A Sensory Exploration Of Europe With Thalys

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 vivid red Thalys train Image courtesy Thalys

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.

Bar, Brasseries 28

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.

The original art nouveau foyer of the Pathé Palace in Brussels

Koeln Surprise

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.

Wine tasting lessons at Les Caves du Louvre, Paris.

The historic Le Train Bleu in in the Gare du Lyon, Paris.

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.

Rotterdam Discovery

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.

Windmills in Kinderdijk, Rotterdam.

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.

Markthall: a residential cum office building with a market hall beneath.

Tapas at Ayla in Rotterdam.

And Amsterdam…..

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.

Amsterdam canal view.

I amsterdam City Card jusxtaposed against the Rijksmuseum.

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.



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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

45 thoughts on “A Sensory Exploration Of Europe With Thalys

  1. Nice! Sounds like an awesome experience! I love train journeys too so I thoroughly enjoyed the post. 🙂

  2. That is a fine-looking red train up top! Agreed on train travel; save time and do so in comfort. Save flying, taking trains is the best way to travel. Smooth rides and often quite reasonable prices too. Rocking post!

    1. Love the Thalys colour and logo myself. Many thanks for your lovely comment Ryan. And huge apologies for the belated response.

  3. The thing that astounded me when I first went to Europe was just how small it is with so many countries crowded into that space. My daughter lived in Brussels for a while as her husband worked with a multi national company and he was assigned there. So much to see there. One morning my daughter’s house help said she wanted a Starbucks coffee, so as it was a Sunday my son in law said “Why not!” We bundled into their eight seater and sped through Holland to Germany where the nearest one was. Pausing to check out the city afterward as my wife was looking for some German cakes like her mother used to make before they migrated to Australia 🙂 At the moment my sister in law is doing a cruise around the Greek islands and we are enjoying her pictures and comments each day.

    1. Ha great stories Ian! I agree about how small Europe feels. Holland felt especially small, like taking a wrong turn would land me in another country in minutes! 🙂 It is my dream to be able to spend a couple of years in Europe so I can explore much of the continent without having to deal with long flights. Seems most unlikely that will come true with prevailing attitudes across the globe.

      1. We live in a dangerous world now Madhu and there is no safe place home or abroad these days. However that should not stop us from following our goals. 🙂

  4. Madhu just reading this makes me dizzy! What a full on adventure, it’s amazing, I don’t know how you managed all the food and beer, I’m such a lightweight with both (although i still manage to be plump) I also love trains, but have yet to take a long distance continental journey, as you say time is a problem, Hope all’s well with you my dear 🙂

    1. Dizzying it was Gilly 🙂 Not quite sure how I managed those five food and booze filled days ! I am a light eater myself and find it most difficult to order when I travel alone.

      All well Gilly. It’s the daughter’s turn to travel and I’m on teen-sitting duty.

  5. What an absolutely astonishing few days, exhausting just to read. However you were obviously well-sustained – it sounds as if eating could well have used up all your time. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the train. And you were in the company of an Australian! Thanks for vicarious adventuring.

    1. Haha, it seemed like eating and drinking was all we did most days! And yes, that lovely Australian girl was a most charming companion.

    1. It sure is Niranjan. Imagine traversing 500 odd kilometres in about three hours! But long and slow train travel certainly has its own charm.

  6. Sounds like a week well spent, Madhu! I took Thalys too during my month-long trip to Europe 11 years ago. If I remember it right, I think my relatives and I took the distinctive red trains from Cologne to Brussels, and Brussels to Paris. I’ve been hearing good things from Rotterdam, and what you said about this city further affirms that this is a place one shouldn’t miss in the Netherlands.

    1. You certainly shouldn’t Bama. Rotterdam might not be the prettiest, but it was the most interesting of all the places I visited this summer, and that includes Malta. I hope mass tourism does not take it down the Amsterdam path. The capital city was crawling with tourists. More than any other popular destination I’ve been to.

  7. You score the best junkets! Trains and beer would be enough to attract me to take such a trip, and having all those fun destinations within reach would be the icing. What fun!

    1. Haha hardly Lex. India is a big market, but I refuse more ‘junkets’ than I accept. Not really my kind of thing. Mostly because I’d rather be using up the precious time at my disposal in meaningful travel. But like you, I found trains and beer an irresistible combination 🙂

  8. Trains are just a fun form of travel Madhu, right? I did leisurely rides through Vietnam twice. You have the comfort of not being 36000 feet above sea level without the hectic, crowded nature of buses. Plus you are more present, taking your time.

    1. Had never considered travelling by train in Vietnam. Now I’m intrigued. Many thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts Ryan. Have a great day!

  9. What an exciting, whirlwind trip! The beer, wine, and delicious food would be tempting enough, but thrown in the train rides and who could resist. I do believe I would need another week of walking tours to burn off some of the calories consumed. That is always the challenge for us when we travel, as the local food is so much a part of the total experience.

    1. It was indeed an irresistible combination LuAnn. And these being hi-speed trains that used up a fraction of our time, we ended up clocking tens of kilometres by foot during the rest of the day. That ensured I didn’t return with too much padding 🙂

  10. Can’t say I wasn’t jealous when I read this, Madhu – I only wish train journeys here in Southeast Asia were as fast and seamless! Hopping between three countries in the space of a day would be unimaginable in these parts. So many of these experiences like dining on a historical tram and all the food/wine/beer tastings sound right up my alley… not to mention the excursion to Kinderdijk which I have always wanted to see (I was obsessed with windmills as a kid)!

    1. I too wish South Asia had invested more in modernising train service. Look at China. I think there’s a Beijing to Shanghai hi-speed connection now. Ours are quite an adventure, although they can be termed romantic on certain stretches (when they are clean). Wangling tickets at short notice is the bigger challenge, especially during holidays.

      The Kinderdijk windmills were delightful. As was Rotterdam. Glad I got to experience both briefly. Netherlands – like Belgium last year- was never very high on my list 🙂

  11. Sorry, Madhu. Seeing this only today. Will respond

    On Sat, Jun 16, 2018 at 9:09 PM The Urge To Wander wrote:

    > Madhu posted: “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 fro” >

  12. Europe train journey’s are the best!! I truly miss living in that beautiful continent. Back in April 2005, I did a one month trip around Europe, with a Euro-pass (I think that’s what it was called); hopping in and out of trains. In June 03′, I visited Kinderdijk, on my 28th Birthday – a warm sunny day in the heart of summer (longest day of the year).
    This post brings back so many memories. I traveled in a Thalys too, at the end of my Eurotrip (Spring 05′), from Brussels to Paris.
    Am not a great fan of drinking, but I have a sweet tooth (& diabetes 😦 ), and the birramisu sounds yum!!!

    1. The Birramisu was yum 🙂 Glad this post stirred fond memories Nuwan. Appreciate your taking the time to read and share your thoughts. Have a great day!

  13. Trains are a very good option for Europe. When I worked in Paris and had client meetings in Brussels (A few multinationals had their European headquarters there) I’d take the early morning train at gare du Nord, arrive early at gare du Midi, have my meetings, great lunch and back in the same day.
    Have a nice week-end Madhu.

  14. I like trains too and buses. You get much more a feel of the country that way, plus meet some interesting locals.

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