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)
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.
My trip to London had to end soon after it had begun. Just two nights in the big smoke, this time, but they were two that were entirely well spent. Leaving Hackney early on Saturday morning, I caught a glimpse of the windswept point of interaction between two days. I watched the moon set over the buildings of Mare Street, firmly declining the offer made by an old man in a hat of a slightly used pair of headphones.
The number 30 bus took me towards the city, and on the Euston Road I alighted for St. Pancras International. This weekend had been my first chance to see the station after its multi-million pound refurbishment and reopening as London’s terminal of the Eurostar high speed train. A new dedicated line carries passengers at almost 300km/h from London to the continent, avoiding the tortuously congested and slow local lines over which the trains used to run into London Waterloo. Twenty minutes has been shaved off most journeys, but passengers arriving in London no longer enjoy the cityscape of the capital offered by the old route: ‘high speed one’ as it is optimistically named (I’m not a pessimist, but I doubt the UK will see a ‘high speed two’ for many years) now routes the trains underground for many of the final miles into the city.
The old station shed looks a treat. Years of idling diesel trains had turned the steelwork of the roof to black, and an intensive period of restoration has returned train shed structure to magnificent glory, with clean translucent glass mounted between thousands of light blue spandrels. The platforms have had to be extended to accommodate the Eurostar, and an unfortunately functional extension now covers the ends of those trains and the domestic intercity trains that operate up the Midland Mainline to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield.
I first saw the interior of St. Pancras several years before I moved to Sheffield. Seeking a bite to eat early one weekend morning with my father, we ventured across the road from our normal London terminus at Kings Cross (for our trains from Cambridge and west Norfolk) into St. Pancras. At the time, perhaps almost ten years ago, St. Pancras was in a sorry state. The grand station was barely being used to fifty percent of its capacity, with just a handful of platforms being used by shabby IC125 and piddling Turbostar trains. We ate a moderately mediocre pair of full Englishes and admired the scale and potential of the run down station.
Almost a decade on, and I returned for breakfast. With time to spare before my 07h25 departure to Sheffield, I explored the new lower level passenger concourse. The space occupied by two platforms within the train shed has been sacrificed to open up the lower level of the station. Eurostar check-in, customs, immigration and the usual obligatory retail fits in here, with largely transparent modern structures sliding in between the original cast iron columns that support the train tracks above. The tracks into St. Pancras are significantly higher than those at the neighbouring King’s Cross; the Midland Mainline leaves the station and passes over the Regent’s Canal while those of the East Coast Mainline from King’s Cross pass beneath it. At St. Pancras this height change between platform and street was used to the advantage of a midlands brewery, who used the station’s undercroft to store barrels of beer that had been delivered by rail from the Trent valley.
The ever expanding empire of M&S’ Simply Food chain continues, although in this case with little consideration for the early morning delivery processes. Countless delivery carts carrying fresh produce had been pushed up against the glass façade, concealing the interior and tempting early morning customers in with promise of on-board snacks that were ready for the taking.
But no pre-packed sandwich or greasy fry could distract me this morning. Under the beautiful brick arches on the outside edge of the new passenger concourse, I had a pleasant surprise. Le Pain Quotidien, a Franco-Belgian I first discovered in Marseille, has opened branch of their delightful café.
The last time I tasted the wonderful fresh bread selection of Le Pain Quotidien I had just arrived in the south of France after an overnight sleeper train ride from Strasbourg. In the brilliant February sunshine I ordered a perfect bowl of coffee and spread thick sugary tartines over slices of various gorgeous breads. The barrel vault of the St. Pancras branch recalls that of the Marseille outlet, in a tastefully restored warehouse on the city’s Place Huiles, just next to the Old Port.
The view leaves something to be desired: generic coffee shops, Eurostar check-in and departing trains, but it’s still by far the best place in eat breakfast in an English railway station. Be sure to make a diversion next time you have a hunger in St. Pancras International.