My wife and I recently took a short break in Bruges. (It’s in Belgium.) A wedding anniversary treat. We travelled on the Eurostar from St Pancras to Brussels. This was partly because Mrs S is a nervous flyer, and partly for reasons of cost. We both had reservations about the subaquatic rail tunnel, but the Eurostar was a revelation: the windows went dark, we forgot about the fact that we were travelling beneath the sea, which as we all know is chock-a-block with fishes and seaweed and shipwrecks, then popped out on the other side in France. There, I can tell you, the train sped across the landscape like a low-flying jet. We made our connection in Brussels just a few hours after leaving the house, and were in Bruges in time for tea.
If you’ve never seen the film, take the chocolate of Bournville, the lace of Nottingham, the beer of Burton, improve them all 10-fold and set them in Stratford Upon Avon, and you’ll get some idea of what Bruges is like. There was a distinct relaxed vibe, and everyone, but everyone was polite, helpful and accommodating. Yes, this is a tourist spot so that might be expected, but it’s not necessarily our experience of similar destinations in the UK. There was even the chocolate equivalent of a sushi bar – well, it said ne pas toucher, but I think my delight at the concept is evident below…
And then the bikes. People of every age whizzed, cruised or trundled despite the sometimes slippery cobbles. Families skimmed across the streets like lines of ducklings. Or swans. And the only people I saw wearing helmets were the kids. Bruges is also famous for its horses, but while they make a nice clip-cloppy noise across the cobbles, we had reservations about their quality of life, so opted for a trip on the canals instead.
On the Friday morning we sat in a small café run by two young women, and ate breakfast bagels with crispy bacon, eggs and creme cheese. The décor was a characterful junk shop rustic, and our coffees were served in mix-&-match cups and saucers. To our left sat a French couple, to our right, Dutch; prior to that some Americans. It was a great mix of cultures and ideologies. I didn’t feel we were in some kind of liberal bubble, but an environment that seemed naturally welcoming and devoid of tension.
The trains in Europe ran bang on time (a cliché but true); the carriages were clean and spacious; smart conductors checked our tickets with a smile; announcements were made in four languages, the tone warm and relaxed, with pride in the service; people conversed or read books. The British trains? I won’t go into detail, but these were a stark contrast, in everything from the jostling stampede at Euston in which Mrs S lost a shoe, to the weary announcement telling us we were being recorded on CCTV so we’d bloody well better behave, or else. All in English only.
Overall the trip solidified my pro-European standpoint, with our experiences of the rail services a perfect illustration of the differences between continental Europe, and the turmoil that seems to have overtaken the Untied Kingdom. Would we go again? Not necessarily to Bruges, but certainly elsewhere in Europe. And definitely via Eurostar.