Brussels is not my idea of
a normal holiday destination (not hot enough, too urban), but my old friend
Beverley lived there, was getting married, and had invited us to her wedding,
so not being ones to turn down an invitation (and free booze!), we trundled
over on the EuroStar for a long weekend in October 1995.
The EuroStar will, one day, be a great experience.
However, it has been the subject of sufficient British Government inertia
and petty-mindedness that much of it's advantage has been pissed away.
The poor thing starts at Waterloo of all places (entirely the wrong side
of London), trundles over the railway equivalent of Spaghetti junction
and through South London back gardens at 40mph along a single-track line
that hasn't been used since the Beeching cuts and had it's last set of
rails and signals installed in 1949.
When finally free of London, it joins the Folkestone Main Line ("ooh
er, 4 lines...."), and accelerates to the dizzy speed of 55mph until
the mouth of the Tunnel, where it accelerates to 75mph.
Only once through the Tunnel and out into France does it get out of first
gear. I'd never been 186mph on a train before. It's like flying very,
very close to the ground, but very smooth.
Why can't we do this in the UK?
And whilst on the subject, why does the EuroStar only
go to London (and not any points North of London, for no readily apparent
reason)? This despite the train-maintenance facility being at Wormwood
Scrubs near the M40 (since abandoned in favour of St Pancras, of course).
We invented the railway, and have entirely lost the plot:
it is a viable alternative over long-distances to the aeroplane only if
the speeds and costs are equivalent. That means very fast trains, fast
lines, good signalling and good maintenance, all of which seem entirely
absent from the UK network.
Brussels is a fascinating place: it has very little really
interesting history and has been substantialy neutral in the making of
the history of Europe, which explains why it was chosen as the site of
The European Parliament.
Apart from the Mannekin Pis (the little boy who pees a fountain and is
smaller than you expect, like many wonders of the world such as The Statue
of Liberty) and the Science Park with the big aluminium balls, most people
have very little idea of what Brussels looks like.
Commerce is dominated by the expense accounts of the European Parliament;
thus it is not a cheap place to visit.
Eating is expensive, travel is expensive, houses are expensive, I don't
doubt garages are expensive (all those fully-expensed cars).
But it is not overtly flash: there is not the commercial extravagance
you see in similar cities in the US.
The public transport system is excellent: during the 1940, 50s and 60s
they ripped up all the main roads and buried tube lines under them. The
trains are large, comfortable, prompt and extremely accelerative.
It is an object lesson in how London Transport should be run: even Bob
Kiley failed to rescue London's crumbling transport infrastructure, which
constantly tries to play catch-up with the volumes of traffic instead
of predicting it.
In addition to the tubes, they have trams which run down the centres of
most of the major roads.
Like Amsterdam, this makes for unbelievably complex traffic-light systems
at major intersections, especially as pedestrian and cycle lights are
incorporated. Light and airy, and exhaust plume-free, the trams seem a
good solution to overground transport when extended, as these are, deep
in to the suburbs.
Brussels is a good example of a city making the public transport infrastructure
so good that people don't need to drive in. London, take heed.
Cars are allowed in to central Brussels unimpeded (and the roads are good)
but Brussels does not have the jams we see in London.
The food in Brussels is very good, but no bargains are
to be had.