Train to Turnhout
Today I concluded my brief one-night stand in Cologne (and my mere two days in western Germany), and headed straight to Belgium, and to the small Flemish city of Turnhout (via Brussels), to meet my friends Annick and Stef. Before I left Cologne, I managed to buy myself a new money belt in the train station (since I lost my old one in Italy), and I now feel a lot more secure with my valuables in it: I'll be wearing it on every single train ride from now on. Turnhout is a small place; but amazingly, the DB attendant was able to sell me a ticket straight there, as he had it available as a direct destination in his computer (Annick and Stef were amazed and flattered when I told them). So, for now, I say auf wiedersehen to Germany.
The train from Cologne to Brussels was the express, high-speed Thalys service — the fourth special train that I've got so far in Europe (along with EuroStar Italia, Cisalpino, and ICE). And like all the others, it too was very nice. Thalys trains have a compulsory reservation policy, and they also have a maximum quota on the number of Eurail-pass travellers for each service: unfortunately, this quota was already filled when I enquired at the desk, so I had to buy a complete ticket, as well as pay for a seat reservation. Anyway, it wasn't too expensive — and there are still plenty of journeys ahead of me, for which I'll be making use of my Eurail's remaining days.
The scenery along the way was fairly uninteresting: My introduction to Belgium, by looking out the window, was the flat, dense farmland that characterises most of the country. When I arrived in Brussels South station at 2:45pm (aka "Brussel-Zuid", aka "Bruxelles-Midi"), I disembarked from the Thalys (had I stayed on board, I would have been in Paris by 4pm!), and had about ½ an hour to kill in the station. Midi is a large and modern station, with plenty of places to shop and eat: I picked up a nice little box of Godiva Belgian chocolates, as a gift for Stef and Annick; and I grabbed a filling take-away falafel for lunch. It was a little disconcerting, suddenly finding myself in a French-speaking part of the world (since they mainly "parlent Français" in "Bruxelles") — but I got by, what with my crap French and with their excellent English.
From Brussels up to Turnhout, it was just a regular Friday 'arvo local train. The service itself was nothing special: but the crowd of friendly Flemish locals on-board really put a smile on my face. There was a big group of guys sitting next to me in the carriage; and when they discovered that I was an English-speaking tourist, they too started chatting in English, and asking me all about my trip. When it became clear that we were all getting off at Turnhout, they even offered to take me out for a beer! I would have taken up their offer, was I not already fully-booked with Stef for the weekend, as far as beer-drinking goes :P. This was a wonderful first impression of Flemish Belgium (and one that matches the tip-top impression I've got from all the Belgians I've met elsewhere). An incredibly warm, welcoming, hospitable and easy-going bunch of people.