Annie Bananie en Europe

A blog about travel, life, and everyday tidbits

Tag Archives: grand place

A little place called Brussels

When people ask me what my favourite place is in Europe out of all the cities I’ve travelled to, I never really give a straight answer. How DO you answer this question, when each place is so unique, so charming? Yet, I always ALMOST say Brussels, because that’s what comes to mind when I think of places that I really love.

So then Brussels became sort of my de facto favourite place in Europe, just as it is the de facto capital of the European Union. It’s right in the middle of Paris and Amsterdam, two very popular cities, but ironically, these are two of the most overrated European cities in my opinion. Brussels lies there, unnoticed and often overlooked by travellers, but what a gem it really is! I’m lucky that one of my co-tutelle universities is in Belgium, so I have plenty of chances to go to Brussels, which is just an hour away by train from Louvain-la-Neuve, my university. It’s not quite a place I’m super familiar with, like Bordeaux, yet not JUST a tourist destination for me either.

I realize, though, that during the two and a half years I’ve been in Europe, I’ve had six sessions in Belgium and countless visits to Brussels, yet I’ve only written about this beautiful place once or twice. And it deserves much more attention than that.

I stopped by Brussels the night before my departure to Lisbon, and the view at Mont des Arts just swept me off my feet. All I could say was…wow. I love cities in the night, and Brussels got me completely mesmerized. Never thought I’d see a rainbow at night!

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Paris and a little bit of Brussels, in one day

No travelling makes Annie a dull girl, so after a month of staying in Louvain-la-Neuve, I went to Paris last Saturday. It’s a place I’ve been to perhaps more than enough times already, almost like my backyard whether I’m in France or Belgium. Now, my friends in Canada hate me when I say that, but I am not trying to boast (trust me, there really isn’t much to boast about Paris). Still, being within a 3-hour train ride from either Bordeaux or Louvain-la-Neuve, Paris became a frequent destination from either city of depart, as a transit point or a place to meet friends.

The purpose of Saturday’s trip was precisely the latter. A friend from Bordeaux is leaving for her internship in China next month, and she happened to be visiting Paris on Saturday. I had booked my tickets to Paris for the same day about a week ago, to see another friend’s art exhibition (which was, actually, the main purpose), so I figured, why not meet up before we say goodbye? I do head back to Bordeaux next Saturday, but there will be a training school in Anglet the week right after, and I will depart on Sunday. By the time I get back, she will be gone 😦 As such we planned our day carefully, first having lunch after my arrival, then heading to the exhibition and finding a place to have a nice chat afterwards.

Even though the city itself has failed to impress me each time I went, I still somehow look forward to every visit to Paris. Of course, I see it not as the most romantic city in the world or the “City of Lights”, but more as a big maze of a place where I can convenient go to get myself lost. And I love that feeling of wandering; Paris is perfect for that.

But as much as I dislike it, I gotta admit that amidst the strange odour in the metro, the dirty sidewalks, and the crowds of people everywhere, Paris is a city filled with music, art, and culture. There are streets where entire rows of galleries and art shops can be found, like a heaven for the true artist. Turn a corner to the next area and you’d find a whole bunch of street musicians performing for an audience that is willing to pause and listen. Such is Paris.

Friends and I were on our way to the art exhibition when we stumbled upon this small strings ensemble playing near the Louvre. Judging by the sound, they certainly didn’t seem like your average amateurs. Seems like you can find a concert anywhere in Paris, even on the metro.

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A lil’ bit of Lille

After four weeks of spending my weekends with friends in various cities, the solo travelling is back. This time, the destination was the city of Lille (pronounced LEEL), situated in northern France, right at the France-Belgium border.

I was seriously contemplating cancelling the trip for many reasons. Work in the lab last week totally put me out of the mood of doing anything other than sleeping for “five more minutes” in the morning, so waking up even earlier than usual to catch the train to Brussels at 8:30 in the morning wasn’t exactly a motivating thought. However, I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go, so with swift kick of the blanket, I bounced out of bed and 20 minutes later jumped onto the familiar train to Brussels-Midi.

From Brussels I would take a connecting train to Tournai, and finally another which would bring me to Lille Flandres station. Of course, I slept very well on the train while at the same time being aware of the stations so as to not miss my stops. Usually I like to gaze out of the window during long train trips, but sleep seemed like the better option this time.

Lille reminded me very much of Bordeaux. However, I didn’t get a lot of picture-taking done in Lille. Not that it wasn’t a photogenic city, but there was something about Lille that kept me walking from place to place without stopping to take many pictures. Perhaps it was the intricate layout of directional signs. Unlike the very clearly labelled signs in Brussels, the ones in Lille confused me more than they led me to the right places. In fact, sometimes one would point me in one direction and I would walk on and on without finding the destination NOR any other sign telling me to keep going straight or turn somewhere. It got slightly frustrating after a few times, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s just a thing in Lille, or a France thing. I’ve never had the problem in Bordeaux because I didn’t need to read signs there, and Paris…relying on the metro was enough to find the way. Therefore, I can’t make the judgment.

Without further ado, here are some of the photos taken during the short 5 hours in Lille. As usual, more can be found on Facebook.

