It is barely 2018 and I am already back on the road! 😉 I took the TGV (French fast train) this afternoon from Le Mans, and then the Thalys to Brussels. You may wonder: what is she doing in Belgium??? Let me tell you everything! 😀 I will spend a few days in a hospital in Leuven to do some eye tracking tests with radiologists for my PhD. Therefore I thought I would enjoy this opportunity to travel a bit... 😀
I have only been once to Belgium so far. It was in June 2015. I spent 4-5 days in Ghent for a conference (a very beautiful city). It was sunny and warm, I really enjoyed my stay there. A few pictures for the eyes...
After the MIPS conference (Medical Image Perception Society), I spent a day in Brussels. I did not have much time to visit the city, but I still saw a few places (probably the main ones). I was slightly disappointed by the Manneken Pis! It is tiny! :O I did not even take a photo of it... 😉
What are the plans for this weekend? Well, I am staying at the Midi Station Hotel for the night, an hostel located very close to the Midi Station (Gare du Midi), which is perfect for me as it is where I arrived. Tomorrow morning, I will meet Emilie (#BestHousematesEver) to explore the city. I may meet Sophie as well (#Québec4ever) later in the day! 😀 Anyway, I will tell you all that in my next posts.
I met Emilie at the Gare du Midi on Saturday morning, after a big breakfast. We walked around the city centre, under a particularly grey sky. We went to the Grand-Place, the arcades Saint-Hubert, and then climbed the city to the Cathédrale Saints-Michel-et-Gudule (lol!). "The Grand-Place is the central square of Brussels. It is known world-wide for its decorative wealth. The Grand-Place is considered as one of the most beautiful places in the world and was registered at the UNESCO."
"The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert are glazed shopping arcades that preceded other famous 19th-century arcades, such as the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan or the Passage in St Petersburg."
We also went to the Centre belge de la bande dessinée (comic arts museum), where we had good fun. For €10 / adult or €7 until 25 years old, you can discover the History beyond comics. We were very happy to see things such as: Lucky Luke, Boule et Bill, les Schtroumpfs... 😀
We ended our day walking back to la Gare du Midi with our first waffle of the weekend.
On Sunday morning, we took the train back to Brussels (we were indeed staying in Charleroi) where we met Hugo, one of Emilie's colleagues. We drove from Brussels to Brugge, 100 km North. It was freezing all day long; the wind was pretty awful. However, we discovered a pretty city.
NB: if you are international, you may not know much about Belgium. For your information, Belgium is home to two main linguistic groups: the Dutch-speaking, or Flemish community (about 59% of the population) and the French-speaking, or Walloon community (about 40% of the population). The last 1% represents the German speakers. Brugge, Gent and Leuven are located in Flanders, whereas Liège and Namur are located in Wallonia. Brussels is a bit of a special case.
Let's talk about Brugge! 😀 Brugge in Dutch, Bruges in French or English. The historic city centre is a World Heritage Site of UNESCO. It is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North.
As we reached the city around lunchtime, we started our visit by... looking for a restaurant! :P French people are in general very strict about food; I think Emilie, Hugo and I are worse. We would NEVER miss an opportunity to eat (good food). 😀 So we had a three-course meal next to a chimney = perfect. We were then ready to explore the city... under the sun! Which appeared shyly when we were having lunch.
We mostly walked around the city, entered in some churches and cathedrals, had a look at some shops... We did not do any particular visit, such as the Belfort or museums, but the architecture itself is enough!
Our favourite spot was the Markt, the main square of the city.
Once again, we ended the day with a delicious waffle! 😉
On Sunday evening, I took the train from Brussels to Leuven (30 km East). I will stay in town for a few days and will try to visit around, however, I will spend most of my time at the University Hospital for my PhD.
