So, our mini European marathon is nearly over… I am currently sitting in the fast train from Amsterdam to Brussels – hoping that it will make a better job of getting me to my destination than the local train I had booked to get me from Brussels to Amsterdam.
(For anyone’s future reference, Belgium runs two sorts of train – the Thalys trains (in the picture) and the local sort. The Thalys are fast, intercity trains and appear to be run by a different company from the local ones. Not realising this, I had booked myself from Brussels to Amsterdam and back on the local trains and had been slightly unnerved by the fact that the ‘direct’ trains appeared to stop at Rotterdam giving you just two minutes to make your connection. As it turned out, that was the least of its problems!
When I got to Brussels Gare Centrale yesterday morning, my train was not to be seen on the board. ‘Imprimé (cancelled)’ said the ticket office gentleman – ‘go to the international office.’ At the international office I found a young Cypriot couple on the same quest. ‘Well,’ said the helpful lady behind the desk, ‘we are not sure – one board says it is cancelled, the other says it is not – wait while we try to find out.’
Meanwhile, the Cypriot’s girl friend had been making her own enquiries – ‘No, it is going – Platform 5 – we need to run!’ So we ran. Sure enough there was a train but it seemed to be going to Antwerp. ‘Yes, the Rotterdam/Amsterdam train is definitely cancelled’ said the guard, ‘but take this one and change…. ‘ ‘Yes’, confirmed a helpful young woman, also climbing aboard – ‘I am going to the Hague and I am sure we can change’….
So we climbed aboard and sat down together while she consulted the timetables on her mobile. ‘Well, I don’t know – there seems to be a connection, but you can never be sure. A month ago I took what I thought was a train to Bruges. It was going from the right platform at the right time and it said Bruges on the front of the train, but in fact it was going to Lille. Apparently I should have ignored the time, the platform and what it said on the front and looked at what it said on the carriage – which was Lille.’
Twenty minutes later we were at Antwerp and the four of us climbed out, followed by a very tall young man with a rucksack who, it seemed was also trying to get to Amsterdam.
‘Quick!’ cried our leader, ‘that train over there….’ So we all ran again, clambered into a rather elderly and obviously very local train and crammed ourselves into a corner between the school children the OAPs setting off on their day out.
By now we had formed travellers’ bonds and were happily swopping life stories. I had told them about freefrom and the western epidemic of food allergy/intolerance and was advising the attractive young lady (a political economist from the Czech Republic, on her way to the Hague to give a presentation, but living in Brussels, married to a Brit who was also teaching political economy in Birmingham) on her bloating problems. Meanwhile, our latest recruit, the very tall young man, a masseur from Serbia, holidaying with his sister in Brussels, was telling the Cypriot (psychotherapist and martial arts expert with a interest in climbing) and his girlfriend (political scientist working in Nicosia who had spent a year in Sheffield) about his career in international climbing and they were swopping images of medals won on their phones.
Eventually, having stopped at every halt in rural Belgium, we reached Rosendaal where, by some miracle, a fast train to Amsterdam was indeed waiting on the platform. Amazingly, after all that, we were only two hours late arriving in Amsterdam where, after much swopping of Facebook addresses, we bade each other fond farewells and went our separate ways.
Which is why, at considerable extra expense, I am now sitting on the Thalys fast intercity train from Amsterdam to Brussels! An extra train fare seemed cheap when compared with missing the last Eurostar and having to spend an extra night in Brussels. )
So why were we in Brussels/Amsterdam anyhow? Well, we were in Brussels because we were exhibiting at the FreeFrom Food Europe Expo and I had gone on to Amsterdam to speak at a Sustainable Food Summit on FreeFrom.
What to say about Brussels? Well, the Expo was a freefrom food trade show and we think that it was very well worth going. Cressida made loads of contacts and did lots of good promotion for our awards, including talking to no less than three people who might be interested in franchising the awards around Europe! However, my deal for going to all exhibitions (not my favourite occupation) was that I would be allowed off for at least one day to do something mind-improving in Brussels.
What I hadn’t quite reckoned with was Brussels’ ability to rain…. On the advice of our dinner partners at the excellent dinner given by the Expo organisers in a rather classy converted warehouse, I had decided to explore the Art Nouveau quarter and visit the Musée Horta at the opposite end of town.
Firmly ignoring the lowering skies I set off only to emerge at station Horta into a persistent drizzle. But I plodded on – seventh turning on the left and then first on the right – only to find that the Musée Horta was only open between 2 and 4pm (it was now 11.30am) on Thursday and Friday (it was Wednesday)… By this time the drizzle had turned into rain so I took refuge in a café, a croissant and a long article on French cinema while waiting for it to ease. It didn’t.
Eventually I set off in search of an umbrella but the Quartier Horta does not believe in umbrellas. Finally, having spent a good ten minutes standing under a spendidly thick but not entirely watertight copper beech while the ‘shower’ turned into a tropical downpour, I prevailed upon a kindly newsagent to give me a large ‘sac de poubelle’, cut a hole for my head and encased myself in it. It did drip pretty soakingly onto my knees and I don’t think that my relatively new and smart Panama hat will ever quite recover it shape but at least I did get to see the Art Nouveau buildings. And very fine they are too – probably even finer when not seen through a sheet of water….
And so to Amsterdam… Well, after our rail adventure, visiting the Rijksmuseum (beautifully renovated, wonderful Rembrandts and Frans Hals and amazing ‘special exhibition’ of sixteenth century pistols) and going to the Concertgbouw paled into insignificance – although I did enjoy watching the boulle matches in the huge square in front of the Rijksmusem. At least ten matches going on concurrently, played almost exclusively by be-suited gents obviously on their way home from the office.
And the Sustainable Food summit? Well, sadly I only caught one day and then had to leave midway through the afternoon to catch my Thalys – but it was well worth going if only to catch the presentations a Anneloes Roeleveld, Corporate Director & EU Head of Food at Edelman (lots of excellent social media tips – just awaiting the disc with the presentation) and that of the wonderful Alex Smith from Alara.
I have know Alara for years – they make excellent mueslis and health foods – but I had not known anything about their history, or that of Alex himself. A sustainability pioneer, he founded Alara in 1976 with £2 he found in the street. (He does not really believe in money and had spent the previous year living without it! For the full story take a look at their site here.)
Alara were one of the first companies to be given organic certification for their muesli and the very first to get the Coeliac society symbol. In sustainability terms they send zero waste to landfill and are getting close to becoming carbon neutral. Now, not only do they produce a wide range of mueslis and super foods but they have created a ‘Dream Farm’ on some derelict land at the back of King’s Cross. ‘A beautiful garden producing masses of fruit and vegetables. The idea spread further and resulted in creating a vineyard, an orchard, a community garden and more to come!’ Definitely more to come from us on the project once we have been to visit.