstances. It was as if we had been sucked along in the wake of a giant ship – we just got pulled along and fortunately everything worked out fine even with a monstrously heavy bike as we rolled up outside a hostel in the centre of Paris and booked in for three nights (Guide Dogs would not be open until Monday and we arrived on Saturday).

The weekend was thus reserved for riding on the Paris Metro, climbing the Eiffel tower, visiting Notre Dame Cathedral and the Bastille (which turned out to be a monument in the middle of a roundabout!)

Much like my previous experiences in France to date, we were located very quickly by staff at the Eiffel tower and taken out of the queue and ushered to the front where we purchased tickets with a special pass and before we knew it we had by-passed a 200 metre long queue for entry.

The lift propelled us upwards to the second floor and another queue for the final assent to the top level (level 3). This queue actually hid us from the attendants for quite some time but they again spotted the long caned English Woman and Bernard was waved at and pulled out of the line to be, once again, prioritized to the front of the line. A short while later – after another lift ride – we were standing on the top of the Eiffel tower with Paris stretching out for miles and miles in every direction.

France - the Eiffel Tower coming down a long wayI swear I could feel the whole thing moving under my feet but Bernard – even when he concentrated – could feel nothing. We took the inevitable pictures and video clips, buying post-cards and then the cool wind drove us down to the next level and a coffee bar which was full of Americans and every other nationality under the sun.

Our descent was by the stairs through one of the structures legs and it did indeed cause some consternation to the brave souls who climbed the tower using the stairs. It is not everyday that you see a long cane user coming down hundreds of feet on the stair route. But we did it and I can now proudly say I have been up the Eiffel Tower and walked down under my own steam!

On leaving the Tower we set off and discovered we were heading the wrong way and turned around only to be accosted by a person who noted the long cane and who turned out to be the Chief Executive of Humanware; providers of specialized equipment for visually impaired people.

He expressed a great interest in what we were doing and we now have an invitation to Canada and a destination once we arrive. It’s funny how a wrong turn can end up with such unanticipated consequences.

Our trip back to the hotel consisted of a further ride on the famous Paris Metro to head for the world famous Cathedral known as Notre Dame which Bernard spent at least 20 minutes describing the architecture outside before we entered the building a short time before mass was about to begin.

France - Notre DameThe church was packed with tourists all filming everything in sight according to Bernard. From the sounds of the descriptions he gave the whole scale of the building seemed to be truly magnificent and it must be a truly awesome sight complete with gargoyles and religious imagery. Our walk back to the hostel also took in the Plas De Bastille which was a pillared monument in the middle of a very busy roundabout and so we could not get close to read any of the materials which seemed to be visible from the far side of the 5 laned road which circled it.

The evening was spent trying to find a supermarket who all turned out to be closed and so we retreated to a Pizzeria where we chomped on the universal food of fast living people – although we did eat it very slowly with a couple of glasses of lemonade! When our heads hit the pillow it was as if a switch was flicked and within seconds a very long day of walking and descriptions came to an end.

Day 11 – August 11th 2008

The day started with us eventually finding a WI-FI equipped café and we picked up various emails and addresses for local  VI organisations. We paid 15 Euros for three very expensive cups of coffee and so the WI-FI was not free really!

On the internet we found details of Guide Dogs in France and so the decision was made to spend the afternoon tracking them down after loading addresses into the sat nav and off we went for our ‘First Contact’.

The first address we had was defunct and nowhere in sight (French Guide Dogs Federation). Not a very impressive start really!

We did, however, meet a very nice French man who engaged us in a conversation about something! I think it was about, either – you cannot park here as this is my space OR he had a 1944 bike which would not charge. He definitely talked about 12 volt and not charging so it was all a bit of a muddle really – Bernard did ask in French about the Guide Dogs address we had and even squeezed Biscuit’s barking toy in the windshield all to no avail. In the end, Bernard held out his hand to shake and said “Vive la France” and off we went – leaving the Frenchman probably muttering about stupid English people not being able to hold a civilized conversation.

Anyway no sign of guide dogs at first address and so we continued to the second address (Guide Dogs of Paris and Paris region). After 20 minutes of driving around where they should have been – including firing up the laptop inside the bike back-box – we did eventually find them.

We took a deep breath and went in through gate and introduced ourselves to the receptionist / secretary Aurelie who looked extremely puzzled as we approached. Handing over our business card she rapidly disappeared in a flurry of French and then reappeared with Ange who works for the press office and who spoke very good English.

