The Snow In The Summer Or So-So

Brussels trip (4)

Sunday 19 November 2006


There's not a tremendous amount to do in Brussels on a Sunday, as most of the major shops close for the day. Museums, if they close, tend to close for a day slightly later in the week, and the public transport runs at about 60% of weekday levels, so it's probably the best day to hop around the city.

The day dawns with spits of rain, and I wind up taking tram 27 from Montgomery to Heysel. The trams on this route are swish - they're by the same people who made the new generation of commuter trains in the UK, and benefit from the same design - spacious, quality seating, very smooth rides.

My aim here is to take a trip round the newly refurbished Atomium, the iconic symbol of the city. Since my last visit, the huge crystal has had a two-year closure for refurbishment; it's also had a good polish on the outside, so that it is shining in the light once more. Even in the rain, this is true.

Inside, though, they've ripped out a fantastic time capsule exhibition about the 1958 exposition, and replaced it with modern stuff. It's inclusive and accessible and banal and completely, totally uninspiring. The tour takes in four of the spheres near ground level; in the first, there's a small exhibition about the Exposition itself, which is fine as far as it goes, but doesn't really capture anything of the spirit. The next sphere is given over to temporary exhibitions - one is the seemingly ubiquitous brief history of the Barbie doll, an exhibition I've seen in at least three tourist attractions before now, and it's perhaps more out of place here than anywhere else. Upstairs in that sphere is a modern art installation, which does use the tubes between the spheres and some careful lighting to produce a remarkable effect. There are only a couple of works here, though, and the effect is rather spoiled by light spilling in from elsewhere.

It gets somewhat worse from here. Sphere three is half-way up the main lift shaft, and it's been converted into a café. And nothing more. If you want to take a coffee half-way up the Atomium, and if you're prepared to pay through the nose for it, here's your chance. Otherwise, it's on to sphere 4. This is the children's sphere, containing soft furnishings and mini-spheres for youngsters to sleep in. By day, though, this sphere is completely locked out, and the "artist's statement" is a complete load of pretentious bollocks. There's a huge queue for the lift to the viewing platform, both up and down. The view is never particularly good at the best of times, and far too much window space is taken up by digital displays explaining what you might see. The whole project has definitely been run down into the ground by the refurbishment, and I cannot honestly say that it's worth even half the €9 entrance fee. A piece of cultural vandalism from the Belgians.

By the time I'm out, and disappointed enough to forego many of the souvenirs, it's beginning to pour down with rain. I seek shelter in the nearest cover, which leads me to the exhibition halls. There's a café in here, which will do for lunch, and a philately-and-numismatics show in the main hall. Never knew that they'd seriously considered €2.50 coins - that would have confused people!

The drizzle continues well into the afternoon, and I decide not to take a trip round Mini Europe - even though it looks like it's drying up, I don't think that wandering around in the rain is quite my cup of tea, especially when I'm paying €12 for the honour. Instead, back on the number 81 tram to Annessiens, where there are some decent second-hand bookshops. I'm confident enough in my French to be entertained when browsing round, if not to make a purchase. It's remarkable how many books the francophone countries have about philosophy and difficult subjects - far more than we have in the anglosphere.I also need to pick up some other souvenirs, and some chocolate waffles for export.

My abiding memory of Brussels is walking past Eglise St-Jean just as its bells begin to peal for worship, then to the Mont des Arts for its on-the-hour carillion. The city has some things I don't like - it's very difficult to find a public toilet when you need one, and ten hours walking each day is beginning to take its toll. There's a certain unquantifiable spirit at work here, one that appeals on some level, and I've no doubt that I'll be back one day, even if only to pass through.

Monday 20 November 2006

Packing was no problem. Nor was getting from my hotel to the Eurostar - by crossing the ring road, I can take an escalator all the way down to the platform, and there are escalators all the way in Gare du Midi. Well, if one exits the line 2 train on the left; come out on the right, and you've got to hump up twenty-odd stairs. Most of my small change went on the Métro ticket, others on that day's edition of «La Libre Belgique» - it's a serious tabloid paper, a bit like the Independent would be if it still bothered to put actual news on every page. On the train, I'll get a copy of «Le Soir», the morning paper (yes, really) printed on Mondial paper (same as the UK's Guardian), but with six columns of print, it's a hell of a lot easier to read.

