Magritte Museum

'This is not a pipe' by Rene Magritte

'This is not a pipe' by Rene Magritte

It seems ironic to be looking around a museum devoted to an artist who believed people shouldn’t try to understand his work. As one of the founders of the surrealist movement, Rene Magritte famously said: “Insofar as my paintings are valid, they do not lend themselves to analysis.”

Not that this has dissuaded people from coming. Since opening in June last year, the Magritte Museum in Brussels has had more than 100,000 visitors and regularly sells out of its daily ticket allocation.

Before my visit I could have written what I knew about Magritte on the back of a stamp (and still had room for several other surrealist painters), so I was keen to learn more about such an influential figure.

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Europe by train

Thalys and Eurostar in Paris - photo by Rob McFarland

Thalys and Eurostar in Paris - photo by Rob McFarland

It sounds like a challenge from Mission: Impossible – travel more than 2500 kilometres, visiting nine cities in four countries in seven days. And all without setting foot on a plane.

In most continents such a feat would be impossible but Europe has a high-speed rail network that is the envy of the world. From Paris its tendrils reach up into Britain, Germany and the Netherlands and down into the south of Spain and Italy. Overnight trains mean you can leave London one afternoon and wake up the following morning in Venice. Or Madrid or Milan or Rome.

The advantages of rail over air travel are compelling. No more trekking to airports miles outside the city. No more liquid/gel/clear plastic bag shenanigans at customs. Trains depart from and arrive in city centres. They’re rarely late. They have comfortable seats, tables and dining cars. Some even have special family areas and Wi-Fi access. And, of course, you get to see some of the country you’re whizzing through at 300km/h.

On paper, there seems to be little contest. But what’s it really like? Is it really that easy? Do the trains run on time? Are they clean? And, most importantly of all, does it feel like a holiday? On a whistle-stop tour of Britain, Belgium, France and Switzerland, I found out.

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