Most travelogues begin at Day One, but since we wanted to start fresh, and took a flight on the previous night, this will start from Day Zero. On Day Zero, a Thursday evening, we drove from Milton Keynes to London Heathrow, to catch a Brussels Airlines late evening flight into Brussels. We left London at around half past eight, but as we were flying East (and Belgium is an hour ahead), it was already half-ten in Brussels when we landed.
Zaventem, as Brussels' international airport is called, is well connected to the city. In fact, there is a train station directly below the airport. Trains run at regular intervals from Zaventem to Brussels North, Central and South stations. We picked up a free city map, and took the escalators to the underground station. (BTW, an escalator takes you up. What do you call an automated step machine which takes you down?). There was an automated kiosk selling tickets, and also a normal counter. However, the counter was closed. Surprisingly enough, the kiosk selling tickets would not accept credit cards. And we had been stupid enough not to carry cash of lesser denominations than 10 Euros. Not that it would have mattered anyway, because only the coin-slots were working and not the note-slots.
Back in the airport, we learnt that the counter in the underground station closes at 21.50 (it was nearing 11 now) and that we could purchase the ticket on the train as well. So we sat on a cold bench in the dark underground station and ate parathas rolled in aluminium foils. The underground station seemed very primitive when compared to the London tube stations, but I noticed one thing special - the escalators had a step sensor at the boarding point, which would bring the elevator to rest if it did not detect a step for a reasonable amount of time. I'm sure given the number of commuters, the escalators in London would not rest even if they had the sensor, but still.
Presently, the train comes, and out comes a guard in a grey uniform and a funny cap. He issues the ticket, and goes back into his cabin. Somehow, he strikes me as a cartoon, and the train itself is like a toy train. We sit back, take photos and try tracing the route on the map, using the passing stations as a yardstick. And one station before Brussels North, we figure out from the map that our accommodation is closer to Brussels North than Brussels Central - even though the directions on the booking confirmation seemed otherwise. I go and ask the guard, and he says we are right. Fine, I say to the boys, we get off at Brussels North then. The conductor unfortunately did not understand a lot of English - so, unable to direct us to our hostel, he went to the driver, and asked him to translate the directions for us.
Those directions, though correct, did not stand us in good stead, because the area outside Brussels North Station is very shady - and I'm not talking about the trees. A few steps, and we found a pub offering "peep shows". There was no one around. And so ... we had no one to direct us to our hostel. (Ah, you dirty minds, I know what you thought ;) hah!!). The directions on the booking confirmation were descriptive enough, and we found ourselves slowly trudging along the streets of north Brussels at midnight. Presently, we came across the Sheraton, and the multi-lingual receptionist confirmed that we were on the right track, and to top it, he also gave me a more informative and localised map of the city.
The Vincent van Gogh hostel is one of the best in Belgium - what with a rating of 92% on hostelworld. It is quite near to the main tourist district - Belgium Central - and scores well on all other counts. The rooms had no keys - only access cards, and we got new bedsheets for the duration of our stay. They could not accommodate all six of us together, but we got a double room having two bunk beds, and one other room with two normal beds.
I know, it looks like the hospital in Dear Heart, but then, what do you expect when, after a day of travel, all you want is something warm and soft to tuck into?
The facilities were excellent too - there was a bar just beside the reception, which stocked the best of all Belgian beer, there was a pool table nearby, and the toilets were clean. Showers had hot water flowing, with automated stoppers to regulate the flow of water if you just forgot and walked away. The staff was quite helpful, and provided us with information and leaflets on what to see, and how to get around. And after a game of pool, and a discussion of how to spend the two days in Belgium, we hit the sack. Tomorrow, we take a guided tour to Ghent and Bruges. Till then, these pics ...