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8 December 2015

Living In Leuven: Week 12 | Shopping In Antwerp & A Weekend In Budapest

Monday began with a Constitutional Law class at 9am and I then decided to travel to Antwerp on a shopping trip (very last minute, might I add). Again, with the nerves I explained a few blog posts back about travelling to Brussels on my own, I travelled an hour away from Leuven and directed myself around Antwerp without feeling anxious or apprehensive at all!

I travelled to Antwerp mainly to visit Forever 21. We only have a Forever 21 in Glasgow back home and it was always a nightmare having to dedicate a whole day shopping in Glasgow, so those trips rarely happened. I bought a black winter jacket, a few scarves and some dresses so I had a very, very successful shop! I also managed to pick up a pair of black boots. I despise shoe shopping, so I tend to avoid it at all costs, but somehow a miracle happened and I finally grabbed a pair I really liked and actually fit me - despite the slightly terrifying 60 euro price tag.

Meir, Antwerp

Despite the Brussels terror threat level decreasing to 3 at the start of the week, soldiers are still lurking around Antwerp. When I was walking back to the train station, I actually saw four armed soldiers standing outside Panos, which is in fact a sandwich shop here in Belgium! The photo above is of one of the soldier's vehicles parked on Meir - the main shopping street in Antwerp.

Christmas Market, Budapest

When I came back from Antwerp, I had to pop by the ESN office to pay for my ticket to Cologne next weekend, and I somehow managed to sprain my knee from walking around all day in terrible footwear. My knee is still bandaged up today, but thankfully I managed to have a few more chilled days than usual throughout the week.

On Tuesday, I had a Criminal Law lecture scheduled at 4pm, then quickly went home to get changed. I met my friend at Aula Pieter de Somer (KU Leuven Auditorium) where the Arenberg Orchestra performed their Winterconcerten. All the pieces they played were very recognisable and despite not being able to understand the Dutch commentary, I thoroughly enjoyed the concert. It, again, made me miss playing viola terribly and taking my viola to Leuven is something I'm most definitely considering for next semester.

Wednesday is my busiest academic day in Leuven. I usually have a 9-11am Criminal Law class followed by a 11-1pm Constitutional Law class, an hour break, then a 2-4pm Terrorism & Corporate Crime class. By the end of a Wednesday afternoon, I'm usually exhausted, so the evenings are always pretty relaxed for me. However, since I was heading to Budapest on Friday morning, I had to put a quick washing on that evening in preparation.

I spent Thursday completing errands such as printing off boarding cards and various e-tickets for weekend plans. I had a Human Rights lecture 4-6pm, but I ended up leaving halfway through the lecture to have an early dinner and pack my suitcase.

My flight to Budapest was at 8:50am on Friday morning. My friend and I managed to book cheap tickets flying from Brussels Charleroi airport, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but it meant leaving Leuven at 5:30am in order to get to Charleroi in time for our flight. Travelling to Brussels Charleroi from Leuven requires a 40 minute train journey to Brussels Midi/Zuid, then an hour bus ride to the airport. Nowadays, I always look for flights from Brussels International (as it's more convenient) but flights from there are usually very expensive, so Charleroi is often my only option.

St Stephen's Basilica

We arrived in Budapest at 10:45am and waited for our airport transfer bus. Although being the first in the queue for the mini bus, the Wizzair driver wouldn't let us on the bus as our flight had arrived later than everyone else in the queue, so we had to wait over an hour for the next bus! We expected the transfer to be door-to-door service, but the driver dropped us all off in the city centre and we were left to our own devices to direct ourselves around an unfamiliar capital city - definitely will not be booking any airport-hotel transfers in the future again!

To our relief, we stumbled across a tourist information stall, who directed us to the Marriott hotel. Not so helpful, might I add, because we were directed to the main Marriott hotel and not the Courtyard Marriott to which we were staying. So, we ended up taking a cheap New-York-like yellow cab to our hotel.

