If I had my way, a moving montage of french scenery would accompany all travel.
As the Thalys, one of the fastest trains in Europe, sped along at 300 kilometres per hour, the skyline of Paris and the city’s grand buildings and expansive boulevards were gradually being replaced by avenues of windswept trees and clusters of cottages. The rising sun was lingering on the morning frost, leaving behind a glistening layer. It was a spectacular way to begin my journey, complemented by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee that accompanied the inquiry “coffee and croissant for you, Madame?” (Having recently learned how to make croissants I was, regrettably, no longer ignorant about their butter content, but that didn’t stop me from slathering on a thick layer.)
Ernest Hemingway once said that wherever you go for the rest of your life, Paris stays with you. Even now, as the train catapulted me towards Bruges in Belgium, my mind was still in Paris, where my train trip had begun just a couple of days ago.
I had taken some time to plan these days in Paris and had chosen to stay on the right bank of the Seine (considered the old centre of Paris), where café culture blends seamlessly with haute couture, and the Louvre and Coco Chanel’s personal apartment are only steps away.
Here, tucked away in the wings of the Champs-Elysées-Madeleine-Opéra Golden Triangle lies Le Burgundy Paris. With its obvious flare for art and design, this boutique hotel holds its own among its stylish neighbours. A black-marble Guy de Rougemont puzzle sculpture boldly greeted me on arrival while the bookshelves in my suite were filled with books on famous artists and photographers. Grand in all ways but size, Le Burgundy Paris covers every possible whim you’ve never realised you always wanted – from men in tuxedos at your beck and call to a shower with six water jets spraying from all directions.
Locks of love on Paris’ Friendship Bridge
I cycled along the Seine the next morning for an express cultural tour (and a way to burn off the cheese and pastries at breakfast), passing all the bridges of Paris (37 in total) including Pont des Arts, or Friendship Bridge.
Rivalling the romantic appeal of the Eiffel Tower, this is the place where couples attach padlocks engraved with their names to the railing and throw the key into the river as a sign of undying love. I jumped on the romance bandwagon too. It was hard not to with the Louvre to my left, Notre Dame towering behind me, the Eiffel Tower looming in front and public displays of affection filling the spaces in-between.
It’s true, the memory of Paris never fades, but halfway through the three-hour trip to Belgium (including a stopover in Brussels), I could feel the excitement of reaching Bruges taking over. (A three-hour train ride from Sydney won’t even get me to Bathurst, so it’s a novelty that in the same time frame I can traverse the countryside of France and wind up in Belgium.)
Paris may have romance but Bruges has charm. With its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and romantic canals, the UNESCO World Heritage City has fairytale written all over it. It seemed only fitting, therefore, that home for the next two nights was in the former residence of the Dukes of Burgundy since the 15th century. The Kempinski Hotel Dukes’ Palace Bruges is in the city’s historic centre, and is the only five-star hotel in Bruges. Surrounded by such history and opulence, I was almost expecting to find a pea in my oversized bed and wake up a Duchess.
Alas, I woke up ordinary but in an extraordinary setting. The medieval architecture of the old world still breathes in the historic centre of Bruges, which sits within a circle of canals and earth banks. The city was resplendent – dressed in its Christmas best with festive lights dangling overhead and chalked signs advertising mulled wine and “the best waffles in town” luring willing pedestrians into the warmth of its beer gardens, teahouses and cafes.
It’s no secret that Belgium is synonymous with top-quality chocolate and, in the name of research, I visited Choco- Story, the four-storey chocolate museum. Inside, I dipped into history – from the Mayans and the Spanish conquistadores to the chocolate connoisseurs of today. The life-sized statues made from pure chocolate were sensibly enclosed within glass cabinets. (Thankfully, there were enough smaller edible treats.)
Being on a sugar high seemed the perfect time to tackle the more serious Groeningemuseum. As the birthplace of the Flemish Primitives, Bruges was the centre of patronage and development of painting in the Middle Ages with artists such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Spread throughout 10 rooms the exhibition stretches from the 14th to the 20th century. From room to room, there is a
progressive shift from Flemish primitives to the Renaissance onto baroque, neoclassicism and expressionism.
Three days in, two countries down.
The journey from Bruges to Amsterdam, via Antwerp, takes just over three hours. As the train hurtled through the countryside, the lonely figure of a solitary windmill in the distance signalled that we’d already crossed over into the Netherlands.
From the central train station, I wheeled my suitcase to the Grand Hotel Amrâth Amsterdam in the centre of town. Established in the monumental Shipping House, this is a luxury maritime-themed hotel, located where ships once departed for the East Indies in the 16th century.
The hotel has been so carefully preserved that the colossal stained glass rooftop, de-picting the seven seas, had to be cleaned with baby oil and a toothbrush. While remaining true to its original form, how-ever, modern touches have not been over-looked and I was delighted to discover a Nespresso machine and free mini bar (Re-plenished daily) in my room. I had been assured by my taxi driver in Bruges that I was going to love Amster-dam. Bruges is a small provincial town, he had said, but Amsterdam is a large multi-cultural city with a relaxed vibe. I am 178 centimetres tall and ever since discover-ing it was home to the tallest population in the world, I have wanted to go there. It felt like coming home. Within the pockets of land lie rows of leaning townhouses, shops and cafes, while houseboats adorned with fairy lights lined the canals. The city has 780,000 inhabitants and an estimated 881,000 bicycles, a statistic that came to life as I mean-dered around the maze of canals and criss-crossed bridges that encircle the city. Everyone but me seemed to be pedalling. There were bikes with baskets carrying food and flowers (and the odd dog), bikes with trailers packed with children, and even a six-seater. While helmets appeared scarce, this nation of cyclists were tall and su-premely fit. Following the bicycle gang to the edges of town, I ventured out to the
Sunday market at Westerpark, an old industrial plant. Held on the first Sunday of every month, dozens of stalls transform the space from derelict to hip. Featuring fashion, design and art as well as fresh produce, gooey brownies and mulled wine, the market claims to be the Mecca of all things unique, a title I can’t dispute after having a bowl of soup from a van titled Buskruid, which literally translates to “bus-spices”.
By the time it came to catching the Eurostar across the pond, I was feeling like a seasoned train traveller. Arriving at London’s St Pancras Station, with its high ceilings and vintage clocks, reconfirmed the timeless appeal of train travel.
Call it a hangover from my childhood but London to me will always exist on a Monopoly board. Therefore, to all my fellow gamers, you know you’ve hit the jackpot when you’re in Mayfair. The Stafford London shares the block with The Ritz, restaurant institution The Woolsey, and celebrity hangout Mahiki Bar (where the paparazzi are constantly poised for snaps.)
The 100 year old hotel in the heart of St James is the quintessential English experience, reminiscent of a grand country manor, from the richly textured fabrics and patterned wallpaper down to the rubber duckie in the bathtub. And there was beer. Lots of English beer.
Scurraging for a seat among the paraphernalia I enjoyed a drink at The America Bar. Decorated with thousands of items of customer-donated memorabilia from around the world, such as flags and signed photos, the tradition began when the walls were so bare an American guest donated a small wooden American eagle. This was followed by the gift of an Eskimo from a Canadian, a kangaroo from an Australian…
If you’re lucky you’ll sip from the same glass as a royal, or aristocrat.
With my quota of romance, charm and culture filled by Paris, Bruges and Amsterdam, it was London that had brought the class. In the words of Samuel Johnson, when you are tired of London, you are tired of life.
Stained glass roof, Grand Hotel Amrâth Amsterdam