We explained we were visiting centres as part of our journey around the world and she then proceeded to give us a guided tour of the building and facilities with the two of us chatting away and trading questions. I could hear the click, click of Bernard’s camera and I knew he would also be filming throughout the visit although I soon forgot he was there as the conversation flowed around what it means to be blind or partially sighted in France – particularly in Paris.

During the exploration of the centre Ange gave me a very gorgeous 10 week old white German Shepherd to cuddle which, without a doubt, will be to die for as an owner – they were fantastic looking little fellows according to everybody.

Other kennels contained several lovely dogs and the kennel doors all had signs saying things such as “Very intelligent dog” etc.

The whole centre had an open airy atmosphere and was spotlessly clean in all areas. As the conversation shifted around topics, trainers were wondering past backwards and forwards getting ready to leave for Paris centre to do training with the dogs. After a while Ange was called away for work and Aurelie took over and continued to show me around. We were also joined by Colin who moved from Scotland to London before arriving in Paris to work at the centre nine years ago. Originally he started working making harnesses for the dogs as his profession is as a saddler before he eventually graduated to doing everything and anything around the centre’s needs.

While we were talking all things Guide Dogs several of the staff mentioned they had recently gone to Switzerland to study the Swiss methods of training dogs and they came back mightily impressed by what they saw. They very kindly gave us the telephone number to contact when we move on towards Switzerland.

The people who gave us their time are a great bunch of committed and dedicated people working on behalf of blind and partially sighted people. We would like to thank the Paris Guide Dogs School for their kindness in allowing us to look at their centre and with special thanks to everybody who showed us around.

When we left the centre we stood outside and talked for some time about the kindness of our reception on our very first connection forged by having the confidence to go and knock on a door in a foreign country and say ‘Hello’. It is surprising what can be done. All you have to do is try.

We left the centre and headed back to the hostel absolutely buzzing, getting changed we headed out for a celebratory supermarket visit where sandwiches, beer and wine were bought – plus chocolate biscuits for me! The corks were popped and we enjoyed a well earned drink over our chicken sandwiches.

I really, really enjoyed today – the day was focused on aspects of what it means to be blind of which, for me, having and working with a guide dog is so obviously central to my life. It was not about motorbikes, navigation systems and logistics of getting around the world. It was all about being blind.

Day 12 – August 12th 2008

The drive from Paris towards Switzerland was our first real day of covering mileage on any great scale as previously the most we have completed was from Ireland to Bayeux which was 168 miles of gentle rolling pace through undulating hills full of green fields and trees.  This day comprised 350 miles of motorways, wind and rain.

All through the day I could feel the bike being blasted sideways as we cleared the shelter provided by juggernauts and broke into the space in front of them. Hours and hours sapped our strength as the rain and the drizzle and the wind wore us down.  We left Paris at twenty past eleven and it seemed to take forever to get to the open road.  The weight of the bike made it feel cumbersome and unwieldy to Bernard as the Paris traffic streamed around us from all directions.  We had planned to go back along the Champs Elyse to the L’arc de Triomphe to film the mayhem which constitutes the experience of driving in Paris. In the end due to the passage of time we decided to forgo that pleasure and head out of the city to the next stop which we had planned at Basel in Switzerland.

The journey itself was just a wall of grey rain and sideways winds which seemed to go on forever.

About 50 miles outside Paris we developed a problem with the back brake which had overheated and swollen to start jamming the rear wheel. This left us on the side of the motorway with traffic streaming passed as we waited for the wheel and the hub to cool down so that it could be adjusted.  Wagons and cars blasted passed as we waited.  The international ‘espirit de corps’ of the motorcycle fraternity soon came to the fore as a French motorcyclist zapped past us before nearly standing the bike on its front wheel as he flipped it into the hard shoulder, leapt off and walked towards us.

In a mixture of French and English from Bernard communication was established to let the kind Frenchman know that le moto c’est bien merci.  The Frenchman smiled, looked quizzically at Bernard, and repeated le moto c’est bien? To which Bernard replied qui monsieur le rouen c’est bon après dix minutes (the two wheels will be fine in 10 minutes).  He smiled, shook hands leaped on his bike and took off like a scalded cat.  It’s nice to know that the international standards that we are so used to in England amongst motorcyclists who need assistance holds true when we are so far from home.  After about ten minutes of waiting the brake had cooled down sufficiently for a less than finger burning experience as the system was adjusted and off we went again with a – nearly – working rear break.

The rest of the day passed un-eventfully as we forced our way through the weather which was unremitting and made us feel like we were back in the British floods of last year when we completed our Land’s End to John o’Groats run. Petrol stops came and went with our well established routine of how to manage so that everything is done safely and securely.

