Brussels

I was right about one thing, though: Phyllis loved Brussels, instantly and totally. Well, I was pretty fond of the place myself; I'd only been there for a single too-brief overnighter, a couple of years ago (here) and I'd always regretted I hadn't had more time to look around.

The weather was looking a bit dubious, but not really ominous; just a lot of drifting clouds and occasional light showers as we walked up from the Gare Midi (through a thoroughly ugly and grubby neighborhood, largely occupied by down-at-the-heels-looking Arab types, but every city has its bad patches) to the area around the Grand Place.

Where we got incredibly lucky; I was going to check out the hotel where I'd stayed before, but then we came across this wonderful little place called La Vielle Lanterne. One of the tiniest hotels I've ever seen, above a gift and souvenir shop; only a few rooms, but these roomy and well-lit and absolutely spotless, and with a great view of the street below - including the famous, or infamous, Mannekin-Pis. Good prices, too, and a heartbreakingly beautiful young lady behind the desk.... We checked in with joy and relief; it had started to rain again and a cold wind was blowing down the narrow streets.

Of course the weather hadn't had much to do with us on the first part of the trip, because we were traveling high-tech this time, taking the Eurostar train through the Channel tunnel. This was the first time either of us had done this. If I have anything to say about it it will also be the last.

I loathed the Eurostar, which had the sterility of the French TGVs and nowhere near their comfort - there was actually less legroom than in British Airways coach seating, which takes some doing. The Chunnel experience was boring as hell (it's utterly dark so you can't see any of the details of construction) and we both missed the boat ride and the sea air.

And they take their fancy choo-choo much too seriously; you have to go through the whole horse shit business with the metal detector and the Xray and so on just as if you were getting on a plane. What the hell they think anyone's going to do is beyond me - hijack the train and make the engineer drive it to Norway? I had to subject myself to the indignity of being patted down (TOUCHED! TOUCHED!) by a skinny little geek from the Subcontinent. I came very close to telling them to stuff the whole thing, but the tickets had already been paid for and it was too late to get a refund.

All in all I do not recommend the Eurostar unless one has a really important reason to be in a hurry to get across the Channel, or unless the weather makes the boat prolematic. The ride has all the unpleasantness of flying, without the speed or the view.

But all that was behind us now (at least until the return trip, which I was trying not to think about) and pretty soon the rain let up and we went out again to look around. Phyllis was, as noted, enchanted, though she took one look at the Mannekin-Pis and declared, "That's the tackiest thing I've ever seen in my life."

This is part of the medieval city wall. The tower was also used to incarcerate prisoners. Brussels, it would appear, has always been a bad town to fight the law.

The wind was really picking up now; the clouds were breaking up and now and then patches of blue sky showed through. That part was welcome enough, but the wind was raw and cold - Phyllis finally stopped and bought a soccer scarf to cover her ears - and as we walked up the hill past the beautiful old Eglise de la Chapelle, a sudden violent gust took us full in the face, searing throats and sinuses. Instant sore throat for me; I knew I was in trouble but there was nothing to do about it. We went back to the hotel and later went out again for dinner, at a not particularly distinguished cafe; in that kind of weather proximity takes precedence over gourmet quality.

Next morning the sky was dark and gray and ominous-looking, though nothing was actually falling yet. We walked back through the Grand Place and up the hill past La Madeleine to the Gare Centrale, keeping a wary eye on the clouds, and caught the train for Luxembourg.

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