What I can tell so far about the city. It looks very well organised: cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians manage their way easily. There are cycling paths everywhere, therefore bikers do not even wear helmets. I think it is very safe to cycle here, compared to UK (where there are no cycling paths at all and where bikes are less than shit). Moreover, it is interesting to notice that people do not lock their bikes, and you can find bikes everywhere. I like this mentality, closer to the Canadian one than to the British one, where people are very very very suspicious all the time (and paranoid). Public transports are very good; buses are on time and regular, it is very easy to commute.
What else? People are very welcoming so far! 😀 At least in the department I am visiting.
Yesterday, I learnt that my "boss" would be away today. I thought: I will sleep in and then explore the city! 😀 Moreover, I checked the weather forecast, it was supposed to be sunny all day long. I was so excited about the idea, as I have barely been seeing the sun for 3 weeks... My plans did not really go as expected. Firstly, I had to wake up early to be at the hospital at 9am to meet a radiologist. Then, the sun did not show up. What a disappointment! :( However, I still went for a visit of the city.
I left the hospital after lunch and started to walk to the East. My first stop was Kruidtuin, the botanical garden. It was created in 1819 for the medical students and is the oldest one in Belgium. I was pretty disappointed, but I guess January is not the best time to visit a garden...
Oops, a night passed! I forgot to finish my post. Or maybe I was too lazy, and I had to go to a launderette. Anyway. I then walked to the North, aiming to visit Sint-Geertruiabdij, or Saint Gertrude's Abbey. When I reached the place, I walked around the abbey but could not find the entrance... (Emilie, does it remind you of something? 😉) After reading some information about the abbey, I learnt that the buildings have been restored and refurbished as housing. Too bad for me! At least I found a cat there.
After these two "disappointments", I decided to walk towards the city center, hoping for more luck. Indeed, it was a way better idea. I discovered some nice paved streets, with small shops and cafés. The architecture is always very interesting. You may be able to see a statue on the picture with all the bikes... It is the statue of Erasmus! 😀 He is the most famous philosopher ever in Leuven.
Right next to the statue of Erasmus can be found Sint-Pieterskerk, or Saint Peter's Church, with its late Gothic architecture. However, there is nothing to be seen inside, as they are apparently doing some refurbishments... By the way, Saint Peter's looks like a cathedral, but it is not! As there was no bishop in Leuven, Saint Peter's is a church.
On the other side of the church, one can discover the Grote Markt or Grand Place. Everything on this place had been destroyed during the first World War, except the City Hall. You may wonder how I know all that... 😀 I went to the tourist office (located next to the city hall) with a view to pick up a map. And I somehow ran into two people, a touristic guy and a French solo traveler woman who were on their way to visit the city hall. I did not plan at all to join them, as my plan was to visit the library (I will talk about it later), but I then discovered that the visit was only 4 euros, and the guide seemed interesting... So here I went to visit the City Hall! 😀 If you wonder how it looks like, it is pretty impressive (check photo below). It is apparently one of the most famous Gothic buildings in the world.
