Luxembourg and Brussels, September 23-25

My arrival in Luxembourg was a relaxed affair. After the lengthy train ride from Mulhouse, I disembarked at the central train station and stepped outside into the sun to spot my hotel directly across the road. Checking into Hotel Empire was speedy too, once the person before me in the queue was done, and I even got some advice on the best places to go for food and drink. After heading all the way up to the sixth floor to drop off my bags and get myself organised, I headed out to see what could be seen of the city before nightfall.

The route I chose took me over the Adolph Bridge, which it turned out was undergoing renovation, to the point that a replacement bridge was in use and most of the valley below was invisible. Combine that with the gentle slope leading up from the station to the city and it was hard for me to get a notion of Luxembourg as the great European citadel that it had once been.

Things opened up a little as I wandered through the streets of the old town, though even there I was reminded of San Marino, where any signs of age had been carefully tended to and cleaned away. Luxembourg is a central part of the European Union, having been in it since the launch of the European Coal and Steel Community, and it still has plenty of the apparatus of the EU present. Like Liechtenstein and Switzerland, there’s no lack of fancy cars being driven around the place.

Most of the attractions were closed as I walked by, but I did find one that was still open: the Casemates under the old Bock fortress. For the small sum of €4, I was able to descend into the tunnels and caverns of this last retreat of the defenders and get an idea of just how extensive they had once been. I spent a happy hour and a half poking my head into dark holes and getting lost, but eventually I started paying attention to the arrows and found my way out.

At this stage it was dark, and whereas I’d earlier been uncertain of whereabouts I was, I now knew how to get down to the Grund area beside the river. There were two reasons for aiming here: first, I’d been told this was a good place to go and eat, and second there were a few sports pubs that might be showing the Ulster-Glasgow rugby match. In the first place I was rewarded, in the second mostly not. I fetched up at Scott’s Pub and found myself a seat beside the river, where I enjoyed a couple of pints of the local Diekirch beer with a salami pizza. Nothing fancy, but as a birthday meal it had a lot to recommend it.

Eventually though, I had to get up and go, and I crossed back over the river to the city and circled around until I found a road heading back south to the station. It was relatively late, perhaps 10pm or so, when I made it back to the hotel, but I wasn’t exactly hurrying, so I had enough energy to check through my backlog of messages and other internet stuff before I gave up the ghost and fell asleep. I’m not in the habit of drinking much these days, and after two pints, bed is hard to resist.

The next morning, I was up at around 7am, and slowly gathered myself and got washed, eventually wandering down to the first floor in search of breakfast. This turned out to be somewhat English but mostly continental, so I feasted on bacon and egg in a crusty roll, muesli, fruit salad, and a couple of helpings of orange juice. Given I have a holiday habit of eschewing lunch, it seemed sensible to load up at breakfast time.

Afterwards, I returned to my room, packed, then headed back downstairs to check out. The hotel was okay with me stowing my backpack for a few hours, so I was soon heading outdoors and north once more into the city, following the slightly more easterly route I’d taken the night before in the other direction. As it turned out, I was a little bit too early for the National Museum, which opened at 10, so I visited Saint Michael’s Church instead, then headed back to the Bock, this time crossing to the far side and descending into the valley.

This descent opened up a new section of the riverside for me, and I got to play around in a hedge maze I’d spotted the day before, then roam along the riverside, past a rather fancy open-air five-a-side pitch. When I crossed back to the city side of the river and started to climb, I found a park awaiting me at the top, and a viewing platform with a natty glass floor that made it fun to stand on and look out over the valley from—the sun having burned away the early morning mist.

I headed back into the old town from there, wandering through a few markets and popping my head into the cathedral, though I decided not to hang around long enough to enjoy an organ recital.

Finally I made my way back to the museum, which was now open, and paid €5 to be told to go all the way downstairs and make my way back up from there. The exhibit was a well-organised trip through Luxembourg’s history, from its 10th-century founding (including a mermaid legend) to its modern day existence. The interactive bits were too slow and uninformative to be worth spending time on, but the large-scale models of the city through the centuries were a highlight. Someone had even left a mail shirt and coif lying on the floor, though I didn’t try to put either of them on, having no one to help me out if I got into difficulties.

I eventually emerged back into the light via a side garden of the museum, where soldiers had once been billeted, and set about doing some more exploring of the city. This, it turned out, mostly consisted of shops and Saturday markets. Some were interesting, some were not, and I skipped from one to the other, slowly forming the opinion that I may as well head back to the hotel and move on, having little else planned for this mini-nation.

So that was what I did. I crossed back over the Adolph Bridge replacement, strolled downhill to the Hotel Empire, retrieved my backpack, and crossed the road to the station. A ticket for Brussels was quickly obtained (€41), and as the next train was leaving at 1.09pm, I decided to skip lunch and just get directly on board. No assigned seating this time, so I just took the first place that I saw and settled in for a rest.

Well, when I say rest, I mean that I spent the first part of the trip scribbling down notes for the journey to date. Only when that was done, did I start to pay more attention to everything around me, as the stations we were stopping at grew more numerous, the closer we got to Brussels.

I disembarked at Brussels-Luxembourg, having decided not to go all the way to Brussels-Midi. This allowed me to take a walk in the afternoon sun, first on unfamiliar streets, then on more familiar ground as I got closer to Avenue Louise. The hotel I was staying in, the Pentahotel, was close to Louise itself, so it was far from hard to find, and after some standing around in the lobby I was able to check in.

First impressions of the place weren’t great—it seemed to have been recently updated in an excessively trendy fashion, with lots of black paint, and the TV and Wifi were slow as molasses. Plus, my room on the first floor had the least inspiring view of any hotel I’ve ever stayed at: blank concrete and a short stairway.

Luckily, all I needed from the hotel was a place to stay, and I was soon heading out again, this time in search of food. I headed down to and across Toison D’Or, then past the Palais de Justice, into the antiques quarter. Soon I was at the Manneken Pis, not because I’d planned to be there, but because there was some kind of celebration going on in front of it, which involved dressing the poor Manneken in a French revolutionary outfit. From there, I headed down to the pedestrian zone in front of the Bourse, checking out a comics shop on the way but noting that a lot of other places were already closed.

For food, I opted for Amadeo, where I was able to get a seat just before the rush, and proceeded to devour my way through three helpings of all-you-can-eat ribs, plus potato, salad, a Leffe Bruin and a chocolate mousse with chantilly cream. Nicely fortified, I paid up and headed next door to Bar des Amis, which had at this stage become my Brussels local at this stage, and grabbed a Gulden Draak for a nightcap in the mostly empty bar. By the time that I’d finished and was ready to go, it wasn’t even starting to fill up, but I was done, so I headed uphill on the walk to Toison D’Or and Louise.

Whether it was the beer or just the fact that I was hitting the end of the holiday, I was about ready to be done with the evening, for all that it was still early, and the crappy wifi and the lack of any televisual entertainment offered no reason to stay awake. I turned out the lights at 10pm and was soon sleeping through the sounds from below and the light from the doorway outside my window.

Up early as always—7.19am in this case—I pottered around the room for a while before showering and heading downstairs in search of breakfast. As it turned out, breakfast wasn’t included in my room fee, so I decided to make my own decisions on that front and headed upstairs again. Here I rearranged the contents of my bags while watching the Match of the Day repeat, and given that the West Brom-Stoke game wasn’t shown until the very end, it was 10am by the time I was done and ready to check out. I paid up and stowed my backpack for the next few hours, then headed out.

First goal: breakfast. A walk to and along Toison D’Or, then downhill to JAT cafe, which provided a solid feed but (unusually) no wifi. Once done there, I continued downhill towards Gare Centrale, briefly distracted by the lure of a comics shop. I picked up a ticket for the Knokke beach resort, as recommended by my Brussels-based friend Des. There was the best part of 50 minutes to wait before the train left though, so after a little wandering, I headed down to the platform, found a seat and scribbled down some further notes on my travels thus far.

When the train did eventually show up, my fears about it being crammed were alleviated by the fact that it was a comfy double-decker. I settled into a top-deck seat on the leading carriage and did some typing to add to my notes, though by the time I’d got to Gent-St. Pieters, the best part of an hour had gone by, leaving me wondering whether I’d have any time to enjoy Knokke when I got there. It was 1.30pm at this stage, and my plane was flying out at 8.05pm. Still, there were other things to worry about—rather than a direct connection, this trip involved a change in Bruges. I was determined to see my way through to the end if I could, but I wasn’t going to be silly about it.

In the end, it proved both dramatic and anticlimactic. The connection was waiting at Bruges, and I got on board with a few minutes to spare for the 20 minute ride to Knokke. Once there, with the sun doing its best to disappear behind the gathering clouds, I took a gander at the posted timetable. Just over half an hour until the next departure, which would get me back to Brussels in decent time for my connection. That seemed fine.

So I set up off Knokke’s main drag in search of the sea. At this point, I realised that it was a lot further away than I’d expected. So I picked up my pace and arrived at the North Sea with exactly no minutes to spare. Dipped my toes in the water, took a few pictures, then turned and started marching back. And when I say marching, I was keeping count of my steps, hoping to get back in time.

In the end, thanks to a few unhelpful traffic lights, I was about a minute late. Except…there was no train receding into the distance. Poking around, I found an electronic timetable, which showed another half an hour until the next train. So I had been rushing for no reason other than my own mistake and a nice bit of exercise. I busied myself with a stroll out to the end of the long platform, listened to some music and soon enough the train showed up. Once again, in the deepening gloom, I set off, and this time at Bruges the connection was waiting on the other side of the platform. All nice, quick and smooth and hopefully in plenty of time.

The rain came in as we passed through Aalter, the first stop out from Bruges. The first rain I’d seen since Naples. It didn’t stick though—by the time I disembarked at Brussels-Midi, it was no more than spitting and soon faded away.

The rest was mostly walking. Uphill to Pentahotel to retrieve my bag and fail to do anything with their substandard wifi. Across town to Place de Luxembourg to catch a 21 bus to Zaventem. Shuffling through the two security checks that the airport now requires: one to get in and one to get through to the boarding areas. In the end I arrived a solid two hours before the plane was due to fly. I settled in to enjoy the worst meal of the trip—Pizza Hut slices and garlic bread, soda fountain coke and a semi-rubbery chocolate mousse. But worse was to come. A solid hour and a half of a delay for the flight. So much for Ryanair punctuality. At least I was able to get online and check in with a few people before we were allowed to board.

We’re airborne now and hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m home free. Bed is calling, and these shoes need to rest. Me too.

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