St Pancras is a lovely station, even at eight o’clock in the morning when you’ve had to get up three hours earlier to be there. Sure, it’s a bit corporate, with all the usual food outlets and those strange fashion and accessories shops that you see nowhere else apart from at places of international departure, surely the last locations where you’d be worrying about your autumn wardrobe. Above it all, though, there are those wonderful arches, leading towards George Gilbert Scott’s magnificent Midland Grand Hotel on the Euston Road (which was nearly demolished in the 1960s).
For decades the station was in the doldrums with hardly any main-line services. I remember going there about 35 years ago on a weekday morning and getting the sense that I was in a huge cathedral in honour of some god whom people had ceased to love or respect. When it became Eurostar’s terminus there was an opportunity for sharpening the place up. I think, in general, it succeeded. The Victorian elegance remains alongside its modern purposes. For many people it’s their first sight of my home city. I hope they’re pleasantly surprised.
The Gare du Nord in Paris, on the other hand, is a complete shit-hole and has been for long as I can remember. The fact that trains now arrive direct from London seems to have led to no effort even to clean the place, still less smarten it up. Perhaps this tells us a lot about the respective British and French attitudes to foreign visitors. My last sight of it was about four years ago so it might have changed since but I rather doubt it.
My views on the Gare du Nord are beside the point, however, as last Friday we were at St Pancras to visit not Paris but Brussels, a city I’d driven through but never stopped at. We were there to see one of my sons, my oldest friend and another friend whom I hadn’t seen since 1987. We had 48 hours. These are some of the things that struck me about the place.
The public transport network is a bit disjointed. The Métro looks as if it’s quite old but it was only built in the ’60s. There are only four real Métro lines but they number them 1, 2, 5 and 6, creating the impression of a situation better than it actually is. In fact, there are only really three as line 2 is just the same as line 6 but shorter. There are also Pre-Métros, which are really underground trams; and trams; and busses. It all seems to work quite well but, for such an important European city, I can’t help feeling that it’s a bit half-finished. In all these means of transport, the drivers seem to wait until everyone is off-balance and then start at full tilt. You can buy 48-hour Mobib cards which offer unlimited travel, is a good plan for a short visit (I think these can be re-charged). I can’t tell you how much they cost because Penny was buying them while I was chatting to a voluble man with who, perhaps confused by my accent when speaking French, thought I was German. When I explained I was English, he asked me to try to stop Brexit. I said I would do my best.
The cash dispensers provide the money first and then return the card. This must lead to a lot of lost debit cards. Based on my very brief survey (I only used a cashpoint once) this happens 100% of the time, as the bloke in front of me did exactly that.
Don’t go to Brussels expecting to have a series of gastronomic treats. Well, maybe you can if you’re prepared to push the boat out financially but we weren’t. Moules frites for a couple of days is fine. And, as when eating out in France, don’t expect to get plenty of vegetables. On one occasion one of my sons ordered a stew and we asked for for some vegetables as well. There were plenty in the stew, the waitress assured us. This was a lie.
The sausages are very hot. Well, they can be. On Saturday night I ordered something Flemish that was a large sausage curled round some potatoes. Impelled by impatience and greed, I cut off slightly too large a piece and put it in my mouth. It was very hot so – foolishly – I tried to swallow it. It stuck half-way, burning my throat at either side. I grabbed for some water. After drinking half a glass I realised that, like a blocked sink, nothing was going down. Surrounded by friends and family and on dry land, I was in danger of both drowning and choking at the same time. As I am writing this at all, you’ll realise that it all ended well, but not without an agonising sore throat for about two days. So, boys and girls, small bits of sausage is the way forward. This advice applies everywhere, not just in Brussels.
Every public announcement takes time. Belgium, and Brussels in particular, is bi-lingual, so everything takes twice as long to read out. At the main stations it’s done in English as well. Outside Brussels, however, you have to know what language is the right one. The French-speakers and the Flemish-speakers really have it in for each other. Years ago in what turned out to be a Flemish part of the country I made the mistake of going into the shop and addressing the assistant in French. She turned her face away slightly as if I’d farted at her. “In Flemish or English, please,” she said.
The EU HQ in Brussels has a very strange modernist sculpture. This can be found in the central stairwell of one of the buildings (I forget which) and looks like a sinister and sadistic helter-skelter, extending about four floors high. If you strike it with your hand there are strange reverberations. If you were do so with a large hammer (which I didn’t have) it’s possible that the whole building would vibrate in a metallic E flat for several minutes.
The people are friendly. Well, all the ones I met were. I can’t tell you more than that.
The beer is great. Watch out, though: some of them are of wine-like strength.
Flixbus is cheap, but… This was suggested by our friend Danny as being an economical, though time-consuming, alternative to the train. We decided to get Eurostar out and Flixbus back. On the Sunday, we arrived at the stop near the Gare du Midi about 30 minutes before and identified the correct bus (this is, we were warned, an early hurdle that many Flixbus passengers fail to clear). For a long while, nothing much happened apart from putting bags in the hold and a bit of pushing and shoving to be near the door (rather pointless as we all had pre-allocated seats). About three minutes before the bus was due to leave, both of the people ‘in charge’ – a whiplash-thin, super-cool black guy and his ratty white assistant who looked like the kind of person you see at a festival or a demo with crazy eyes and a dog on a piece of string – completely lost it, roaring and shrieking at us to form a queue; which never really happened.
After a bit of this, which seemed mainly designed to prove who was running the show, the white guy disappeared inside the bus for a few minutes. When he returned, whatever he’d done made him appear much calmer. He even apologised. The black guy didn’t agree with this milder approach. “They badly needed telling, man, they needed it,” he muttered menacingly.
Alarmingly, he turned out to be the driver. Apart for stopping in a lorry park near Calais for no obvious reason for ten minutes, he drove the rackety bus like a man possessed. On the dark and rainswept M2 I twice thought that we would all get killed. We got to London two minutes ahead of schedule.
Eurostar, though three times faster, can be up to ten times more expensive but it’s easy to see where the extra money goes. Plus, of course, on Flixbus you arrive at Victoria Coach Station, another terminus which, like the Gare du Nord, seems to be like some relic of the 1970s and with a ten-minute walk to the tube. Eurostar, on the other hand, lands you at the elegant and well-connected St Pancras. Mind you, the money we saved as a result probably paid for all the meals and drinks we had while we were away: which, as anyone who knows us will agree, is not a small part of the total cost of any outing.
Overall, I’d give the whole experience eight-and-a-half out of ten. Nothing and nowhere ever gets ten out of ten, so nine is the effective max. The lost half mark is for the burning sausage: not really the fault of Brussels but it happened there so, by my harsh judgement, the whole city must suffer as as a result. Sorry, Brussels – life isn’t fair, is it?