The City Hall is nowadays empty, since the employees were relocated in another building next to the train station. We were therefore only 3 of us in this huge building; the touristic guide, Suzy (the French woman traveling around Belgium with CouchSurfing and Blablacar), and me. The visit lasted one hour long, during which we learnt a lot about Belgium, about Leuven, about the building, and even about paintings! lol! I was slightly skeptical at the beginning (being not at all interested in paintings), but I eventually enjoyed the visit. What remained (amongst others): Belgium has been a country only since 1830! Before that, it used to depend on countries such as France and then Netherlands. What else? Leuven (Louvain) used to belong to French speakers, they were then kicked out by Dutch speakers, and this is why they created Louvain-la-Neuve (Leuven the New). Everything makes sense now! 😀
After this very interesting visit, Suzy offered me to join her to see the Groot Begijnhof, or the Great Beguinage. I declined the offer as I was hungry and I had to do my laundry before it was too late... I still wanted to visit the Universiteitsbibliotheek, or the University Library (as I mentioned earlier). However, the tower was opened until 5pm and it was already 4.30, so I decided to postpone the visit. The building looks very impressive from the outside, I almost felt like studying! :D
When I tell people that I have never been to Germany or to the Netherlands, they usually do not believe me... "It is so close to France!", "You have been to Cuba and Iran and China and...!". So now, I can say that I went to Germany! 😀 I indeed spent the week-end in Köln (Cologne). On Friday evening, Léa (a French girl working in Brussels) picked me up in Leuven on her way to Cologne. She already had 2 passengers, a German girl and an Indian guy. The journey went very well, with some nice chats and laughs. Once again, I totally recommend Blablacar! Check my article on "travel tips" to know more about it! 😀
I then met Ola, my CouchSurfing host, from Nigeria. He welcomed me to his place with a (spicy!) soup and some red wine. We then took the tramway to the other side of the Rhine river. By the way, Cologne is quite a big city! My plan was to walk around, as I did in Brussels, but the Cologne is actually a lot bigger. So we went to the "main" city center, to a typical German bar called Papa Joe's Biersalon, where I tried the Kölsch, a typical beer from Cologne. For me, it tasted like all the other beers, and I did not like it... lol
When you walk in the streets of Cologne, you can notice many people who are dressed up. The city is indeed famous for its Karneval (carnival), starting on the 11th of November, then paused for Christmas time and back again in January/February. This made me think about New-Orleans, which I visited last summer.
On Saturday morning, I went to the Schokoladenmuseum (chocolate museum). I read on a travel blog that the one in Brussels was a joke, but that this one was pretty interesting. I should admit that it was! As they managed to deal with quite a wide variety of things around chocolate, such as: the origins of the cocoa, the fabrication of chocolate, and its history over the world. Did you know that hot chocolate used to be a luxury product, and became available to everyone long after coffee and tea? 😀 My favourite thing in the museum was the chocolate fountain... or 200 kg of Lindt melted chocolate. Paradise! lol!
If you do not have enough money or time to visit the museum, make sure you go to have a look at the shop. The number of different chocolate tablets and eggs and rabbits and cars and shoes and everything you can find there is impressive! 😀 They even have VW vans in chocolate! :O Now, you just have to resist... or not... ^^ (I did resist! Because they give free samples during the visit of the museum haha.)
After that, I went back to Ola's for lunch. He prepared me typical food, which completely reminded me of my stay in Ghana! 😉 Jolof rice with chicken, plantains, and even fufu! You should have a look at my article on Ghana to know what I am talking about... I sent pictures to Kwesi, my Ghanaian friend. 😀
Later in the afternoon, I headed back to the city center and went inside the cathedral, called Kölner Dom in German. As it is the main attraction in Cologne, the building was crowded. It is massive, as one can guess from the outside, but it is also very dark. My original plan was to go to the top of the cathedral, but the visits stop at 3.30pm every day... 😦
I therefore wandered around the city, which was also crowded (Saturday evening + sales). I went to the Lego store and to other random shops. I bought a backpack!!! I could not resist, it was so beautiful! 😉
It was freezing but I decided to walk all the way back, particularly because I wanted to see the city by night and the so-called Love Bridge (you know, these bridges where stupid people lock their "love"). Haha, you probably think that I am an angry single lady or something, but no! What I mean is, love cannot (should not) be locked! Love should be free!!! 😀
When I woke up on Sunday morning, I was happy to discover some blue sky from the window!!! I had not seen sunshine for ages... The city looks a lot better in the sun. Well, everything looks better. <3
I went back to the cathedral, where I bought my ticket for the tower (only €2 for students), and climbed the 533 steps to the top. This was pretty exhausting, particularly with my asthma and my 2 two bags, but I made it - after a few breaks. The panorama worth it! However, it was very complicated to take some pictures up there, as there is a grid all around us for safety. I managed to take a few nice shots though. The wind was strong and freezing, and it did not felt good on my sweat (from climbing haha) so I did not spend a long time at the top. Another way to have a nice view on the city is to go to the top of the KölnTriangle, the Triangle tower, on the other side of the Rhine river.
