During my four day excusrion to Belgium (acting as a kind of Passepartout, shall we say) we visited the battlefield site of Waterloo, where in 1815 Napoléon finally got the message that he wouldn’t be able to beat Wellington and his allies.
The battlefield now has a small hamlet known as le Hameau du Lion. It has a handful of visitor attractions clustered around the base of a 43 metre tall earthen mound constructed in the years after the battle as a monument to (amongst others) William II of the Netherlands, who was shot from his horse by a musket ball. For a few euros you can watch a film, see a painted panorama of the battle and climb the 226 steps to the top of the mound, from where you have a 360º panorama of the Waterloo region.
Dedicated battlefield tourists – and we met some, including two gentlemen from Atlanta in the U.S.A, who had already ticked off the First and Second World War battlefields of France during this one vacation – can also enjoy a tour of the battlefield in the back of an open sided truck. It gave me great pleasure to see that on this battlefield, perhaps the greatest British military victory of all time, these old tour trucks are venerable British-built Bedford TK’s. These tough old workhorses were a common sight of the British roads of my childhood – memorable because of their simple but elegantly formed bodywork, including the trademark “monobrow” over the headlights and grille.
Bedford Vehicles wound up operations when General Motors pulled the plug in the mid-eighties. This model and its successor were built for a few more years by a near-by firm called AWD, but the loss of important military contracts meant that they two wound up a few years later. Both firms were based in the east of England, not far from my home turf, and other than in the occasional military convoy are rare sights in the UK.
I spent a few days last week pootling around southern Belgium, escorting a certain VIP to various historic sights (and rather nice restaurants as well). We shot to Brussels in less than two hours by Eurostar, and then used a rental car to explore.
Belgian law obliges you to carry a warning triangle, reflective jacket, first aid kit and fire extinguisher in every vehicle. Perhaps a desperate legislative attempt to compensate for their consistently horrific driving? This is the extract that most interested me from my Lonely Planet guidebook to Belgium & Luxembourg.
‘Aggressive’ is the word generally used to describe Belgian drivers, and many foreigners who take to the roads here find it apt. Whether cruising on a sleek highway or bouncing over potholed inner-city streets, drivers have a reputation for being fast, impatient and at times abusive … anyone idling at 120km/h in the fast lane of a motorway will be flashed from behind by speed demons doing 160km/h … One peculiarity that ensures adrenaline-pumped journeys is the voorrang van rechts / priorité à droite (give way to the right) law, which operates in both Belgium and Luxembourg. Thanks to this rule, cars darting out from side streets sometimes have right of way over vehicles on the main road (but not always – signs with an orange diamond surrounded by white mean the main road has priority). Recent figures show that 250 people die each year due to this rule … Statistically, Belgium has double the rate of road fatalities of most of its neighbouring countries (France is the exception) … And if you think all this is a bit exaggerated, have a read of Pisa Test’s recent study of 3000 European drives in which the Belgians came out as the worst drivers in Europe. Just 48% are capable of passing their driving test …
Leanne Logan & Geert Cole, Lonely Planet: Belgium & Luxembourg (2007)
My train journeys to and from Haarlem took my through the Belgian city of Antwerp. As with my journey to Haarlem last year, I was particularly intrigued by the briefest of glimpses this route gave me of Antwerp Centraal Station. On each passage through the city, I noticed that we passed deep under the city in an apparently new rail tunnel, and that the Centraal Station was a deep chasm of a structure made in concrete and illuminated glass columns. So for my return, I allowed some time to take a break in Antwerp to see a bit more.
First impressions on leaving the train on these new suberterranean platforms are striking. Four platforms have been carved into the ground deep below the city, and cunning use of recognisable escape symbols has turned blank precast concrete emergency stairs into bold and entertaining features. The flow of passengers leaving trains here is aided by a flood of natural light into these deep platforms. Lingering behind the crowds to watch my train pull out and to get a better sense of my macro-geography, I suddenly understand the ingenuity of this station.
Antwerp Centraal Station was once a south facing terminus of a line from Brussels. Through trains to the Netherlands either bypassed the city centre or had to add arduous minutes to their journey entering the dead end station and then reversing out again. A fantastically bold but somewhat beautifully simple solution was found. Approximately eight single level platforms under a period station roof were re-arranged: two remain on either side of the main station level, but a new opening in the centre of the station drops down to not one but two additional levels of train tracks. At the second level down, there are two pairs of terminating tracks under those above. At the third and lowest level down, two through tracks are now connected to a continuous north-south line that tunnels beneath the city. Two local terminating platforms flank these.
What is no doubt a hideously complex structural solution becomes clarity itself as passengers from arriving through trains ascend to street level. The transparent yet massive structure holds trains above one another, creating a spectacular theatre of arrivals and departures. I’d never really considered the actual dead weight of a train until I’d seen three of them above one other.
