It was the last day of our weekend break. Sarah and I had booked a last minute cheap deal for a few days in Brussels, hoping to escape the forecast storms in Manchester. We had enjoyed it for the most part, a definite highlight was getting lost on the way back from Bruges and inadvertently traversing the whole of Belgium in a day. On this last day we had decided to just relax and slowly make our way to the airport in Charloui.
After a fairly subdued day of walking around the centre, taking one last look at the beautiful Grand Place we decided to head over to the airport. Arriving at the Brussels South Railway Station I quickly noticed that something seemed amiss, traffic surrounding the building was at a standstill and the queue for our shuttle to the airport was snaking its way down Avenue Fonsny as far one could see. Tentatively we joined the throng of people, hoping that perhaps a couple of busses would come at once and quickly move us on. Sadly this hope was in vain. An hour had passed before finally a bus trundled into view, finally the line started to shuffle forward. However, we were not destined to fit onto this one, by my estimation we would have to wait at least another hour before we had a chance of getting on a bus and at this point we would be at real risk of missing our flight. As the final lucky few made their way onto the bus the heavens opened. The storms from Manchester had made their way south to us and we were stuck with no umbrellas in the ensuing deluge. Deciding that enough was enough we both took the snap decision to make our way to the airport a different way despite our pre paid transfers. We rushed into the train station and quickly bought our train tickets.
The train from Brussels to Charleroi was scheduled to leave in fifteen minutes, putting us right on schedule to be able to grab a taxi to the airport, stock up on duty free chocolate and make the short hop back across the channel home. Still dripping wet we made our way to the platform and waited. And waited. Half an hour had passed with no sign of the train, panic had set in some time before and we manically tried to find some information. Finally a muffled announcement came across the tannoy, I understood very little of it, however, could clearly make out the words Charleroi, strike and cancelled. A guard then appeared and explained to us that the national strike was due to start that evening and for the next two days there would be no transport. The panic that had previously set in was increasing by the second. With only an hour and a half before the flight was due to leave we rushed outside to try to find a taxi, as expected there were none to be seen, just a throng of people in the same blind panic as we were.
Thinking quickly we dashed to the Eurostar terminal, hoping that we would be able to at least get to London and make our way back to Manchester overnight. “Two tickets to London please” we panted as we reached the desk. “Of course, that will be nine hundred Euros please” the man behind it replied. It turned out that this was the last train leaving Belgium for the next few days and all they had left were two first class tickets, which we could not even think about affording.
Dejected we slowly left the station, wondering how on earth we were going to get home. As the strike was nationwide we knew there would be no chance of a flight and after a quick look online we saw that ours was the last one leaving. We threw some ideas around – perhaps renting a car to drive to The Netherlands to try to find a ferry, or somehow getting into Germany to find a flight there? As we walked and tried to find either flights or hotels online we started to hear a heated argument in broken English. “I will not move this taxi without another two people in it” we decided to hang around and find out where this taxi might be heading. It was heading to Charloui! We’re two people we said butting in to the commotion, and we are heading the same way. “Perfect, that’s thirty Euro’s each” said the driver, talk about profiteering… Knowing that we were still risking missing our flight we reluctantly opted to go with the rip off taxi man, who promptly announced that one of us would have to ride in the trunk of the car as all of the seats were full. I volunteered myself to take the unenviable position in the back of the car, wedged in between suitcases and bursting backpacks. The taxi sped off in the direction of the airport with the driver attempting to reassure me that he had never crashed before, but that I should get down so that nobody can see me. It was at this point that I realised that not only were there masses of police officers on the streets to marshal the increased traffic but also soldiers patrolling and checking vehicles in response to Belgium’s heightened terror threat.
So there I found myself, trying to get out of Belgium, back of a taxi ducking down to avoid the attention of police and soldiers. I started to feel that the romantic weekend was quite a long way away and that I had somehow slipped unwittingly into a low budget spy movie. The drive lasted forty minutes at breakneck speed, mercifully coming to an end at the terminal. The driver popped the trunk and a very sore and stiff me unfolded myself from the narrow gap between the assorted luggage I had made for myself and tumbled out. We were just about in time for the flight. We gave the driver his money, ignoring his sudden demands for more and sprinted for the gate. Against all odds we had made it with five minutes to spare, the plane was about to start boarding. Sadly I waved goodbye to my hopes of duty free chocolate and we made our way onto the plane. Only to find out it was destined to sit on the tarmac for a further two hours.
After what was possibly the most stressful journey home I couldn’t even begin to describe the feeling as we arrived in Manchester and were finally able to collapse into bed!