Not a good start! According to the taxi driver, trains out of Alton are not very reliable today. Apparently a train stalled at Holybourne tunnel last night – boy was I lucky – and passengers had to walk to the station along the tracks. So we had the driver take us to Farnham instead. Here we discovered that only every second train is getting through so was a good idea. As it was we ended up on the same train which had us at Waterloo 1½ hours early.
You have to collect your Eurostar tickets at least an hour before departure. Understandable if you’re one of the losers in the queue. I used the self-service machine and by filling in a reference I had from the travel agency, the tickets were spat out at me instantly. This effectively took three minutes. We then had to wait for someone from Mirinda’s work to collect her brand spanking new timetables in order to prevent Peter imploding. Duly picked up, we then went through the ticket and Customs and x-ray palaver. We then had to wait an age before we could get on the train as you cannot board until 20 minutes beforehand. Naturally by this time, the terminal is full to heaving with a train full of passengers. Still the shops do a roaring trade.
I stood in a queue while Mirinda checked out every title of every book in Smith’s. There was a number of tri-lingual announcements regarding the mechanical condition of our train. These announcements were basically in the form of apologies for the delay. Interestingly the time to board diminished as the delay length increased.
Eventually we boarded and took our tres comfortable seats in coach 14. After crawling out of Waterloo we sped up to walking pace for our journey across Kent which, at this time of the year, is not as impressive as the world is led to believe. Someone on the train had a son who was studying French biology; said “Oo La La”. Not sure how this is sexy.
At Ashford a lot of Kentish folk filled the empty seats then we headed for the Chunnel. We managed to get within 200 metres of the entrance, but then stopped. For ten minutes we sat, admiring ad nauseam the chalk horse carved into a nearby hill which is not ancient but which looks almost art nouveau, until finally we made our way into the black hole. It’s a pity there’s no windows because we’d then see all the ancient artefacts that have fallen off boats over the millennia.
Arrived at Brussels Midi 20 minutes late but comfortable. Hopped into the most miserable cab driving Belgian in Belgium and he took us to the hotel Manos Premier. Lots of roadworks meant a longer than usual taxi ride with this doom and gloom merchant. Something I was not aware of: Belgian taxi drivers could easily rival Italians for the title of worst in the world. So extraordinary. Lane markings mean nothing, the fact that you’re heading straight for them means nothing, driver and passenger safety means nothing.
Contrary to expectations, we arrived safely at our palace of a hotel. Four star it is (all others were full for conferences) and boy that extra star means a lot. Split level room, 1 million TV stations, original though unknown artworks, the lot. Very comfortable.
We had a little rest – dinner is booked for 7:30 – watched Beverly Hills 90210 in French and Voyager with Dutch subtitles and listened to the trams rattling by outside the window. Went for a bit of a wander around the art nouveau area of town. This is where the hotel almost is. A lot of grimy but still lovely buildings.
There’s a nice custom here, the architects carved their names in a brick at the bottom of the buildings so you can see whose designs are whose. Those without names are presumably by dissatisfied architects.
We ended up at the Place Fernant Cocq with its trendy bars and scattering of trees. Also its weathered old men smoking and young men doing weird things dressed up as Asterisk. At the top of the place is the Maison Communale where opera singer Maria Malibran, nee Garcia, lived with her violinist lover, Charles De Beriot.
From here we walked down to the Boulevard de Waterloo which forms part of the edge of the petit ring. This is alive with sidewalk cafes – and very wide sidewalks. And there are lots of painted cows. The damn things are following us round the world!!!!
We soon reached Avenue Louise which boasts some of the most expensive shops in Belgium. Mirinda’s knee was hurting so we had a stop-start journey back to the hotel for our 8:30 dinner – we changed the time as we’d forgotten the hour difference meant we’d not be hungry. We saw lots of restaurants but only one chocolate shop which was, sadly, shut.
Dinner at the hotel was expensively delicious. I had a raw tuna and spinach entrée, followed by Greek lamb while Mirinda had foi gras (for some obscure reason) and some sort of beef thing. We finished with creme brulee which was actually eggy custard with damp sugar topping. It was nice but not a patch on mine. Had a nice beer – Steenboorg or something. We also had a lot of bread. Every time we finished a basket they’d bring us more. It wasn’t till dessert that the bread stopped.
Back in our four-star room, we watched our usual Friday night comedy on BBC 1 and, finally, went to sleep.