The New York Times, November 28, 1897, p.13:|
A FEW HOURS IN BRUSSELSAfter a Few Hours on a Runaway Train
"On the American Plan."
LIGHT, HEAT, AND BATH EXTRA
Novel Use to Which the New Yorker Put His
Unused Candles — Sandstone That Permits of Almost
Limitless Ornamentation of Belgian Buildings.
BRUSSELS, Oct. 5.—There are a score of ways of quitting Germany for the Western end of the Continent, but the traveler who has had some experience at making short cuts by the little roads, in native fashion, is likely to look about for the fast trains, as I did, rather than content himself with trains that run a small number of miles in a large number of hours.
One of the best trains on the Continent is the one that goes by the name of the Continental Express, running through from St. Petersburg to London in fifty-one hours, by way of Cologne, Brussels, Ostend, and Dover, stopping only in the large cities; and I made the journey down the Rhine to Cologne expressly to catch it.
This train is to Europe very much what our through trains to the West are to America, and to make it appear doubly grand they advertise that it is "on the American system"; and so it is, with some variations. In the handsome Cologne station only passengers with tickets are admitted to the platforms, in theory; but the hotel porter, with his long experience, knew where to find a penny-in-the-slot machine into which he dropped the equivalent of 2 cents, and out came a ticket which passed him through the gates.
However odd such a contrivance might seem in America, it looks natural enough in a part of the world where you pay to go into the churches, the ruins, even the City Halls; and the great station in Cologne is better worth seeing than some of the other shows.
There was certainly a little dash about the through train when it rolled into the station—a dash that is wholly wanting in most European trains. It was drawn by a powerful engine, and when the guards stepped out they had a businesslike air that was almost New Yorkish.
There were three sleeping cars, "wagon lits," or vagon lits, as they sometimes put it, the absence of the w from the French alphabet making it a little difficult to spell either wagon or wash. These "wagons" were long like our American cars, though not as long or nearly as heavy as the Pullmans.
It was something of a temptation to try the sleepers, as fate has not yet given me a chance to investigate that part of the Continental trains. But it was after midnight when the train left Cologne, and it was due in Brussels at 5 in the morning, and turning out of bed at that hour, after a brief rest, is generally worse than not going to bed at all.
Besides the sleepers, there were several first and second class coaches, and in one of the first-class compartments we found all that could be desired for a comfortable night. There were no arms to separate the seats, so each of the long cushions, remarkably soft and springy, made a comfortable couch. There is nothing better for repose in travel than such a compartment when it contains not more than two passengers; and we were fortunate enough to have it to ourselves throughout the journey, except for a white-faced nun, who rode with us from Chenée to Liege.
Easily Satisfied Customs Officers.
The route lay through Herbesthal, Verviers, Liege, Tirlemont, and Louvain; and I have a sleepy recollection of some one in Custom House uniform opening the carriage door at Herbesthal, the frontier station, and making some rapid remarks in French, presumably about the luggage. But, finding two sleepy passengers who persisted in speaking English only, he was soon either satisfied or disgusted and shut the door, and that was the only trouble the Belgium customs gave us.
The system of examining tickets at the point of departure and collecting them at the destination, without asking for them in the train, is a convenience in night travel. It is not an invariable rule, as tickets are sometimes examined in the cars, though not often. There is a young Swiss now travelling somewhere in Germany who thinks the system all that could be desired, as he has the vein of humor that belongs to most of his countrymen, and it has given him a great deal of amusement in "Allemagne." We ran across each other several times in going up and down the Rhine, and at length became acquainted; and the acquaintance ripened when he became a fellow-guest at Zum Weissen Ross. It was in making a little excursion with him to St. Goar that I first heard of what he calls his "strongest card."
We blundered somehow into a compartment reserved for women, and at some little station the guard came along and spluttered at us like a warmed-up volcano. As I did not understand a word of it, it had no effect upon me; and the young Swiss, who was only awaiting his opportunity, remained equally passive. When the guard paused for breath the Swiss took a little brown ticket from his pocket, handed it over and asked, with a face as childishly innocent as Col. Ingersoll's:
"Ist das Bingen?"
"Bingen! Dunderhimmel! Johannisberg! You're three stations past Bingen. And this ticket reads the other way, from Cologne to Bingen. Mein Gottschenhausen, you're in the wrong train!"
Guards That Are Excitable.
The guard threw his arms and legs about till the air was full of them, and his excitement was not appeased by the rapid flow of French that the Swiss jabbered at him. I think that it is hardly possible to convey to an American who has not been there any adequate idea of the excitability of these Continental railway guards. They boil over at the most trivial things; if the train comes to a stop between stations they rush wildly up and down beside it, falling over themselves and each other.