St Stephen's Basilica

After checking in, we decided to take the tram back to where the airport bus dropped us off to have a look around. We walked through the Christmas market, where I had the most expensive hot dog I've ever had in my life. Because our hotel was so cheap, I assumed everything in Budapest was equally as cheap, so I didn't even question the price when I was asked to pay 3000Ft for a hot dog (FYI: this equates to around 9 EUROS!).

Heroes' Square

As we were walking around Budapest, we stumbled across St Stephen's Basilica, which was absolutely stunning! There was a small entrance fee, which I couldn't find any change for, so was going to wait outside whilst Dominik explored, but the man at the gate very kindly ushered me in free of charge. The interior was absolutely breathtaking. To me, most religious buildings look quite similar and I'm never usually overwhelmed by the architecture, but St Stephen's Basilica was spectacular!

National Gallery, Budapest

We walked to the Hungarian Parliament (the first photo of this blog post) and spent a good half an hour or so taking photos of it from all angles - the buildings in Budapest are phenomenal!

Surprisingly, we actually struggled to find cafes and restaurants in Budapest. On Friday afternoon, we couldn't find a cafe near the Parliament, so settled for a traditional Japanese tea house. The original 'house special' blend was absolutely disgusting, so we wasted a couple thousand Forint on that. Around dinner time, we took the metro to the Opera house and Heroes' square, then decided to look for dinner on the way back to our hotel. All of the Italian restaurants we went into were fully booked, so we decided to go into a traditional Hungarian restaurant. As the restaurant was located on the main road towards Heroes' square, we assumed the restaurant would be full, but we were in fact the only ones there! We immediately felt awkward with only the waitress and chef hovering around and waiting for our order, so we decided to make up an excuse and leave asap.

After eventually finding an Italian restaurant for dinner, we decided to turn in for an early night as we had both been up since about 4am that morning.

Brief history note(!): Budapest became one city in 1873, but before that, it was divided into Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube river. We were staying and exploring in the Pest part of Budapest, so decided to visit the Buda part across the river on Saturday.

Sándor Palace

The main tourist attractions in Buda include Buda Castle, which can be seen clearly across the river in Pest, and Matthias Church.

The castle grounds were beautiful and are home to Sándor Palace (official residence of the President of Hungary), the National Museum and the History Museum. Unfortunately, we didn't devote enough time to explore inside the Museums, but managed to walk around the castle grounds and take photos of our surroundings.

Matthias Church

I was also mesmerised by the exterior of Matthias Church near the castle grounds. The colours on the roof of the building were breathtaking, comparable to what I can imagine St Stephen's Church in Vienna to look like. We didn't manage to explore inside the building, or visit the tower of the church, but we opted to have a hot drink break in front of the church instead.

Christmas Market, Four Seasons Hotel

We decided to walk along the Chain bridge back into Pest, where we had lunch at a restaurant next to the Christmas market. Whilst walking back to the city centre, we found the Four Seasons hotel. The one in Budapest actually had a Christmas market inside - how insane is that?!

New York Café

After booking flights to Budapest the week before, my friend and I reserved a table at the New York Cafe for tea on Saturday afternoon. We had incredibly high expectations as the cafe looked beautiful on google images, so we went back to the hotel to change into more formal attire.

New York Cafe

The cafe definitely lived up to my expectations - it was indeed very fancy inside! The service, however, was not so great. We ordered tea and a cake each and we waited a long time between ordering and paying for the bill. A group of women next to us actually refused to pay for their meal because they had waited 45 minutes for it to arrive! As the cafe was quite expensive, I probably wouldn't recommend it for more than a tea and cake unless you're willing to wait quite a long time for an expensive meal. I certainly wouldn't!

Afterwards, we decided to walk along the river, cross the Chain bridge and walk along the Buda riverside to view the main attractions again at night. Budapest is beautiful during the day and looks even more spectacular lit up during the evening! We managed to take some photos of the Palace entrance lit up by multicoloured lights and of the boats on the riverside.

