Paris: A Reflection

Before my exchange in Europe, it was difficult to envision being in a potentially life-threatening situation. Yet that was exactly what occurred as I travelled to Paris for a weekend that was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Although this is a sensitive topic, I wanted to about it to get it off my chest and reiterate that these are my personal experiences.

First, some context for my visit.

As a football fan, I had always hoped to see a game of international football. Having narrowly missed out on tickets to the Belgium v Spain match, I booked tickets to the next best match on that weekend – France v Germany. One of my friends was on exchange in Paris, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up with her as well.

Having finished class early on Friday, I took the train to Brussels, where a bus would take me to Paris. Although the train ran smoothly, the bus wasn’t so punctual. Rather than arriving at the e.t.a. of 6:50pm, the bus arrived at 8:10pm. This was the first factor that I was fortunate for. However, at the time, stuck in a kilometre-long tunnel for over one hour, I was growing increasingly frustrated because I was unable to contact my friend who I was supposed to meet at the game.

Upon arrival, I immediately took the metro and checked-in at my hostel, as I feared it would be too late to check-in after the game. As a consequence, I left for the game later than expected and knew that I would arrive late. The second factor that I was fortunate for was that Google Maps gave me the directions to the Parc de Princes stadium, rather than Stade de France. This meant that I had to travel another 50 minutes to get to the game.

A culmination of all these factors meant that I arrived at the game at around 10pm. If one or two of these things had changed, I might not be here to share with you today. Running hurriedly to the stadium, I was met by the intimidating presence of two heavily armed policemen who were guarding the entrance to the stadium. They wouldn’t let me in. After 8 hours of travel to watch a football game, they wouldn’t let me in! Even the fact that the policemen were heavily armed did not alarm me as to what had happened; in Australia, it was typical for several highly armed policemen to patrol the area for the general safety of the public. At the time, I was very angry. Of course, these feelings would change over the course of the night as i became aware of the events.

I watched the rest of the game at the Novotel, blissfully unaware of what had happened outside stadium or in the rest of Paris. As the game concluded, the news suddenly broadcast the dreadful news of a bomb blast near the area of the stadium. At first, I still thought there was nothing wrong. It was only when my friend in Maastricht messaged me about the death toll that I realised the monstrosity of the events.

I am eternally grateful that I was able to make it to the hostel safely that night. I would later find out that many of my friends were confronted with closed metro lines and were forced to stay with others for the night. I found out through Facebook’s safety feature that they, too, were unharmed. This is one of the ways technology can be used in the future to respond to emergency crises and it was helpful in letting friends and family know that I was safe.

On that dreaded night, the city of Paris stood still, shocked. On the day after, a quiet Saturday, the windy, overcast weather was mourning with the city. There weren’t many people out on the streets and all of Paris was still in shock.

On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to meet up with my friend at a popular café. The fact that it was open so soon after the tragedy was a strong show of defiance against the instigators who had tried to pull the city apart. Life felt the same. But it wasn’t. As my friend and I walked through La Republique to see the vigils and flowers that people had placed near the Bataclan, the number of people that had come out to show support amazed us. The city had come together to show strength through unity. Although this was only my fourth short-term visit to the city, I felt like part of the community. As I placed my flowers done near the Bataclan, I cried. It could have been any of us.

Paris walked on.

Living in Australia, most of the tragedies that occur overseas seem remote. Too often, it’s easy to dismiss the loss of innocent lives as another statistic being replayed over the nightly news. Being in Paris that night made me realise how real they were. This experience taught me to appreciate life and realise how lucky we are to have our loved ones around us.

To the families of the departed, I give you my deepest condolences and stand with you in this difficult time.

Andrew

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The Travails of Travelling

As I have about a month left in Maastricht, I’ve been focusing on how to make the most out of it. There’s always the temptation to take part in more activities, to spend even more time with the friends I’ve made here, and to try more types of food. However, one urge I’ve felt in particular since Period 1 ended – largely borne out of the realisation that there are so many places nearby that I haven’t been to yet – has been to travel as much as I can.

