Across Belgium in three hours

One train journey traverses more or less the entirety of Belgium. It travels from Ostend to Eupen by way of Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Leuven, Liège, Verviers, and Welkenraedt. It passes through Flanders, Brussels, Wallonia, and the German-speaking part of Belgium, linking the country's three language communities. It is a properly federal institution, and as such, it is notable. Belgium is famously fractured, with six parliaments – seven if the EU’s parliament is included in the count. The train makes its way across the country in just over three hours, the first train leaving Ostend at 04:40 and the last at 18:40, running every hour in between at 40 minutes past the hour.

Ostend is the towering hub of Belgian coastal tourism, sitting almost directly at the midpoint of Belgium's coastline. There are signs for rent and sale throughout: flats and houses alike. It is windy – when is it not? – with seagull histrionics piercing the air. The Sint-Petrus-en-Paulus Church anchors the town's core. It is Neo-Gothic and of a suitably grand scale, with an enormous square in front of it. It is cold at 5C, but somehow more refreshing than bracing. With fancy bakeries, well-loved cafés, and fastidiously maintained flats, Ostend is bourgeois. It is not, however, without its oddball elements, which include a dusty little shop selling seashells and other treasures of the sea. The very wide sweep of the promenade along the beach is chilly in early March; still, one can easily project the warm weather appeal of Ostend.

The train station is grandiose, with an enormous bicycle park to match. The station itself is in the midst of a massive renovation. (In this it is not alone; many train stations across Belgium are being spruced up.) Passengers walk out from the ticket hall toward the tracks through an open area, a disassembled wall on one side. The roof has been removed and the windows are missing their glass. A long, unused red walkway connects the train station to the port. There may no longer be any regularly scheduled ferry services to or from Ostend, but the infrastructure remains.

The platforms are long and curve gently. The Ostend-Eupen train consists of twelve cars and I board the final of these – the first car, that is – barely accessible from the tapering platform. The car is empty, and I remain the sole passenger until Bruges.

It is flat and industrial heading out of Ostend. The train moves slowly away from the coast, almost precisely due east. The fields look marshy, waterlogged. About four kilometers outside of Ostend the train begins to speed up. There are canals everywhere – between fields and alongside the train tracks. The fields themselves are quite muddy, with little mounds of dirt and tall dried blond grasses along their edges.

Approaching Bruges, a striking brick mansion appears beyond a tree-lined driveway; shortly thereafter, there are light industrial buildings and the E403 motorway, and then, quite quickly, the town itself: the towers of Sint-Salvator Cathedral and the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, prim brick rowhouses, modern duplexes, and the greenswards of the Koning Albert I park. At Bruges, five people enter the car and settle down to sleep or work.

Following Bruges the train arcs slowly toward the south and then picks up speed. Very quickly the landscape starts to look rural again. By Oostkamp it is wooded; open fields follow. There are tree-lined single-lane roads. Beernem appears in clusters, with one notably modern house, grey and angular. Sound barriers appear, followed by wooded areas, trees insubstantial and diminished in late winter. After Aalter, proper farmland resumes for a bit. At Bellem, Mariahove, a manor house graced by a pond, peeks out between trees. (Once a family estate, it is now a Christian retreat centre.) Hansbeke catches the eye with a neo-Baroque steeple at odds with the plain neo-classisist church beneath that justifies its existence.

At Landegem the train crosses over a wide canal that flows on to Zeebrugge. And then Ghent announces itself with huge tower blocks, the first sign since Ostend of a real city. The railway yard is huge. It feels as if the European rail network begins in earnest here. On the far side of the railyard is old Ghent, but the train station itself is more immediately impressive: a gleaming platform with pink signage and lots of steel and light. (The rest of the station, currently under construction, is dire and dark, delivering a strictly and not particularly engaging utility.) After departing Ghent, the train glides through the city at about a third-story level along a graceful stretch of rowhouses. The outer reaches of Ghent consist of some factories, a house with a large covered swimming pool, modern villas, new unfinished brick houses, empty and devoid of doors and windows. Across the Ringvaart canal, the villas thin out and anonymous suburban developments predominate.

And then suddenly we’re back among fields and gargantuan wind power turbines. For the first time the track bed dips, almost hiding a town’s steeple. We stay in this little ravine for some time. When the train comes up for air, around the village of Mere, before Aalst, we see the journey’s first piece of rolling landscape.