Reaching the uppermost level of the station (itself one storey above street level – the new design conveniently helps the flow of people in and out of the station by unifying access between the first and second levels) the beautiful structure of the train shed is preserved. From the angle above, the massive intervention is almost invisible. It made my return to London St. Pancras even more melancholic – despite the protestations of the architectural world that it has enjoyed a masterful conversion, I can’t help wishing that St. Pancras and the subterranean Thameslink (cross-London) lines had been as well integrated as those in Antwerp.
Ok. To clarify something I’ve been raving about for a year or so now, and to follow on from my trip to Haarlem in the Netherlands (see below). I travelled the whole way by train, and my ticket London – Brussels – Haarlem – London cost just £74 return, all inclusive.
Eurostar now sell through train tickets from UK train stations to a number of European cities; the faster journey from London to Lille, Brussels, or Paris means that you can reach almost any part of western Europe in a door-to-door time that is either comparable or only marginally longer than the equivilent door-to-door journey time of flying.
A Eurostar ticket from London to Brussels is automatically valid to any station in Belgium. This is neat, but here’s something neater. Eurostar.com can sell you a through ticket to Amsterdam and several other Dutch cities. But beware – these tickets are for fast connections from Brussels on the French / Belgian / Dutch Thalys high speed trains. These sell at a premium over regular Intercity, Eurocity and domestic trains. You can save a bundle and enjoy extra flexibility by telephoning Eurostar (0845 7303030 or 01233 617575) and asking for a similar but subtly different type of ticket. The “Any Dutch Station” ticket costs a flat £15 (for a youth or senior concession, and I belive £20 for an adult) more than than a London – Brussels return ticket. But it allows you to travel onwards to any station in the Netherlands on any train other than the high speed Thalys for twenty-four hours after your arrive in Brussels. Likewise, the return is undated, and can be used any time in the twenty-four hours before your return Eurostar leaves Brussels.
So I was able to stop off in Brussels for a night on the way out, and again in Antwerp on the return. Not only did I get a ticket from London to Haarlem for about the same as a plane ticket (including all taxes, charges and airport transfers) I got two free stopovers and utter flexibility to get around.
To get this ticket you need to call Eurostar – the website can’t sell it. Find the cheapest / most convenient London – Brussels ticket online, and then ask the telesales agent to book those trains with the “Any Dutch Station” add-on. Comfortable and reasonably fast intercity trains leave Brussels Midi every hour throughout the day for mainline stations to Amsterdam, and that is your stepping stone for a great train trip to Holland.
I was back in Haarlem last weekend. Haarlem is the attractive small city about fifteen easy minutes on train west of Amsterdam that I first visited many years ago, and subsequently revisited last year as part of my dissertation research.
During that trip I interviewed the well known and very well regarded cartoonist and illustrator Joost Swarte. He came to speak in Sheffield a few months later, and reminded me of the biannual comics festival he has been instrumental in organising in the city. It being the weekend after my final exams, how could I refuse? With Eurostar now twenty minutes faster to Brussels, and a door-to-door train ticket purchased for eighty English quid, I was on my way, taking advantage of the ludicrously flexible train ticket that allowed for a night in Brussels en route. The festival was brilliant; as well as browsing dozens of stands belonging to comics retailers from across the Netherlands and Belgium, I attended a few events and even hobnobbed with some of my favourite artists.
But I suspect the real draw for me was the city itself.
I don’t believe I’ve found a more attractive town in northern Europe. The dense central core of Haarlem is just perfect in my eyes. It’s almost a miniature Amsterdam, only there are no drunken British stag weekends and no spaced out American backpackers overdoing it in the coffeeshops.
Herman Hertzberger guided me through my undergraduate architectural education, with his incisive and beautifully compiled design manuals (one and two) for students of architecture. Meandering through the streets of Haarlem, I politely develop the theory that while Hertzberger was a talented designer, much of his commonsense design tips were derived from a close observation of the Dutch cityscape. Every home in the centre of Haarlem seems to have some interaction with the street; every doorway and porch extends beyond the wooden doorframe and takes possession of the threshold between street and home. Despite the proximity of the public street to private homes, layers of ownership and threshold are almost inherently nurtured and manifested with benches, potted plants and privately owned street furniture. This is a dreamy place to get lost in on a summer’s afternoon. Every open doorway or chair that has been lifted out onto the pavement brings a friendly “Hallo” from a Haarlemer catching the sun or enjoying a glass of wine.
I have to be careful about romanticising places I visit on my travels – it’s something I seem to do a lot. I remember returning from my first international holiday as a child (we went to Legoland near Billund in Denmark) thinking that Denmark must be the greatest country in the world. Domestic disagreements with utility firms / politicians / public transport (delete as approrpiate, although I’m not deleting any) usually lead me to see everything through rose tinted spectacles when I’m on holiday. However I’m fairly confident when I say that Haarlem and maybe even Nord-Holland in general is an area I’d consider living in one day. I don’t speak the language but I perfected French by pushing myself into the deep end of a francophone swimming pool, so why not Dutch?
During the festival I noticed a flyer announcing the 2010 dates of the next Stripdagen. Having enjoyed so much the way in which the Grote Markt (above) filled with comics sellers and fans, I look forward to returning in a couple of years’ time to rediscover this colourful and friendly Dutch city.