When I first lived in France (9 years ago!), waiting for a train to somewhere or other, I used to look up at the departures board in the stations in wonder, amazed at the fact that it was possible to travel across international borders by rail. Coming from the northern part of an island nation, going abroad for me almost automatically implied taking an aeroplane and the idea of speeding across Europe on a train seemed to belong to another era, one where the carriages had compartments and porters loaded one's trunk into the guard's wagon. And in an age when Ryanair and Easyjet have increasingly taken over the skies, international train travel has retained a mystique for me that flying never had.
It's even better if you can go first class, of course. And better still if your first class ticket is free.
This weekend, Understanding Frenchman and I decided to go and visit friends of his in Brussels. We were able to buy tickets with our railcard loyalty points and, as it happened, only first class seats were available. And first class on the Thalys is indeed first class. Uniformed staff welcome you on board. Every seat has free WiFi and a power socket. If you travel at dinner time, you get a meal brought to your seat, along with drinks and a small bar of Belgian chocolate. And so we arrived in Brussels in good spirits and good style.
Every time I'd ever been to Belgium before, it rained. This time, though, the skies were blue and the temperatures bitingly cold. We had lunch in town, then went to see an exhibition of watercolours of the city. There was a Christmas light show on the Grande Place which we caught some of, then we attempted to brave the Christmas market but it was to cold and too crowded, so we decided to go home, stopping off for Nutella waffles on the way. (Belgium is definitely a country it would be easy to get fat in.)
I liked Brussels more this time round than I have before, partly because of the weather, but also because it's a great place to visit at Christmas time. The Belgians have already celebrated Saint Nicholas' Day and there are beautiful decorations everywhere (far more than in Paris, which seems to think itself largely above such friviolities). Definitely worth the trip, and not only if you can go for free!