If you are in a rush to get from Brussels to Amsterdam take the Thalys train. It is fast, comfortably but pricey. For travellers coming from London with Eurostar, it’s one easy change of train in Brussels and you’ll soon be speeding north to Amsterdam.
But if you are bound for Amsterdam from London or Paris and are travelling just for fun, might we suggest an alternative? Make for Lille and then follow our rural itinerary on through Belgian Flanders and Dutch Zeeland. This route takes in lowland landscapes that inspired Flemish and Dutch artists. And it even includes a short ferry ride along the way. This is travel as it should be.
Our route starts in Lille, which is of course just 90 minutes from London on regular Eurostar trains (and an hour north of Paris on a TGV). Onward from Lille, our suggested itinerary relies entirely on local services that do not require any pre-booking. That brings great advantages, enabling travellers to hop on and off at will. So you can stop off here and there along the way.
The particular itinerary that we commend here is a route we especially like, and we are minded to include it in the next edition of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers.
The departure point in Lille is not Lille Europe station (served by Eurostar), but Lille Flandres. It is just a ten-minute walk between the two stations. Lille Flandres is a wonderful old-style terminus — uncluttered and graceful. It is the original Lille station, its role nowadays rather eclipsed by Lille Europe, which is brash, bold and relentlessly modern. Lille Flandres is the precise opposite, a place to linger and recall the days when, long before Eurostar, you could board a night sleeper here bound for London. Yes, the carriages were shipped over the English Channel by night on a ferry.
It is easy to travel in a single day from Lille to Amsterdam by this route, and if you do you’ll certainly catch the spirit of the coastal landscapes that fringe the North Sea. Under current schedules, you can leave Lille Flandres station at 09.05 in the morning, and be in Amsterdam by late afternoon the same day.
But for lovers of beguilingly beautiful small towns, there are three places that just cry out for overnight stops. They are Bruges (in Belgian Flanders), Middelburg (the capital of the Dutch province of Zeeland) and Delft (a canal-laced community in Zuid-Holland).
Bruges is a place you need to change anyway (from train to bus). Middelburg and Delft are both on the Vlissingen to Amsterdam rail route. The beauty of that line is that trains run hourly so, if you do break your journey, you’ll never need to wait long for an onward connection.
If time is tight and you cannot afford the luxury of three overnight stops along the way, then we would recommend Middelburg as the most interesting of the three towns to make that overnight stay. It is at a convenient mid-point on the journey. You can still pause for a couple of hours at Bruges on the first day and at Delft on the second day — just enough to get a feel for the places.
Here are the key stages on the journey from Lille to Amsterdam, including for each leg the relevant table number in the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (ERT).
|Train: Lille to Bruges||1h 19m||ERT 415|
|Bus: Bruges to Breskens||1h 20m||ERT 499|
|Ferry: Breskens to Vlissingen||20 min||ERT 499|
|Train: Vlissingen to Amsterdam||2h 53m||ERT 450|
The key steps on the final section of the route (from Vlissingen to Amsterdam) are:
|Vlissingen to Middelburg||7 min||ERT 450|
|Middelburg to Delft||49 min||ERT 450|
|Delft to Amsterdam||57 min||ERT 450|
Travellers with Eurail or InterRail passes should note that such passes are not accepted on the bus or the boat. But the fares for these stretches are very reasonable. The bus from Bruges to Breskens currently costs €5 one way. The boat across to Vlissingen costs a further €2.85.
It takes courage not to go the way of the crowd. Our suggested itinerary makes a fine way of getting from Lille to Amsterdam, all the more so if you can spread the journey over two or more days. But for those in a rush, there is talk of a new direct high-speed service from Lille to Amsterdam being introduced in summer 2013. Advance details are still sketchy, but when available they will be published in the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. With a travel time of less than three hours, it will be a sure way of gobbling up the miles. But you’ll see nothing of Zeeland along the way. We think that here is a route where the slow option really is the saner choice.
Click on the following image to see a sketch map of the route: