I was turning 40, an event at least a decade premature (in my opinion). The denial was running deep. I did not want ‘that’ big dinner with friends – the one where you gather ‘who never previously mixed’ accumulation of a lifetime of friends. With it brings the outfit and beauty pressure akin to that of a bride. I didn’t want a surprise party (too much risk of being caught bra-less in my pjs), I didn’t want a day in the spa coupled with an expensive ‘pressure to savour it’ dinner for two with my handsome (younger) husband, and I didn’t want to define the end of my 30s with a trip to the theatre.
Before children, my idea of heaven was a long-haul flight to anywhere in upper with champagne and movies from the comfort of my flat bed. But I have kids now. And I can’t take them out of school in term time – that’s the rules you know.
So what would I do to mark this irreversible occasion? I knew I wanted to feel relaxed, and free, rich and calm and lucky and grown up, a treat for me, carefree and silly and happy. And possibly a bit drunk. I wanted adventure. But I had to be back, 24 hours after departure – or sooner.
The answer was actually closer than I thought – Eurostar at London’s St Pancras station. No congested airports, warp-speed check-in time, zero hassle security and the biggest, squashiest seats with heaps of leg room… I loved the thought of an effortless journey, first class of course, to Brussels, Belgium. “Don’t pack your bags,” I deliberately told the nice husband. I knew my bark could be misconstrued to mean I was going alone, but actually, we were heading off on a responsibility-free trip to Brussels – for the day.
Bubbling with excitement as I boarded the train, I couldn’t stop myself from drawing the guard’s attention to the fact it was my birthday (four-oh I whispered). It felt like a clandestine adventure, away from home life. Shortly after we left St Pancras’ station the lovely French guard literally glided down the aisle towards me with a bottle of Champagne and two gloriously cute Eurostar glasses – with his compliments. So we drank Champagne on the train (that’s the rules you know). And we ate croissants and drank coffee – bien sur! We then relaxed back and idly watched the countryside roll by whilst we were lulled to sleep by the metronomic swaying of the quiet carriage which had a handful of well-mannered passengers who were far too posh to take the complimentary breakfast items. Replete and asleep, my eyelid lifted long enough to see the pretty gardens at Lille’s station and the occasional French farmhouse that looked, well, obviously, French.
Into Belgium we whooshed. In just two hours – TWO HOURS, we went from London St Pancras, with its Starbucks and Foyles, to Brussels with the Manneken Pis, its European Union headquarter buildings, amazing hot chocolate and Belgian beers!
There was no overnight bag to haul around, though if we had, we’d not have been penalised as Eurostar offers each person two suitcases plus a handbag – with no weight restrictions – for passenger or luggage! There was no hotel check in to endure, no need to froufrou the hair, we were footloose and fancy free and could enjoy the very humorous ten minute taxi ride from the station to Le Grande Place, trying to equate my pigeon French with the taxi driver’s pigeon English.
We dashed, gratefully from le taxi to the square and giggled at our excellent, cunning plan to escape everyone and everything on my Friday, my 40th birthday.
Bathed in sunshine, we pulled up the last two chairs on the large, outdoor terrace and we ordered our Belgian beers served with pretty square cheeses and little biscuit bites – these were voluptuous glasses filled with cold, creamy (and strong!) beer. As far as Brussels’s was concerned, it was a random Tuesday afternoon and as is the norm – there wasn’t a chair to spare. The terrace of La Chaloupe d’Or was full with ladies eating pastries with tiny black coffees and singletons calmly reading books, old men with cigarettes and caps, friends and hipsters with scarves and poodles and lovers. It was not London. Not a word of English was spoken around the square and it was deliciously sunny. The Belgian Beer (2nd glass by now) was making my head sway and the hiccuppy pleasantness of being elsewhere was almost too much to contain.
Le Grande Place might not be the height of Belgian sophistication, but it does feel wonderfully cosmopolitan. The buildings are exquisite with gold leaf, and ornate with gnarly gargoyles and beautiful old, sachet windows.
With many hours left to enjoy, we fled the sun-trap and eenie-menied until we agreed on which arterial street we’d explore first. Nickety nacks, of Obelix, and Asterix and Tin-Tin were everywhere; bars for swingers and tattoo parlours shared terraces with chocolatiers presenting handmade, dark, light, nutty, fruity, something for everyone, packaged in dainty paper far too pretty to ever open.
We shopped in stores with unknown brand names and built up an appetite striding down the little streets, window shopping, walking, hooking arms and gleeful that for the day, we were neither Londoners, nor parents (nor 40).
Legs weakened by strong beer and much marching and shopping, our eyes were drawn to the fresh oysters on ice and the large, grumpy-looking lobsters outside the restaurants in the very narrow Rue des Bouchers – as we nosed from the outside, waiters nosed from the inside, eager to catch our eye and in turn, our business.
If you’re going to eat moules, let it be in Belgium. Be warned, grilled doesn’t necessarily mean lower-fat, especially when they’re swimming in delicious cheese and white wine, but boy-oh-boy they were delicious. The sun had long since disappeared and we were very grateful for the warmth of the restaurant, our cheeks reddened all the more with the warm, cheesy moules and the magnificent red wine. Away from the responsibilities from home we remembered ourselves for a moment. And it was just glorious. To be at peace (and a bit drunk).
Clichés may be corny, but Ralph Waldo Emerson had a point when he said “Life is a journey, not a destination.” And the travelling on my birthday was as important as the destination. I wanted it all to be an experience. These wise words spurred us onto our feet and to the taxi rank to be reunited with the final part of our day trip – the train journey home.
Eurostar must invest in its people well because the attendants could not have been more sweet, fresh-faced and full of efficiency; they looked only too pleased to welcome us back on board. Within minutes we were on our way back to London, our table once more decorated with complimentary refreshments of cheese and wine and salad and soft bread. Our huge seats welcomed our tired bodies and grateful for the space, our legs stretched out straight.
Travelling standard premier with Eurostar was a glorious treat, every single penny was worth it – though the truth be told, it was considerably less expensive than many UK train journeys! I felt rich and tipsy, and tired and ready to return home, to my big comfy bed and to the rude awakening by my two children – which would hopefully not occur before 7am the next morning.
If you’re thinking of travelling this year, it’s good to know that great offers are afoot with Eurostar. 14th November 2014 (14/11/14) is Eurostar’s 20th anniversary and so they’re showering their customers with lots of unexpected celebratory delights and surprises.
Eurostar operates up to nine daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69. Tickets to any Belgium station start from £79. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is two hours. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08432 186 186.
With the option of flexible fares, Standard Premier offers the freedom to work, think, or simply unwind. You will be presented with calm, spacious surroundings with on-board staff offering a light meal and a selection of magazines. Standard Premier fares start from £189 return.
With Eurostar’s 2-4-1 culture offers, travellers to Brussels can also take advantage of 2-for-1 entry into paying exhibitions and permanent collections at some of the city’s most popular galleries, including: Bozar, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and the Magritte Museum just by simply showing their Eurostar tickets at entry.