The outskirts of Aalst are indistinct: warehouses; big trucks; a building with solar panel slapped on it like thick stickers. The train skirts the town to the south, revealing houses with vegetable plots, duck ponds, and farming equipment. The conductors finally materialise to check tickets, then sit down to converse and sip soft drinks. In Sint-Katherina-Lombeek there are glowing greenhouses and one spectacularly collapsing farmhouse, with open agricultural fields and wind turbines on the far horizon. There is farmland here again, and hills – not really hills; rolling land. Platforms and cement blocks running alongside the tracks are covered with graffiti.

Brussels is visible from around Schepdaal, though the surrounding area continues to feel rural. Just before the train runs alongside a golf club with the fancy name of the Royal Amicale Anderlecht we enter Brussels Capital Region proper, and it quickly begins to feel as if we are in a big city. In no time we are buried in graffitied concrete. The destination board turns bilingual. There are massive train yards, light industry plants, and empty office parks. The train slows.

At Brussel Zuid/Midi four people get off and two board: a young guy with big eyes and a tall angular man, who removes his jacket and stacks his bags neatly. The conductors leave, walking in collegial unison. Several tracks away, the Eurostar tracks are protected by tall fences. As the train moves on sex shops and a big boulevard are visible. The track runs through the city, along the unkempt backsides of residential buildings. In contrast to the fastidious museum piece perfection of Ghent and Bruges, Brussels appears as a raw urban cross-section, with nothing on intentional display. And then we are plunged into darkness, long neon tubes providing an almost nightclublike atmosphere. Centraal/Central station is underground. Unlike Zuid/Midi, this station is in good condition.

A new arrival speaks in French to a man on her mobile. Lots of mmms. We emerge into very bright light reflecting off huge glass towers.

Noord/Nord has an art deco charm, with well-designed benches. More new passengers filter in. Next we speed by Schaerbeek's beautiful old station. This is a very industrial stretch, full of abandoned buildings. We leave Brussels and cross back into Flanders, skirting the airport. As if on cue, a LOT Polish Airlines plane ascends steeply on the left. The suburbs are dense. Zaventem has a small, modern station; airport ground lighting systems follow, and then the suburbs gradually taper off. A huge lot of new cars appears at Kortenberg. Agricultural fields return. A horse rubs up against a green building, unaware of her symbolic role in signifying the return of the countryside.

The landscape is quite anonymous for some time. Stations are empty, suburban, new. Some beat-up greenhouses in back gardens provide a measure of grit. In Herent, close to Leuven, there are shiny, stylish apartment blocks. And then on arrival in Leuven the landscape boasts ridges – another break in the flatness of the landscape, this one predictive.

Leuven casts very different impressions than Brussels. There are few signs of industrial heritage along the track leading into town. At Leuven the conductor asks a passenger to modulate his speaking voice. The destination board lists the next stop, the francophone Walloon city of Liège, by its Dutch name: Luik. (Following the bilingualism that prevailed in Brussels, the destination board has reverted to unilingual Flemish.) A row of trees along a ridge suggests the changing landscape to come. There is no mistaking that, topographically at least, we are leaving the Lowlands. Leuven may sit just 28 meters above sea-level but the terrain is shifting quickly. For the first time my mobile phone loses its signal.

Rather unfortunately, it is at this point that it becomes difficult to track the landscape, between tunnels and the partially submerged track. When we reemerge around Boutersem the main feature is the major European route, the E40, which shadows the train. The E40 extends well into Central Asia, covering almost 5000 miles in total. The next town, Tienen, is hard to see over the E40. This is, it must be said, a fairly unappealing vista. To the south is Hoegaarden, though it’s impossible to see it, as the track dips again. When the train resurfaces the highway is predominant.

We will soon be saying goodbye to Flanders, though it will not go without a fight. The track dips into Wallonia, then back into Flanders again, then into Wallonia, then Flanders for a last time, and then, just before the village of Berloz, into Wallonia for good. (Technically, for a few meters, the track pierces Flanders twice during its first passage through Wallonia, but them’s the stuff of pettifogging jurisdictionality.) Once we’ve crossed into Wallonia for good, announcements begin in French and are followed in Flemish. We’re still following the E40, which continues to be the primary feature of the line of sight. The train passes a rest stop, with signs for a Total petrol station and a Lunch Garden restaurant. It remains difficult to track the countryside. Here and there the track arches somewhat to permit views of muddy fields and glimpses of small-scale agriculture, villages, and squat houses.

