A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant
Author: Steve Cooke
Who would like to go to Brussels for an afternoon? Lunch is included. My hand shot up into the air. It’ll come out of your annual leave. It didn’t matter. It was a chance to experience standard & business classes on Eurostar and visit the recently renovated St Pancras International train terminal.
St Pancras is the patron saint of cramps. Presumably his inclusion into Vatican middle management is to prevent the CEO being bothered over relatively trivial matters. I invoked his name as I walked hundred of yards in search of The Meeting Place – a 27-foot-high bronze statute of a couple locked in an intimate embrace. I had expected it to be the iconic centre-piece of a glorious open space. I eventually discovered it on the upper-level against a wall and out-of-sight from the public below. It is a testament to the terminal size that a massive statue can be so well hidden.
It is also quite an achievement to take a spectacular space and turn it in to a comparatively claustrophobic mouse maze. The enclosed ground-level arcade hides most of the 100-foot-high canopy. The thoroughfare is then used by commuters to get between domestic rail and London Underground. Departure boards are miniaturised to fit into the available space. A few bottle-necks are added for good measure. The end result is a boutique chain store grotto full of fast-moving people more interested in getting home than leisurely browsing for ice cream flavoured lip balm. Then there are the marketing gimmicks. Europe’s longest champagne bar is the length of a football field. If you’ve ever had trouble getting a drink at your local pub – you’d be stuffed at this joint. Not to mention the hike to the loo.
However away from the nonsense and far from the madding crowd a corner of calm can be found. Carluccio’s Italian café and restaurant sits on the upper level next to The Meeting Place statue. It is here you can benefit from the open space that the original architect, William Barlow, envisioned. It’s the only reason I would go St Pancras – other than to catch a train.
There are many reasons to use Eurostar over an airline. City to city it’s faster; you can take your bag with you and nobody makes you take-off your shoes. The whole malarkey from check-in to train-seat takes less than ten minutes. Details can be found at: Eurostar Check-in
Best of all – your arse is never more than a few feet from the ground. Not that I suppose it matters much at 186 miles an hour – you may as well be flying. The non-stop Eurostar services to Brussels take 1hr 51m. About the same time it takes to get from Central London to Heathrow on the tube – on a bad day that is. To pass the time Premier Business has continental and UK sockets for laptops. Standard Class has them too – but only in coaches 5 & 14.
Eurostar Meal Deals can be bought in Standard Class. £5.50 buys the Classic – sandwich, crisps and water. Nice but pricey. It’s some way off the gold standard set by the Boots Meal Deal. In Premier Business a hot meal is complimentary. I allegedly ate the veal. I didn’t bring my magnifying glass so I can’t be sure. Still the wine was lovely.
Eurostar is not only fast – but environment friendly. Journeys are now carbon neutral. What is more Eurostar will: further cut CO2 emissions per traveller journey by reducing the power consumption on its rolling stock [and] making even better use of train capacity . Translated this means: Turn-off the air conditioning and cram more people into fewer trains. They’ll have people standing soon. You would think that climate change is a man-made phenomenon. How that reconciles with the fact that the sun is getting hotter and melting icecaps from Mars to Pluto is anyone’s guess.
We arrived into Bruxelles Midi early afternoon then took a local train to Bruxelles Central. Brussels is bi-lingual so everything is in French and Flemish. From there it is a short walk to the Grand Place/Grote Markt. Some places don’t live up to their name – like Great Smeaton or Brest. The Grand Place is literally a grand place. And a grote markt.
The imposing 15th century gothic town hall, now the Hôtel de Ville, dominates the large cobbled market square. Nearby sit the baroque colonnade guild houses that prop each other up like drunken burghers. Adjacent is the classical façade of The House of the Dukes of Brabant. Opposite lays the neo-gothic Maison du Roi, rebuilt in the 19th Century. Architecturally The Grand Place is such a mix-mash of styles that if it were a dog – it would be a mongrel. A pedigree mongrel mind. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can see why.
From The Grand Place we made our way to Rue de Bouchers. A dark narrow cobbled street full of restaurants. We walked past and around tables of people and under neon signs next to 17th century stepped gables. Belgium is renown for its seafood. I passed half of it on the way to our restaurant. Some of it watched me. I don’t trust Lobsters. Their eyes are too close together. We had lunch at Aux Armes De Bruxelles. They’ve served food since 1921. It shows. The boil the shit out of the potatoes technique is still used in my family to this day. If it weren’t for the cheese croquets and the smartly dressed waiters – it could have been a family lunch. Rue de Bouchers is worth a butchers for the atmosphere alone. The locals think it’s a tourist trap. They are right of course – but perhaps a touch cynical.
A short walk away is the national symbol of Belgium. In Paris they have the Eiffel Tower. In Rome, the Colosseum. In Brussels it’s a two-foot statue of a boy with his cock out pissing next to the pavement. If the Manneken Pis were in London – he would be subject to an Anti Social Behaviour Order and those who take his photo placed on the Sexual Offenders Register.
The Belgians are proud of their wee man. So much so they dress him up. Manneken Pis can be seen as everyone from John Malkovich to Santa Claus depending on the mood and the season. Oddly enough he has never been dressed as Oliver Reid – for which there would be a natural synergy. He has a girlfriend you know… Jeanneke Pis. She squats on the opposite side of the Grand Place. I love the Belgian sense of humour. It’s quirky and unpretentious. Very antipodean.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in a very down-under manner. We sat outdoors at The Grand Place supping dark beer, nibbling even darker chocolate and happily squinting into the mild spring sun.
It’s easy to see why Brussels is the de-facto home of the European Parliament. Waiter, another Keizer Karel please…