Search This Blog

29 April 2016

Living In Leuven | A Trip to Berlin

On Tuesday the 29th of March, I went to Ostend with a friend from University in Edinburgh. We are the only two exchange students in Leuven from Edinburgh, so after 7 months of living in Leuven, we decided to go for a day trip to another part of Belgium together. Lo and behold, by midnight that evening, we booked a trip to Berlin leaving in only 5 days time!

Berlin, surprisingly, has never really appealed to me. I've visited Germany several times and although I love the country, I wasn't really sure of what Berlin had to offer. Luckily for us, Ryanair were selling flights from €20 each way and was by far the cheapest destination at the time... we were definitely in for a treat!

We met at Leuven station early Sunday morning and headed to Brussels Charleroi airport. Our flight was due to fly from Zaventem, but after the terrorist attacks, all of the flights were diverted to Charleroi airport. We had to take a train to Brussels Midi/Zuid, a train to Charleroi Sud, then a bus to the airport. It really is a palava getting to Charleroi from Leuven. You'd pay between 60-80 euros for a taxi straight there, which is preferable if you're travelling in a large group, but as it was only the two of us, we decided to endure the 2 hour journey.

We arrived at Schönefeld airport in Berlin at 2.30pm and got the S-bahn to our hotel in the Zoologisher Garten area. As we booked our trip pretty last minute, I wasn't expecting to find a hotel in the center of Berlin for a reasonable price, but we managed to come across the 'Upper Hotel Kurfürstendamm', costing us only €20 each for our two night stay. Although we didn't have high expectations, the hotel was actually really nice and we even had breakfast included in the price.

Berliner Dom

We dropped our bags off at the hotel and decided to head to Alexanderplatz, where the famous Fernsehturm (TV tower) is situated. As we were wandering around, we came across the Berlin Cathedral, the Reichstag (Parliament) building, a number of embassies and various churches. I was a little bit confused about the architecture in Berlin. The city looks pretty un-done and mismatched, and for me, this was a feature that made it so memorable. Apparently 80% of the city was destroyed during the second world war. Every building looks different and looking past all of the construction work, the city really does have a lot of character.

Brandenburg Gate

As the sun was setting, we found the Brandenburg gate. I'm really terrible at names and called this the 'Battenberg Gate' numerous times before actually realising it was in fact the 'Brandenburg' gate and not some pink and yellow sponge cake!

I expected the Brandenburg gate to have walls to each side of it, like the Cinquantenaire in Brussels. Also, we were surprised at how the Quadriga (sculpture on top of the gate) was facing the square as opposed to the gardens leading up to it. Initial reactions aside, the gate is beautiful, so we decided to sit outside for an hour and have a drink in front of it.

Dem Deutschen Volke

The Reichstag (Parliament) building is situated next to the gate. We saw people climbing up the glass roof in the middle of the building and we were interested to visit. Unfortunately, we didn't expect the trip to be as hectic as it was and didn't have time to go inside - I'll definitely love to come back some time again in the future!


We decided to walk along the Tiergarten by the Brandenburg gate, totally underestimating how long the walk would be! We walked by the Siegessäule (Victory Column) and, as it was starting to get dark and we didn't have the energy to walk any further, decided to get the S-bahn back to our accommodation.

For dinner, we had currywürst in the Ranke 2 restaurant next to our hotel. We were on the hunt for a sky bar and found the Monkey bar pretty close by. The bar was completely full, so we settled on a cocktail bar on the ground floor of our hotel.

Charlottenburg Palace

On Monday, we took the U-bahn to Charlottenburg palace. To our disappointment, the palace is closed for visitors on Monday. We managed to walk around the grounds and take a few photos. Hopefully I can pay the inside of the palace a visit and take a photo of the palace without construction works next time!

Olympic Stadium Bahnhof

As our morning plan was cut short, we decided to take the S-bahn to the Olympic Stadium. Originally, we said we wouldn't make going to the Olympic stadium a priority as it's quite far out from the center, but I'm so glad we visited it in the end as it was definitely a highlight of the trip!

Olympic Stadium

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin was built for the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. When Hitler came into power, he decided to build an Olympic stadium for propaganda purposes during the Olympic Games. It's quite surreal how much the stadium really does look like its from the Nazi era. I've read a lot about the goings on of WWII, but it was definitely an incredible experience seeing a building created by the Nazis in real life.

