We looked around us and thought, “ If only we could do things like this in England . . .” and then we remembered that we were in the heart of London gazing around like country bumpkins at the wonders of St Pancras station and the Eurostar terminal in particular.
Due to catch the 11.00am Eurostar on Good Friday, we had taken the precaution of booking into the nearby Premier Inn the night before and, having gone through their semi-automated check in, we walked the hundred yards or so to see what terrors faced us the next morning. We were met with a stunning display of everything that is best about British design from the original Victorian station architecture, its sympathetic modern extension and the cavernous yet beautifully balanced interior of ironwork and glass.
Everywhere were bars, restaurants; busy commuters having their final meeting of the day over a bottle of chilling wine, designer clothes shops by the score mingled with market stalls and food to go kiosks. Stunningly cosmopolitan and what an introduction to the UK for European visitors!
We redeemed our on-line train ticket in the entirely trouble free computer terminal and sat outside one of the bars sipping cold beer and enjoying people watching as London went home.
As we walked back to the hotel I spotted one of London’s treasures – a genuine red brick corner pub called The Shiners Arms in Judd Street – full of locals having a raucous good time. The atmosphere was electric; a bubble of conversation, shouts, uninhibited, rib busting laughter . . . and the beer certainly touched the spot!
With the station so close, we dispensed with a taxi and rolled our cases to St Pancras and down the escalator to the lower floor. We didn’t know what to expect but the reassuring, airport style check in and departure lounge complete with coffee shop and food was quick and painless and in no time we were going up the moving staircase and out onto the platform beside the long and gleaming Eurostar. Our tickets were numbered with the coach we were to travel on and there were plenty of crisply uniformed attendants to help first time travellers. Bags are stowed in racks between the carriages and seats are clearly numbered, comfortable and with adequate legroom. The big train slid out of London with scarcely a sound and the deceptively smooth, fast journey down to Kent was underway. We played ‘guess where we are’ as we rushed through unfamiliar suburbs and stretches of marshland until lunch time pangs of hunger sent us to the buffet car.
Tip ~ take your own picnic and drinks, the food is relatively expensive for what you get and far too French for my English palate. But don’t forget your corkscrew! We were treated to the sight of a desperate man, unopened wine bottle in hand, asking for help at the buffet bar only to be told that they simply didn’t have a corkscrew as all bottles were screw top.
We got back to our seats with coffees and rolls just in time for the long, gentle descent into the tunnel at Folkestone (bring a book for this part of the journey) and then up into daylight in very short time and our first look at the French countryside. After Kent’s hills and woods, we found it flat, treeless and rather dull – but perhaps two World Wars waged over it has contributed to the empty looking landscape. A short stop at Lille, caught a glimpse of the square and the massive Carrefour hypermarket and off again – next stop Brussels!
Exactly on the two-hour mark we pulled in to Brussels station. A painless journey and really ‘the only way to travel’ as Toad once said.
It is nice to record that the London St Pancras experience is infinitely better than what the weary traveller faces on alighting at Brussels. A very tired and slightly grubby terminus and, considering that this is the continental end of the England to France Eurostar, amazingly short of English language signs and tannoy announcements. Due to this, we missed two connections to Bruges as we simply could not find the correct platform – there were virtually no attendants and those who were visible had a ‘Parisian waiter’ attitude which, translated, means couldn’t care less about their customers!
Eventually found the platform along with a number of other Brits we recognised from the Eurostar and we immediately went into the ‘Brits abroad’ mode and actually talked to each other to compare experiences and to check platform/train time/destination etc. Frustratingly, all the announcements were in French or Belgium so we had to travel more in hope than certainty. Really needs sorting out!
Hurrah! It was the right train and we arrived in Bruges station and hour later.
Tip ~on exit from the station; go left across the cobblestones to a semi-circular slip road. There is no sign, but that is where taxis drop off and pick up. We had a particularly good taxi driver with fluent English who told us not to eat in the central square to avoid being ripped off but to go back one or two streets, which would be where the locals ate. Good tip. He also recommended a jazz and blues bar 100 yards from the hotel of which more later.
The hotel was in a quiet, narrow side street about 200 yards back from the central square and we fell in love with it on sight. The reception and greeting was excellent; efficient, polite and very knowledgeable with a free local map provided and various places of interest and their routes magic markered on by the receptionist. Our room was on the first floor overlooking the rear of the hotel. It was large with plenty of wardrobe space, had a good en suite with the most delectable fragrant soap we have ever encountered and a small balcony which I used while Jan did the unpacking! Importantly, there were two armchairs around a circular table which made the bedroom feel more like a suite. Being very picky, the absence of a kettle and tea/coffee sachets was a downer – the fact that free tea and coffee was available in the afternoon adjoining the reception didn’t atone for the convenience of being able to brew up – especially first thing in the morning. On the other hand, the excellent and comprehensive buffet style breakfasts more than set you up for a morning of dedicated sightseeing!
