'Comfort' stops overseas can be an interesting experience, writes Pamela Russell.

The aroma hit us before we even reached them, and some of the faint-hearted turned back, determined to hold on.

Everybody needs them, but they are not often mentioned in polite conversation. The Romans regarded them as places for neighbourly talk, but that is not usual these days. They are, of course, public toilets — a very necessary amenity that we have used in many different countries.

They have ranged from an upmarket bathroom with gold taps and chandeliers in a posh 5-star hotel in St Petersburg (we were in there merely to change money) to the downright awful in India. Here the embarrassing situation of women one side and men the other of a town wall, with a row of little boys sitting along the top enjoying the entertainment, paled into insignificance compared with a much-needed "comfort" stop in Gwalior, where the women had to walk through a cafe full of men (the only place our bus driver could think of) to the ablutions out at the back. The aroma hit us before we even reached them, and some of the faint-hearted turned back, determined to hold on. Those of us who decided to press on regardless had a job keeping our sanity and our breakfast.

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In 1975, St Tropez was a well-known playground for the movie stars. Futuristic apartment blocks were being built near the waterfront, where beautiful luxury yachts were lined up, and expensively and fashionably dressed people casually sipped their champagne on the rear decks. They ignored us as we passed by, almost at touching distance, looking for a loo after arriving in a campervan. Obviously the stars never used the one we found close by: it was not a pleasant place to get near. The 13-year-old said, "I'm not going in there", but soon realised there was no alternative.

On the same trip, in a camping ground at Trechtingshausen, on the banks of the Rhine where barges chugged by quite noisily at night, our 12-year-old was sent off to check out the men's toilets and came running back white-faced. "There are dead animals in there," he said, "with lots of blood."

Further investigation revealed several fun-fair animals painted red. They were being stored in the toilets ready for summer.

Perhaps the most memorable and disconcerting of all was the public facility in the middle of a truly enormous market in Odessa. One could spend hours in this vast interesting array of stalls selling anything and everything, and I decided that a visit to the toilets was necessary. A few kopeks paid at the reception window got me into a long open passage with about 10 cubicles on the left side. The toilets were the squat variety, unisex, and every cubicle had shoulder-high side walls and no door at all. The locals nonchalantly wandered along until they found an unoccupied one. I rushed along to the end, hoping that the last one would be empty. It was. Nobody displayed any embarrassment at looking into occupied cubicles. I am still talking about it!

Public toilets can be quite expensive in Europe: Venice is a case in point. This year the authorities have rationalised the previous situation, where there were a couple of quite good facilities near St Mark's Square and at the railway station and the occasional hard-to-find mediocre or bad ones elsewhere.

The facilities by the lagoon are now closed, but plenty of signs on the ground now direct tourists to expensive but clean and modern toilets in the central area. McDonald's, on the route to the railway station, has some of course, but one needs the PIN number on one's receipt to get into them. In Europe, no longer can one just walk in, in most cases, and use them without buying food. The cafes have their own for their customers: they are free at Florian's and Quadri's, the two cafes right on St Mark's Square, but only if you have paid a fortune for live music with your drink, meal or coffee. It's a bit cheaper inside if you stand at the bar.

Cafes in France allow passers-by to use their facilities without ordering anything if you put 50 cents or one euro on the bar and ask permission. In Europe generally one can find toilets in shopping malls, department stores, bus and railway stations, museums, art galleries, etc, and also in markets.

In China, we used surprisingly clean and well-supervised establishments in the main streets of big cities, and those we saw were free. However, most were for squatting — not easy for the elderly. There is usually one cubicle in Western-style, but the ubiquitous queue of tourists waiting outside this door shows that many are unwilling to give the others a go. Squat toilets are said to be more hygienic, but you might get your shoes wet if not quick to avoid the flushing.

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The Romans apparently enjoyed their morning meetings, sitting on the row of holes. I did find something similar outside a small family restaurant in China: a row of metal squat toilets shone brightly in the ladies' loo, and there was one Western-style cubicle with a door at the end. The room was empty when I entered — but just in case, I chose the one with the door.