Olympic Stadium

The stadium is used for international football games nowadays - it would be incredible to watch a game/concert there someday because the interior is absolutely stunning and I can't even comprehend what the atmosphere would be like!

Olympic Stadium Grounds

We walked around the grounds of the stadium, passing the running track, an outdoor swimming area and the Olympic Bell (with the Swastika badly concealed at the bottom, might I add!). For students, the visit cost €5.50 and I'd definitely recommend it!

Checkpoint Charlie

We headed back into the city center and stopped for lunch in a Bavarian restaurant. I ordered boiled sausages and a pretzel - completely not expecting the sausages to come in a pot of boiled water!

After lunch, we walked to Checkpoint Charlie, the most well known crossing point between the East and West of Berlin when the wall still stood. Apparently you can get your passport stamped here, but unfortunately we didn't have our passports to hand and didn't have time the day after to go back.

Holocaust Memorial

On our way to Potsdamer Platz, we found the Holocaust memorial. It consists of 2711 slabs of concrete. From afar, you would think only the blocks vary in height, but the floor height actually changes as you walk through it. In the middle of the memorial site, I'm positive one of the blocks was double my height!

Unfortunately, I don't think the memorial is respected enough. There were a lot of children climbing on the blocks and some were playing hide and seek in the middle and making a lot of noise.

A short distance away from the memorial is the bunker where Hilter committed suicide. It's not meant to be a tourist attraction and has now turned into a car park, but we were aware of it walking past.

Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer

We then took the U-bahn to the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial) which is a long strip of grass consisting of the Berlin wall with various memorials of the people that died trying to escape over the wall.

This part of the wall doesn't have artwork like the part of the wall in the East Side Gallery, but it was interesting to see how to wall would have looked paired with the people's stories we gathered from the exhibition.

East Side Gallery

With the Berlin wall in mind, we decided to go to the East Side gallery to see some of the artwork. Some of the pieces are incredible and I was really fascinated to see different pieces from artists all over the world. The walls are covered with artwork on both sides and I'd say the whole of the East Side Gallery continues on for a good mile.

East Side Gallery

After wandering around the East Side Gallery, we didn't manage to find the art of Vrubel's "Fraternal Kiss". We were so gutted, but suspected the artwork may be part of the East Side Gallery Museum, which had to be paid for. We looked around the gallery for any large crowds - as it's probably the most famous piece of art there - but were unsuccessful. If anyone knows where this piece of art is in Berlin, please let me know!

Potsdamer Platz

We took the U-bahn to Alexanderplatz where we had currywürst (again!) for dinner at a restaurant called Mio next to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower). Afterwards, we attempted to hunt for a sky bar and headed out towards Potsdamer Platz.

Sony Center

The official Berlin was too far away, so we tried to find the 40 seconds sky bar and unfortunately this was closed. We decided to walk through Potsdamer to find somewhere else to drink and settled with a drink on the third floor of a bar in the Sony center. Again, this building is another example of Berlin's beautiful modern architecture.

Bellevue Castle

As our flight back to Brussels was at 7:30pm on the Tuesday evening, we managed to fit in another day of sightseeing on our final day. We planned to see the Unterwelten Museum (WWII bunkers) but annoyingly the tour was fully booked that morning.

On our way to the center, we decided to stop at Bellevue castle before getting the bus to the Brandenburg Gate.

Topography of Terror

As we couldn't visit the WWII bunkers we decided to do our own war-inspired tour of Berlin and walked along Wilhelmstraße, where most of the Nazi government buildings were during the war. Just off this street is the Topography of Terror, an indoor and outdoor museum about the second World War. It was 26 degrees on our final day in Berlin and I'm ashamed to admit my shoulders got slightly burnt as we worked our way through the outdoor exhibition. The Berlin wall runs alongside the museum and it's really worth paying a visit if you have an hour or two to spare reading all of the information - it's free of charge!

Kaiser Willhelm Memorial Church

After visiting the Topography of Terror, we headed back to our hotel to check out and pick up our suitcases. We had some time to spare so quickly visited the Kaiser Willhelm Memorial Church, situated right next to our hotel.

The 'New Church'

The church was badly damaged during the second World War. The old church is still open to view and is only one room on the ground floor. After it was destroyed, they made a new octagonal church opposite the old one. It is beautiful inside, but to me, I found the design to be a little unusual for a church.