So after earmarking my desired destinations and making a fairly aggressive travel plan, which involved going somewhere nearly every weekend, I set about following through on them. There are still a few weeks to go and so a few places left to visit, but so far it’s been extremely enjoyable to tour around. While I’ve also been to the likes of Austria while here, below I’ll just talk about the places I’ve visited in the Netherlands and in its two neighbours, Belgium and Germany.

 

The Netherlands

Within the Netherlands, Amsterdam is the obvious standout destination. It’s a crazy city, always teeming with people and energy at all times of the day. It also has a lot of diversity in terms of what it offers; regardless of your personality and preferences – it doesn’t matter if you’re an art lover or a history buff or even an aimless drug addict – there’s always something for you here. Den Haag is a lot more low-key in that respect, but is still worth a visit if you think you’d appreciate the couple of politically important buildings or the beaches or dunes that it has. Eindhoven in contrast has, to be honest, little for tourists to see or do in general, but I went there when it was having a Glow Festival, which was quite interesting (though not particularly spectacular). Also, I think it has the nearest Primark from Maastricht, which I suppose counts as a plus point. Amongst other places, I’ll be visiting Rotterdam, which I’ve heard is really modern and well-maintained, and Utrecht in the coming weeks.

 

Belgium

I liked Brussels a lot; it conveys a strong sense of professionalism and ambition, while maintaining a certain level of homeliness – you tend to walk around admiring what this city has on offer and the way it lives its life, while feeling extremely comfortable despite being a visitor amidst it all. Antwerp is a great blend of the new and old, with some magnificent buildings from the yesteryear that for a second make you forget the bustling hive of activity stemming from the malls and shops that surround you. It also has strong historical elements embedded in all corners, so if you’re not in a rush I’d advise you to spend some time exploring the place closely. If you’re looking for a place that has a quieter and more rustic charm while maintaining a certain level of vibrancy, then Ghent is the city for you; nearly everything about the city is pretty, from its endearing juxtaposition of buildings of extremely different colours, shapes and sizes to its quirky canal-side bars and eateries to its unique medieval structures and museums. Especially given that it doesn’t take long to cover, this city is well worth a visit! You also have Liege, which is particularly nearby (on the weekend, tickets there are especially cheaper) and usually doesn’t have much in particular to offer visitors, bar this enormous flea market they have on Sundays (though I’m not sure if it’s across the whole year) at La Batte. There’s also Brugge, which I’ll be visiting only next week but is the Belgian city I’ve heard the most glowing reviews of from my parents and my friends who’ve been there.

 

Germany

Aachen in Germany is a popular hangout for many here since it’s just about 50 minutes away. Small, cosy and surprisingly a lot more crowded than you’d expect, Aachen has enough to see for at least half a day. If you’re nearby towards the end of the year, perhaps it would be best to plan your visit when its highly-rated Christmas Markets are up and running. Also, do try out Aachen Printen, a variety of gingerbread native to this town. Cologne is a lovely place as well; even if you’re just passing by it, you should at the very least set aside an hour or so to see its Cathedral, if nothing else. Bonn is a lot more low-key, but is probably a must-go if you’re a fan of Beethoven (who was born and grew up here). Munich is far from Maastricht, and most here seem to go there exclusively for the Oktoberfest. This is not too surprising, because a large part of what people associate with the city and its culture, is beer. In my opinion, while this isn’t incorrect in any way, there’s plenty else to appreciate about this cosmopolitan city, from its food and its attractions to the ways of its people. Travelling all the way there from Maastricht might put you off, but I would recommend it as part of any separate trip you make to that region. Another city that’s quite far away but I would strongly recommend you visit if you haven’t already is Berlin, where I very recently spent 3 days. Berlin has nearly everything – it’s cool, cultured, creative and has plenty of history. It’s one of those places you could set out aimlessly in and then, hours later, find yourself just half-way through a museum or happily lost in an alley of astonishing street art and quirky bars and shops. It’s one of those places that really has a flavour of its own, one that is strong enough to be felt by all but leaves room for each to internalise it in his or her preferred way.