Bruges is a city within a city – the inner part, encircled moat like by the river, is the apparently ancient town with everything radiating from its central square. Honeycombed by canals, it is easy to see why it is nicknamed the Venice of the north. Tourist trap it may be, but do start at the cobbled Grote Market Square. One side is dominated by the ‘medieval’ Town Hall – except it isn’t really medieval but part of the late 19th-century renovation of facades which introduced a neo-Gothic style that is special for Bruges. Cheating? Maybe, but by comparison to some of the chaotic building mixtures we tolerate in the UK, I’m not sure the Belgium’s haven’t got it right! The massive Belfort Clock Tower, which is a genuine 800 years old, dominates the centre but we resisted its 366 steps and probably missed the best photo opportunity the town offers. The square is also the starting point for the horse drawn carriage rides but be prepared for a half hour queue at any time of the day.
Tip ~ if you are an animal lover, give this a miss as the poor horses are driven (literally) all day and frankly looked pretty distressed during the unseasonably warm weather.
This is also the starting point for organised walks – we followed one for a couple of hundred yards to get our bearings and then headed off on our own down interesting side alleys, over arched bridges and along shady canals. You really can’t get lost – keep heading one way and you will eventually come to the encircling river, walk around it for half a mile, take the next road in and hey presto you’re back in the Market Square!
Most of the shops are in one of three roads leading out of the Square and they are a good mixture of private boutique’s and department stores. Some of the small, privately owned shops are worth going inside just to look at the interior architecture and shop fittings that haven’t changes since the 1950’s. Overall, very designer; lots of shoe shops and chic continental colours and fashions interspersed with patisseries, bakeries, pavement cafe’s and, my personal favourites, the narrow, old fashioned butchers shops with rafters festooned with smoked hams, ropes of onions and smoked sausages, their counters and windows filled with rounds of cheese, dark Germanic sausages and trays of cooked meats – lasagne seems the local favourite. The aromas wafting out of the open doors made me drool. These shops are, in fact, the Bruges equivalent of our fast food chains as locals buy plastic tubs of lasagne or curried rabbit and scurry off home clutching the day’s lunch to be reheated.
On our wanderings, we stumbled across a sprawling, lively street market, which was clearly where the locals from the outer commuter area and the countryside beyond did their shopping, (if you want to find it, head in the direction of St. Salvators Cathedral and you’ll pick it up). This was a market to die for; cut flowers, and shrubs rubbed shoulders with live hens waiting to be sold for the pot and baby white rabbits (hopefully destined as pets), while trousers, dresses, handbags and curtains lined the thoroughfares. But it was the food stalls that dominated and, again, it drove home to us the very different way of life being led only three hours from London. Belgians seem to shop daily, rather as we used to in the UK in the pre-supermarket days, inspecting, haggling, demanding and eventually hurrying off with the days, or evenings, provisions, often precariously balanced on the handlebars of a bike!
But don’t restrict your shopping to the centre – we stumbled across some wonderful shops as we gravitated towards to outer river, none more intriguing than the Kezanti Art Gallery, Ezelstraat, 90. A modern, even futuristic gallery, it housed a life size man made entirely from burnished bronze motorcycle parts. Impractical yes, but I loved it for its sheer originality.
Mindful of our friendly taxi drivers warning, we avoided the Grote Market Square in the evenings and instead followed the lanes and narrow roads behind the hotel Aragon for a couple of hundred yards and found a Portuguese and a Greek restaurant next door to each other. We had a very good dinner followed by some excellent brandy in the Portuguese and a couple of nights later had an equally good meal in the adjoining Greek which, with its authentic decor was marginally the better evening out.
But our favourite was the jazz bar, Vino Vino, which is 50 yards from the hotel at 15 Grauwwerkersstraat Street. I have to confess here that I love traditional English ‘spit and sawdust’ pubs, which may explain why I felt so at ease in Vino Vino. The landlord, Rick, is everything a good bar needs, large, loud and happy moving from table to table with a word and a joke for everyone – and that generally in their own language. The atmosphere is electric, with blues, jazz and R&B (I mean 1960’s rhythm and blues!) being pumped out. Not too loud to inhibit conversation, but enough to get you in the mood. I asked Rick what the nearest he had to a strong English beer and he seemed to take that as a personal challenge to put me under the table with a succession of dark, bitter sweet, bottled ales. We went there on the first night and the last night and I was impressed that the landlord greeted us like regulars on the second visit and even remembered to ask if we would like the same table as previously. We had very good lasagna, which soaked up some of the ever-stronger ale Rick challenged me with, and prevented a hangover for the return journey to the UK the next morning!
Shoes: Bruges is heavily cobbled so wear heavy soled walking shoes to prevent the cobbles bruising the soles of your feet.
Clothes: Take a light rain weatherproof anorak or similar if you are visiting out of summer months as it seems to shower frequently.
Also take a rainproof hat – umbrellas are a nuisance in the crowds and restrict your enjoyment of the city.
Snacks: Brugians love chips and there are plenty of shops were you can buy an overflowing cone of chips for next to nothing.
Travel from the UK:
Train: let it take the strain and book a return ticket on the Eurostar (standard class). Journey lasts exactly 2 hours. But pack a snack as the food on board is overpriced and uninspiring.
Parking: Lomax car park. Pratt Street, Camden Town. Tel: 020 7388 2244 (free taxi service to and from St Pancras).
Hotel: Premier Inn London Euston. 100 yards from St Pancras. Tel: 0871 527 8656
Bruges: Hotel Aragon. Tel: +32(0) 50 33 35 33