Porte de Paris on the left and Lille city hall on the right. The city hall tower doesn’t look so grand in the picture but in reality it is quite tall and impressive. It would have to be my favourite building in Lille. There was some sort of activity going on outside the city hall that day. I would guess that it was a demonstration or a strike or something similar. Not surprising, it is France, after all.

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Mussels in Brussels

The plan of “one different city per weekend” is working out so far, and only so because Brussels is such a convenient hub of transportation with easy access to many cities. To get to Brussels from Louvain-la-Neuve only takes about 45 minutes by train, and once you get there, the entire Europe is yours to discover.

Before going any further, I decided I should explore Brussels itself, the capital city of the country I currently reside in, and the capital of the European Union, by default. It was rather long overdue. Brussels has been calling for me ever since I stepped into Belgium, as if saying, “Hey, I’m right here.” So on Saturday, I set out for a first day trip in Brussels. It’s a big city, alright, but I figured I can always make short trips back if I feel like getting to know the place better.

Moreover, the weather this weekend couldn’t be any more perfect. It was raining on Friday and it was predicted to rain again on Sunday (and it did), but on Saturday, it was a glorious 21 degrees Celsius, with a gentle breeze that hinted the presence of spring. There was almost no reason NOT to go somewhere.

A weekend return ticket bought on the internet costs 5.60 Euros. With the Louvain-la-Neuve train station situated 7 minutes from my house by walking, I set out at 9:45 in the morning for the 10 o’clock train, arriving at Bruxelles-Midi station at around 11:50. I would start my itinerary there, after picking up my Eurostar tickets for London in May.

The first point of interest is, of course, the number one destination in Brussels, the Grand Place. I promptly purchased a metro day pass for 4.50 Euros and found my way to Central Station, where the Grand Place is located, and my search began.

This is the first thing I saw when I exited Central Station, a gigantic purple bunny. I doubt this has anything explicitly to do with Brussels, but at least it reminds us, Easter is coming in three weeks!

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So this is Louvain-la-Neuve

Alright, day 5 in Louvain-la-Neuve, and I am bored.

Louvain-la-Neuve reminds me very much of Waterloo. Or shall I say, the University of Waterloo. The entire place gave me the feeling of a gigantic campus, and I suppose technically that’s what it really is. To give you Waterlooians (I refuse to use the term Waterloosers) an idea of this little place, the distance from home to work is approximately the same as the distance from MKV to DWE. The only difference is that everything you need is en route – restaurants, a shopping mall, grocery stores, cinemas…you get the idea. There are no cars or buses or vehicles within the campus/city – it is literally made for walking.

And I like that, except the part where I have to carry my laptop in my backpack to and from work, but that’s only about half an hour of the entire day combined. One thing I expected even before coming here is the cost of living. I’ve heard that Belgium is on the high end even in Europe, and to be in a place where 99% of the population is university students who are stuck within a one kilometre radius, it makes sense that prices are jacked up. That means I have to make wise choices in terms of spending…thank God for research stipends.

In Belgium, there are a couple of interesting things I noted that are a little different from France:

(1) The numbers – I’ve been warned of this before, so it wasn’t particularly shocking. It became apparent when I was ordering food for the first time. In France, 70 in French is “soixante-dix” (literally “sixty-ten”) and 90 is “quatre-vingt-dix” (literally “four-twenty-ten”…four times twenty plus ten, such rationality). In Belgium, however, 70 is “septante” and 90 is “nonante”, but 80 is still “quatre-vingts”. Well I just gotta say…THAT MAKES SO MUCH MORE SENSE! Now, why didn’t they just make 80 “huitante” as well?

(2) Les bises – In other words, kisses on the cheeks. In France, generally it’s one on the right cheek and one on the left cheek for acquaintances. I was told by a colleague here, after trying the right-left bise, that it’s just one on the right cheek and that’s it. Alright, I said to myself, time to adjust to the local customs. However, I’ve gotten the right-left bise several times and even one that was right-left-right…so, I am confused. Someone explain!?

(3) Lots of English – That’s right, people generally speak English here. Unlike Bordeaux, Louvain-la-Neuve is the host to lots and lots and lots of international students, so it is more or less an expectation for people in the lab to speak English, and it is no surprise that an entire office-full of people converse daily in English. This felt a little strange for me, ironically, because I had gotten used to speaking French in the office and it just doesn’t feel so right anymore when I switched back to English. So now, I speak to my supervisor in French (he asked me to choose between English and French, and I chose French for the sake of practice) and the colleagues in my office in English…or French, or Frenglish, or whatever comes out of my mouth. You get the point.

Out of extreme boredom this weekend – and that is not an understatement – I went out to take some pictures, as I do in any new city. Here is a more pictorial introduction to the city, and if you’re still interested in why I have been so bored, please continue to read on after the pictures.

Train station of Louvain-la-Neuve. This is the terminus, which means I HAVE to take the train if I want to go ANYWHERE outside of this city – unless I have a car, which I don’t. The great thing, though, is that the train station is right in the centre of the city, and walking from either my house or my workplace takes literally less than 10 minutes. This shall be very convenient for future out-of-town explorations.

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