Belgian chocolates, waffles and a terrorist
It’s Friday, 5.56pm and my missus phones me to make sure I’ll be finishing work in exactly 4 minutes.
Vicky’s never this keen, but its my birthday and she’s organised some mystery activities, apparently.
First stop was supposed to be some bar near King’s Cross St Pancras station. She said to meet by some guy playing a piano near the far exit.
Wrapped up in a big coat, the tiny teacher was waiting for me with a suitcase, three bags and a huge smile. Reminded me of a scene from Love Actually.
I can’t remember what tune the pianist was keying away to, but I can remember how big Vicky’s grin was, as she gripped return Eurostar tickets to the Belgian capital.
Now that’s what I call a birthday surprise!
We stocked up on lots of travel goodies and wine from Marks and Spencer – yes, unlike planes, Eurostar actually allows passengers to bring booze aboard.
Just one of the five reasons I think trains are sooooo much better than planes…
Three hours later and we’re sitting on our hotel bed, trying to convince Vicky’s Mum we’re safe.
She’s crying down the phone and wants us back immediately.
News had broke that the ISIS Paris attack fugitive, Salah Abdeslam had flogged to Brussels, putting the Belgian capital at the highest terror threat level.
The streets were empty, bars closed and hotel guests advised to stay inside, which is exactly what we did.
We had a couple of bevvies at our Hotel Leopold bar, which lacked any kind of atmosphere, to the point there wasn’t even background music.
It was too quiet to enjoy, so we decided to go to our room and take advantage of the mini fridge and gigantic queen-size bed.
Belgian news dominated ALL the TV channels and made it very clear that nobody was safe.
Brussels was on complete lock-down and by the morning things had got a whole lot worse.
There were more soldiers than there was people. Huge army trucks patrolled the streets, while armed police stared into the windows of every tea bar which braved opening.
Something really bad was going to happen. It was just a matter of when.
The atomosphere was tense. News reporters from all across Europe gathered around the back streets of the Grand Place – which was completely dead.
We decided to leave Brussels and took to Bruges – which was just over an hour away by train.
On arrival, it was obvious that this beautiful city had also been cursed by evil.
What would normally be a packed Christmas market square, full of festive joy was nothing more than dull, miserable and cold – and I’m not just referring to the weather.
Hardly any stools were open and there wasn’t many people around either.
Of course we tried making the most of the trip – got fat on Belgian chocolates, waffles and fruity beer but by the next morning decided to head home early.
Fortunately, the guys at Eurostar let us board the earlier departure given the circumstances.
Despite the drama and tension, it was clear both Bruges and Brussels have lots to offer tourists and I sincerely look forward to a return trip.