Europe 2013: Brussels, Belguim

Over the Easter bank-holiday weekend I went to Belgium for 4 days with a friend from university.

Leaving Watford at far too early an hour we met at Kings Cross St Pancras and took the Eurostar to Brussels, famous for a statue of a boy urinating in public, waffles and the European parliament.

Brussels Metro

We took the Metro to get from the Eurostar terminus towards the Grand-Place, the main tourist square in the city centre.  Brussels has a quite comprehensive public transport system consisting of metro lines, trams (which sometimes run underground in the city centre) and buses.

The Oyster-style MoBIB card provided as part of our Brussels Card city pass enables touch in access to the network and we made use of all three mode of transport to get around the city – which was relatively smooth except for one delay for which we were able to use an alternate route.

A few mildly interesting observations and differences between the Brussels Metro and the London Underground.

Firstly ticketing. Like many stations in Europe paper tickets don’t aren’t actually inserted into the barrier gates as in the United Kingdom, but are instead stuck up into a scanning device just before the gate. Another difference from the Tube is that most stations in Brussels had agate line on each approach to a platform rather than at station entrances. Finally you don’t always have to scan your ticket to get out of the network – some barriers simply open to let you through as you approach (walk quickly and hope they do!).

At Heysel/Heizel the northernmost terminus on the network STIB, the Brussels equivalent of TfL, had seemingly neglected to consider that some people exiting the station might not be using the contactless MoBIB smartcard. Rather bizarrely all 6 paper ticket readers were placed on the outside of the gateline, great for those entering the network but utterly useless for those looking to exit. Thankfully the airlock style wider disabled access gate accepts paper tickets.

The network is extremely minimally staffed compared to the London Underground (where all underground stations are staffed and many central London stations have platform dispatchers at peak times). At most Brussells underground stations there did not appear to be any staff in the station at all.

Once nice feature missing from the UK is that most platforms had light up indicators representing the location of all trains on the line as they move through the system. Great for seeing how far away your next train is instead of the standard “2 minutes” or “just behind” back home.

Anomalily (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Anomalily (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Unlike the narrow tunnel-bored tube platforms in the UK the entire Brussels network seemed to of be cut-and-cover construction with stations placed in large, wide square boxes enabling them to have wide platforms on both sides and in some cases even a third central Island platform. Yes, this is a Metro system that makes ample use of two-sided door opening at interchange stations – the likes of which I am only aware of in the UK at Stratford platform 3/3a.

William Murphy (CC BY-SA 2.0)
William Murphy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The trains themselves were a mixture. Some of the older tube trains still have manually opening doors (although they automatically close prior to departure!). And many trams have high-floors requiring you to climb up several steps to enter – not at all disabled friendly!

Mannequin Pis

A strange tourist attraction. A sign reminds visitors that they are on CCTV…

We had a Croque-monsieur in a nearby cafe (mmmm) and I was quite impressed to find that my French was actually better than the waiters English, well at least when it came to ordering pineapple juice. His fault for wanting to take my order in English.

Waffles

Most of the narrow side streets have narrow waffle shops –  €1 Euro Waffles proclaim large banners hanging above them.  The seemingly never ending stream of tourists, queue up to sample the warm sweet crispy delights with most paying considerably more than the advertised price for waffles topped with cream, fruit and chocolate.  Good business model. Nice, but a bit too sweet I think and hard to eat with the flimsy plastic forks provided.

Waffles Belgium
Waffles. Not €1.

Mini Europe

Belgium is the heart of Europe, perhaps not geographically any more as expansion crosses the iron curtain but certainly in political terms. The Belgians are big fans and at about the time that the Berlin wall came down they opened Mini Europe a kind of European model village showing off a few buildings from each of the member states. It’s had to be expanded a few times…

The weather went we went wasn’t brilliant and there were quite a few Belgian school children there but still a good way to spend a couple of hours. Some of the exhibits are interactive such as the Mount Vesuvius which releases steam and shakes the ground as it erupts. I have to say the Channel Tunnel was a bit of a disappointment though!

The Channel Tunnel.  Apparently.
The Channel Tunnel. Apparently.

Delirium

A large and busy multi-story bar with over 2,000 different beers on sale. Hidden down an alleyway.

