hidden europe 5

Timed to perfection

by Nicky Gardner


A tribute to the Belgian entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers, founder of the Wagons-Lits company.

The morning of the tenth of July was crystal clear in the Belgian city of Liège this year. Just after eight in the morning, being a Sunday, the platforms at Liège-Guillemins station were almost deserted, very different from any other day of the week, when they would surely have been crowded with commuters. This is an uncompromising city, a place which wove its way into history through wool, then found a more industrial wealth wrought from steel. It is the city of Rosetta, a modern masterpiece of cinema verité from the Dardenne Brothers, that leaves viewers in no doubt that Liège has its gritty edge. But on this quiet Sunday morning, the brutalised scenes of hand to mouth life in the urban Liège of the film have receded. Rosetta is nowhere to be seen in the station's precincts.

Instead, at the very end of the platform, there stands an elderly gentleman, a signally lone figure among the panoply of pylons, wires and rails. Behind him, above the platforms, there is the emerging frame of the effortlessly modern monumental wings that will top Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's new station buildings. The eyes of the lone gentleman on the platform are fixed to the east, and he moves not an inch as the station announcer proclaims the departure of the 8.18 am local train to Maastricht, the Dutch city just a half hour away. Nor does the man notice the distant church bells. He is smartly dressed in a faded sort of way. He wears a uniform, in a shade of blue so dark that it might even be black. Many years ago it was probably a perfect fit, but now the tunic hangs a little loose over his stooped shoulders.

The gentleman's shoes have evidently been polished especially for the occasion. He has a lapel pin of striking dark blue, like its wearer not in its first youth, but still distinguished. The pin bears a handsome crest: two lions in profile offset by ample wreaths of laurel. With force of habit borne of many years, the observer checks the watch in his waistcoat pocket.

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