When we were trying to plan a winter holiday this year, we felt a bit short of ideas. The way the Christmas dates had fallen meant that we could only go away after Christmas rather than before Christmas, ruling out any locations we might have considered mainly on the strength of their Christmas markets, and by the time I had got my time off confirmed by work the cost of flights to any Central or Eastern European destinations had been driven out of our price range by the sheer numbers of people who were flying home for the holidays. It soon became clear that we could only afford a ticket to somewhere in Western Europe. Flights to Oslo were cheap, but we didn't want to get lured into the trap of buying a cheap flight to an extremely expensive country again. Paris was the next most affordable destination, but when I tried looking for accommodation on booking.com, I couldn't find anything which wouldn't break the bank. Thinking about Paris inspired me to look at the Eurostar website though, and to my surprise I discovered that it was possible to get fairly reasonable train tickets to Brussels.
Brussels, or indeed Belgium as a whole, was not a destination which we had ever considered to have much holiday potential. In fact I think that when I first suggested it to Tim, he thought that I was joking. But in the absence of many other options and having done a few Google image searches to confirm that it actually did look quite attractive, we decided to give it a go. I bought the Eurostar tickets, found an affordable apartment in a reasonably central location and even managed to advance-book cheap connections to London
We had only travelled on the Eurostar once before, on a trip to Saarbruecken in December 2009 which nearly started with disaster when all train services through the tunnel were halted by "the wrong kind of snow" in the days before Christmas. The memory of that and the uncertainty we had leading up to that holiday about whether we would actually be able to travel made me feel slightly nervous about booking a second Eurostar trip in December. But actually it turned out to be the English railways I should have been worrying about, when overrunning engineering works caused chaos on the Kings Cross line just days before we were due to depart. With engineering works on the Euston line due to finish on the evening of the 28th and us due to travel on an early train on the 29th, there was every reason to be nervous. When we arrived at the station in Nuneaton at 7am this morning and saw that our train had "delayed" written next to it on the departure board, I thought all my worst fears had come true.
Luckily, it turned out to be a delay of just over ten minutes and, given that I had built an extra two hours into our schedule for just this kind of eventuality, that wasn't a problem at all. We were in London and walking towards St. Pancras before 9am and as our train wasn't due to depart until 10.58 we had plenty of time for a second breakfast of coffee and cake
I was a bit hazy about the rules for checking in for the Eurostar but it turned out to be the simplest thing in the world. You actually only need to be there 30 minutes before your train departs to pass through the (very light) security and passport checks. The platforms for the trains are announced 20 minutes before departure and when we found our carriage we were pleasantly surprised by how comfy and roomy it was. We had ended up with "Standard premier" tickets for the journey out (as opposed to just "Standard" tickets for the journey back) as for some reason the price had been cheaper, and as the train pulled out of London we were extremely surprised to discover that this entitled us to (a third!) breakfast. We were each presented with a breakfast tray including orange juice, a bread roll with cherry jam and butter and a croissant, and the train equivalent of air hostesses wandered up and down the aisles pouring cups of coffee. Tim was so distracted by the food (or perhaps absorbed in his book!) that he missed the entire tunnel part of the journey and was greatly confused an hour or so later when the train pulled into Lille!
It took just over two hours to arrive in the Belgian capital, which seemed so fast that we had hardly had time to register that we were actually going on holiday. The station of Brussels-Midi seemed rather large and disorientating but we eventually managed to find a door by which to exit it, and set off towards the aparthotel we had booked on the other side of the city centre. The guidebook had hinted that the area surrounding the station was a little bit seedy, and that did prove to be the case. As we got closer to the centre of town, however, things started looking up and we were impressed to find ourselves in the middle of a Christmas market, full of stalls selling Gluehwein. It wasn't the easiest thing to navigate with two suitcases, but it certainly felt very festive and we were surprised that it hadn't been taken down now that Christmas was over.
Our hotel was just a few streets away and when we checked into our room we found it to be pleasant, with a good-sized table and kitchenette. The wi-fi worked without any problems, which we appreciated after the problems we had had during our last holiday in Sardinia. It was possible to book breakfast in the hotel, but at the cost of €14 per person per day(!) we decided to give it a miss and track down a local supermarket instead. We succeeded in finding the Belgian equivalent of a Tesco Express just a few hundred yards down the road and were able to stock up on the essentials, although it wasn't quite as cheap as we had hoped. The good news is that they do stock wine though, and plenty of it, so we should be able to avoid a repeat of the problems that we had trying to get a drink for New Year in Oslo!
It was starting to rain by this stage and getting dark as well, so we headed part to the room to read up on Brussels in preparation for some proper sight-seeing tomorrow