Not that they are abusive to passengers, as far as I can make out; they vent their anger upon the earth, the air, himmel, mon Dieu, and other things that will not retali
At the last moment, when the guard seemed in danger of going into an epileptic fit, the Swiss took out another ticket from his pocket, the right one this time, ate; and their blustering is doubly amusing when you do not know what they say.
and handed it to him, saying in excellent German:
"Oh, I must have given you the wrong ticket!"
After we had changed to another compartment he explained that the ticket for Bingen had been a source of endless amusement. On his first arrival there the ticket taker was not at his post, so he passed through the gate without giving it up, and after that whenever there was trouble about anything in a train he changed the conversation by handing it out and asking innocently:
"Ist das Bingen?"
"I wouldn't take 50 francs for it!" he exclaimed. "I always hand it out first to the guard, and after he has worked himself into a fever over it I discover my mistake and give him the right one. And I always hand it in at the gate. I thought I had lost it the other day at Mayence, for the man took it without looking; but I was glad enough when he came running up the street after me."
A Morning Glimpse of Brussels.
The Continental Express landed us in Brussels just as the sun was beginning to gild the highly ornamented spire of the City Hall; and the comfort of the car left us at first with the impression that there was indeed something "American" about it. But a later examination into the facts dispelled that illusion. It had carried us about 125 miles in five hours, at a fare very nearly equal to the fare from New York to Cincinnati. The European rates of fare are about the same as the American if you go third-class; but the first-class fares are more than double. From Paris to Lyons, for instance, about 300 miles, the third-class fare is $5.05; first-class it is $11.47; but in the through trains, which are supposed to give more comforts and advantages, fares are much higher.
The long rows of shining cabs give a first insight into the life of Brussels. Not only about the station, but in various places through the city they stand ten, fifteen, twenty in a line, waiting for customers. It is far too early for the daily business; evidently they are lying in wait for the revelers who emerge from clubhouse doors to be surprised and disgusted at finding the sun shining.
Cabby is obliging, and points out the objects of interest on the way to the hotel. He scents a stranger at once, of course, and will not lose an opportunity to convince the new-comer that Brussels is a second Paris. It is almost as large as Paris, he says, though it has less than half a million inhabitants; it covers 14,000 acres, and Paris covers only 16,000.
"Ah, monsieur, here we live in houses, not in flats up in the air. Most families have their own houses. And it is healthy; ah, vaire healthy!"
He lands us in due course at the Hotel Métropole, which I am almost tempted to call one of the finest hotels in Europe; but then there are so many finest hotels in Europe. This is one of the places, however, where you associate with bronze and marble statues and tire your neck out looking at frescoes on the ceilings; far grander than any hotel in London, but a little cold, with its marble walls, at 6 o'clock in the morning.
The polyglot clerk in the front office need not wait to hear you speak; your appearance tells him what language to use upon you. Whether you came from Russia or Germany, from India or Japan, he is ready, I am told, to converse in your own language.
Candles Used for Tips.
There are some things about this hotel of the Belgian capital which would excite comment in America, but which one soon grows used to in this part of the world. The notice tacked on the back of the door explains them all. The price of one of the statues would have put gas or electric lights in all the sleeping rooms, but there is neither when you get to the upper floors. In these lower rooms, however, there are electric lights, but not in such places that they can be utilized for reading or writing. If you are inclined for such unreasonable pursuits, you can have other lights, as the notice informs you:
Lamp, 2 francs per night.|
Candle, 0.50 centimes.
Maybe this is the hotel that I heard about from one of our Consuls, where a New Yorker was shown to a room in which twenty candles were stuck in a chandelier in the center. As it was dark, the attendant lighted them all; but the guest had been in European hotels before, and made him put them out immediately. It was of no avail, however. In his bill the next day he found them charged, "Twenty candles, 10 francs."
So he went back to the room and took them all out, wrapped them in a bit of paper and slipped them into his overcoat pocket. When he was about to leave he found the servants drawn up in two lines in the hall, in the European style—ten men-servants on one side, ten maid-servants on the other, all smiling and ready for the expected tip. Then he drew out his package and distributed the candles, one to each. "Allow me, Monseiur," said he, with a bow; "permit me, Madame. They are very superior candles, I assure you; I paid ten cents apiece for them"; and he left them all staring at their candles like so many altar boys.
But light alone is not enough; sometimes a little heat is required, and you can have it on these terms:
Heating by steam, per day, 1 franc. For the evening, 0.50 centimes.|
Heating by gas, per day, 2 francs. For the evening, 1 franc.