The routine consists of the bike stopping by the petrol pump and the directions and surroundings involving what is going on around us fills my helmet. Sometimes the left side of the bike is completely clear and there are no vehicles or obstacles in my way as I stand up on the peddles, swing my leg over the seat and step off the bike.  Under normal circumstances I follow the bike to the back and stand behind with my hands on the back box. Sometimes there is little space on the left hand side.  It may be that there are vehicles in the way or moving about us and so instead of stepping off and away from the bike I stand up on the bike swing my leg over and step straight down onto the floor and stand perfectly still until Bernard can give me directions about which way is the best for me to go.  Only at this point when Bernard has checked the environment is perfectly safe will he then climb off the bike himself. If I am at the back of the bike he always tells me when he is getting off although I always know anyway as I feel the bike tilt to the left as it goes down onto the side stand and a loud groan comes from him as he swings his leg (well drags it slowly and painfully) over the bike.  I hear the centre stand click down, the bike shifts up straight and then  slowly comes back towards me as he pulls it onto the stand.

As we sit and write this we are still wondering how 350 miles took eight and half hours of nonstop riding with speeds of at least 50 miles an hour and for large sections the speedometer showing 70.  Even analyzing the satellite navigation data it’s hard to work out what happened as the road from Paris to the eventual stop of Rixheim is all fairly straight forward in terms of road conditions.

By the time we had covered the 350 miles Bernard had definitely had enough and was starting to go quiet on me unlike virtually the whole of the day when he was making up weird and wonderful stories and motoring updates in strange voices as if he was captain of a plane giving altitude, directions, and speed, and weather conditions, even to the point of starting each update with a curious bing-bong announcement.  Sometimes I wonder at the way his mind works as he goes off on one of his weird and wonderful stories full of a mixture of fact, observation and fantasy as he makes up stories about what we are passing through in various goon like voices.

The satellite navigation eventually took us to a none existent hotel which didn’t go down too well at all with the pilot who prides himself on his toy but within ten minutes he had found the Le Relais de Rixheim where it cost us 44 Euros per night and so we booked two nights.  Our evening meal consisted of probably the worse Chinese we have ever experienced. But then again we are two English people eating in a Chinese restraint in France and 15 kms short of the Swiss border. Tomorrow we track down the breadcrumb trail provided by guide dogs in Paris for what they called “The Premier guide dog training School in the world.”

Day 13 – August 13th 2008

Bernard woke up this morning with a loud groan and the first words out of his mouth were that he felt like he had been dragged through a mangle, chucked off a cliff, taken back to the top and chucked off again. It seems that every muscle in his body was aching and even his toe nails hur if I am to believe him. His common quote at this point is “I’m getting too old for this shit!” after several more exaggerated groans he eventually fell out of bed, stumbled around the room – groaning all the time before disappearing off though he door muttering “who’s idea was this?”

By the time he came back ten minutes later it seems that the magic of nicotine had worked its wonders and he was vaguely human again.  It seems that yesterday’s 350 mile ride through the wind and the rain with a constantly violently shifting and swaying bike as we passed rows and rows of wagons from all over Europe has done him in just a little!

The route to the breakfast room is now starting to become clear to me and my own confidence in the use of the long cane is growing.  Everywhere we go now I am learning and orientating quicker and quicker to the point that I am half way through the building before Bernard has even left the room.  It’s funny really that it just seems to happen and the more it happens the more I need to do it on my own.  It doesn’t matter that Bernard has a heart attack as I chuck myself willingly into strange places.  It’s sometimes I need to do.

I think you have to realize that I am not a natural cane user but have been a dog user for so long that the skills of the long cane have taken two weeks so far to develop.  I have always been very good at orientation and am just applying this skill every day now in new places which are constantly changing on me. When we arrive anywhere new Bernard has got used to the fact that he should just leave me alone in a strange room and let me get on with locating all of the objects; even if it means hitting my head off a TV monitor mounted on a wall – which he finds difficult to do sometimes.

The breakfast itself was spent discussing trying to locate the Swiss guide dog training centre for which we only had a telephone number and the fact it was in Basel.  In the end we asked the receptionist to ring the number of the Swiss guide dogs but she wasn’t keen to ring the number as she was French and she thought that they would only speak German. In the end she rang guide dogs in Paris to get the address of the Swiss guide dogs which is only 15 kms away. Task achieved when she handed over a piece of paper with the appropriate address and so we set off to cross the Swiss border.