When you say "Cologne" in France, people always associate the city with the "Eau de Cologne". I thought I had to visit the Eau de Cologne museum before leaving, so this is where I went after my climbing session. They offer guided visits in 10 languages; I joined the one in English (by the way, I would recommend you to reserve before going, as you do not know in advance which language will be next! :P). The entrance is €10 for adults, but I paid 7 with my ISIC card (international student card which can be ordered online). The visit itself was given by an actor pretending to be Mr. Farina, the creator of the Eau de Cologne, and it was very interesting, interactive and amusing. I preferred this visit more than the one of the Chocolate museum, and would recommend the Eau de Cologne museum if you hesitate between both. I learnt about the story behind the Eau de Cologne, its fabrication, its development, and I smelt different perfumes. PS: it is not allowed to take pictures in the museum, this is why you can notice a lack! PS2: the Eau de Cologne was invented by an Italian in Germany, but the name is French because trading was all in French at the time. 😀
That concluded my weekend in Germany! I met Patrick, an English guy who was driving from Bonn to England. He discovered Blablacar recently and was way too nice and offered to pick up and drop off people everywhere! We had a lot of fun, even though the journey back to Leuven took us almost 4 hours instead of 2, due to all our detours and waiting times. I chatted with a German girl and with a Bangladeshi guy in the car. Patrick dropped me off in front of my Airbnb in Leuven, before making his way to Calais, and even messaged me this morning to make sure I made my way home! :) I told him to advertise Blablacar among his British fellows, he agreed with my point! :)
Today is Thursday. It is already almost the end of my stay in Leuven. Time flies! On Tuesday evening, I met Emilie and Hugo (see my post on Bruges) in Brussels, where we had a quick but nice time at Les 2 Orients, an Asian restaurant next to Midi station. Their Speculoos tiramisu is delicious by the way! 😉
Did you know that the world is tiny? Let me tell you. In 2014, I took a Blablacar from Bordeaux to Rennes, to visit Clotilde, a friend I met in Québec. During the whole journey, I chatted with Klaire, my driver, about many topics including travelling. She spent some time in Australia before heading back to France, where she met Walton. I had been chatting on Facebook with Walt for 4 years, without having the chance to meet him. He recently moved from Sydney to Berlin, and told me to visit, but I haven't had time/opportunity. Last week, I learnt that Walt is going to London end of January; I told him I would be there as well, therefore we planned to meet. And, a few days ago, Walt asked me if I knew stuff about Brussels... He is indeed coming for a day this week. I told him: are you kidding me? I am currently in Leuven, i.e., 20 minutes from Brussels! And we found out that he was also coming to Leuven. Tiny world. So we had a nice dinner last night in Leuven, at Etna Trattoria, a good Italian restaurant. 😀
This afternoon, I escaped from the hospital for an hour, with a view to visit one of Leuven must-see, the Groot Begijnhof (Grand Béguinage), dating from the 13th century. It is nowadays a UNESCO site. The place must be extremely pretty in the sun.
I was disappointed because the sun got out right after I came back to the hospital! 😦
Tonight is my last night in Leuven, I figured. I therefore went for a walk in the city with my camera, and took a few pictures next to the train station and the Grote Markt. I should admit that Walton inspired me as he sent me a picture of the City Hall by night yesterday! 😀
The sun (eventually) showed up for my last day in the city! 😀 As I planned, I went to visit the Universiteitsbibliotheek and toren (the university library and tower). I thought I would climb some steps to the top and enjoy the panorama, but actually the visit was a lot better than that! I paid €5 (student price), and I got an audioguide which explained me the rich history of the library. Indeed, the library was first destroyed by the Germans during WW1, then re-built between the two wars, and destroyed again during WW2. The Americans re-built the library after WW2, which explains the important number of American names and quotes on the walls. Moreover, most of the books were burnt during the wars and Americans made a lot of donations to the library of Leuven.