 

A Few Tips

There’re a lot of things you can do to maximise your travel experiences; of course, you have all your standard pieces of advice – check the weather and then dress and equip yourself accordingly, bring the necessary travel documents along, bring enough cash, be open-minded etc etc.

5 other things I’d recommend doing are:

1) Hunt for and stay alert to travel discounts and deals, and make trade-offs/decisions that suit you. Something noteworthy about going to any of these places in the Netherlands is that there’re Facebook pages that allow you to form (virtual) groups with others travelling to the same destination to get tickets to and fro for as low as 7 euros. This makes it worth it even to make multiple day trips to these places, especially if you want to avoid the hassle of making hostel or other accommodation bookings. Of course, while you tend to save some money, you also lose the additional time you spend travelling, so it depends on how you’d like to evaluate that trade-off. Many I know can’t bear to sit in a train for too long, while others manage to expertly do their homework in their travel time.

2) Maximise your days (applicable for wintertime). As the months get colder, daylight also becomes a sparse commodity, and it gets dark really early.  Aside for those places that have plenty to admire or do at night, it doesn’t bode well for your trip if you, for example, wake up late in the morning and get to your destination by the time it’s mid-afternoon. I’d strongly advise waking up early enough to reach your destination by time day breaks. Often this might mean sleeping early or catching up on your sleep while you travel, but I feel it’s worth it if your destination is a more of a day-place (like Ghent or Aachen) and you want to get as much as possible out of it.

3) Prioritise the experience over documenting it. To be more specific, pay more attention to where you are at and to the sights, smells and sounds you experience than to getting the perfect photograph. While it’s only natural to want a picture of yourself in front of a beautiful building, for example, there’s no need to obsess over it at the expense of the enrichment you get from a unique place you’ll probably never visit again.  Besides, I feel those who take pictures for their own viewing tend not to look at them in the future as often as they think they will. And taking them to impress others seems even more absurd, because people who like you probably don’t need to impressed, people who don’t like you are probably not going to just because of a few beautiful travel photos, and those in between will probably forget about you after looking at your pictures for about five seconds and moving on to the next one on their newsfeed.

4) Look out for unique activities. I mean this especially for places that are nearby but you are undecided about visiting. Examples of this for me were Eindhoven or Liege – I didn’t think either place had enough to see to make a trip there worth it – but when they had the above-mentioned Glow Festival and flea market respectively, my decision titled in their favour.

5) Go on a solo trip every now and then. Travelling with friends is fun, but I’d strongly recommend just setting out on your own – and for the longer, the better – and immersing yourself miles away from your comfort zone. It’s a really refreshing experience and you tend to learn quite a bit about yourself. Also, you don’t have to worry about the preferences of someone else – you can see and do whatever you want at whatever pace you’d like with no qualms whatsoever.

 


 

That’s all from me for now! In my last post in a few weeks, I’ll talk more about my overall experience as a UM student and as a resident of this beautiful city.

Let’s go to some extra lectures!

Dear reader,

nice to see you again! I hope that everything is okay with you, as it is with me. I will dedicate my third blog to extracurricular activities here in Maastricht. If you ever find yourself studying here you will see that you can spend your much treasured free time doing various interesting things. Probably the favourite activity among exchange students is traveling, but I am sure that my fellow co-bloggers have covered that area in detail already, so I will focus more on activities the city itself has to offer.