If a bath should be required, it could be had in various forms:
Large bath, hot or cold, towels included, 2 francs.|
Hip bath or tub, 0.75 centimes. Footbath, 0.50 centimes.
The list is incomplete, it will be observed, in several respects. It does not give the price of a bath without towels, nor mention the fact that you must carry your own soap. And while it includes bran, starch, and soda, it omits charcoal, ground phosphate, and other equally suitable bathing materials.
But while these little things are food for merriment, the fact remains that you pay three francs a day here for a room that would cost three dollars a day in New York, in an equally good hotel, or six francs for a five dollar room.
City of the Kiekenfretters.
The Government evidently has done everything possible for the improvement of its capital. The town was built on the edge of a swamp and took its original name, Broeksel, from that fact. And a little river, the Senne, ran through it. But the swamp has been filled in, and the river has been covered over. In driving through the inner boulevards you go over the top of the river without knowing it.
So good a drainage system has been invented that various European cities have copied it; and the water is said to be very pure, for Continental water, though few people drink it.
There are street cars running in all directions, by which any part of the city can be reached quickly and cheaply; and living is said to be better and cheaper here than in most places. Belgians call the natives of Brussels Kiekefretters, on account of their great fondness of chickens and other good things to eat.
The city, like many another, is divided into old and new towns, the old town being low and containing, of course, all of the quaint old buildings, and the new town occupying an adjoining plateau on which are the modern palaces and public offices and most of the fine residences.
"I don't know what France would do without this soft sandstone," a Brussels man said to me in pointing out some of the handsome buildings. "This place is built of it, and Paris and Lyons and Marseilles and most of the large cities. To be sure, this is out of France politically, but geographically and geologically there is very little difference. We have the same rocks and the same clays, and the sandstone seems to have been made specially for the climate.
"Look at any one of of these old buildings; see the immense amount of carving in stone. To do that in your country would cost you more millions than even America could afford, because you have to use much harder material. This cream-colored sandstone is very soft and almost as easy to carve as chalk.
"One of these buildings would hardly stand through a Winter in your climate, as the stone is very porous and the alternate freezing and thawing would knock it to pieces.
"Just imagine such carvings as these in the Town Hall or in one of your New York buildings. The snow would gather in the hollows and melt into water, the water would freeze, and in a few days the carving would be a wreck. Here it answers well because we have no extreme cold, and it is cheap and easily cut."
Stone Cutting With Saws.
We stopped in a stoneyard where some masons were preparing the blocks for a new building. Some were standing by the side of great cubes, sawing them to pieces with big saws more easily, apparently, than they could have sawed hard wood. Others were chiseling patterns in stones that had been planed down smooth with little hand planes.
The material looked exactly like the coral limestone used for buildings in Bermuda and Nassau. When I took up a fragment I found that I could cut it easily with my pocketknife.
This was sufficient explanation of the presence of so much ornamentation on both old and new buildings. With the artist's model before him, a good workman could produce two or three full-grown angels or a dozen cherubs in a single day.
The roofs of all these buildings, however, show that even in the absence of sandstone there would be an abundance of building material. The same red clay that makes the handsome red tiles of which the roofs are constructed would make excellent bricks...
The Town Hall I think is the victim of the engraver. It is the building of Brussels that most strangers are impatient to see, and that they feel acquainted with before they see it, because they have known it on paper all their lives. Undeniably it is a handsome building, but hardly equal to the impression created by the familiar pictures.
All over Europe pictures of this celebrated building hang in public and private places, making one believe it so vast that it would be useless to try to see more than one corner at a time. But the average eye can take in the whole structure without a strain.
The soiled condition of the lower story might be forgiven if they had put a tower in the centre; but the tower is considerably off to one side, giving something of the impression of a steamship with her funnel sprouting out close to the rail. The curious fact, however, adds somewhat to the pleasure of the sight, for it is not every day that one can see a fine, large building with its tower in the wrong place.
They tell the story here that when the architect discovered his error too late to remedy it he hanged himself in despair, but modern architects say, and this is much more likely, that the tower was originally at the end of the building, and that the part beyond it was added at a later period.
Town Hall and Its Neighbors.
If the Town Hall itself is a little disappointing, there is no disappointment in its surroundings. It forms one side of a large open square, on other sides of which are the King's House and the House of the Dukes of Brabant. Like many other European squares, this square is a triangle. And among and between these large buildings are the houses of the ancient guilds, some nearly as they were centuries ago, others carefully restored.
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