Visiting our friend Phil had been a plan for quite some time, but this weekend, we finally got our butts to Germany to do so. Flights were eye-wateringly expensive and so we decided to take the Eurostar.
The plan : Eurostar from St Pancras International to Düsseldorf with changes in Brussels Midi and Cologne.
Journey time : Five hours
Cost : £100 each
St Pancras International, London
After all the drama of getting to St Pancras I took a moment to enjoy the station. (drama? Read about it here). St Pancras was redesigned and reopened in 2007 while we were at university, At this time, Eurostar moved its services from Waterloo station. As part of the redevelopment, a new area had been provided just for these international trains.
St Pancras itself is full of marvellous surprises. It holds a couple of fantastic statues. My favourite, a giant couple, straight out of the 1940s, who have just found each other on a train platform. It is commonly know as “The Lovers” and one Valentine’s Day, Karl and I were snapped in the same pose, just in front, for a local paper. We got a red rose and free champagne for our trouble!
Another little gem stands at the top of the stairs near the Eurostar arrivals exit. John Betjamen, a poet and campaigner, saved the station in the 1960s (if only he had done the same for Euston!) The statue of him and his writing, created by Martin Jennings, brings smiles to people dashing past to make their trains. He gazes in awe at the stations size, as he used to in life.
THE EUROSTAR – London to Brussels
We booked over the phone with Eurostar, and the courteous staff member was brilliant. I know it’s a little old school to use the phone but I booked it through my work, and so had to. There is a booking office at St Pancras, and the staff are very friendly, helpful and bilingual (at least).
We booked the second leg through DB’s website. It was very easy to use and it gives you the option reserve a seat and to select the kind of seat you would like. We chose a table seat in a compartment.
Our train was due to leave at 15:07 and when we arrived at the ticket gates at 14:18, there was no queue. We scanned the tickets that we had printed at home. I had also downloaded the Eurostar app and so I had our boarding passes sitting in my apple wallet too, just in case. As I think I’ve proved, I can be a little on the forgetful side. There were lots of staff around to help, and I’m sure they are all required when it gets busy.
We were ushered over to a free security line. On the Eurostar, you keep your luggage with you and so you put it all through the machine yourself. This was easy enough with small backpacks but it must be hard work if you have a large, heavy suitcase.
It turned out we were in the Business Premier line and that’s why it was so quiet. Our passports were checked twice in quick succession. Once to exit the United Kingdom and then again to enter France and the European Union’s open borders. From now on, despite crossing France, Belgium and Germany, our passports could stay securely tucked away. Both the immigration agents were heartbreakingly sullen and silent but when you are off on holiday, it takes a lot more than that to dampen your spirits.
The Waiting Room
We took a seat in the regular waiting area below the platforms, unfortunately the Business Premier security didn’t lead straight into the lounge. It is very dull. There is a small WHSmiths, an overpriced cafe and not a lot else. When it is busy, my advce is grab a seat quickly. People sit with all their luggage and so they take up many more seats than their bums require.
I popped to the bathroom, all in the interest of research I assure you. It was all metal and a bit like the toilets at the seaside in the early 1990s, which was a bit poor in my opinion. The hand dryers were very old fashioned, lots of noise but hardly effective at actually drying your hands.
At around 14:45, the announcement was made that the train was ready for boarding at platform 10, and so we ascended to the platform level on the travelators. There are also lifts if you have baby buggies, large luggage or access needs.
We had booked to travel in Standard Premier and so our coach was one of the central ones, closest to where you emerge. The Standard coaches are located at each end and so you have a little further to walk.
Each carriage was labelled but honestly, I struggled to see the sign. Lucky that I have a fully sighted husband in tow!
We took our seats and resigned ourselves to a world of brown. The seat covers were brown, the lamps very yellow and the carpets brown. I think the newer trains are a bit more modern, and have a nicer colour scheme. Each seat has a power point and when you are on the website or app choosing your seats, be sure to take note of whether they are European or British; they alternate by table. We had French plugs, but as we had European adaptors with us, it didn’t matter.
I looked out the window and tried to get a few snaps, but the thick double glass made it exceedingly difficult and I just got a lot of reflections of my phone. I almost managed a nice British countryside shot. When you are in the tunnel, it becomes a full on mirror.
At Seat Service
In Standard Premier class, you are served a light meal approximately half an hour into the journey. I have previously been in this class at breakfast time and I can report that the pastries were crisp but a little cold for my taste.
Today it was a cold light lunch and we were offered the choice of a corn cake (a new menu item for spring) and a herb chicken. I plumped for the chicken and Karl had the corn.
The chicken was surprisingly flavourful but the lettuce was a bit droopy. I loved the little bulgar wheat salad on the side, very fresh but also satisfyingly salty. I order a rose wine with my meal and it wasn’t quite cold enough, in fact the cutlery was considerably chillier. Maybe red wine is the way to go here.
Karl’s corn cake tasted a bit like a corn frittata, I thought it was delicious. It came with a beetroot salad and a little bit of sweet chutney. He wasn’t convinced by the flavour combinations but I reckon the corn cake made up for it.
