Having missed the train to Schaerbeek by a minute, I decide to take a taxi to the Train Hostel.
We drive past the ornate Schaerbeek station and reach the hostel. The taxi driver gets out and points up, “look!” A dark blue train carriage with its lights on juts out at an angle atop the roof.
I thank the driver and cross the street, knocking on the window to get let in. The words ‘train hostel’ from the glass above the door cast shadows on the wall in the entranceway inside. There are old luggage bags stacked beneath the reception counter. Nicholas, the owner, asks if I’d like to look around.
We go up to the suite first – the room inside the rooftop carriage. It was designed to look like a double room you’d find on a luxury train. Train doors at the end touch the night sky and a long wicker chair sits in a corner. An original dressing table with railway objects beneath its glass top stands near to the door. There’s a grey stone bathroom adjoining the suite in the main building and the room costs €190 a night. “Do you think that’s too much?” asks Nicholas with his French accent.
“No.” I reply, “Not for what they’re now calling a, ‘poshtel.’”
“Ah yes, yes – I’d like to position us like that,” he says. He’s incredibly passionate about the project, which has taken four years from concept to finish.
“At first, the hostel was just going to be a smart revamping of a 100 year-old building, but with Train World being built just around the corner, it made sense to do something different and give it the train theme. We’re really turning the area on its head – years ago I wouldn’t have come to this part of Brussels, but the buildings are beautiful, the station is beautiful and now we have this glorious new Train World too.” Says Nicholas as he closes the door to the suite and takes me down to the next level.
There’s a door that opens to another carriage, but the interior of this one is divided into many rooms with berths for beds, just like you’d find on a European-style sleeper train.
“This can be booked out for schools, with the teacher sleeping at the end of the carriage. The kids can make as much noise as they want here.” Nicholas smiles. “And here, you can see the balcony – he opens the train door at the end and we step down onto the balcony, which looks across a courtyard complete with a gigantic waterer for steam trains, and metal tables and chairs. There’s a view of the other carriage from above too. It’s really quite something.
Back inside, we walk down past the standard hostel rooms. All have additional trainy features, like train tables, old station telephones and maps.
Back on the ground floor is a common room with a train set on the coffee table and a model train on the top of the bookshelves, filled with books to be taken when replaced with others. There are old wooden station benches and armchairs. Next door, the breakfast area also features model trains and steel containers. I point to an old wooden highchair and say, “I love this!”
“That was mine as a baby,” Nicholas laughs.
The next day I have breakfast with Nicholas before we head to Train World to be shown around by François, the wiry grey-haired bespectacled comic book artist and scenographer for the museum. He is followed faithfully by his glossy black-coated dog Jim, the pair’s relationship reminiscent of Belgium’s TinTin and Snowy’s.
First we stop at the hall of Schaerbeek station. There are small intricate models of both the Gothic cathedral-like Antwerp station and modern white-curved Liege station and railway workers clothes behind glass-fronted wooden ticket booths.
From here, we go past the courtyard with two trains, one a carriage for schoolchildren to eat in – complimenting the sleeping compartments in the carriage of the Train Hostel.
We enter the new, square metal building. At first glance it seems like any other railway museum – three old steam trains polished and proud up front, but as we go through to the next space – a room filled with railway clocks – grandfather and wall – from all over the country – a series of clock-themed visuals projected onto the wall in-front, we are suddenly standing firmly in a work of art plucked from François’ mind.
Next there’s a room with walls covered in railway memorabilia, arranged in a way the V&A might choose to do it.
Beyond this, an unexpected and harrowing display – an original deportation carriage used to transport Jews to Auchwitz in the Second World War. There is a screen on one wall that plays video footage of Jews being put onto the same style carriages, with up to 75 per car.
A centrepiece in another area is an entire railwayman’s house with 60s style kitchen complete with humorously faux-steaming coffee on the table. In the living room there are newspapers laid out with screens where the frontpage photographs would be playing black-and-white footage of the railways, just like something out of Harry Potter.
On the top floor – there’s a simulator that allows people to drive a train, and next to that, the real frontages of a new Eurostar train and a new Thalys train. There’s a cinema with first class seats from trains around the world that plays a sort of Eurovision-esque film about how trains connect people.
At the end of the tour I catch up François Schuiten, who is autographing a book for someone by drawing him on the first page.
“How long have you been involved?”
“10 years. SNCB organised a contest to find someone and I was chosen because they wanted to tell a story. The story is the most important, the spirit, the emotion, the atmosphere.”
“And has your dog, Jim followed all the way?”
“He’s five, so for the last five of ten years he’s followed me. I work on the project in the morning and the evening, which is good for him – my house is nearby and it’s a very local project so that’s a great advantage. I like the station too, I had it in my comic books years ago.
“What will you do now the project is complete?”
He smiles, “It’s a secret but it’s a very good project, impossible to say at this moment.”