Berliner Dom

We took our luggage to Henriette-Herz-Platz and had lunch/our final beer soaking up the last of the Berlin sunshine next to the Berliner Dom (Cathedral). Afterwards, we took a direct train to Berlin Schönefeld airport and made our way back to Leuven.

I thoroughly enjoyed our spontaneous trip to Berlin and although we managed to see everything we possibly could in the space of three days, I'll most definitely be returning to explore more of the city!

22 April 2016

Living In Leuven | A Family Weekend In London

It was my Grandparent's 50th wedding anniversary at the beginning of March and after originally saying I wouldn't be able to attend the party, I decided to surprise them. My Dad was actually born in Essex, so everyone on my Dad's side of the family live there. Unfortunately, as we live in Edinburgh, we only get to see them once or twice a year and being in Belgium has made meeting up even more difficult so I didn't want to turn down the opportunity. 

On Friday the 4th of March, I left Leuven for the Eurostar station at Brussels Midi/Zuid. My train was at 8am and it only took 2 hours for me to arrive at London St Pancras station. I hesitated over the idea of flying over from Brussels as a lot of the airports in London aren't very central and the flights were actually more expensive than the Eurostar. My cousin works in central London, so she took the day off and we decided to spend some time together when I arrived.

We met up at London Liverpool Street station (where I got my fringe cut for £3 - bargain!) and went to the Cereal Killer Cafe in Shoredich. I'm really not a cereal person, but I couldn't resist 'The Lion King' which was a cereal cocktail with Coco Caramel Shreddies, Rolos and Caramel Milk. The cafe brought back so many memories as the downstairs seating area was filled with old VCR tapes and the televisions were playing old cartoons from the 90's/early 2000's. I do think £4 was a bit expensive for a bit of cereal and milk, but this was me re-adjusting to prices in the UK and especially in London, I was trying not to freak out too much over the steep prices.

After our breakfast, we took the bus to St Paul's Cathedral. I've visited London numerous times, but I've never seen the Cathedral so it was awesome to finally get to see it. Now I realise the 'First Dates' restaurant is in this area and I'm absolutely gutted I didn't know this at the time.

We wandered around the area and went into a few shops. I managed to pick up some more Joni jeans from Topshop as there doesn't seem to be a Topshop at all in Belgium at the moment. The weather was beautiful, so instead of sitting on public transport, we decided to walk to our next destination, The Shard.

It's VERY expensive to go to the top of the Shard. You'd be looking at paying at least £20 for a ticket. My cousin researched it and you can actually go to the bars on the 31st floor free of charge. Although it wasn't a view from the 73rd floor of the tower, we managed to see a pretty beautiful view for the price of a Sprite from the bar. The views from the building really are amazing and you're even welcomed to a skyline view as you exit the toilet in the bathrooms!

After stopping at the Shard, we took the tube from London Bridge to Oxford street. We booked to have afternoon tea in a place called 'Sketch' in Mayfair. After complaining about paying £4 for cereal, it pains me to say I paid £50 for afternoon tea. Thankfully I received spending money from my parents, otherwise I would've felt myself die inside at the thought of my Erasmus grant rapidly vanishing before my eyes.

In all honesty, the experience was worth the extra money. The staff were very friendly and offered to refill our cake and sandwich stand when we had finished. After eating all we could possibly manage, the waitress came along with a big slab of caramel chocolate cake and asked if we would like extras to take away with us. We pretty much had unlimited tea, cakes and sandwiches for £50! The toilets were also incredible. Each toilet was in a space pod with your very own sink and you could do your business whilst listening to space noises - definitely my most memorable toilet experience!

After a very hectic day in London, we got the overground train from London Liverpool street to Harold Wood, where my cousin lives. She kindly drove me to my Nan and Grandad's in Basildon where I met my Dad and Sister who had arrived from Edinburgh that evening. After a hectic travelling day, I was absolutely exhausted and spent the best part of Saturday in bed fighting a cold - thank you London transport!

My Grandparent's wedding anniversary party was on the Saturday evening in their local community center. All of my English family were there and it was great to catch up with them all again. My grandparent's arranged for an Elvis impersonator to perform at their party - he entertained us for hours and it was a great night.

Sunday involved a family meal followed by saying goodbye to my Dad and Sister who headed back to Edinburgh that afternoon. I stayed at my cousin's on the Sunday night and we headed into London together on Monday, where I caught my Eurostar back to Belgium early that morning.