Dessert was a delightful apricot cake sandwich. It really looked like a little afternoon tea crustless sandwich and so Karl was surprised when icing sugar puffed off all over his jumper. It was a very moist and tasty little cake, I could have eaten several more. Happily, I got a little chocolate biscuit…Karl didn’t. I don’t know if this was an oversight or if his meal choice left him chocolateless. Tea and coffee completed the meal service (but not before a presumed regular traveller was offered another drink of wine, was this favouritism or had he necked it!!)
The bathroom on the train wasn’t too shoddy. It’s quite spacious so you could do a quick change of clothes in there if you needed to. They have decorated it quite nicely, there’s lots of room and the water, soap and hand dryer all work well. What more can you ask? Mind you, it was surprisingly draughty on the loo!
Brussels – Midi, Belgium
The train waited outside Brussels and people began to look a little twitchy. They made an announcement to let the train know that our connection was going to wait for us, and it was over on platform five.
Disembarking, we walked towards the connections stairs in the centre of the platform which are currently shut. This meant we had to go the long way around. The whole thing was a bit confusing and quite stressful with a tight connection.
We walked to the top of our platform and then round to the left and down to the lower floor on an escalator. Turning left at the bottom we seemed to be in a shopping complex. We walked for another minute and then turned right into the station concourse.
In much of Europe, the platforms are up on the first floor, above a wide open area full of shops and food vendors. This means there are many people dawdling about and wasting time before their trains. Signage wasn’t the best and we went the wrong way a couple of times because signs seemed to point in a certain direction and then disappear. I only took one photo of this last bit because we were a little on the frantic side.
THE ICE – Brussels to Cologne
We made the connection but we were very wound up and snapping at each other; not a nice way to travel. Happily, Karl peeked up quickly when he saw that we had seats in a compartment that seated six people and had a nice large table. I had paid €4 each to reserve the kind of seats we wanted. On the website, when you are booking, you can preference a table on the open carriage or in a compartment, window or aisle. For working, it was nice and quiet and it did bring a nice old fashioned air to the train ride. I also think it would be good to book if you are a family of six. It means small children can cause havoc in a contained space. The seats themselves were leather and reclined just enough to give the back a nice rest. I wouldn’t say it was enough to sleep well though.
Second Class Service
This was second class, we couldn’t quite stretch to first, and so there was no at seat service. In first you have a lovely little lamp on your table, and there is a trolley service but the food and drink do cost. There were no power outlets in the compartment so make sure your devices are powered up beforehand. Their website does say there are power sockets but they must have been in different seats. There appeared to be a wifi network, and despite our phones showing that we were connected, it didn’t seem to work.
Bye Bye Brussels
Brussels slid by and we tried (and mostly failed) to get a few pictures as we left the city. Speeding through Belgium and into Germany, the sun began to set and photo time was over.
This leg of the journey went incredibly quickly. So quickly that we didn’t pop to the bathroom so I can’t comment on that I’m afraid. What I can say, is that the warm hued wooden door was very curvy and so was the glass door of the compartment next to it. It was very visually satisfying. We also failed to make it to the bistro car. I have failed you train adventurers! Karl had been given a free sample of chocolate biscuits at St Pancras so we joyfully munched those and forgot all about exploring.
Cologne Main Bahnhoff
Cologne station is another first floor behemoth. We had visited on a previous occasion. We had a six hour stopover and the airport is a very simple, and cheap, fifteen minute train ride from the city. This time we only had fifteen minutes to make our train connection and so we took a brief sneaky peak outside. By the station stands the magnificent bulk of Cologne cathedral. We didn’t have time to look inside but it was nice to reunite with it, however briefly.
The best thing about the online ticket, that I had printed out (1 ticket for 2 people) was that it showed the times for both trains and the platforms that they would leave from and arrive into. That meant that we didn’t have to waste time worrying or checking the screens.
THE SNVP – NORD LOCAL – Cologne to Düsseldorf
A double level train will forever be a source of excitement for those of from the UK. At home, we have extremely famous double decker buses, but no trains designed with two floors. Unfortunately, the two carriages that we saw only had first class on the upper deck and so we had to take the stairs down to second class. (Turns out the next carriage along was all second class, doh!)
There isn’t a great deal to say about this final train really. It was on time, reasonably clean but not spotless by any means, and buzzed along very happily. We knew we would be heading into town when we arrived and so we had a little train picnic.
We arrived bang on time in Düsseldorf and met our host for the weekend, Phil.
Considering it took the same amount of time as a plane journey door to door, I was pleasantly surprised at how much faster the whole journey felt. I think it was the sense that we were always progressing. Once we boarded the Eurostar, it was all go, go, go.
After a quick discovery that Düsseldorf is closer to London than Glasgow, and that it takes about the same time to get there, I am already considering where else we can visit. South of France? Bruges? Amsterdam? As hard as it is for a Flying Fluskey to admit it, the track’s the limit!