So ages ago, way back in mid-2015 sometime, I applied for some tickets for the Euro 2016 football tournament. Demand was pretty high, so I only ended up with four tickets to a random group match in Lens, northern France, but when the draw took place it turned out that our tickets were for England vs Wales – probably the biggest match of the pool stages. I was super excited.
B doesn’t like football enough to travel to another country to watch a game, so she decided to abandon her ticket and take her little sister to Spain instead. I gave away her ticket to a mate, and got down to a little bit of a whirlwind trip (and so accordingly, a bit of a whirlwind blog this time too).
I’ve said it once or twice before: trains are my favourite way to travel (usually, at least – see below). The Eurostar in particular is one of the best, because you embark in central London and get off in continental Europe somewhere – how cool is that? I also think it’s pretty great value, because while it generally does cost more than a flight to the same place, it saves so much time in effort in terms of travel to and from airports, waiting around, etc. This time I was heading to Brussels, along with an entire train-full of English football fans. Thankfully the train had a full alcohol ban in place for the tournament.
SNCF is France’s state-owned rail company, and I strongly recommend never having anything to do with them ever in your entire life, if at all possible. They are just the worst. We were to be based in Brussels for the weekend but the game was in Lens, northern France, which meant a train via Lille each way. I organised and bought tickets for our group about a month out, and paid for express delivery (normally 3 or 4 working days). To spare you the more agonising details of about six hours of helpline calls, SNCF lost these in their depot in Barcelona. So they resent some more, which also got lost in their depot in Barcelona.
After some more phone debates, SNCF acknowledged that this probably wasn’t going to work for me. They cancelled all the paper tickets, and instead just gave me a code to use along with my card to print them out in Brussels. They suggested going to the SNCB (Belgium trains) office at the main station to do so, as apparently the two companies link systems to some degree.
This link was of course broken, and had been for several weeks, meaning the very helpful desk staff there were unable to do much. Another painful helpline call to SNCF informed me that I shouldn’t worry, as all I had to do was find the yellow SNCF ticket machine in the Brussels station, and print them there. This sounded promising, so I went off in search of this.
After an unfruitful half hour of looking, I spoke to an information desk where I found out those machines had all been removed from Brussels station about eight months prior to my visit. It was at this point I simply gave up, retired to a nearby bar to wait for my friends to arrive, watch football, and mentally curse SNCF. To summarise this little rant – avoid SNCF at all costs. Check their online reviews, if you don’t believe me.
(In the end it all worked out – we just rode the trains without a ticket out of Brussels then printed them when we changed trains in Lille. As it turned out, our tickets didn’t get checked at a single point on the whole ride there and back anyway).
I wasn’t in the best mood to start my time in Brussels, as you might imagine, and it was also raining quite hard when I arrived as well. Things did improve a lot as my day turned into evening and my friends all arrived in town, but overall I never really warmed to Brussels. The main square was nice at night, sure, and the Belgium beer was delicious, but as a city I just found it to be a bit underwhelming. Boring, even, which is very unusual for me in a new place. The Manneken Pis statue is apparently a highlight there, which I think probably tells you all you need to know about Brussels.
Lens, and the game
Ah, poor little Lens. We arrived at about 9:30am, ahead of the 3pm game, and already every pub in town was packed to bursting with English and Welsh fans. They were shirtless in the streets, as well as already a little legless, and there were club and country football flags draped everywhere. Lens is a small industrial town of about 40,000 people, and it’s stadium only seats 38,000, but despite this I read the night before that up to 100,000 football fans were expected to turn up – and I’d have been surprised if it were much less than this, in the end.
The game itself was awesome – England won very late on, and I must say I was pretty glad about this as I think the atmosphere afterwards might have been a little less enjoyable otherwise. The riot squads were out in full force, but thanks to the result the crowds were happy enough to not to require much in the way of police action. We hung around for a couple of hours before catching the trains back up to Brussels.
We headed from Brussels up to Amsterdam the following morning. Amsterdam is a place I’ve always wanted to see, and as since we were relatively close I decided to tack it onto the trip.
Amsterdam is a stunning city, probably one of the best in Europe in my opinion. The area around the main train station where we arrived is a little touristy, of course, and the big shopping street is the usual mix of generic brands, but outside of that the city is just great. Leafy streets alongside the famous canals, flanked by all the beautiful (if rather quirky) old buildings – hard to beat.
After checking into the Hostel Stayokay Vondelpark (I don’t stay in hostels much so I didn’t really have a comparison point, but this one seemed nice. I also found the name ‘Vondelpark’ quite amusing), we went and did the most touristy thing we could find – a tour of the Heineken factory. This was kind of informative in places, but mostly it was just like being inside a giant Heineken television advertisement for an hour and a half.
We spend most of the rest of our short time in Amsterdam catching up with friends – I was lucky enough to know a couple of different people living there now, which always makes visiting a place a lot more fun. We ate lunch, wandered around the city, watched football, tried out some very nice little canal-side pubs, checked out the red-light district at night (very different, though I might point out also only a very small part of Amsterdam as a whole) and went home at some point in the early morning, already not looking forward to a flight in just a few hours. If that sounds like an overly brief summary of Amsterdam, that’s because it was meant to be – B and I went back quite recently, so that’ll be another blog post soon.
And that’s about it for now – the following day I jumped on a plane bound for Toulouse, where I’d meet up with B and her family for a bit of holidaying in the south of France.
Until then, B & A.