Winter has well and truly arrived in Belgium, but it was absolutely freezing in Budapest! My hands were numb after taking photos, so we opted to have a few drinks in a bar close to the hotel.

Chain Bridge

On Friday, we tried to find the 360 bar, but it was closed for the Winter so we decided to look for the sky bar on Saturday evening. My poor navigation skills directed us along a few very quiet and dark streets, to the point where we started to feel quite uncomfortable and decided to scrap the idea and go into a bar on the main street where our hotel was located.

Generally, I choose not to drink alcohol for a number of reasons, but I'm open to 'trying' anything new. Especially as I was in a foreign country and exposed to famous Hungarian Goulash, I thought it would be rude not to try some Hungarian shots. A taste of a Pálinka shot quickly turned into downing Tequila and Amaretto shots and it's fair to say I felt absolutely terrible and was afraid to even stand up after possibly over a year of not touching alcohol, albeit disappointed in myself for giving in to drinking it in the first place! Thankfully, the feeling wore off after 2/3 hours, and we ended up in McDonald's during the early hours of Sunday morning.

Hungarian Parliament Staircase

I had booked a tour of the Hungarian Parliament before departing for Budapest, so we were up early in order to make our tour slot at 10am. The Parliament is full of symbolism - the number of stairs even represented the year the Parliament was created! The Hungarian Crown Jewels are displayed in the Parliament, something I thought was quite strange, but interesting to see. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take photos in the room where the crown jewels were situated, but there was a huge chandelier (weighing 5 tonnes!) at the very top of the dome, above the crown, where the maintenance team actually had to enter through the roof in order to change the light bulbs!

Hungarian Parliament Assembly Hall

We were then directed into the Assembly Hall of the Parliament, where the MP's gather on a weekly basis. I was surprised to hear the number of MP's reduced from 386 in 1990 to the current number, 199. As a whole, I thought the Parliament tour was fairly interesting. Besides the Assembly Hall and the stairway, I don't think the interior was all that spectacular but for only 1000Ft (about 3 Euros), I couldn't really complain!

After the tour, we decided to have an early lunch then head to the airport. We had booked an airport transfer bus back to Budapest airport, but opted to take public transport. We relied heavily on the public transport in Budapest throughout the duration of our stay and it was brilliant! At first, it was quite difficult to figure out which stop to get off at - the Hungarian language is almost impossible to work out, definitely not comparable to just about getting the gist of a 'paleis' and 'kasteel' in Dutch!

Some Metro lines were definitely nicer than others. The nearest Metro to our hotel was 'Blaha Lujza tér' and the culture difference shocked my friend - there were a LOT of homeless people camping out in the metro station late at night. I wasn't at all sure what to expect in Budapest (Germany is the furthest I've travelled East in Europe), but I actually felt very safe walking around in Budapest, besides the underground. More so than Paris, where I have felt quite intimidated by some people. The Hungarians seemed to keep themselves to themselves and were very helpful and polite when we asked for directions at various times during the day.

We took a train and bus to Budapest airport where we were greeted with a long queue for security. We arrived with plenty of spare time before our flight, but by the time we had finished at security, we had to board the plane immediately. Another bus and train ride followed the 2 hour plane journey and it's fair to say I was absolutely exhausted by the time I arrived back at my accommodation in Leuven.

My trip to Budapest was incredible and I would highly recommend it if you're looking for an affordable city break. A 3 day visit allowed us to see all the main sights, but if you're interested in visiting all the museums, then 5 days is probably better! There are outdoor thermal baths in Budapest I was desperate to try out, but unfortunately time restrictions meant we couldn't do any extra attractions, so we had to prioritise.

I'm definitely having some holiday blues whilst typing this blog post, but the best thing about living in Leuven is that I'm literally at the heart of Europe and all the countries I've always wanted to visit are very easily accessible and I'm excited to discover what else Europe has to offer across the next 7 months of my Erasmus year!

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