Why sleep in a truck – or Hotel DAF, as I fondly call her – if I don’t have to? Twenty-seven minutes away by train is Brussels, and my pal, Ive de Sterck. But one has to survive being tossed about on Tram 12 to Central Station first.
The driver accelerates hard into the first bend, launching my fistful of change into the stairwell. Still picking up coins, we enter the second curve where my luggage goes over. I’m still trying to pay the fare.
Backing up a few minutes sees an unfavourable exchange with a crotchety chap in Antwerp’s tourist office, housed in the main train station. I only wanted to check I’d bought a return ticket: ‘No! This is one-way,’ he roars, purpling with apoplexy.
He frowns at me, veins threatening to burst,and becomes, if anything, more animated. The advice I’m seeking, admittedly, is not really his domain, but he looks more closely at my train ticket before adding, ‘And you can come back with it.’
Arriving at Bruxelles-Nord, the ubiquitous European prostitutes line the last hundred yards of track. I barely notice them cross-legged on stools, wearing only underwear. In dim neon booths, one lady applies yet more make-up while another brushes her hair in a mirror. As I say, I barely notice. I’m here to meet Ive.
Ive, a chap I met in the Algarve eight years ago, is delightful. He has a lovely command of English, and breathes audibly through his nose when uttering witticisms. Last night I asked if we could have an adventure.
‘On a Monday?’ he replied. ‘There’s not much to do in Belgium on a Monday.’ And he emitted a little snort.
Today, he checks the “whattodo” website – for the entire country – just in case Belgium has pulled an attraction out of its weekday hat. He draws a blank. It is official, if gobsmacking; there is nothing to do in Belgium on a Monday.
Oh, come on! Don’t be ridiculous! We eventually decide on the rolling green hills of the Ardennes region. Then he offers me a “handkerchief” for my shower. ‘Ah, sorry for my English,’ he says, handing me a towel that’s not, in fact, much larger than a handkerchief. His mother drops by with his laundry.
So we’re off, crawling sedately behind agricultural vehicles on the descent into Dinant. Statues and plaques of saxophones adorn the street where Adolphe Sax was born. According to the tourist information girl, however, he only lived here for six months.
We’re in Wallonia now, up to our eyebrows in Walloons. Ive tells me we must stop speaking Flemish (which I wasn’t) and start speaking French (which I don’t). ‘Bah oui, saucisson,’ I respond stupidly. Yes, you’ve guessed it: my French stinks.
As Ive so accurately predicted, not much is open on a Monday. The finest caves in Belgium, along with the Leffe Museum and boat trips, are closed.
But the Citadel, with its 408 steps, is receiving visitors, so we puff up there and misbehave. Surely vaulting a rail and borrowing a severed plastic head for a photo is not really that naughty?…