Being interested in visiting both Brussels and Paris, a journey on Eurostar seemed to be a probability, especially as I have always enjoyed travelling by train. As I live on the south coast of England, the prospect of getting to St Pancras station was less attractive than the original departure point at Waterloo. That wasn't enough to stop me going, of course. In the end I travelled to London by coach, arriving at Victoria, so a journey on the underground was inevitable.
A trip to Brussels was planned for a weekend early in January 2010, as a generous combined Christmas and birthday present from one of my sons. He had made a visit there by Eurostar about eighteen months before and was enthusiastic about sharing the experience with me. The harsh weather conditions with snow and ice, however, played havoc with Eurostar services. The company was begging travellers who did not have to make the journey to either postpone or cancel their bookings; they did of course offer a full refund. We were in no doubt about postponing when I managed to fall on the ice and sprain my wrist the day before we were due to travel.
Our trip actually took place almost exactly seven months later. My son made the bookings though Eurostar's website a good two months in advance, including one night at a hotel in central Brussels. We could have booked travel insurance through Eurostar, but I was able to get insurance for a single trip for about half the price through the Post Office. We chose a departure time of 8.57am on Saturday morning, arriving in Brussels at 12.15pm (Brussels being one hour ahead of BST).
On the day, we arrived at St Pancras at about 8 o'clock in the morning. After you make your bookings on their website, Eurostar send you an email confirming your reservations and giving details of your journeys plus the hotel if you have booked it through them. You need to have this email with you as well as the credit card with which you made payment for your trip. At the Eurostar ticket office at St Pancras, you can use a machine to print out your tickets, but we chose to go to the counter to request ours. If you have booked a return journey, tickets for this will be issued at the same time. The number of the carriage and the seat is clearly shown on all tickets.
My son seemed to think that we needed to go and check in about half an hour before our train was due to leave, so we decided to go and have some breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien. There are several eateries to choose from, including Costa, but I wanted to try somewhere new. If you are pressed for time there is a Marks and Spencers' food shop where you can buy drinks and snacks for the journey, and there are two buffet cars on the trains. Among many other shops at St Pancras are Hamleys, Foyles and W H Smith.
At about 8.30am we duly went to the check-in area and were horrified to see endless queue upon endless queue. There didn't seem to be a particular queue for a particular train, so I tagged on the end of the nearest one while my son went off to see if there were any shorter queues. He soon came back, not having found anything better. After a couple of minutes, Eurostar officials started walking around, asking if there were any passengers for the 8.57am to Brussels or the 9am to Paris. They indicated a shorter queue at the far end which we were to join. It didn't take long to pass through check-in, but then we had to join up with another queue of passengers waiting to go through security. Time was ticking away. After security came passport control, where once again we were ushered along to a short queue. Even then, we had to join a family of four who were being taken up in a lift to the platform, and we were only just in time. We had to board the train and walk through countless carriages until we found our seats. Admittedly we could have foregone breakfast and gone to check in earlier, but my son had travelled with Eurostar twice before and had not experienced any long queues. I couldn't understand why passengers for a particular train were not from the outset asked to go to a particular check-in desk rather than having a free-for-all. This does, by the way, apply only to standard class passengers.
It was a relief to finally find our seats and settle down. I can't say, however, that I was overly impressed by the state of the Eurostar carriages. The upholstery on the seats was starting to fray in various places, and the carpeting was quite badly stained. The seats themselves were comfortable enough, except for the armrests which had hard metal sides. I did appreciate the free magazine, 'Metropolitan', which has articles in several European languages, as I hadn't wanted to carry a book with me. The journey was very smooth and the train was extremely punctual. I can't complain at all in that sphere.
The toilets were reasonably clean, but it took me a while to work out the sign showing that the tap was turned on by a foot pump. On another journey I overheard a woman about my age complaining that she had not been able to get any water out of the tap at all, so perhaps a written sign rather than just a pictorial one would be helpful. The toilet paper reminded me of the awful 'Bronco' stuff we had when I was a child – I couldn't believe Eurostar didn't have something a little softer.
As I said, we arrived in Brussels bang on time and it was very straightforward to leave the terminal there and find a taxi to take us to the hotel. I wish it had been as easy to return to the Gare du Midi the following day, Sunday afternoon. We allowed plenty of time to avoid the last-minute rush of the previous day, but the taxi driver explained that there was a market by the station on Sundays. He had to drop us a little distance away and we had to pick our way through the market. Thankfully we didn't have too much luggage, or it would have been very difficult. As we came out of the market, there seemed to be signs everywhere for the Tour du Midi but none for the Gare du Midi. Finally we did recognise the building we had arrived at the day before. We were able to go straight to the check-in area, then through security and passport control. There was even time to browse a stationer's (which also sold lots of beer) and buy bottles of water from a machine in the departure lounge. Seating was generous in this area, so we sat and waited until our departure was announced.
I was impressed at the Gare du Midi in Brussels that they had posts on the platform indicating the number of each carriage of the train. This did make it easier, and I am a little surprised that this is not done at either St Pancras or the Gare du Nord in Paris. Once again, the journey was smooth and uneventful, with the train arriving punctually at St Pancras. On leaving the platform, passengers descend a sloping escalator and there is then a short walk through customs. It is easy to find the underground, but we seemed to have an extraordinarily long walk to the Victoria Line.
I'm sure I shall travel on Eurostar again in the future – at least I hope I will. A day-trip to Lille would just about be possible and is very tempting. I have been put off planning winter travel for the future, but there are interesting possibilities for Eurostar journeys in the summer. These include Avignon, Cologne, Amsterdam and perhaps the Swiss Alps.
Overall I enjoyed my journeys with Eurostar, but I do think the check-in process at St Pancras station could be better organised. The problem of Sunday markets by the Gare du Midi needs addressing, as taxis have to be able to drop passengers right by the station. If these improvements were made I would consider Eurostar worthy of a five-star rating, despite the fact that the carriages are now a little tatty. I would definitely recommend travelling by Eurostar, bearing in mind that the earlier you book the lower the price should be.