I had the chance to see the big reading room, where students come to work. It is funny to notice that bags and backpacks are not allowed inside, therefore the students leave their bags in some lockers outside the room and put their belongings in some small shopping baskets.
As you may have noticed from my previous articles (Hong Kong, Ghana, etc) or my previous post on Cologne, I love going high and see a city from the rooftops. This is why I particularly wanted to go to the library; to climb of steps of its tower and enjoy the panorama from upstairs! 😀
On each floor of the tower, there is a small room with a few pictures and explanations on the five significant periods in the library's history: the fire of Leuven, international solidarity, a gift from America, another war and reconstruction, and the land of carillons. I definitely recommend this visit.
After the fifth floor, you reach the balcony and its nice view on the city!
Stay posted for my next (and last) destination for this trip, i.e., Amsterdam!
"I am writing to you on the back of a receipt I found in my pocket. Today, Sunday 21st January, is the last day of my first trip of 2018. Hopefully, there will be many more. I feel a bit sad, as I think I fell in love <3 with Amsterdam this morning. That feeling of belonging as I walked in the streets. But, before that, let me tell you about my previous two days in the city..."
On Friday evening, I took the train from Leuven to Brussels, where I met Elisabeth, my Blablacar driver. Elisabeth is originally British but was born in Belgium - and does not like the British mentality. Our journey to Amsterdam went really well; we chatted a lot, and I played the co-pilote and DJ. When we reached Amsterdam, it started to hail heavily! Elisabeth thus dropped me off right in front of the house on my Couchsurfing host! Mert, a Turkish guy who moved to Amsterdam for his PhD, welcomed me with a big smile and a warm tea. We spent a nice evening, chatting about traveling, Couchsurfing, and other topics. In the morning, he prepared an awesome breakfast for me: I got to taste 3 different cheese! 😀
Amsterdam is the city of bikes, but I decided to explore on foot, as I believe it is the best way to wander. I started my day in Amsterdam-Oost (East), and walked along the Amstel river. Yes, the Dutch brewery founded in 1870 was named after the river! It was then bought by Heineken in 1968. I noticed a few things on my way. First, bikes are everywhere. Second, bikes do not really care about pedestrians. So be careful!
Following the river with no goal, I reached the Waterloopleinmarkt (Waterlooplein flea market), a big outdoor bazaar with a lot of second-hand clothing and general bric-à-brac. I spent some time having a look at the stalls, with more or less weird stuff, and enjoyed the general atmosphere of the city. I love second-hand markets, all my clothes and books come from there. I noticed something else about Amsterdam: it smells weed everywhere, as people smoke freely in the streets. No need to smoke to be high then! 😉
I started to get hungry (it was passed 1.30pm) and so a restaurant which totally attracted me: Bagels & Beans. They indeed had a TripAdvisor logo on their door, and everything looked cheap and appealing on the menu. Moreover, the place was full, therefore I thought it meant it was good! 😀 They have so many different bagels (bread and filling), and it was delicious. I took one with carpaccio, basil and pine nuts; and then one with banana, maple syrup and cinnamon. Both tasted great! I learnt later on than Bagels & Beans is actually a chain of restaurants, but the food tasted fresh and good.
I kept on my walk along the river and discovered more canals, and more weird shops. I also randomly walked to the Rembrandt (Dutch painter) square, which is apparently the place with all the coffeeshops!
I then reached the Bloemenmarkt (flower market) and took loads of pictures before discovering the "no photo" sign. Too late! 😀 This is where I found my new shoes as well. Apparently, yesterday (January 20th) was the International Tulip day! This would explain why so many people walked around with tulips.
I then found a cheese shop: Henri Willig. They had a lot of samples in the shop so I made sure to taste as much cheese as I could before getting caught by the vendors! 😀
I then decided to make my way to the famous I amsterdam sign before sunset, and took the Spiegelstraat to do so. The street itself was quite touristic with many small stores - and many bikes. At the end of the street (when walking towards South) is the Rijksmuseum, which I did not visit as I am not at all a fan of paintings/sculptures etc. Oh, by the way, Amsterdam is also the home of Van Gogh museum, for the amateurs! Both museums are located in the same district, the museum quarter.