15 April 2016

Living In Leuven | A Day In Maastricht

On Saturday the 27th of February, a few of my law friends and I decided to go to Maastricht for the day. Generally, we find train journeys from Leuven to other countries to be quite expensive, so we tend to reserve those for organised trips with ESN, for example. After a bit of research, we realised a trip to Maastricht would involve a train to Liège, then a quick change onto a train to Maastricht for only 10 euros!

We had 30 minutes to wait for our train from Liège, so decided to have a wander outside the station. The station itself is absolutely beautiful and I'd really like to visit the city of Liège one day - mainly to say I've had a Liège waffle in Liège!

The journey to Maastricht took a little over one hour and we headed straight to the tourist information desks to figure out how we can see the majority of what the city had to offer in one day. Our friends in Leuven recommended we saw the Fort and the underground caves, so we headed south and out of the city center to pay them a visit.

We had the option of buying a combi ticket to the fort and the caves - but decided to pay €6.40 to visit the Northern caves as it was possible to walk around the outside of the Fort free of charge.

The caves were created as a way of passage by labourers and were also used as hiding places during the second world war. During this time, the labourers and those seeking refuge spent their free time drawing on the walls. Some of the artwork that can be found inside the caves are absolutely incredible and the tour guides try their best to conserve it by asking the public not to step too harshly on the ground and be careful not to lean against the walls of the caves.

As people lived in the caves, there are some remains of where they resided including a wall covered in smog from cooking and burning fires underground. The tour guide also told us of how the French wanted to blow up the underground passages, but instead of expecting the explosive to destroy the tunnel vertically, the laws of physics prevailed and only created destruction horizontally along the tunnels instead.

We were also told about the dangerous reality of living underground. The temperature in the caves is only about 10 degrees, combined with high humidity levels, creating a hazardous environment for anyone living there for more than 2 weeks.

After the underground cave visit, we walked around Fort Sint Pieter. We visited Maastricht on a really beautiful day and the area around the Fort and caves was filled with people taking their dogs for a walk, or taking their children out for a picnic. This part of Maastricht is really elevated and offers some amazing views of the city from the top - I'd highly recommend visiting!

On the way back to the city center, we walked by all of the Maastricht University buildings. It was interesting to see the student accommodation buildings and the law school - I know of a few people who studied/are studying there on Erasmus as it was an option for us on our applications. When we reached the city center, we decided to go for lunch on a street full of restaurants next to the Vrijthof.

I couldn't leave the Vrijthof without taking a photo of the bandstand there. It brought back a lot of memories from when I toured Germany, Paris and Belgium with the music department of my high school. I'm positive the year above me toured the Netherlands and performed on this very bandstand!

Before heading for our train home, we visited the Dominicanenkerk, which is an old church now converted into a bookstore and cafe. I thought the whole concept of a book store in a church was a bit strange at first, but it would be sad to see such a beautiful building go to waste if it wasn't re-used in some way.

We left Maastricht for Leuven at dinner time and thoroughly enjoyed our short visit to Maastricht!

8 April 2016

Living In Leuven | A Month of Visitors From Home

During the month of February, I had two visits from friends in Edinburgh. At Edinburgh University, we have an 'innovative learning week', or reading week for the honours students, so no classes run for that period of time. My best friend from school, Chloe, decided to visit for a long weekend whilst classes stopped running. We travelled to London together to see Taylor Swift in 2012 and we actually planned to go on holiday together after we finished school - things didn't work out - so I was excited to finally spend time with her outside of Scotland again.

Centrale Bibliotheek, Leuven

She arrived on Saturday the 13th of February and I decided to show her around Leuven. In all honesty, it doesn't take long to show my friends and family around Leuven. Typically, I like to show them the Grote Markt, Oude Markt, the central library at the ladeuzeplein and the Groot Begijnhof. In amongst lunch and coffee breaks, it took us the most part of an afternoon to explore Leuven.

Ladeuzeplein, Leuven

Unfortunately, the weather was really terrible this weekend and we frequently had to pop by my residence to change our clothes or add on a few layers. We decided to go to Heverlee that evening, so we quickly detoured through the Groot Begijnhof on our way there.

Den Dreef, Heverlee

As Chloe is a football fan, I decided to take her to an OH Leuven football match in Heverlee. Before the game started, I quickly showed her Kasteel Van Arenberg (Arenberg Castle) and we went to a local pub for some food.