Mondays

After a trip to Bruges, we returned to Brussels for a final day and a half.

A lot of things are closed on Mondays. Especially bank holiday Mondays (our last day in Brussels). Armed with a print out of what was open and what wasn’t on the Sunday and Monday, provided by the man in the tourist booth inside the main city station, we headed back to visit what we could.

Coudenberg

The Coundeberg is the former palace of Brussels. Some of the remains can still be seen in an underground archaeological site.

Motor Museum

A museum of old cars. Quite interesting.

European Parliament

Part of our €11,000,000,000 contribution to the EU budget has gone into providing free entrance to the European Parliament visitor centre in Brussels a couple of hundred metres away from the main parliament building. It’s well worth a visit.

As you enter through airport style security gates you are handed an audio-video tour accompnyment (an ipod wrapped in a protective casing). Walking through the exhibition you can scan various signs around the centre to launch new sections of the audio tour and use the iPod screen to control exactly what you want to listen to. Signs in all 23 official languages on the EU would be a tad excessive I think you’ll agree!

First there is an introduction outlining what the EU is and explaining the presence of its various buildings across Europe, then comes a long section on the history of Europe and the European Union including its enlargement over the years and other events that have taken place in various member states and around the world during that time. This is followed by more interactive sections where you can learn more about each member state, see all the MEPs and how unrepresentative they are of the EU (66% are male and only 1% are aged under 30), and sit in a pretend European Parliament surrounded by 360 degrees of video.

Pretending to sit in the European Parliament
Pretending to sit in the European Parliament

Just before the exit of the visitor centre there are a series of television screens where MEPs from different European countries and of different political persuasions have been asked to talk about one item which they feels represents the European Union. Nigel Farrage is one them, he doesn’t mince his words.

There was a sad looking café and gift shop as we left – not really a fitting celebration of European cuisine! The European Parliament Visitor Centre is not really interesting enough small children (although there is a children’s audio tour) but is worth doing.

Natural Sciences Museum

The equivalent of the Natural History Museum, except you’d have to pay to enter (free Entry on the Brussels Card). They do have signs in English (& French, German and Dutch) once you get into the proper exhibition, don’t let the lack of them in the geology-heavy lobby scare you off.

Free entry to most of the museum on the Brussels card although some exhibitions are extra. We only managed to see around half of the free exhibits though before we had to head off to our next stop. You’d need a good half day or longer to go around properly. Great food in the café! Don’t think they served dinosaur burgers.

Europe 2012: Prague, Czech Republic

Czech Republic Flag
Czech Republic

We travelled to the Czech Republic from Berlin in a box train, it was very square. The train had started elsewhere and consequently remained about half full as the crowded platform boarded.

The train set off with the aisle full of freshly boarded passengers slowly making their way down the carriage looking for an available seat. Jon managed to grab a pair of seats facing each other for him and I whilst Catherine sat on the other side of the aisle. Once sat down we identified that some seats had reservation cards above them for various points of the journey from its start point up until termination Budapest. Purely by luck we had secured a couple of seats unreserved for the entirety of our journey. Catherine however was not so fortunate so had to move to a free seat in the adjacent carriage.

When, a few minutes later, we made a brief stop at a secondary Berlin station to allow a handful more passengers to embark the aisles were still full of people trying to find their rightful or any free seat, and their massive suitcases trailing behind them were generally causing chaos. Eventually things settled down when passengers made their way down to subsequent carriages.

If we were lacking hills in Holland and Germany before we had them now as we entered the Czech Republic, the train’s climbing causing a woman in stupid sized heels to fall on someone she was walking past much to the disgust of the German couple we were sitting next to. The train got hot and later rather chilly as air(con?) blew up the side of the carriage.

The German couple were replaced in Dresden by a much younger couple who were reading 99 sex tips from a booklet included with Cosmopolitan or another of the magazines in their stash. From the number of kisses in which they partook they were probably going to try out a good number that night.

The Americans on board were, as usual, loud and discussed health insurance before their confusion turned to at which Prague station they should alight. The small communist one surrounded by crumbling concrete tower blocks wasn’t it they eventually decided which was plainly obvious had they read the trains itinerary and seen the number of available connections.

