On-board the train museum in Brussels

(Left) A couchette cabin (with seats that can be converted into sleeping berths) in the Train Hostel and (Right) Railway memorabilia at the Train Hostel.
Photo: The Star

I was kitted out in designer gear as I lifted my shiny new spinner suitcase onto the standard premier coach on the Eurostar to Brussels.

But, true to the irony that seems to define my life, my luggage was filled with instant noodles and other dry foods and beverages so I could save money.

My most important cargo, though, was the advice of one friend who knows me better than most.

"Keep your trap shut," said Aminah Aziz, concerned that I might proffer my opinion in sensitive countries outside Western Europe and end up in the slammer.

My departure almost didn't happen.

Juggling two bags, I had pushed my new suitcase up the station escalator while dragging the large rucksack behind me.

The spinner's front wheels were hanging down the step and the bag toppled on me, sending me down like a domino.

Fortunately, it was the morning rush hour and the commuters rushed to my aid.

In my state of unpreparedness, the excellent WiFi connection let me spend the two-hour journey booking hotel rooms as the English and French countryside whizzed by at 300kph.

Despite the summer shower that welcomed me at Schaerbeek Station, the sight of an old train carriage stopped me in my tracks.

Did they know I was coming? It was part of Train World, the train museum that is just in front of the train hostel - the ideal choice of accommodation to kick off a rail odyssey.

When Nicolas Kervyn was building his hostel, he learned about the conversion of Schaerbeek Station into a train museum - and so the Train Hostel was conceived.

The National Belgian Railways (SNCB) donated two railway carriages and Kervyn proceeded to develop the rooms in the main building on the same theme.

My room, with en-suite facilities, was modelled after a couchette cabin that can accommodate six people - ideal for families or groups of friends travelling together.

The four lower bunks make two double beds.

Railway memorabilia adorned the walls of the hostel.

(Right) Steam engines on display at the Train Museum and (left) Posh dining railroad car that was in a 1940s train, complete with period furniture.
Photo: The Star

The common room was furnished with period furniture, including hard seats from old trains from the 1940s.

Different wings of the hostel had their own decor. One of the two train carriages featured a five-star suite from an Orient Express cabin complete with furniture and memorabilia from the same era.

Apart from offering the convenience of cooking, hostels are great places to meet people.

The first morning at breakfast, I met a group of young people from the Dominican Republic who were working in America and the next morning, four young Germans.

I had a long telephone conversation with my seven-year old great-niece, Zara.

I had told her that I would not be able to speak to her as regularly because of the roaming charges.

Like her father before her, Zara normally can't wait to pass the phone to her father but that day she wanted to linger, saying: "I don't have anything to say but I still want to talk."

That sentence followed me through five cities until the next opportunity came for me to speak to her.

 

I visited the Train World museum where I learned about the history of the railway in Europe and the creation of the Belgian State Railways in 1834.

Seeing those gleaming steam engines brought out the child in me and I joined the children and climbed up the engines to play with the dials and controls.

Among the carriages on display was one that was used as a wartime hospital.

The exhibition ended with streamlined engines from the Eurostar and the Belgian Thalys.

Brussels was a new city to me but I soon became acquainted with their waffles and wonderful chocolates.

But before that, I had to check out the city's well-known flea markets.

Leaving things a bit late, I managed to catch the tail end of the Sablon antique market and enjoyed an afternoon looking at some of the finest curios from Africa, the Middle East and even a keris from the Malay Archipelago.

Sebastien the Eurostar assistant told me he went to visit the market and came away with a lamp stand.

Just as well he wasn't flying.

(Left) The little boy (statue) who could … in public at Brussels and (right) Packing Belgian chocolates for the train odyssey. 
Photo: The Star

I went in search of the icon of Brussels - the Mannekin-Pis or the pissing boy, a 15th-century statue adorning a fountain.

But as I emerged from the Metro, I came upon a square with men in green and military trucks, and learned that the day I arrived in Brussels, there had been a machete attack on a couple of police personnel.

I was immediately transported back to the reality of an unsafe world.

But I was reassured, on reaching the Grand Place where I encountered the beautiful 15th-century town hall, to see the square filled with tourists.

Negotiating the narrow street at the end of which the statue stands, I was tempted by chocolatiers on either side, including my favourite, Leonidas.

My luggage would be much heavier. 

I found the Mannekin-Pis spraying the fountain while being courted by selfie addicts.

"Oh, it is so small," I heard the people say.

"But he is just a boy," I said. "It will grow bigger."

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