If you are interested in sports than you will probably be very excited to hear that Maastricht University has a newly built University Sports Centre, where they offer spinning classes, group workouts or individual workout at the gym. Since I am only here for a semester, I chose the half-year sports membership for amazing 46,75 euros! With that I am able to go to activities like strength and conditioning, powerkick, club-power (working with weights), zumba, super HIIT, spinning, core and more or a wake up workout – you name it, they have it! You can also choose to be a member of the gym or a member of one ot their sports associations – there are so many of them that I am sure your favourite sport is among them (like slacklining or rugby).iMaybe you are more interesting in some additional lectures? Then Studium Generale has got you covered. You can find their agenda online or on one of the stals throughout university buildings. They organize really interesting lectures, lecture series, debates and movies. And because everybody knows that, you should make sure to buy the tickets well in advance (when there are tickets needed) or come to the lectures early. The movie screenings by them (held at the Lumiere cinema) are available for a reduced ticket price of 4 euros (compared to 6,5 student price at regular screenings), which makes movies like This changes everything, Merchands of doubt or The dark horse even more appealing. Interested in lectures on climate change, game theory or constructive conflicts? Be sure to do your tutorial preparation soon enough and not miss many of them like I did! There are also many student organizations that organize various lectures and workshops (some of them for free), but be attentive when signing up for membership. Or, I don’t know, maybe I am the only one that paid the membership for the wrong student association … My bad.

If you are more of a party type, you won’t be bored either, no worries there. But if you are more of a cooking/eating type, like I am, you will get your weekly portion of socializing beside a tasty meal as well. Make sure to check on Foodbank Maastricht on Facebook, a weekly Friday event, where you can participate as a volunteer in the making of a delicious environmentally friendly dinner for 100 people, made of daily (!) vegetable and fruit-soon-to-be-waste from the market. Volunteer – eat for free, come as soon as possible (or be left outside because of the crowd) – and pleeease contribute more than 50 cents. Why 50 cents? There are around a hundred people there every Friday that in sum give 50 eurous. You do the math and bear in mind that there are more costs in making an event like that than getting some onions. Thank you in advance 🙂

You can also learn how to cook every Tuesday at Maastricht goes vegan for only 5 euros and enjoy for example in an amazing chocolate cake like I did. But the best thing with cooking is that you are doing it in groups of 5, 10, 25 people with plenty of time to get to know new interesting people. Who knows, maybe you even fall in love? Then you can seek for some social support at the InBetween  (The Students Chaplaincy) – regardless of your faith.

If you are to come to Maastricht, you will definitely not get bored easily. Just the opposite, you might want to get away for a few hours and spend some time alone with leprechauns.

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They live in the Hoge Kempen Nationaal Park in Belgium 🙂

If you will be friendly with them, they might just give you a sit-full of chestnuts.

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Take care till next time,

Monika

Photos

Here are some photos from my last few weeks! The next post will have more info on all these places, but I realized my posts are very text heavy so I am going to leave you with this:

Friesleand 

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Canal

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Friesland Flag


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My local tour guides of Friesland, my moms aunt and uncle 🙂

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Coast

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Coast

Maastricht 

Local churches and town square:
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Church off town square that was converted to a book store

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The view from the one hill in Maastricht

The Hague/ The Scheveningen 

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Parliament Square

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Flags from all the regions outside the government square

The Need To Get Out

Dear Reader,

Exams at Maastricht became an experience in itself. I remember looking at the amount of material that we had covered in just two months and asked myself, “How am I going to remember all of this?” I remember the study sessions where students would stress out together the day before the exam wondering if they are prepared. I remember the last minute discovery of an important topic that I overlooked, to the sleepless nights thinking about how I need to pass the exam to pass the course. Then the journey to the exam location, Mecc Westhal, where I would find myself in awe of its size (similar to that of an airplane hangar) and looking down the rows upon rows of desks. Realizing that it was in a location where the majority of UM students in all faculties will be sharing three hours. Three hours of silence where everyone becomes unaware of their surroundings only to find themselves laser focused on the papers in front of them.

I am now entering the fourth week of period two and when I look back, it wasn’t that bad. After the exams came to a close, I packed up and headed to Brussels for the weekend. I have noticed that some people love Brussels and that others are not too fond of it. Therefore, it is up to you to visit and discover it for yourself. Whether it is Brussels, Gent, Antwerp, Bruges, or any other Belgium city for that matter, B-europe.com will be a savior. Not only is the site easy to use, it is also very cost effective when travelling to any place in Belgium. For example, I woke up one day at 11:30am and within an hour I was in Liège exploring the city streets. This has been very beneficial when you’re too busy to give up a weekend but you still want to take advantage of your exchange and travel to new places.

For the individuals that are looking to travel further, the site for you is Ryanair.com, more specifically the “Fare Finder” tab. Here, you will be able to find round trips for as low as 10 euros if you book early (roughly 3 weeks in advance). Another benefit of using “Fare Finder” is that you will look at visiting places that never crossed your mind. Overall, the key to finding a cost effective means of travel is to use incognito mode (this disables travel sites to track your cookies and inflate prices) and to cross reference prices on different sites (ex. goeuro.com) and modes of transportation.

If you are someone like me who wants to travel and isn’t quite sure on where to go, find travel buddies. Travelling with people will bring you to see amazing things because everyone will have their own unique must-see points of interest. For instance, I have made a good friend on exchange who is a full-time student at Maastricht and he has brought me to places that only the locals know about and has provided me with a wealth of knowledge about the history of the towns we stop in.

When second period starts, you will feel the time left for exchange is decreasing at an exponential rate only to find yourself thinking about how there is so much left to do and see. There will always be an abundance of potential trips, experiences, parties, and activities to participate in. Just remember throughout your exchange that it is never too late to branch out and meet new people because you never know where a simple “Hello” will take you.

Have fun,
Erik Sultmanis

Period 2: fun and travelling

Hey everybody!

It has been a while since i have written. So many things were going on, that I barely had time to write about my life here.

Since last time, I have had the opportunity to travel a lot, which will be the main topic of this blog post.

Rotterdam

This was my first trip, that I did along with 8 of my new buddies. The city is very modern, from the train station, to the infrastructure of many buildings. The city has also a unique architecture, with its cube houses, or with its Markthal, which is a market with a lot of food stands, and with a very concave shape.

Me and my buddies really enjoyed Rotterdam, and we would gladly come back one day!

Below is a photo taken that shows the unique architecture of the city.

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Brussels

One of the most enjoyable cities I have ever been to. The capital of Belgium is definitely a must-see. From the unique buildings to the history of this rich city, from the delicious gastronomy to the nice people in the streets, Brussels is my best trip so far.

The best part was when three of my “floor”-mates and me went to visit a brewery near the city centre. The brewery was “Cantillon – Brouwerij”, founder in 1900 which produces mainly Lambic style beers (Gueuze, Kriek, etc.).

Here is one photo of the beer barrels

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We had also a beer tasting which was really tasty! The beers were fruity, sour, a little bit like champagne, with strong flavor produced with wild yeast, and air components.

Brussels put a lot into my memories, I will come back for sure!

Paris

I came back to Paris after the exams of Period 1 (which were not that tough luckily), first to see my family, then to go to the Saké Festival, which I was awaiting for a long time.
There is a great flexibility to travel back home, which is good.
The festival was amazing, and sake’s were for some of them astonishingly exquisite.

For the next photo, all credits to Le Salon du Saké.

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Eindhoven

The last city, me and my friends went there to visit the Glow Festival in Eindhoven, which takes places all around the city. The festival consists in illuminating buildings, the nature and in creating glowing animations.
It was the first time I had encountered such an event, and it was pleasurable.

For example, this is one of the animations that we could see :

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Now that I have shown all places I have been to so far, I am going to describe my student life lately.

Period 2 is tougher than the first one, so I need to work a little bit more. Luckily, this does not prevent me from enjoying some parties and events in Maastricht.

I am continuing with going to the Social Dinners, which are dinners where one person out of a group of 8 people cooks a meal from his country.
Here is my group (we ate German food that day :)):

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And as always, I often have movies night, and I am enjoying every bit of my exchange.

See you!

Diego

5 Places You Must Visit (Bruges & Gent)

Welcome to Part 2 of the ‘5 Places You Must Visit’ series!

Bruges

Seeing is believing. After seeing Bruges, it’s easy to believe that fairy-tales are real. The picturesque buildings and the gently swaying idyllic trees overlooking a calm canal all create a magical experience.

How to get there?

Bruges is an hour from Brussels by train. Therefore I would recommend spending one weekend in Belgium visiting both Bruges and Brussels (as well as Ghent if you have a long weekend).

Things to do

The first thing you’ll notice about Bruges are the stylish medieval buildings. Unlike many cities which just have one ‘historical quarter’, these buildings are all around the city and create a surreal experience, as if you have stepped back in time 400 years.

The canal tour was the highlight of my visit. Beginning near the city centre, we twisted and turned around the serene waterways. It was such a unique way to explore the city and the tour guide provided useful commentary into the history of the city.

Gent by sea
Gent by sea

The Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk is known for housing Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. It is famously the only Michelangelo work to leave Italy during his lifetime. Unfortunately it’s become such a big attraction that the church now charges a small fee to see it but having travelled such a long way, I thought it would be silly to miss it.

Walking into the city centre (the Markt), you’ll find streets lined on both sides with chocolate and novelty shops. Once you reach the Markt, you’ll find a beautiful square with buildings such as the Belfry Tower and the Provincial Court.

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Endless rows of beer

If drinking is your thing, you’ll be pleased to hear that Bruges takes its beers very seriously. The bars hold large varieties of beers and provided you aren’t in the city centre, they are reasonably priced. We decided to try something different and opt for the fruit beers, which were just as good as they sound.

Overall, Bruges is a beautiful medieval city that is busy yet quiet enough to enjoy. Bruges very much reminded me of Amsterdam but has its own Belgian appeal.


Gent

How to get there?

Gent is only half an hour from Bruges by train! Take the train to Gent – St Pieters station.

Things to do

Similar to Bruges, Gent is famous for its medieval architecture and a canal. Despite these similarities, it feels very different. For one, it feels a lot more expansive compared to the tight-knit community of Bruges. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as I found that there was more to explore in Gent. Secondly, Gent has a castle! It may simply be something I’ve carried from childhood but whenever I see a castle, I still get giddy with excitement. More about that later.

Graslei
Graslei

The city centre is where it all happens in Gent.

The Belfry (the tower) provides wonderful views of the entire city. Nearby, you will find the Graslei harbour which features striking medieval buildings along the Leie river. It is a perfect place to begin a stroll around the city. From there, you can also board a river tour and the multiple bridges are a great vantage point to observe the sea.

Gravensteen Castle
Gravensteen Castle

As mentioned before, one of Gent’s attractions is the Gravensteen castle. Bear in mind this is not the same as a royal palace but rather a place used as a fortress and later as a courthouse and prison. Inside you’ll find a museum about Gent’s history of torture, which is not for those with a weak stomach. The best part is the view from the top, allowing you to oversee Gent’s city centre.

In the Saint Bavo Cathedral is one of the most impressive paintings I’ve ever seen. The “Adoration of the Mystic Lambs” by Jan van Eyck is an enormous yet incredibly detailed twelve-panel painting dating back to 1432. Famously, two of the twelve panels were stolen in 1934, never to be recovered.

Gent by night
Gent by night

One of the great initiatives that Gent is a night lighting plan specially designed to bring out the facades and accents of the buildings. I took a night stroll through a path recommended by the Gent tourism board and discovered a completely different beauty to the city. There are no safety issues as the paths are always well-lit and there are plenty of people out late at night.

Graffiti lane
Graffiti lane

One of the unique things I stumbled upon was a graffiti lane. Although I’d seen one in Australia before, it was pleasantly surprising to find one in Europe. Those that associate graffiti exclusively with vandalism should visit this lane to appreciate its artistry and detail. The graffiti lane is not only a city attraction, but also a great way to allow young people to express themselves creatively without breaking the law.

If you’re a football fan, you could consider watching Gent FC. They are the current Belgian league champions and participated in the Champions League this year for the first time in club history.

If you have any suggestions on which cities you’d like to me to write about, please comment below.

Stay tuned for the next instalment.

Andrew