The train burst out of its tunnel into the golden light of an early morning. I looked at the frost on the peaks of ploughed field earth; the low roofed farm houses; the copses of trees clustered against the curves of narrow roadways. Squares of bright green vegetation rushed past. Banks of orange leaves and the occasional pine.
I watched the clock on my computer screen skip forward an hour and felt my body try to accommodate the switch in time zones. The little girl’s face reflected in the window of the seat in front stared out, nose pressed against the glass. In the dark of the tunnel she’d chattered excitedly to her mum about her birthday trip to Lille, but now she was quiet.
Why did she want to go to France for the weekend? Was she hoping to see farmers riding bikes with baguettes in their panniers on the French country lanes that we were zipping past? Was their trip her idea, or her mum’s?
The words on the screen in front of me sat dormant. I still had a thousand words left to write for the day, but my imagination was drifting elsewhere. Thinking about the trip ahead, instead.
A literary love affair
I’ve always loved reading. Growing up, I was the girl who devoured books in half a day; who didn’t leave her bedroom until the newest Harry Potter was finished; who once sat in the front seat of her dad’s car on a twelve hour drive to Scotland and zoomed her way through seven books, one after another.
After I studied literature at university, I set off on my travels with a Kindle packed full of novels – but as blogging became more important to me, the necessary accompaniments of making notes for articles, replying to emails, updating social media and editing photos took over – and for the last few years I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I should.
Basically a cardinal sin for someone who calls themselves a writer.
I’ve been so ashamed of my lack of reading that I’ve barely mentioned it to anyone – least of all myself. But thankfully, studying for my masters has catapulted me back into the reading arena once again. Since September I’ve read two non-fiction books a fortnight as part of my degree, and I can’t stop thinking of more I want to read. Adding titles to my GoodReads shelves has become a regular occurrence.
Taking a step back from travelling probably has something to do with my reading spark, too. While I used to discover new experiences around every corner in South America, spending most of my time in London now means looking a bit harder for those moments of excitement. Reading again has reminded me just how incredible it feels to get lost in the world that a book leads you into.
And, occasionally, you chance upon a real-life place that does the exact same thing.
Heading to an unknown Belgian city
Early on a Saturday morning in November, I boarded a Eurostar train bound for Belgium with no real knowledge of where I was going. The weekend was part of a scavenger hunt set up by the kindly folks from the #ParkInnExpress campaign, who gave me and my fellow bloggers at Travelocafe a list of clues to get ourselves around the Belgian city of Leuven.
Of course, I could have spent hours researching what to do and where to go in Leuven, but somehow I thought it was better to go in blind; to let the city reveal itself in all its potential glory. And over two days, using the wonderful Park Inn hotel as a base of operations, our #ParkInnExpress clues clues afforded me the best of both worlds; the ability to wander around an unknown city free from expectations, yet armed with just enough suggestions to point me in some interesting directions.
Like the metal pole spiked through a giant glittering bug opposite the city’s university library, for instance.
So what exactly is Leuven known for?
Leuven is a university town. There are students everywhere, zipping around on bicycles that cling to the trunks of trees when their passengers have left them.
The university library was burned to the ground in 1914 by German troops and then rebuilt with donations from around the world, cementing the importance of education to this Belgian city. Nowadays, the building is filled with atlases and globes, racks of books and glass cases holding sculptures.
But the focus on books and learning is for more than just the students in Leuven. The city itself feels like the Belgian equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge; red brickwork, fronds of sprawling ivy, signposts denoting each of the university buildings – even cascading streams of letters on the bus stop glass.
Then there are the statues dotted all over Leuven, like the young girl reading who represents the active female students in the city, and the university student atop a fountain, pouring ‘wisdom’ on his head while reading a book.
Leuven’s fairytale qualities
There was something special about the crisp, winter light during my two days in Leuven. It highlighted every detail of the ornate buildings surrounding the Grand square, making them look as decorative as a huge wedding cake.
And when we turned through a large pair of gates, all sounds of the city suddenly stopped. It felt as though we were walking in the countryside, strolling through the urban park of Sint-Donatuspark in the afternoon light.
Going back in Belgian time
One of my favourite areas of Leuven, though, was the Groot Begijnhof. This UNESCO World Heritage site used to house a community of unmarried women called Beguines, who lived semi-religiously in the early 13th century – and the area seemingly hasn’t changed since.
The network of a dozen narrow, winding streets is incredibly well preserved; made up of tiny windows, old black metal lamps, stone sculpted faces on fountain heads and little waterways hiding behind the houses.
Yet in amongst the oldest parts of the city, the modern was still intent on making an appearance. The spires of St Peter’s church jostled for space in the sky with a swivelling crane, and the buildings were reflected in the sleek, glass-fronted underground storage space for citizens’ bicycles.
Learning Leuven’s secrets
When I was in South America, the cities of Europe felt very far away – and I’ve never really been the travelling type to go on weekend city breaks. But being able to catch the Eurostar for a few hours and spend two days in a completely new city reminded me just how easy it can be to travel.
Sometimes it’s nothing more than stepping onto a train, walking through a foreign square, and sitting in the afternoon sun surrounded by strangers; a book on the table and a beer in your hand.
Disclaimer: my trip to Leuven and accommodation at the Park Inn hotel was sponsored by a campaign with #ParkInnExpress, but the romantic, book-loving imaginings are most definitely my own. All of them.