And then, mercifully, we lose the E40. The landscape alternates between monotony – a rubbish/recycling facility – and treats – Awans, a gently sloping village. According to the map on my mobile phone, just beyond Awans, invisible from the train, is an IKEA. The train approaches Liège on what feels like a steep downward incline, an urban valley crowded with houses, many streets facing the train track on a diagonal. The cross-section is attractive: a sharp grassy gore; backs of bricked buildings, some nicely renovated; a residential roof teeming with greenery. We descend into the extraordinary Liège-Guillemins station, designed by Santiago Calatrava. It’s a monument to modernism, soaring and bold. Leaving, we cross the Meuse, first alongside a very modern bridge, then adjacent to a cement bridge in poor condition. The superficial impression is of a city caught between showpieces and neglect.

After Liège the train really begins to climb. The terrain opens up to reveal modest river basins. In Trooz a lone factory stack rises over uniform roofs. Worn plastic bags cluster along the banks of the Vesdre, or Weser. There is evidence of mining further on, with stone bluffs appearing as if they have been sliced vertically. The train sails past a village called Basse Fraipont, just its roofs visible. At the edge of Nessonvaux a beautiful mansion is visible. At its helm is a widow’s walk guarded by a wrought-iron fence. The landscape gets increasingly dramatic. We are climbing from Liège, at 65-odd meters above sea level, to Verviers, which sits 200 meters above sea level.

The railway skirts the Vesdre and passes through several hillside tunnels. The river is hugged by buildings in a consistent if not unbroken type of ribbon development. At Verviers, the rest of my fellow passengers alight. It’s just me now, along with a single conductor. Verviers' ornate neo-classical building, the city’s Grand Theatre, is the most interesting structure in spitting distance.

From Verviers on to the town of Limbourg is an uninterrupted stretch of developed territory; north of Limbourg this changes: hillsides, the occasional farmhouse, and an overpass. Then a slow arrival, on a tilted track, to Welkenraedt, another train station midway through renovation. An austere church keeps watch over three teenaged boys playfully kicking one another.

The final stretch has come. The train continues to climb to Eupen. Dramatic riverine valleys have yielded to a plateau of undramatic moorland, a smattering of industrial facilities in between. The stretch from Verviers on to Welkenraedt and Eupen is undersubscribed. Welkenraedt offers a service across the border to Aachen, but Eupen is a cul-de-sac as far as the train network is concerned. (Anyone wanting to travel quickly between Brussels and Aachen would probably hop aboard the Paris-Cologne Thalys, in any case.)

By the train station, Eupen is unassuming. Just beyond it however there are narrow hillside streets that lead down to a cobblestone square. I stop in a bakery and order a coffee, in German, which I drink under a portrait of Belgium’s Queen Paola. I have a conversation with a man that follows a very familiar organizational logic. In no time we are deep in the minutiae of consumer goods pricing – washing powder singled out in particular detail – with a digression devoted to Sunday shopping hours on both sides of the border. We may be in Belgium, but the mode of approach is German.

Eupen is the seat of Belgium's 75,000-odd strong German-speaking community. The community’s parliament is housed in a new, grey building on a hill at the outskirts of town, adjacent to the headquarters of Belgischer Rundfunk (BRF), Belgium’s German-language public broadcaster. In the lower town there are two Fritüren, or frites shops. This spelling is a direct Germanification of the Dutch Frituur and the French Friture and, as far as I can tell, is unique to German Belgian. Online research turns up a clutch of Fritüren across German-speaking Belgium and none in Germany, and German dictionaries refer to this spelling as obsolete. (I have never seen a Fritüre in Germany, though I realize that I’ve never really been on the lookout for them.)

All the while I'd thought of Ostend as the major artery and Eupen as the cul-de-sac, but Ostend has become a cul-de-sac as well. Not a single passenger ferry sails between England and Ostend these days. The city sits against the channel, the sea a wall. Belgium's federal train travels from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac. In its steady doggedness it is a form of persistence.