The sun is shining as we left to make contact with what the French described as the premier guide dog trainers in the world.  The French guide dogs at Paris had promised to e-mail them about our arrival and we hope that they know that we are coming to visit.

The ride to the border consisted of various bing-bong updates from Bernard whose sense of humour seems to have returned to normal as traffic updates and bing-bongs continued to flow through my helmet in strange voices from all over the world.

Before long we arrived at the Swiss border which consisted of a single lane and needless to say the shifty looking person on the front of the bike managed to get us stopped by the Swiss border control. The border guard waved us imperiously to a halt as if to say you are joking aren’t you!

Bernard described to me as the border guard walked around the bike looking and evaluating whether we were good enough to let into the land of chocolate, international banking, watches and cuckoo clocks.  He stood with his hands on his hips and his right hand hovering over a very large holster before asking in French “where are you going?”

Bernard (in his halting French) launched into his description of visiting the Swiss guide dogs to which the guard responded in perfect English “so you are going to Allschwil?” Once he realized we were not a threat to national security he very kindly even gave us directions to follow which matched the route shown on the satellite navigation system.

The bike thumped into life and we were into Switzerland!

Through my helmet I heard Bernard again muttering about all the road signs and markings being different than the ones he had got used to over the last few days in France. Eventually we found our way to a main street which indicated we were in the right district. So we climbed off the bike in our time honoured routine, packed the jackets into panniers due to the heat and set off down the road to explore and locate guide dogs.

After fifteen minutes of walking up and down Bernard decided to re-check the slip of paper which the hotel receptionist had written on and low and behold he hadn’t read it properly and the full address was actually there! He very sheepishly entered the full details into the navigation system which showed we were 5.3 kms away. It was time for a coffee and an enormously large toasted sandwich served at a Swiss café (with German speaking staff) with Bernard trying to communicate in French but we managed.

Picture of road sign showing direction to Allschwil district.Back on the bike for the 5.3 kms. We passed through the tram infested streets with track lines tugging the wheels of the bike to the left and to the right before passing out into the countryside and down a country lane to a beautiful white building flying banners and flags of the Swiss guide dog school.  We climbed off the bike to the sounds of a gentle wind rustling the trees and flapping the material of the banners. In some ways the noise of the bike seemed intrusive in the silence which surrounded us once the engine stopped.  All I could hear was the clicking sounds from the bike as it cooled down.  One of the trainers walked past with two dogs smiling according to Bernard and said something which we hadn’t the foggiest as to the meaning.  Taking off our helmets and jackets we stood savouring the fact we had arrived and found what everybody had insisted was the best guide dog training facility in the world.

We didn’t know if they were expecting us, we didn’t know if they would even see us but like everything else one this trip two people would not be put off from being on their own in approaching unknown situations.

We walked towards the entrance of a very modern and pristine building set in farm lands and with a beautiful backdrop of woodlands.  The building was very cool when we entered it out of the afternoon sun which gets hotter and hotter as the day progresses.

I heard Bernard introduce us to the receptionist on duty and he explained to me that she seemed very flustered at our arrival before rapidly disappearing in a rustle of clothes talking in an urgent German voice as she went passed us and then there was a rapid fire exchange through a doorway.  Within ten seconds a person appeared who introduced himself as Bruno who ran the guide dogs training school for many years and who is now writing special projects about the schools future plans and directions.  Bernard and I explained to him the purpose of our journey and he positively beamed with pleasure and interest in what we were doing from that point onwards. We were soon launched into nearly four hours of the most amazing guide dog centre and training regime of dogs and owners.

Picture showing Swiss Guide Dogs Logo etched onto window at centre. It is similar to UK Guide Dogs.During our hours at the centre we were shown absolutely everything there was about how the Swiss work on behalf of blind and partially sighted people.

From the time the dog is born and through the early months of its life absolutely everything is thought of, controlled, and designed. The puppies are so evaluated and rigorously checked that the slightest flaw in terms of health or as an eventual guide dog is resolved.

As we were shown through the centre for these hours we were absolutely dumbstruck at the types of activities used with the dogs at the point of birth, in effect, onwards.  We saw four week old puppies surrounded by toys, different tactile floors, wall markings, zebra crossings and road signs. There were mobiles hanging from the ceiling very much like a children’s nursery encouraging the dog to look up rather than always looking down. Bruno explained the centre started this many years ago (2000) as they recognized it is inherent in Labradors for example, to be constantly scanning the ground for such things as food and so they try to overcome this natural tendency from an early age. They even lower the dog’s meal down – occasionally – from the ceiling so the dog does not forget to look upwards – eventually to aid the dog’s awareness of height obstacles.

We saw mazes which the dogs have to navigate from approx 7 weeks old in order to find food on the other side.  Food itself is only used as a reward in its early life and it is never used during the final stages of training. Bruno stresses that food reward is forbidden at this stage.

Picture of the assault course for Swiss Guide Dogs!The outside grounds were full of obstacles which the dogs have to learn to navigate and find ways through with different surfaces under their feet and textures and sounds.  Everywhere there were things to distract the dogs – plastic bags rattling and rustling in the wind, children’s wind wheels spun noisily on the fences of the compound and I even came across a scarecrow designed to unsettle the dog due to its strange appearance with its coat blowing in the wind.  There was a big bath like structure full of plastic balls about the size of a tennis balls which the dogs initially were not confident in entering due to the shifting feel under their feet. After time and experience Bruno painted vivid pictures of child-like behavior as the young dogs launched themselves into it scattering the balls everywhere as they played with each other.

At one point Bruno jumped up on a large disc-like structure which rotated and moved up and down in all directions. He said that the dogs, once again when they first came across this experience were unsure as the ground would feel as if it was moving unpredictably.  To the centre if a dog can feel physically in control of its own balance then psychologically it will feel more confident and secure in its own abilities. This disc became a game to the dogs  and they run on the surface causing the disc to spin and they try to knock other dogs off the spinning disc in a “I’m the king of the castle” game which seemed to develop naturally.  It must be an amazing thing to see but unfortunately virtually all of the dogs were actually out training in Basel that afternoon.

Picture of Bruno showing Cathy layout of centre using specially constructed model.Bruno showed us a large pin map in the vehicle garage with each pin showing particular obstacles or problems at locations across the city. The dog has to master all of these environments and obstacles as part of its training otherwise it cannot pass the external and independent verification system employed in Switzerland.

During our time with Bruno we even descended to the bowels of the building where the compulsory nuclear shelter required by law is located for every structure in Switzerland.  If there ever is a nuclear war at least Switzerland will have plenty of guide dogs with which to restock.  Needless to say behind the nuclear blast doors by the purification system various puppy maize’s and shifting floor surfaces containing the inevitable different tactile surfaces for the dog’s paws were set out.  Not a single foot of space was wasted but everything was focused on creating the ultimate guide dog.

Picture of Cathy and Bruno infront of the Swiss Guide Dogs School.Bruno explained everything with such enthusiasm and such clarity for our hours of a wondrous journey through the minutia of training where every conceivable aspect is analyzed and evaluated.  I could feel the waves of pleasure radiating from him about everything and anything to do with improving the life and chances of blind and partially sighted people in Switzerland.

Before we left the centre after nearly four hours Bruno insisted on loading us up with as many gifts produced by Swiss guide dogs as we wanted or could carry! We had to resist filling a suitcase with fleeces tee-shirts pullovers baseball hats umbrellas books DVD’s and leaflets.  Bernard’s pride and joy were the vehicle stickers which he proudly displayed instantly on both panniers before we even set off to go back across the border.  He really was like a child at Christmas due to the stickers alone.  Even as we write this he sits with his Swiss guide dogs baseball hat on and I swear it will probably fall to pieces on his head before he removes it.  In the end we did accept a pullover each and a DVD about the remarkable work of the school in Switzerland.

As we pulled off and throughout the whole journey across the border, through the evening and all the subsequent day we did nothing but discuss everything we had learned on our visit of which we have only briefly touched on here.

As we write this update we know that Bruno and staff at the Swiss school will be reading this and we would like to extend our heartfelt thanks and appreciation for the kindness, consideration and time given to us.

It was gratifying that this school par excellence took such an interest in what we are doing and the reasons we are doing it.

We have travelled somewhere in the region of 800 miles to get to this point. We have come through wind and rain bizarre traffic on the wrong side of the road in a foreign language to get here. It was worth every minute.

We think that when the guide dog school in Paris spoke so highly regarding the Swiss system we can only agree with them.

The evening was spent trying to locate a supermarket which we eventually found before retiring (still talking) about the day and everything we had seen and talked about with our guide to the Swiss system.

The customary bottle of Vin and sandwiches were all we could get hold off as we got back when everything was virtually closed!

So ended day 13 with an amazing amount of information and food for thought (which actually consumed the whole of day 14 in itself).

My head drifted into the land of dreams of dogs playing in this wonderful centre and I dreamed of my own Guide Dog Biscuit.

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