I had only identified the previous night, on a hunch, that the Czech Republic might not actually use the Euro (I was not involved in any of the trip’s planning!). Good move, they didn’t, something the trip planners had simply assumes. The Czechs use Koruna, about 33 to the pound or 25 for a Euro.

At Prague station we changed some Euro having ignored a man attempting to screw us over either by stealing our money, passing us fake notes or otherwise offering us an exceptionally bad exchange rate. That he did this directly next to a large A-frame sign alerting tourists in various languages to avoid such exchanges was rather amusing. We ignored him as he quoted a one point something rate which we didn’t understand in the slightest and he left convinced we were French to prey on the next train load of arriving tourists.

We identified the metro station nearest to our hotel using a combination of a poorly scaled Google Maps print out, a guidebook and map of the Prague Metro, before going on a quick recce around the main station. Purchasing a 24 K metro ticket from a lady in a kiosk entitled us to half an hours travel in the central zones, more than enough for the 4 stops we needed. We validated our tickets (having seen other people do this) and set off.

Panorama Hotel Prague
Panorama Hotel Prague

The hotel had a signposted exit from the metro station but after that it was not immediately apparent where the hotel was until we saw a 25-story high beige tower block emblazoned with the name of the hotel. Lack of signposts and construction in the area meant we ended up walking in through the car-park but the hotel was most definitely built.

It was quite grand compared to our previous accommodation and significantly bigger – our room was on the 16th floor with a view towards the center of the city. We only had a single double bed, although it was massive but a quick call to the front desk saw a maid arrive with a fold out bed.

Unpronounceable Czech Beer
Jon drinking an unpronounceable Czech Beer

After looking at the hotel menu we decided to suss-out a smallish looking shopping centre directly behind the hotel which we could see from our room to see what the other options were.

The modern centre was pretty decent, spread across 3 floors with a food court at one end. The clothes stores were deserted but the food places busy. The ubiquitous McDonald’s and KFC were there as was a sushi place, Lebanese restaurant, fish bar and Italian restaurant. We spent the next couple of hours struggling to eat the massive pasta dishes we had ordered in German from the Czech waiter.

We also tried some unpronounceable but very drinkable Czech beer before leaving the shopping centre shortly before its 9:30pm closing time (Harlequin take note!) to take advantage of the free mini bar we had for some reason been given.

The hotel offered a rather grand buffet breakfast which offered a strange mix of items from around the world.

Sausage, Bacon, fried potato, egg, bread, cheese, ham, fruit salad, yogurt, cereal, croissants, a variety of pastries, cakes, pasta and salad with dressing. (no photos of this I’m afraid)

Washed down with an array of drinks from a massive tea/coffee/hot chocolate machine and Orange juice from a dispenser which automatically refilled itself from the fridge.

In the narrow roads around and the plaza in front of the astronomical clock among the thronging crowds of tourists were a large number of people offering free tours of the area. Between them these “Umbrella tour people” as I dubbed them worked in several different languages guiding visitors along some of the nearby roads and explaining the history of the relevant buildings. They almost all had a brightly coloured folded umbrella with them. Perhaps it rains a lot in Prague!? Anyway they would point these umbrellas up skywards as they walked presumably so that their group of tourists wouldn’t lose them through the crowds. I was quite surprised at the number of people offering such tours – all of which were free with the guides having badges/signs saying that they work for tips only (I guess tourists tip generously). I’d be surprised multiple tour guides with the same coloured umbrellas didn’t go around accusing others of stealing their group of tourists! Jon added it would be tempting to walk around the area with your own bright umbrella held up to see how long it took for a crowd of confused foreigners to start following.

We crossed the Charles Bridge, which was rather spoiled by the large number of stalls attempting to sell various high-end tat to tourists, aiming for the Castle. The bridge contained more than 20 statues of saints – and one was obviously missing (did he jump!?).

Looking towards Prague Castle
Looking towards Prague Castle

As we headed up towards Prague Castle the bikes gave way to Segways. After having made the long and steep ascent I think the Segway riders had the right idea! We explored the free bits of the Castle and the Cathedral which is contained within one of its courtyards. Afterwards we walked through the rather small gardens and stopped for photos near a café where we eavesdropped on a nearby American tour guide who explained that because the castle took so long to build, favoured architecture styles of the time had changed, hence one tower was built in a different style to the others. Makes sense.