Brussels is a bilingual city, with equal prominence given to French and Dutch. All the official announcements are in two tongues, and if one métro station has French at the top of the sign, the ones on either side will have Dutch higher.

This equal prominence spreads to the media. There are two state-run television channels in French - RTBF Un, and RTBF Deux - and two in Dutch - VRT Één, and Ketnet/Canvas, which swerves from programmes for kiddies to an arts-and-intellect channel. The raiders from Luxembourg, RTL, have two channels in English and in French. My hotel also picked up French channels TF1, F2, F3, Arte, and TV5; Nederland 2, and VTM, a Belgian Dutch channel. We also got German broadcaster ARD (but not ZDF), and British channel BBC1 (but not 2). Oh, and Euronews.

The radio dial is slightly more French-speaking than Dutch, but there's a broad mix of channels for both languages, and at least one station that seems to play nothing but ambient music - who said Chill was an original idea? At least one station was happy to broadcast an interview with an English guest without translation, something that just wouldn't happen here. From what I could gather - and most of my listening was in the evening - there's much more variety to Belgian radio than there is in the UK.

Three daily newspapers serve the French community - the one I didn't pick up is La Dernière Heure (literally, The Last Hour; it's a broadsheet Daily Star without the soft porn). The Dutch-speaking side gets De Tijd (business), De Morgen (liberal-populist), Het Laatste Nieuws (tabloid), and Het Nieuwsblad (liberal-unpopularist).

There are also two editions of the famous Metro freesheet distributed; a green cover in French, and a blue cover in Dutch. Each of the two editions has its own editorial team, decides on which stories to prioritise, and runs its own television listings.

Procedure at Brussels is the automated ticket check, then Belgian passport control, the pointless X-ray, and British passport checks. The departure lounge has a café / bar, newsagent, chocolatiers, and that's just about it. Boarding is made a little more difficult because the front twelve coaches all go up one fairly narrow escalator - it's a bit of a bottleneck. In spite of that, and in spite of not starting to board until 9.41, we're away on time at 9.56; we make it to 100kph in about five minutes, and are leaving cars standing on the A8 autoroute by 10.08. By quarter past, the rain is falling heavily outside - it's parallel along our windows, such is the speed. A slow approach into Lille, but it's to make up a bit of time; if we had gone full speed into the station, we'd have waited almost ten minutes.

The ride is particularly bumpy around Lille, particularly when the train is going so slowly. It doesn't really improve to the north, thanks to the crosswinds buffeting the car about. Juices had been served about twenty minutes after departure from Brussels, and a full breakfast - with a hot omelette, if that's your choice - around departure from Lille. It doesn't leave much to eat during the tunnel transit (11.05 - 10.25), causing some substantial ear-popping. And again, we suffer a 30-minute crawl from Dartford back to Waterloo.

CTRL II, when it opens next year, will be a godsend. It'll bring Lille to within 90 minutes of London, almost exactly isochromic with Birmingham. If I were to leave Charing Cross at 10am one morning in 2008, I could certainly be in Birmingham before noon. I wouldn't arrive in Lille until almost 1pm UK time, and that's purely because the UK government and/or civil service still has a huge prejudice against Europe. There is no reason why Eurostar passengers should have to have their baggage X-rayed, or have to pass through metal detectors. These trains run from one secure country to another. Indeed, there is no reason - other than narrow-minded xenophobia - why a passport is necessary for travel within Europe. Yet that prejudice remains, constantly associating Europe with The Other, and as something that the British government wants to keep out. Opening the needless barriers to travel would be a fantastic method of promoting European integration. No wonder that's why Eurostar is so cumbersome.

Back in reality, I pick up a sandwich and bottle of water for the journey back, then set off to Euston. These new-fangled Oyster cards aren't much cop - the first gate I try at both Waterloo and Euston says that it's closed to Oyster cards, causing me to back up and try another - not an easy job with a hefty suitcase. Mercifully, I don't get stung for an incomplete journey; even more mercifully, I just miss one tube and catch the next one a minute later. The 12.10 from Euston thinks it's the 11.40, and only five of the 14 audio channels work - there's no radio reception at all, thus ruining my plans to listen to George Gershwin on Composer of the Week and then The World at One. Aren't ITV Trains wonderful?

Finally arriving back at about 14.15, I find that I've left my living room lights burning for the previous five days. Probably a good thing; any passing thieves will have thought that I've been in. Time to put the kettle on, make a nice hot cup of tea, and relax...

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