A great advantage of multi-leg rail travel is that you can, if you wish, spend a couple of hours in your interchange cities along the way.
It’s something you just can’t do when flying, because the hassle of fighting your way out of the airport, finding transport, and then getting back in time to have to undergo security again means it’s not worth exploring your stopping-off point unless you have at least six hours. And even then, I’d seriously consider just chilling out in the airport with a book.
With the train, though, it’s different. You’re usually in the heart of the city and just a few minutes’ walk from interesting places to go, see or eat. And our trip to Luxembourg – by sleeper, Eurostar and Belgian intercity train – worked out well for this. On the way out, of course, we just headed straight to our destination, keen to maximise our time in Luxembourg City (and of course get to our hotel in order to shower and change).
On our return journey, however, it made sense to leave Luxembourg early in the morning (how much sightseeing can you really do prior to a mid-morning train?) to earn ourselves a bit of time in Brussels. It made, incidentally, for a day in which we had breakfast in Luxembourg, lunch in Brussels and dinner in London. You just couldn’t do that by plane.
Brussels has a bit of a maligned reputation, I think. It’s the supposedly boring capital of a supposedly boring country, is a bit rundown in places and is the primary home to the less than exciting European Union.
It’s rough around the edges feel is certainly undeniable, and outside the beautiful Grand Place (left, or Grote Markt as the Flemish half of the country call it) the streets are a mix of the uninspiring, the edgy, the unkempt and the just plain rough.
Several webpages I’d read online beforehand warn against exploring certain parts of the city and complain about the utter dearth of decent eateries in the vicinity of Brussels Midi, where we changed between intercity and Eurostar trains.
However, a rundown feel can be part of a city’s feel – knowing that you’re going against the grain to explore somewhere untouristed, unwelcoming and unattractive, and perhaps finding something more unusual as a result.
That said, having grabbed some lunch in a cafe not far from the Grand Place, the highlight of our discoveries on our amblings through Brussels was accidentally stumbling across the Mannekin Pis, the famous fountain that portrays a boy urinating.
It’s seriously rubbish. The statue is small in scale, unimpressive in its artistic merit, and unremarkable in its location and context. It seemed to attract a steady crowd of tourist photographers, though, and quite what the appeal is I have no idea.
More world-beating things were to come, though, back at Brussels Midi, where we bought some lovely waffles from one of the takeaway joints in the station and then stumbled across a world record.
Stretching across a concourse was the word’s largest chocolate structure – made, curiously, by a Maltese chef but here on display in Belgium. Taking the form of, appropriately enough, a train, the model was thirty-four metres long (I’ve just googled it) and rather cold to approach due to the refridgerators working hard to prevent it melting.
Although beautiful and no doubt the result of much hard work, it seemed an inordinate waste of chocolate, and the fact that you couldn’t approach or touch it made me wonder whether it was just a pile of cheap wood and some brown paint. The proof of the chocolate train, as they say, is in the eating.
Soon, though, it was time to head for the Eurostar, wave au revoir or tot ziens to Brussels, and head for London – where we’d also spend a couple of hours on our way home…
See my handful of Brussels photos here.