Prague Castle Towers
One of these towers is not like the others
Looking down on Prague from the Castle gardens
Looking down on Prague from the Castle gardens

Back down on the sloping streets of Prague city centre we must have passed the embassies of at least 25 different countries – easily identifiable by the flags flying outside. Some were rather grander than others and some seemed to share their building with other nations. Even Kosovo had a presence, and they aren’t even an officially recognised country! I took us away from the busy main street down some side roads aiming for the river. On the way we stumbled upon the John Lennon wall (just a load of Graffiti) and a bridge of luuurve, or something like that – full of padlocks.

John Lennon Wall Prague
John Lennon Wall Prague
Padlock Bridge Prague
The most secure bridge

There was a Lego Museum and, yes, a Tesco.

Behind a signpost, but definitely a Tesco.
Behind a signpost, but definitely a Tesco

Bit of a mix up at the hotel on the second morning with regards to our breakfast.  Hotel staff were convinced we didn’t have it included in our room rate – we did – and it took a little while to get this sorted.   Still there was plenty left but I avoided the pasta!

Before we headed on to our next stop, Mestre in Italy we stopped by the Interspa supermarket in the shopping centre behind the hotel. Their collection of bread based products was superb with Danish pastries and bread rolls in different shapes covered in various seeds and cheeses. They also had a cheese which contained bacon and the largest range of energy drinks I have ever seen.

A Comparison of Orange Juice Serving methodologies in European Hotels and Guesthouses

Orange JuiceOrange juice is a staple of many a hotel breakfast. Because of its ubiquitous nature a wide variety of serving methods are currently used to serve this vitamin-C rich fruit extract. This article examines 5 solutions observed in practice in European cities.

Single glass of Orange juice for each guest placed on their table ahead of their arrival.
Pros: No equipment needed
Cons: What if another guest steals your drink before you get up, most self respecting travelers will require more than one glass of juice to start the day.
Verdict:  Cheap to provide but underwhelming.
As experienced in:  Amsterdam

Closed top jug, self service from buffet table.
Pros: Simple equipment, able to have as much or little juice as you desire.  You can’t drop toast in the jug.
Cons: Jug size meant regular refilling of the jug was required.
Verdict:  Best for small guesthouses.
As experienced in: Berlin

Self-service urn-style dispenser automatically refilled from large refrigerated tank.
Pros: Juice didn’t run dry at any point or need attention from staff other than a brief glance when the wandered past.
Cons: High set up cost.
Verdict:  Minimal demands on staff time during the busy breakfast period and rapid drink pouring rate.  High throughput coupled with larger installation costs means this is the best system for large high occupancy hotels.
As experienced in: Prague

Standard urn of orange juice.
Pros:  Ability for guests to serve themselves as much as they like at a good speed.
Cons: Lack of chilling means juice is likely to warm as it sits waiting to be released from urn.
Verdict:  A real low-tech solution to the age-old How best to serve Orange Juice at a hotel breakfast problem it works well so long as the urn is of sufficient size.
As experienced in: Vienna

Push button vending machine combining Orange juice concentrate and water.
A button press results in juice being diluted and dropping from a nozzle into a glass the guest has hopefully positioned correctly.
Pros: concentrate means refilling does not require the manual transportation of vast amounts of heavy liquid.  Customers can (in practice) obtain sufficient juice for their vitamin-C rich hydration need.
Cons:  

  • When concentrate runs low juice is dispensed in an increasingly diluted state through drinks with the constituency of orange squash to water.
  • Each press of the machine releases a programmed amount of liquid which is unlikely to sufficiently fill the provided glass.
  • A delay means it is not possible to activate pouring multiple times in rapid succession, prolonged the serve time per customer.
  • Splash.  The liquid falls a fair way between the machine and base of the placed glass.
  • In practice hotel staff were slow to identify Orange squash syndrome and replacing the concentrate seemed to require a needlessly complicated procedure, including flushing out remaining water in the system between concentrate hopper and nozzle

Verdict: Poor guest experience, demands staff time, though savings on buying concentrate.
As seen in: Mestre

So, if you’re looking to set up a hotel or guest-house, you now have something to work off…

Photo: oranges & juice 5 by helter-skelter (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Europe 2012: Amsterdam, Holland

Amsterdam

A city of canals, bridges, crazy paving, fixed gear bikes, weed and hookers.

