I love train journeys. Love that they are less harried, more connected. That I get to engage more intimately with the landscapes and communities through which I travel instead of hurtling through space in a cramped metal tube. That I can travel to and from city centres without the need for long transfers. And I love it for its lesser impact on the environment.
Time, being the precious commodity it is these days, is the main constraint to slow train travel. And that’s where high speed train companies like Thalys come in. The Brussels based company is the only truly multicultural train service to provide high speed links between four cities across four countries: Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Dortmund.
An invitation to experience firsthand the possibilities these hi-speed trains open up to travellers short on time, is too interesting to pass up. So I decide to join a group of Thalys-Explorers on a five day jaunt across Europe late last month.
We start in Brussels and country hop thereafter on these vivid red beauties with absolute ease. The maximum journey time between the farthest points never exceeds 3.20 hrs. There are well appointed lounges to wait and freshen up in near every station, great food on board, free wifi and electrical sockets at every seat so work can continue uninterrupted.
But more about Thalys trains in a later post. This is about the cities that make up the Thalys network and a sampling of the experiences they offer beyond the big ticket sights.
The Brussels Beginning
The Tram Experience is the first of a sequence of well curated experiences that sets us off on a cultural exploration of Thalys-Destinations through each of our senses.
The unique dining concept has a series of reputed Belgian chefs putting together seasonal menus that are served on a moving (refurbished) historical tram.
Taste wins over sight here. Think white asparagus, Ozen quail egg, dried Bonito, grey north sea shrimp mousse. Or how about courgette flowers stuffed with king crab, green pea mousse, white sesame emulsion? And that’s just for starters. You can’t possibly blame us for forgetting to look out the window.
We are in Belgium, so a beer tasting is de rigueur. But who knew we were going to be attending a workshop on beer brewing! And did any of you know that certain beers ‘bloom’ like wine when served in specific stemware? Me neither.
The food pairing at the atmospheric venue – Brasserie 28 – is surprisingly well crafted all the way to a delicious ‘birramisu’ paired with a dark stout with chocolatey notes. The husband is going to be put to the taste test when BrewSpot ships the beer we brewed (from scratch) to our respective addresses at the end of the fermentation process.
We walk straight from that boozy lunch to dinner! Brussels Chatterguides take us to some hidden gems along the way. The highlights are a beautifully restored old meat market, the Halles St-Géry, that now functions as a club and exhibition hall, and the original art nouveau foyer of the Pathé Palace, the oldest (1913) cinema in Brussels that re-opened earlier this year. I am surprised I hadn’t heard of the cinema even though I did considerable research on Brussels’ art nouveau gems last summer.
There is a beer (no kidding!) break at A la Becasse, a traditional alleyway beer cafe founded in 1877 and still owned by the original family. The wood panelled ‘cafe’ oozes character. The lambic beer served in ceramic jugs is tasty and the traditional snacks of cheese and sausages manage to keep us sober until dinner at the White Rose on the Grand Place. Waffles and coffee at Mokafe in the gorgeous covered arcade – Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert – nicely wrap up the sensory overload.
Day three is reserved for an epic cross country race. A reference to the iconic Audrey Hepburn movie: “If it’s Tuesday, It must be Belgium” in a caption for one of my first social media posts went completely over the heads of my young companions. And even younger organisers. Talk of a generation gap! This day, however, is more like ‘Breakfast in Brussels, Lunch in Cologne and Dinner in Paris.’ Surely a screenplay in the making. I regret the beer binge of the day before as I fumble in the dark to shut off my alarm.
Our six strong blogger group is divided into three teams and despatched on a scavenger hunt to three different cities, each team accompanied by a Thalys ‘guide’. It is all very hi-tech with clues to locations around the allotted city – Cologne in my case – downloaded to an app that locks the location as soon as participants reach it. My partner Emma Jane and I start out well but are sadly forced to abort our hunt due to lack of time. We have a train to catch.
While we wish for more time to savour Cologne, we are both glad to have been able to feast our eyes upon the gothic splendour of that magnificent cathedral even if for a very brief while. Besides, we are the only two of the group to tally four countries in five days! Some record eh?
Flavours of Paris
Incredibly, all three teams make it to Paris in time for a shower and a feast in the splendid environs of the historic Le Train Bleu in – quite fittingly – the Gare du Lyon.
If you are thinking Paris = Wine, you are not wrong. After an oh-so-French lunch at La Reminet on day four (I sleep in all morning in my sensuous fuchsia pink, burlesque inspired room at La Villa Royale), we are treated to the nuances of fragrance and flavours in wine in a very special session at Les Caves du Louvre.
We have a few hours to hit our favourite Paris spots in which I wander along the Seine towards the Marais, pop into my favourite gelato cafe, Pozzetto, (for the best pistachio ice cream in the world…really!) and to a patisserie for a box of macarons for my teammates before I hoof it back to the Thalys lounge near Gare du Nord to freshen up in comfort for yet another train ride. This time to Rotterdam. With a first class meal awaiting us on board.
We check into the funky, hybrid Student Hotel that night. I am certain the average age of guests spiked sharply north when I checked in. We discover next morning that its fun, friendly vibe reflects that of the lovely city.
Rotterdam, possibly because we know little about it before hand, is the unexpected highlight of the trip. And the verdict is unanimous.
Rotterdam Tourism has planned a leisurely excursion to Kinderdijk by ferry for us. Drippy weather and overcast skies make the windmills appear even more romantic. We get an understanding of the use of the ‘Molens’ in maintaining water levels in a country predominantly below sea level. And we learn a bit about the lives of the people who lived in and operated them at the oldest mill on the site. This is also my first time seeing someone actually wearing wooden clogs. “It takes a few weeks for your feet to adjust”. I bet.
Lunch is at the bustling Fenix Food Factory, a hip artisanal food hub in a converted warehouse. It is followed by a fun blind tasting in the terrace outside. I get the bitterballen right, but fail the lavender flavoured cheese and rhubarb-cider test miserably.
We explore a few of the city’s stunning modern architecture in the afternoon. The incredible yellow Cube Houses and the walk-through Markthall: a residential cum office building with a market hall beneath. We all agree Rotterdam merits two full days in the least. Preferably more.
The al-fresco tapas dinner at Ayla that warm summer evening is the prefect farewell meal. The cocktails are inspired. The shared platters deliciously reminiscent of Spanish pintxo bars. The company convivial. There are toasts and speeches and fond farewells.
We, the four remaining bloggers, get a taste of Amsterdam next morning via a slow cruise along its beautiful canals followed by a superb lunch at the Lobby Amsterdam. My complimentary iamsterdam city card proves to be a boon in navigating the city with the free access it affords to most museums as well as unlimited travel across transport systems within city limits. I find it most useful to get away from the crowded centre to the more local neighbourhoods.
I hop on another train to off-the-beaten-track Deventer that afternoon for some much needed downtime. Then I return for four fabulous days of immersion into the many delights of this amazing capital city.
Thank you Thalys for the smorgasbord of fun experiences and for demonstrating how easy it is to hop countries in the time it takes to commute to work back home. Can’t wait to do a repeat…albeit at my own pace.
Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by Thalys.