[It had come as quite a surprise that Bharat aka Borat was leaving to India for good. The guy had been around in Bristol ever since Rama, Anil Curpad, Akansha and I first set foot on British soil back in 2006….Hence a week before he was scheduled to bid goodbye, the 5 of us got together and embarked on one last memorable trip – this time to a rather unconventional destination – Belgium….and by means of the Eurostar – the high-speed train link between London and Continental Europe via the channel Tunnel !]
The Channel Tunnel :
The ancient Romans had called it ‘Oceanus Britannicus’ and the medieval Dutch sea-men – the ‘Engelse Kanaal’ ! The French call it ‘La Manche’, but to the rest of the world, its simply known as the ‘English Channel’ – the arm of the Atlantic ocean that separates France from England.
Believed to have been created between 450,000 and 180,000 years ago by a series of glacial lake outburst floods, the English Channel has served as a key natural defense system for Britain throughout history, blocking invading armies from the continent – the Dutch, the Spanish, Napoleon, and more recently, the Nazis in World-War 2 ! The only major exceptions of course, being the Roman invasion of Britannia at around the beginning of the first millennium, and the Norman conquest in 1066 by William the Conqueror. The former had resulted in the founding of many of the English cities we have today, including Londonium (London) and the latter had established the current arm of the Royal family – Queen Elizabeth 2 being a direct descendant of William the Conqueror !
For centuries, ideas for a cross-channel link connecting Britain and France had been dreamt about, and if Asterix comics are to be believed, our very own Obelisk had proposed the idea about 2000 years ago, after having crossed over by boat in the rain 🙂
However, it wasn’t until 1996 that, as a joint-venture between the French and the British, the Channel Tunnel was dug out under the Channel, and that gave birth to the Eurostar …connecting London, for the first time in history, directly to Paris and Brussels on the mainland !
The Channel Tunnel is widely proclaimed to be one of the greatest engineering feats of modern times…and the Eurostar, is nothing short of a marvel in itself. Having been developed using French TGV technology, it happens to be the fastest train on British soil […though it hits its peak speeds only on the French side on tracks built to carry the TGV ! ]
Well, so much for introductions ….let’s get on with the story ! 🙂
Day 0, Bristol :
Friday, 5th Sept, 2008
3:30pm: We knew that the trip was going to be one hell of an adventure, right from the moment we kicked-off ! Having taken permission to leave early from office, Bharat, Akansha, Anil Curpad, Rama and I sped off in a Euro Taxi from Aztec Centre to Parkway Station, hoping to catch the 4 pm train to London, only to realize that all trains in the region were either delayed/cancelled, thanks to the flooding of a tunnel in Wales ! Fortunately for us, a 2pm train to London was running late and just as it was about to depart from the platform at 3:45, we barged in. [It so happened that this was about the only train to London that afternoon, and had we missed it, even by a whisker, we may very well have spent the weekend in Bristol itself … having forfeited our Eurostar tickets in the process !] !
Further delays and 2.5 hours later, we arrived at London Paddington station…and quickly took a Tube to the St.Pancras International Station – home to the Eurostar !
The last time I had been here was in Nov 2007, when on a weekend trip to London from Middlesbrough, I had visited the Station soon after it took over the Eurostar services from Waterloo Station, following a £800 million renovation. All that money, undoubtedly had been put to good use, as what we have today is an architectural marvel in itself, blending the Victorian elements of the old St.Pancras with ultra-modern designs and facilities to rival any major airport !
We packed up some sandwiches for dinner, and proceeded through the airport-style security and Immigration clearance desks. Though there were other services to Paris at around the same time and loads of passengers coming in, the formalities were impressively swift…quite in contrast to airports !
As far as Eurostar tickets are concerned, depending on how early you book, they cost more or less the same as flights. However, according to me, traveling to Western Europe by the Eurostar is a much better option compared to flying ‘cos of the following reasons :
- * The journey times are comparable, and if you consider the time spent in traveling to and from airports and through the long security/immigration queues, the Eurostar wins hands-down !
- * No cramped seats as in flights, and no seat-belts ! You get to sit with your mates facing each other, and have the freedom to visit the loo whenever you want 😉
- * No baggage restrictions, and you don’t have to restrict liquids and gels to 100ml.
- * Last, but most important – the highly reduced Carbon footprint !
We took an escalator up to the level where the trains were stationed. Our seats being in the very first compartment, meant that we had to walk the entire length of the Eurostar – which with its 18 compartments was by no means a short train !
At sharp 7:30pm, the Eurostar set-off from St.Pancras and we were charging towards Brussels ! In about half and hour, the train dashed into the Channel Tunnel at Dover…..20 minutes of darkness later, we zoomed out into France at Calais, accelerating up to the maximum speed of 200mph ! Following a brief stop at Lille Europe in France, the train pushed on across the Belgian border, finally arriving at the Brussels Midi Station at 10:30 pm local time.
We got off the train and joined the hordes of people waiting for the platform gates to open. The scene was kinda scary…as we had Security men in plain-clothes coming up and demanding to examine our Passports. Having completed the immigration formalities back at London itself, there was no real need for any of that here at Brussels, however, the officials did random checks on whoever they felt suspicious …..and being south Asians, it didn’t really help, I guess !
Down at the entrance to the station, greeting us, was a huge mural of Tintin – Brussels’ very own local boy ! [It was here in the city that Herge first created Tintin back in 1929 !]
|From Belgium 2008|
Few photographs later, and on taking directions from a couple of friendly locals, we walked across to the nearby Hotel Ibis ! However, it turned out that the Ibis that we had booked into was a different branch, which was in the city center, and that meant having to shell out another 15 euros in a cab to get there [..the actual price was only 10 euros, but since there were 5 of us, they charged a little extra 😦 ]
The first thing that struck us about Brussels was the pleasant weather – typical of continental Europe ! It was just perfect ….neither too cold, nor warm…The sky was clear, and we didn’t hesitate to get rid of our jackets – something which we can only dream about back in England at this time of the year !
We checked-in to our rooms at Hotel Ibis, and in no mood to sleep early, set-off on a midnight stroll ….exploring the streets of Brussels ! The city centre was massive, and quite surprisingly, it was buzzing with life even at that time of the night. We went in to one of the many ‘Sultans of Kebabs’ outlets and treated ourselves to a lavish feast of Falafels and Shawarmas !