Getting Around in Europe

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First, we have to fly there!

One of my favorite parts of travel is not driving. We usually go places that are walkable and have good public transit. Since Germany was our first destination for this trip, I hit my dad up for information. We were flying into Frankfurt and had to get to Schwabisch Hall.

He’d recently made the same trip to visit his family and friends. I figured a train to Schwäbisch Hall, a short taxi ride to our hotel.

Fortunately, he told me the stuff that doesn’t appear in a travel brochure (which Schwäbisch Hall doesn’t, either, by the way). He recommended catching a train to Stuttgart and renting a car for the rest of the way.

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Boarding the train to Stuttgart

As it turns out, that was pretty darn perfect.

The Train to Stuttgart

After spending a night in Frankfurt, we left our hotel and headed to the Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof. Our train to Stuttgart took about 2 hours, and required no train changes. I just relaxed and read as the scenery flashed by, showing all these asphalt bike paths that made me long for a few weeks with my road bike in the German countryside. The stroller-friendly car had plenty of space for Anneka to practice her new skill of crawling. The price was $29 EUR each. You can get tickets right at the station without a problem.

One VW to Swabia

We rented a VW Golf Europcar at the airport and began a long, confusing search for the car in the multitude of parking garages. This was a stressful affair since nothing seemed to make any organized sense. Even worse, we weren’t sure how to install the carseat. The garage attendant was convinced there should be a base the carseat plugs into, while the desk people insisted otherwise. There’s a bit of a trick to using the seat belts to secure the carseat, but I can’t explain it here. And the staff could be far more helpful here (even though they’re very friendly).

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Let’s drive!

The VW Golf, by the way, is the only rental car I’ve ever liked as much as a Subaru. It handled beautifully, accelerating, braking and turning well in all circumstances – even rain. It was a six-speed manual, which was perfect for a guy who drives a manual at home. But I had a devil of a time figuring out how to put it in reverse. It turns out you push down on the shifter and move it to the top left. Good thing I had my smartphone to answer the question, or I’d still be stuck in that parking garage.

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The Eurostar will wow most American travelers.

Driving on the German freeways is nowhere near as frightening as you might expect, either. Yes, some people drive really damn fast. But they seem to use their heads along with their turn signals. Slower traffic is very good about keeping to the right. The highway signs are top-notch, and the pavement itself is in perfect shape.

Aboard the Eurostar

Our next train trip – and the London Tube doesn’t count – was the Eurostar from London to Brussels. Now, if you want to talk about an impressive train station, Saint Pancras Station is absolutely amazing. It’s huge, with a beautiful fusion of classic and modern design. It’s a bit confusing if you’re not familiar with the layout and all the different trains. Arrive early if it’s your first time.

English: St Pancras International Polski: St P...
English: St Pancras International Polski: St Pancras International (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The security is also a bit more airport-like, so be prepared for that. It’s considerably more genial than a typical US airport, though (a very charming security woman with an amazing Cockney accent referred to Anneka as our "lil’ chicken").

The train itself is comfortable and fast, with a very smooth ride. You’ll get a nice view of the the landscape on both sides of the Chunnel. The Eurostar slows down a bit as it goes under the English Channel.

Arrival in Brussels is pretty easy. We had little difficulty finding our local train into the city. Tickets start around $166, and the trip to Brussels took 2 hours, 30 minutes. Book early, ust in case.

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The ICE is nice – even moreso than the Eurostar.

That’s Right, ICE Man

The Eurostar set a high bar. And then the ICE, or Inter-City Express, completely vaulted over it. It was all just a touch sleeker, cleaner and more comfortable. Americans will long for high-speed rail service on par with the ICE after just one ride.

The ride from Brussels to Frankfurt was pleasant and comfortable, and without the added security measures of the Eurostar and its Chunnel route. Europe’s rail transit infrastructure is amazing, and I just don’t understand how the U.S. can allow itself to lag decades behind.

It takes about 3 hours and costs 99 EUR. Our car was often nearly empty, but I’d still book ahead of time.

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The trains in Belgian are clean and comfortable.

Based in Brussels

It’s also worth mentioning that Brussels has great rail transit headed to nearby destinations like Ghent and Bruges. For these short, 45-minute-or-so trips, you’re looking at $25 round trip on a clean, comfortable train. You can roll right to the station and purchase tickets.

A Warning

Escalators and elevators can be hard to find in Europe. And when you do find them, they might be small. Our BOB Ironman stroller was pretty awesome everywhere but in the elevators. Keep this in mind during your trip.

A Recent Visitor’s Thoughts on the Brussels Lockdown

I’m looking at a photo of soldiers on patrol during the Brussels lockdown, and I keep thinking "This is not the Brussels I saw."

In mid-October, I spent five days staying in the now-infamous Sint-Jans-Molenbeek neighborhood with my wife and 10-month-old daughter. It was part of a trip that, over two weeks, took us to Germany to visit family, to the UK to visit friends and to Belgium just because. We stayed at Hôtel BELVUE, which was our favorite hotel on this trip by a long shot. We took day trips to Ghent and Bruges.

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This is the Brussels I know.

It’s really shocking to compare the Brussels lockdown images in the news to what we found in Belgium. Most of our wandering took us south of the canal that separated Sint-Jans-Molenbeek from the city center. If I had to sum Brussels up to another traveler, I’d say things like "Stylish but easy-going. Great food, coffee and beer. Good public transit, very cool architecture, lots to do."

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This is Molenbeek, the neighborhood you’re hearing so much about during the Brussels lockdown.

I always try hard not to fall into the trap of over-estimating a city’s good side when I travel. When you’re traveling, the view is always rosier than living and working somewhere. But still, Brussels seemed to have this vibe of a healthy attitude toward balancing work and life. The streets and restaurants all seemed busy and upbeat. It was just an unbelievably pleasant place even if you’re not a fan of the secondhand smoke (which I’m not). The population was diverse, and people of all backgrounds seemed to intermingle. Only one small spray of graffiti that I couldn’t even translate but clearly mentioned Islam seemed to be the only sign of tension.

Brussels lockdown
The only sign of tension I saw, and I can’t even translate it.

Thinking of Brussels braced for a "serious and imminent attack" is sobering and sad. Recognizing places in the news photos makes this situation hit closer to home. Maybe it shouldn’t – we should, I suppose, feel the same regardless of whether we’ve been there before. But I can easily imagine some of the same people who smiled at my daughter or sat next to us at a cafe now wondering what the hell is happening in their city. And that definitely makes this personal.

I don’t have any answers about what Belgium should do. I don’t want to offer any platitudes to Brussels and the people who live and work there. I just want to offer a different view of what you’re seeing in Brussels right now for those who have never been there. And I want Belgium to do its best to keep people safe without trampling on the rights of decent people who have nothing to do with the current threat, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Read about my recent encounter with the TSA to see what happens when “security” runs amok.