This trip was always going to range across Belgium and the Netherlands, but originally I had planned to concentrate on the former, with Antwerp as my base. However, before I booked any accommodation a Dutch friend offered her apartment in exchange for cat-sitting, which I considered a double win! So instead I returned to the familiar territory of Holland, spending the bonus coronation bank holiday weekend in The Hague.
As a result of the relocation this became mostly a VFR trip, my first visit to the Netherlands since 2020. But I stuck to one of my original plans, spending a day exploring Baarle Hertog and Baarle Nassau. These two towns – Belgian and Dutch respectively – share an impossibly complex border, the land divided up into thirty enclaves. This was a geographic oddity I’d long wanted to see, and I’ve written more about it here.
With access to a whole flat – and a cat to keep company – my time in The Hague was quite relaxed, living more like a local than a tourist. However, on Sunday I ticked off another entry from my long-neglected shopping list of Dutch attractions: Museum Voorlinden, an art gallery just outside the city. Emphasising installations over works on canvas, this is one of the best collections I’ve seen – and highlights make up the bulk of the photo gallery from this weekend. I can also vouch for the desserts at their cafe!
Speaking of food, I was looking forward to revisiting some cuisines that are much easier to find in the Netherlands than the UK. For Surinamese fare I returned to an old favourite, the MingleMush food hall just by Den Haag Centraal station. This now has app-based ordering, making it easier for non-Dutch speakers – although some language skills are still helpful, as I nearly got roped into a dance class on arrival…
Whilst Frites Atelier has a branch in The Hague, I instead visited their Antwerp location for a lunch break during my long trek home. I doubt you can go wrong with any of their toppings, but it was their take on Indonesian peanut satay- with kaffir lime and fried onions – that lead me to their door. Twice the price I paid in Baarle, but absolutely worth it.
After a series of extensions during COVID-era inactivity, by the end of 2022 both my Flying Blue and Club Eurostar accounts were entering ‘use it or lose it’ status. I’ve let small balances in various schemes go to waste over the years, but decided to cobble something together this time.
I had enough Flying Blue points for a one-way KLM flight from Bristol to Amsterdam; the rest I donated to Aviation Sans Frontières. Eurostar points can be used in small amounts for cash discounts, but they are far more valuable when redeemed for an entire ticket. I didn’t have enough for that, but could top up from AmEx membership rewards. However, with fares from Brussels to London under £70 I decided to pay cash, and move just enough points to keep the account alive until this trip would post.
The entire aviation industry seems to be struggling with the post-pandemic rebuild, and from just two trips so far this year I’d already sat through over five hours of departure delays. This flight added another 50 minutes to the total; particularly frustrating as it took less time than that from wheels up in Bristol to wheels down in Amsterdam!
The complete AMS experience was rather slower, though. Taxiing from the Polderbaan was a familiar time sink, but once I finally reached the terminal a new frustration was discovered. Border queues were so bad that we weren’t even allowed into the hall at first, and so it was almost another hour before I was through and reunited with my luggage.
Schiphol does have a fantastic rail connection and I was soon on a train to Rotterdam, but I got bad advice there and stuck with a slow train (routed via Gouda) rather than taking the much swifter metro to The Hague. Altogether this jet-powered itinerary took 7 hours door to door, and that despite a £40 7am taxi from my flat to Bristol airport to avoid an even earlier departure via public transport. So, would the train-based journey back be better?
Had I started from Antwerp as initially intended, or if I’d left the Netherlands on one of the few direct Eurostar services from Rotterdam to London, then I think it would easily be the preferable option. As it was, I tackled an epic The Hague – Breda – Antwerp – Brussels – London – Bristol – Clifton routing, eschewing faster but vastly more expensive Thalys links between Holland and Belgium.
At best, this could be done in eight hours, but I budgeted eleven to break it up a bit along the way. Part of this was due to stubbornness – a Eurostar ticket from Brussels can actually be used from any Belgian station, so I could get away with only buying tickets from The Hague to Antwerp.
Since that was where I’d originally planned to stay, I wanted to at least look around a little. Unfortunately the torrential weather than had been forecast all weekend finally put in an appearance. Still, I managed a couple of miles of walking to offset the many hours sat on trains; had a delicious lunch; and got to admire Antwerp Centraal station, often argued as one of the finest in Europe. I also got soaked through, so conceded defeat and pushed on to Brussels, arriving far earlier than needed. That at least made security and border formalities a breeze, and as your luggage stays with you throughout a Eurostar journey, I was able to change into dry clothes.
The underwater train ride itself was uneventful, full to capacity yet running to schedule. But in London I achieved an unexpected miracle, managing to dash from a 19:00 arrival in St Pancras to a 19:30 departure from Paddington (which would in turn offer a better connection in Bristol). That did mean foraging from the snack trolley rather than a meal at either station, but I was keen to get home! I easily beat my expectations, travelling from Den Haag Centraal to Clifton Down in less than ten hours. But I wouldn’t rely on that cross-London connection in your own planning…
I am hoping to move even further west in the UK later this year, which would make future train trips of this nature even more ambitious. But until the airports and airlines get their act together I’ll definitely consider rail travel for nearby European destinations.