Next up on my Flanders itinerary was Leuven, the capital of Flemish Brabant and the centre of Belgium’s academic world. Arriving on a Friday, it was hard to miss the groups of students heading home for the weekend, dragging their suitcases and bags of washing towards the station. I battled against the tide and headed towards the city centre, determined to get to the bottom of Leuven’s appeal.
Ever admired the academic environment of cities like Oxford or Durham, where there seem to be college buildings on every corner and student hideouts alongside them? You’ll feel right at home in Leuven, which is rightly dominated by the Katholieke Universiteit, or KU, the largest university in Belgium.
Founded in 1425, its lecturers included Erasmus and Pope Adrian VI, and one of its most famous students was the anatomist Andreas Vesalius, author of De Humani Corporis Fabrica. I’m a big fan of anatomical illustration, so it felt pretty special to be visiting a place he’d spent so much time in. Vesalius is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the city’s M Museum and I’m sure it’ll be a fitting tribute to him. In my next blog post, I’ll examine the current M Museum exhibition, called Ravage.
The KU library is the most famous part of the university campus, and that’s because of the trauma it suffered during two world wars. In 1914 the library and University Hall was burned down by German troops, along with the 300,000 books inside it, and the loss of all this culture and education was a real shock to British and American troops serving in the area. British and American citizens donated money to help rebuild the library in a new location (Naamsestraat 3), but sadly it was burned down again in 1940, with even more books destroyed. Another rebuilding campaign, this time with significant remodelling, took place, leaving us with the structure seen today. You can even climb the library tower to see stunning views of the city.
Like Mechelen, Leuven has two beguinages, but here they are not set beside each other – in fact, they’re at opposite ends of the city! As it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I chose to see the Groot Begjinhof, or Great Beguinage (on Schapenstraat), which dates back to the 13th century and used to house 360 beguines at the height of its popularity.
Today it’s become a valued part of KU Leuven’s accommodation, housing students and professors in the quiet streets. Stepping inside the Great Beguinage is a bit like walking onto a film set, with little to hint at the buzz of modern life, and the calm environment is only shattered by the occasional cyclist clattering past on the cobbles.
Other stunning buildings to discover include the Town Hall, or Stadhuis (Grote Markt 9), a Gothic masterpiece covered in over 200 statues, and Sint Pieterskerk, which is the oldest church in the city and sits opposite the Town Hall. It contains an impressive crypt and the Treasury of St. Pieter, which can be visited with the I LUV LEUVEN ticket. The Treasury is the place to find Belgian artistic gems by the likes of Dirk Bouts, a Flemish Primitive painter, and P.J. Verhaghen.
Whilst the whole of Belgium has a rich history of brewing, this city has to be one of the main hubs of activity. If you arrive by train then you can’t miss the vast brewery with its Stella Artois logo beside the railway tracks (Vuurkruisenlaan 4) as you approach the station. Unfortunately you can only visit the brewery at weekends, so I wasn’t able to pop in and discover its secrets!
The best time to pay homage to Stella, and other local beers, would be during the Leuven Beer Weekend, which runs from 26th-27th April this year. Related invents include cookery workshops pairing beer with food, tasting sessions and tours on foot, by bus or by bike. What sets this celebration apart from the likes of Oktoberfest is that visitors to Leuven are genuinely interested in the craft and passion that goes into brewing. They want to sample different products and find out about the history behind them, rather than simply trying to drink as much as possible, and this is the perfect place to get a beer education.
Those of you in search of a traditional pub atmosphere as you sip your pint, don’t panic. There are loads of great spots in Leuven, and one of the best is the Domus Brewhouse (or Huisbrouwerij Domus, at Tiensestraat 8), just moments from the Town Hall. Here you can sample up to three house beers delivered fresh from the brewery, via a pipeline – one is a seasonal speciality, but the other two, Con Domus and Nostra Domus, are available all year round.
Leuven doesn’t just have a great reputation for beer – it’s also excellent for foodies seeking out traditional local and national dishes. During my visit, I enjoyed a meal at De Klimop (which translates as The Ivy, found at Martelarenplein 5), a stylish restaurant opposite the train station, where asparagus had a prime position on the menu.
Nancy Brouwers, of Tourism Leuven, explained that asparagus season has just begun in the area, hence the fresh seasonal produce on offer, which had been transformed into everything from soup to ravioli. The restaurant uses a network of local Leuven suppliers, including fishmongers, butchers, grocers and cheesemongers, to create a more sustainable menu. I tucked into a tender beef stew, served with crispy chips, and washed it all down with a glass of Leffe.
Later in the afternoon, having pounded the city’s pavements, I couldn’t resist stopping off at Think Chocolate (L. Vanderkelenstraat 43), one of Leuven’s many chocolate shops, to sample some of the treats on offer. Not only does the shop cater for chocoholics, but it also sells artisanal products such as locally made jam, pasta and beer. I picked out some melt-in-the-mouth truffles (€5) which went down a treat.
I found Leuven to be a really welcoming city, with so much to offer tourists in search of culinary and cultural heritage. There’s nothing to stop you soaking up the atmosphere all year round, whether you’ve got your heart set on the Beer Weekend this month or you fancy strolling through a beguinage in the snow.
Disclaimer: This trip was planned with the assistance of Visit Flanders and input from Tourism Leuven. To find further information about travelling to Brussels, please see www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.