It’s not just Paris and Brussels – here are five high-speed
train trips you may not have considered, from hot springs with history in
Germany to skiing in the French Alps.
Antwerp: The one for
history and architecture
If Bruges is the medieval jewel of Flanders, then Antwerp is the city that
stole its trade and its thunder. The home of one of the earliest stock exchange
buildings in 1531, and today the place where four in every five uncut diamonds
are traded, it’s no surprise that Belgium’s second city has plenty to show for
its wealth. The neo- Gothic splendour of the Antwerpen-Centraal railway station
is merely the welcome mat.
The first stop should be the city’s medieval core around the
cobblestoned Grote Markt. With its Renaissance-style City Hall bedecked with
colourful banners and the 123-metre spire of the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal,
or Cathedral of Our Lady, looming above, this pedestrianised square is the
Moving on to the Baroque period, Antwerp’s favourite son
makes an appearance – the painter Pieter Paul Rubens, whose former home and
studio, the Rubenshuis,
is furnished in early 17th-century style and houses dozens of his paintings and
those of his contemporaries (admission £6.50). Another Rubens portrait is found
in the World Heritage-listed Museum
Plantin-Moretus, along with a printing works and library dating from 1640
Finish with a swing by the Stadsfeestzaal for a spot of browsing in
a magnificent Neoclassicalstyle shopping mall dating from 1908. The
second-floor champagne bar matches the opulent mood perfectly. Antwerp likes to
dine out in style, and one place you can do so in old-world, candle-lit
intimacy is Le
Zoute Zoen (mains from £14).
Emperor’s 48 is a stylish b&b
featuring striking black and white photographs by Bart Michielsen (from £75). ‘T Sandt Hotel is an elegant place to stay,
with swish broad-beamed guestrooms, neo-Rococo touches and a patio with a
fountain (from £160).
The Eurostar takes 2¼ hours to
reach Brussels from London's St Pancras International station (from £70,
including onward rail travel in Belgium).Changing at Bruxelles-Midi/
Brussel-Zuid station, it’s another 35–45 minutes to Antwerpen-Centraal station.
Rotterdam: The one
On 14 May 1940, at the height of the German Blitzkrieg, the Luftwaffe
missed an order to turn back and destroyed most of Rotterdam. Unlike many other
Dutch cities such as Amsterdam, Utrecht and Delft, you won’t find much in the
way of medieval streets here. But Rotterdam has salvaged something from its
destruction, creating bold and inventive architecture to match its status as
one of the world’s busiest ports.
Get your bearings on an architecture tour (from £3 per
person). The itinerary might include Rotterdam’s two signature bridges – the
bold, red Willemsbrug and the Erasmusbrug, nicknamed ‘The Swan’ after the
spread-eagled stance of its 139-metre pylon. Striking buildings abound, from
Toren op Zuid, which seems to rest against a long pole, to the Willemswerf,
with its diagonal slash. The most eyebrow-raising is the Overblaak development,
whose upended, cube-shaped apartments seem to have tumbled out of a JG Ballard
You can continue in the architectural vein at the Nederlands Architectuurinstituut, whose admission
price includes a visit to a perfectly preserved Functionalist-style house from
1933 (admission £8). Alternatively, the Museum Boijmans
van Beuningen is among Europe’s finest galleries, where paintings by the
Dutch masters and 20th-century surrealists can be found next to a 1970s bubble
TV or vibrating table (admission £10, free on Wed).
Amid the bold architectural statements, Rotterdam does have
one more surprise in store – the eminently strollable Delfshaven district,
which survived the bombings with its quaintness intact. And since this is a
port city, you owe it to Rotterdam to have a seafood dinner – Zee Zout has waterfront views as well
as superbly prepared dishes (mains from £19).
The Hotel New York Rotterdam
is an original Art Nouveau-style building with stunning city views (from £80).
The Pincoffs Suite Hotel
offers boutique style in a late 19th-century building (from £130).
takes 2¼ hours from St Pancras International to Brussels (from £60). Changing
at Bruxelles-Midi/Brussel-Zuid station, it’s another 75 minutes to Rotterdam
(from £45). Eurostar tickets to ‘any Dutch station’ are £5 cheaper, but the
connection may be slower.
The one for wine
The countryside around Reims and Épernay is a tableau of low hills with
neat green rows of vines in their folds, marked here and there by a church
spire or the turrets of a château. So far, so French – but these vines have a
special destiny that will set them apart from others in equally bucolic corners
of this wine-obsessed nation. In an area 129 square miles in size, white wine
grapes are grown, the product of which will be fermented a second time inside
the bottle to create the fizz that is the hallmark of champagne.
This ‘king of wines’
got a head start in the prestige stakes because of the royal connections of
Reims – one of the main cities of the historic province of Champagne, and the
place where the kings of France were crowned. Today, the pageantry is reserved
for the eight local ‘maisons’ (champagne houses), such as Taittinger and Mumm,
whose musty cellars can be visited as part of engaging guided tours followed,
of course, by tasting sessions (tours around £8; taittinger.fr, ghmumm.com).
