Coach travel in Europe is on the rise. Catherine Wylie jumps onboard for a tour of the Christmas markets in Brussels and Valkenburg.
Bus stations are great places for people watching. A man in his early 20s, seemingly still merry from the night before, is busking in London’s Victoria Coach Station. He’s even come prepared with an amplifier. But within minutes, he has to pack up to run and catch the bus to Dover.
He tells us all he’s off on a trip of a lifetime, hitch-hiking around Europe. With an ecstatic, goofy grin, he looks back at us and bids a cinematic farewell before embarking on his epic adventure.
If it had been July, I might have rolled my eyes. But it’s Christmas, and ’tis the season to be jolly!
I don’t encounter anyone in such an extreme state of merriment on my organised coach tour to the Christmas markets in Brussels and the pretty little town of Valkenburg – but that is not to say my fellow holidaymakers are boring old fuddy-duddies.
Coach trips traditionally appeal to pensioners, and there’s good reason for that. It’s a very attractive prospect to know that everything is organised and timed to the last letter; to know you will be taken from A to B without having to strain your eyes looking at a map.
As it turns out, I find that organised, stress-free holidaying also appeals to people who have yet to find their first grey hair, as there is more than just the one young couple cosied up on the coach with a Christmassy weekend of market romance in mind.
And it’s hard not to feel warm and fuzzy when you’re on a bus draped in tinsel, with a TV screening The Vicar Of Dibley Christmas Special.
I enjoy the novelty of having a married couple drive the coach, which is a good thing, because the journey to Brussels is an all-day affair. Graeme and Sue have been a coach-driving double act for years now, and we all fall for Graeme’s pranks.
On exiting the Eurotunnel in France, he very convincingly tells us to hold our passports against the window as the French have a special scanning device that they use to quickly do their checks. We all fall for it!
Christmas market veterans (and there are many of you out there) will be aware of what’s on offer at just about every market throughout Europe. We are all too familiar with the brightly painted candle holders, the strings of coloured floral lights, and magic snow that grows when water is added. We’ve all been there and done that. What makes a Christmas market great is that special something, that unique talking point that makes them that little bit different to the last one you visited.
In Brussels, it’s the fact that you follow what feels like a fairy-lit winding trail between stalls, with a few goosebump-inducing spectacles along the way.
One of the first stalls I’m drawn to is Jacqueline Verbust’s cushion cover stall, selling pretty products any house-proud market-goer would be keen to scatter across their sofa.
As I make my way through the couples and groups of friends all enjoying gluhwein and big fat hot dogs, I notice a few other stalls selling products I haven’t seen before.
A personal favourite is a stall dedicated to spectacle-wearers who can never find their glasses.
Wooden noses with comedy moustaches or exaggerated lips serve as the perfect place to put your second pair of eyes.
Along with delicious food and great gifts for sale, there’s also plenty of festive entertainment on offer.
A brass band is followed by a female duo on the cello and violin, that simply make me stop in my tracks. Then there are the unusual vintage carousels, where horses have been replaced with other-worldly creatures, such as fairytale dragonflies. and flying dinosaurs. I also can’t resist taking a ride on a big glistening Ferris wheel.
Our visit ends with an emotive light and music show in the Grand Place as we make our way back towards the coach. Illuminations bounce off buildings in time to powerful classical music as we tilt our heads upwards and gasp in amazement.
The next day we are driven to Valkenburg – a sleepy town just over the border – where caves become an underground Christmas wonderland.
In a nutshell, it’s a claustrophobic Scrooge’s worst nightmare, but to the more festive among us, it’s an enjoyable novelty.
When we arrive, it feels like the entire population of Western Europe has descended on the small town to check out the impressive Christmas scenes created in the caves.
The most memorable is a sleeping Santa Claus, in bed, with his fat belly moving up and down.
• Catherine Wylie was a guest of Leger Holidays (0844 846 0808, www.leger.co.uk) who offers the three-night Brussels & Valkenburg Christmas Markets coach tour from £299 per person. Includes B&B accommodation and travel by Silver Service luxury coach from over 510 convenient regional joining points.