It is better to travel well than to arrive, at least, that’s how the saying goes. The idea being that the journey itself should be an equal experience, form part of the memory, add some quality to the overall excursion, as much as the destination. That’s the theory anyway.
Coach travel operators Ouibus, however, seem not to have heard of this phrase.
I’m an adventurous type of person, open to new ideas and experiences, and so never having travelled to Europe by coach, normally preferring the Eurostar or plane, I thought that my planned trip from London to Bruges and on to Lille was within reasonable distance for a coach trip. Ouibus, by the look of their website, were the perfect balance of affordability and service that I was looking for, and so there I was at Victoria Station at the appointed hour to start my journey to Belgium and then to France. I was there, but sadly the coach wasn’t!
With no representatives from Ouibus available at Victoria Station, there was no way of knowing if the coach was late, cancelled, or if the departure times had changed. As my fellow travellers and I sat around the designated waiting area, a glorified cloakroom with all the charm of a low brow nightclub the morning after their busiest night and prior to the cleaners arriving, we came up with a quite reasonable plan. Ring customer service. A twenty-minute wait to be connected to an international number only to then be disconnected without speaking to anyone didn’t improve collective spirits, but finally, only two hours late, our carriage drove into view.
Not quite the level of luxury that the website had indicated, but there was designated seating to prevent that disorderly scrum that happens as people rush for the best seats. Sadly, the Ouibus staff failed to regulate or organise the flow of bodies, and the system quickly descended into chaos. But at least we were now on the way.
Or we would have been if the coach had been punctual, but the two-hour delay ensured that we were stuck in the worst of the London commuter traffic, adding another two hours to the journey as we inched our way through the nose to tail congestion that is part and parcel of inner city life. There was a Wi-Fi connection, but this was only a limited service, so I occupied my time watching the south of England and eventually the west of Belgium pass by the window.
The time allotted to a long lunch stop I had planned in Bruges had already been eaten up by the delays, and again without a company representative to consult, I hopped straight onto the Lille connection, which was surprisingly comfortable and spacious for the remaining 45-minute jaunt.
And if my journey had been frustrating and disappointing, The Grand Hotel Bellevue in Lille was total consolation. A 4-star hotel but plush enough to have been rated 5, located on the Grand Place or main square, wonderful urban views and positioned right at the city’s heart. What more could you ask for? Grand, plush bedrooms? They have that too. Great service? Absolutely. The feeling of being treated like royalty? Check.
Lille is not only a great city for families and romantic breaks, historical visits, and to soak up the rich culture, it has a wonderful gay social scene, especially at La Privilege, a very stylish and chic gay friendly bar and club, beautifully embellished and not overly expensive, and all just a short walk from the hotel. If you feel like a bit of a change, then Vice Versa across the road, though more of a boisterous, clubland vibe, is also worth checking out.
The city, in general, is a wonderful experience; there is strong support for local arts and the cafe culture, and night-time social scenes are vibrant and friendly. Two nights are enough to experience everything you need, and if you prefer a quieter place to stay whilst doing so, Grand Hotel Bellevue’s sister Hotel Couvent des Minimes is your answer.
So my advice to you comes in the form of another famous phrase. You get what you pay for and Ouibus’ cheap ticket price is such for a reason. Say no to the Ouibus, say oui (yes) to Eurostar, but ensure you experience both Bruges and Lille at least once in your life.
Written By: Ray Si – Proud Member of IGLTA