Beyond the Rijkmuseum is the famous I amsterdam sign. However, it was a lot busier than I would have thought and therefore it was not really possible to take a picture! I tried... 😉
I then made my way back to Mert's along the canals, in the cold but not so cold (I mean, at least it was not windy). It apparently started to rain 3 minutes after I reached the residence, lucky me! 😉
PS: this was only day 1, I still need to write about day 2! Stay posted! More stories and pictures to come!
I made it to Amsterdam-Schipol airport, which is very well organised. Somehow, they were really nice at the security; they did not ask people to throw away their bottles, nor to show their laptops or liquids! :O Anyway, this is not the point of this post, I need to tell you about my second day in Amsterdam! 😀
When I woke up yesterday morning, I was excited to discover some blue sky through the window. It made me think about something though: the weather has been crappy for 2 weeks, except for 3 days: my last day in Cologne, my last day in Leuven, and my last day in Amsterdam... Shall I see a sign from the Universe? This time, I was the one who introduced some cheese to Mert for breakfast; I made him taste brie! I believe he liked it! 😉 I did not stay long at his place as my plan was to visit Anne Frank huis (house). I quickly packed up, took the metro to the train station and walked to the Bob's Youth Hostel.
By the way, this makes me think about telling you that I felt very safe during all my stay in Amsterdam; in the streets, in the metro, during the day, during the night... Nobody ever asked me for money or for my time or bothered me. I think it is worth noting as it does not happen a lot anymore. The Bob's Youth Hostel is very well located, pretty cheap (I paid €12 for the night), and the staff is very friendly. I dropped my backpack there before heading to Anne Frank house. Tip 1: you have to book online to visit the house, at least a few days (or a few weeks) in advance. It is one of the most touristic places in Amsterdam. Tip 2: there are no lockers in the house, and backpacks/luggages are not allowed. Plan ahead!
I definitely recommend the visit of the house, even though it was crowded. The atmosphere is moving, but it is very interesting. The visit lasts between 1h and 1h30, depending on the traffic. It costs €9. I read Anne Frank journal 10 or 15 years ago; the visit made me want to read it again, and I actually bought it as the museum shop. A bit of history: the Franks were a Jewish family in Germany. When WW2 started, they moved to Amsterdam. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, the Frank family had to hide. They spent 2 years (from 1940 to 1942) hiding in a Secret Annex, in the fear. Anne Frank journal was written by a 15-year old girl and tells the story of the Frank family in hiding... I was quite moved after the visit and therefore rested on a bench for a few minutes, enjoying the view on the canals and of the Westerkerk.
I discovered an impressive building and then realised that it was a shopping mall: the Magna Plaza. I thought I would have a quick look inside; and actually stayed for some time as there were many interesting shops. I felt like buying everything! But I resisted! 😀
After having lunch, I went to the Dam square, probably the most famous square of Amsterdam. It is where the Royal Palace can be found, as well as the 15th century Gothic Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). However, this church was not accessible as there is currently an exhibition on Ghandi, King and Mandela. It seemed quite interesting, but the entrance was €16 so I did not got! The square was way too busy (tourists) for me, therefore I did not stay very long in that place and wandered in the shopping streets before having a quick rest at my hostel – this is when I wrote the post “Amsterdam ~ day 1”.
I went back outside later in the evening, to have a look at the famous Red Light District. Sex shops, peep-shows, brothels, a sex museum and prostitutes in red-lit windows: some stereotypes about this area are true... 😉 However, once again, I felt very safe while walking in the streets by night.
This is the end of my journey and article! Do not forget to register to my blog in order to receive a notification for my next trip! 😀 You need to click on "s'abonner" at the top left of the page.
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