We stupidly agreed to pay 30 euros each for a ticket to see OH Leuven play Loekeren. Normally, the tickets are 20 euros, or even 15 euros if you wanted to be in the standing area. Thankfully, we saw 6 goals and the game finished as a draw, so the tickets were well worth the extra money. I honestly have never been so cold in Leuven until this day - we were both wearing tights underneath our jeans and had multiple layers on! The cold got so unbearable towards the middle of the second half of the game, we decided to sit in the club members bar to watch the rest of the game.

I decided to show Chloe Bruges on the Sunday - forgetting it was Valentines day - the city was full of couples! We looked around the Grote Markt and decided to have soup for lunch to warm ourselves up a bit (it was another freezing cold day - taking photos without our jackets on was really a struggle!).

After lunch, we decided to go on a boat trip around the canals of Bruges (again, flooded with couples on a romantic day out!). I had gone on a boat trip with the same company previously with ESN and the tour guide was very informative, however this time, the tour guide didn't know any specific dates and referred to almost everything as being constructed 'maybe in the 17th century'! The beautiful views, however, really compensated for the lack of knowledge from our tour guide.

The weather wasn't in our favour towards the afternoon, so we decided to stop for a tea break and visit the torture museum. I wouldn't say the museum is anything special, but it kept us dry and kept us occupied for an hour or so.

We finished off the day by going for a quick drink in a bar called 'In Den Engel' in Leuven. It's my favourite bar to take my friends to if we're not looking for a party vibe. The pub has a few boardgames, so it's perfect for a quiet drink and a game of scrabble!

On Chloe's final day, I decided to show her around Brussels. We visited Mont Des Arts (one of my favourite locations in Brussels) and found a graffiti wall we stopped by to photograph. Similarly to Leuven, I never let my friends/family leave Brussels without showing them the main attractions. In Brussels, I typically show them St Michael and St Gudula Cathdral, the Court of Justice, the Royal Palace, Galeries Royales Saint Hubert and the Grote Markt.

The Grote Markt in Brussels is definitely one of my favourite places in the world. I'm always really excited to visit it although I have seen it many times. My dream is to spend the night in a hotel on the Grote Markt - I'd love to see it at night. I've heard they lay a carpet of flowers across the Grote Markt at some point over the Summer, so I'll definitely be visiting then!

On the way back to Brussels central station, we walked by a vehicle used by the Belgian soldiers. Ever since the Paris attacks, there has been a heavier presence of soldiers around Brussels. Although they are there to keep us safe, I still feel slightly intimidated by their presence. Nonetheless, I'll still continue to visit as it's definitely my favourite capital city!

Chloe left that evening and two weeks later I was surprised by another of my friends from Edinburgh who came to visit Leuven for the Model UN Conference. On Monday the 29th of February, I received a skype call from Daryl telling me he was in Leuven. It was an unexpected surprise and although he was busy with the Model UN conference, we still managed to go to a party together in Rumba and visit Brussels.

We visited Brussels on Tuesday the 8th of March and actually stumbled upon the German President arriving at the Royal Palace. We continued our day trip and whilst at the Grote Markt we heard the King and Queen of Belgium were arriving, alongside the German President. I took a video of the occasion and it was definitely an awesome experience!

On Friday the 11th of March, my Mum and sister decided to visit. We all visited Leuven in the summer of last year before I moved out, and as they have both seen everything before, we agreed to have a chilled weekend and enjoy catching up as I hadn't seen either of them since I left Edinburgh at the start of January. I don't understand how people got through an Erasmus year abroad without the internet - I regularly skype with my family and when they came over, it felt like we had never been apart!

On Saturday, we went to Ghent for the day. The weather was beautiful and we walked around the city and stopped to have a look in the Cathedral and Saint Nicholas' Church, then had a drink on the Vrijdagmarkt.

On the Sunday, we went to Antwerp and I made a rookie mistake of expecting all of the shops to be open, but of course it's Belgium! Everything was closed apart from a few Carrefour supermarkets. We decided to visit the town hall and walk around the harbour. We actually ran out of things to do, so headed back to Leuven mid-afternoon. I stayed with them in the hotel over the weekend and we spent the final evening together ordering a Dominos pizza takeaway and catching up with British TV.

That's the end of visits for the time being. My Dad and his wife are visiting at the start of May, as well as a friend from University the weekend after. I'm very excited for May!
Copyright @ Alix Staines.