One would think that the capital city of Europe has a great public transport service. It doesn’t. It resembles something that the DDR bequeathed them when it finally expired.
The misery started at the airport, which was designed by a chap who had otherwise concentrated on designing bowling alleys. I have never had to walk so far to get from the aircraft to my baggage in my life. The airport is built on several levels all equally long. And I mean long. All connected by stairs and lifts which work or not depending on how they feel. The lower level is arrivals, the upper level is departures and your baggage is two miles away from where you got off the aircraft. The arrival lounge (I’m being large by calling it a lounge) is bereft of human warmth and comfort. The bar is at one end of a three hundred meter long bowling alley, the toilets are at the other. You can’t leave your luggage if you have to get from the bar to the toilets, so you have to drag it along with you. There is no bar on the upper level. On the way to and from the toilets you have to pass all the car rentals, which is actually OK, because you can hire a car to drive back to the bar where you left your beer half an hour ago. Having quenched your thirst and retrieved your luggage you step out into a concrete wind tunnel, where the heavily polluted air, caused by the exhaust from taxis and busses is exchanged for more heavily polluted air from all the taxis and busses every two minutes. You may smoke here. I decided to have a quick cigarette before going off to find the train connection to Brussels proper.
Down more stairs and following misleading signs that point you off into glass partitions and concrete walls, you have to constantly double back to find out which sign misled you. Finally, you are on the station platform. I bought a ticket to Brussels Grand Central. I got on the train. It was, to say it nicely, decrepit. Graffitti, torn seats and not too clean, foam rubber on a bench, covered by tattered upholstery. The ticket collector, who was dressed in a uniform reminiscent of something like a cross between the foreign legion and the gestapo, looked at my ticket and told me I was in the first class carriage and my ticket was for second. I looked around me and asked him if he thought I was sufficiently well armed enough to venture into second class if this was first? I moved. Second class was identical to first. I couldn’t see any difference. Perhaps there were more holes in the upholstery. I didn’t bother counting.
Twenty bone jarring minutes later I was in Grand Central. There is nothing grand about it. Concrete tunnels, cracked walls which are painted in a sickly pale yellow and bare concrete ceiling, escalators that didn’t work, cracked tiles and paving stones, neon lights hung on string, to which bare electrical wiring hung on strategically placed nails provide the power. It looked like something the Wehrmacht had abandoned only yesterday. Even Al-queda could do no more damage here. They could only improve the standard. But Ok, I was now in Brussels. Time to get out into the fresh air, forget my worries for the moment, have a cigarette and get my bearings. I thought my worst problems were over.
My hotel was in Drogenbos, Brussels South. Returning to the ticket office of Grand Central I bought my ticket and asked for directions. “It’s complicated. Take tram number 4 and ask the driver.” I was told. And was then sent off to a platform deep in the concrete bowels of Grand Central. I found tram number 4. You can’t speak to the driver of tram number 4, he is in a glass cabinet, probably for his own protection, incommunicado. Desperately, I sought local knowledge. A man told me not to worry. Get off at Gare du Midi, and ask there. I did. I found another member of the uniformed foreign legion/gestapo types and asked him. Take tram number 87 and go all the way to the end, he said. Finding the right platform was not easy and I waited for ages for tram number 87. It arrived, I got on and we shuddered off southward on the oldest tram Brussels has to offer. Half an hour later we were at the end of the line. I was the only one left on board. I got off and tram number 87 disappeared back up the track it came on. I was alone. So where was my hotel? Not here, wherever I was. It began to rain. No bus, no taxi and no, no bloody tram either. The streets were bare and I was about fed up. Looking around, I spotted a pub in the middle distance and made a bee-line for it. Find a pub and you will always find good christian people who will help you. The golden rule. And it never fails.
Reaching the pub, I walked into Belgian culture at its best. They do know how to make beer and consume it with a passion. Explaining my predicament to the bar-keep, he grinned. “You’re not the first”, he said, “I can get you a taxi, it will take about fifteen minutes.” Suits me fine, I said, and ordered the local brew. A big one. And hey, bonus here, you can smoke in Belgian pubs. The bar was nicely decorated with football paraphanelia and nicotine. I felt at home right away. After twenty minutes and two beers, my taxi arrived.
We drove off northward and it soon became clear that the taxi driver didn’t know where my hotel was. “Mozartlaan”, I told him. He took me somewhere else. Lost, he contacted his dispatcher on the VHF radio. Finally getting instructions we set off again. He drove past my hotel. I saw it and had to tell him to stop and turn round. A bit difficult as we were on the dual carriageway but he managed it anyway, simply by swinging round over the middle. Twice. Belgians are not reknowned for observing the rules of the road. He charged me ten euros but hell, I was finally at my hotel. The trip from landing at the airport to this place had taken me nearly four hours. Total distance? Probably not more than fiften kilometers as the crow flies. Never have I been so glad to see a hotel bar.
Who says Europe’s “going places”?
Not on public transport in Brussels.