For dinner, one sterling choice is Le Boulingrin, a genuine, old-time brasserie
from 1925 (mains from £11).
A half-hour train
ride south from Reims is Épernay, lying deeper in the heart of champagne
country. More champagne houses offer tours here, including Moët & Chandon,
Mercier and De Castellane. But the draw of Épernay is as a base for heading out
into the surrounding vineyards. Champagne Domi Moreau
runs vineyard tours by minibus from Épernay, or by bicycle starting from the
nearby village of Mancy (cycle tours £12, minibus tours £16). You can find other
suggestions for exploring the area by bicycle at
Le Clos Raymi, in
Épernay, is a refined hotel with seven Art Deco-themed rooms (from £90). Grand Hôtel des Templiers
is a neo-Gothic extravaganza in central Reims, with stained glass and period furnishings
throughout (from £175).
Reims is between four and five hours by train from St
Pancras International, including the connection time in Paris or Lille – Paris
has more frequent services than Lille, but requires a 10-minute transfer on
foot between the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est (from £90).
Aachen: The one for
What did the Romans ever do for Germany? The people of Aachen might have an
answer – their city was kickstarted by legionaries who took a fancy to the
area’s steaming, mineral-rich waters. Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus in Latin),
founder of the Carolingian Empire, made it his capital in 794, and other
conquerors followed, from Napoleon to Casanova. Today, the city is known by a
multiplicity of names – Aix-la-Chapelle to the French, Aken to the Dutch,
Aquisgrana to the Italians – that testifies to the fame of this one-time centre
of political power and remedial bathtime in Western Europe.
Many of the spas today are clinics offering serious-sounding
treatments for aches and complaints. One very accessible place, however, can be
found at Carolus-Thermen, which is
not afraid to use words such as ‘relaxation’ and ‘indulgence’ (spa visits from
£8.50). Its elegant indoor and outdoor pools are kept at a pleasantly warm
32–34°C, with steam baths, hammams, and saunas for those who prefer something a
The spa’s name is a nod to Charlemagne’s time in Aachen. The
ruler is often called the ‘Father of Europe’, and it’s been calculated that
most Europeans can indeed count him as an ancestor. So following your soak, pay
a visit – or even a family visit – to the magnificent Aachen Cathedral where he is buried (treasury
admission £5, tours £7). The Palatine Chapel is an outstanding remnant of
Charlemagne’s palace, while the cathedral’s treasury is a mother lode of gold
Aachen is not short on historic inns either. Hearty German
cuisine is the order of the day at Am Knipp,
which dates from 1698 and has a lovely beer garden (mains from £9).
Though rather anonymous from the outside, the Hotel Granus is a well-kept place close to
the spa at Carolus-Thermen, with which it often has special offers (from £70).
The Pullman Aachen
Quellenhof is a grand hotel, set on the edge of a park just outside the
historic centre (superior rooms from £120).
takes 2¼ hours from St Pancras International to Brussels (from £60;
eurostar.com). Changing at Bruxelles-Midi/Brussel-Zuid station, it’s a further
75 minutes to Aachen (from £35).
Val Thorens: The one
Take ski equipment on the train? It’s no longer such an odd idea, thanks to
a direct Eurostar service from London to the heart of the French Alps, which
comes as a boon for winter sports fans who would rather avoid flying (see Snow Carbon for more).
One of the pleasures of a ‘ski-train’ is to watch as you
climb ever higher, to where the snow begins, and finally step out of the
station into a winter’s scene. But even if it’s later in the season and the
lower-lying villages are completely devoid of the white stuff, the resort of
Val Thorens is about as snow-sure as they come. Lying at 2,300m, this is the
highest ski resort in Europe, and skiers can take lifts up as far as the Épaule
du Bouchet mountain, at 3,250m. Reliability of snow cover aside, the other big
draw for Val Thorens is the sheer extent of the ski area. The resort is linked
by lifts and pistes to Méribel, which in turn is connected to Courchevel. Together,
the three resorts and 470 miles of pistes make up Les Trois Vallées – the largest ski area
in the world (six-day lift passes £170).
around a half-dozen bars, including the cosy Rhum Box (rhumbox.fr). Dinner here
wouldn’t be complete without at least one round of the cheesy mess that is
fondue Savoyarde, or for something more refined, try double-Michelin-starred L’Oxalys (three-course
Friendly Hotel Val
Chavière offers tremendous mountainside views (half-board from £55). Hotel Altapura has 98 Nordic-chic
guestrooms and suites, all with widescreen views of the surroundings (from £200).
train runs on weekends from 21 December 2012 to 12 April 2013, between St
Pancras International and Moûtiers-Salins-Brides-les-Bains (from £190).
Overnight trains take 9½ hours, while daytime trains take seven hours. From Moûtiers,
take a bus (tickets £12) or a taxi (around £80 each way) to Val Thorens.
The article 'Five original Eurostar breaks' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.