Everything is made of brick.  Almost every single inch of the city is paved with rectangular bricks of various size.  There aren’t many parks and barely any tarmac.  Buildings leaning at scary angles and surfaces paved with hexagonal bricks are as exciting as it gets.

Bricks in Amsterdam Road

Leading brick building in Amsterdam

The bike is king.  They are everywhere, most with high wide handle bars and without gears or brakes.  Kids sit in wheel-barrow type contraptions affixed to the front of bikes and dogs/shopping in a crate on the back.  Some of the bikes are nicely decorated with flowers.

There are lots of canals.  They run in a series of semi-circular rings around the city centre with some narrower perpendicular connections.  Consequently there are a lot of bridges over which bikes, pedestrians, trams and cars must compete to cross.

The pavements are too narrow. We weren’t even there at the weekend which I imagine is busier.  Grade separated cars, bikes and pedestrians – pah!  In practice at least.  Along the canals pavements are mostly on a single side only – right in front of the houses, separated from a road in most places wide enough for a single lane of traffic only.  Not that there is much traffic aside from cycles and scooters on these lanes.  Sounds ideal until you actually try to walk on the pavements, avoiding steps down to doors below street level, bikes which seemingly can be parked pretty much anywhere and bags of rubbish.

There aren’t many cars which is good and those that are on the streets must wait for trams to get out their way.  Trams ring a bell to alert cyclists and pedestrians that they are about to mow them down.  When you cross the road at a pedestrian crossing the button emits a sounds which suggests you are getting mowed down by a machine gun.

Most buildings were 5 or 6 stories tall, very little rose higher than this which is rather unusual for a European capital city.

And yes the smell of weed emerges from coffee shops and spills out on to the street and the Red light district is as cringe-worthy as you predict.

Getting there: Very simple.  We flew out to Schiphol and took the 197 bus into Amsterdam, cost €4 and took about half an hour.

Where we stayed: Hotel Kooyk (1 star guest house). Old building by a canal with sloping floors downstairs, rather chaotic check-in process but all went well. It wasn’t very busy when we went, the shared bathroom facilities on our floor were always free. During the night the Amsterdam Schiphol airport flight paths must have changed since loud planes were coming in/taking off every couple of minutes in the morning but not during the previous evening/night.

Free open WiFi was surprisingly hard to find around the city.  Our budget hotel was looking to charge 10 Euros a day for access!

Breakfast: 3 choices of bread, butter, jam, cheese slices, 3 ham/salami, very nice coffee, hard boiled egg, help yourself, single small glass of orange juice.  My friends incredibly were nowhere near as hungry as me.

Getting around: The center is fairly compact and perfectly walkable.

Onward Journey (ease of using Interrail):
On our onward journey (to Berlin) reservations weren’t necessary, no additional fees to pay we just turned up and traveled (after checking in the station information kiosk moments before).  There were several other English speaking inter-railers in our carriage on the way to Berlin.

Double Decker Train in Amsterdam
Double-Decker Train

The first stage of our journey was provided by a double-decker train, like so many others serving Amsterdam Centraal.  Since we don’t have these in the UK we of course headed straight upstairs even though we were only going a couple of stops. Spacious, clean, comfy and about a quarter full we took seats around a central table.  An LCD screen at the end of the carriage switched between displaying journey information and a live stream of the Olympics.

A free Dutch newspaper even enabled us to see that team GB had bagged 2 more gold medals since we had left home early the previous day!

Europe 2012: Interrailing

I have recently returned from 11 days interrailing in Europe with 3 friends from school.

Photos on Facebook if you’re my friend, but I will be blogging about the cities we visited here over the coming weeks.

We visited:

  • Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Berlin, Germany
  • Prague, Czech Republic
  • Vienna, Austria
  • Venice, Italy

So if you care, you can look forward to reviews of hotel breakfasts and trains…