Leuven, a Belgian treasure trove of wonders
Belgium is so understated and overlooked. It is so near to us, and yet we do not know all the fascinating places there. Leuven is a good example of this. It is a city of just under 93,000 people, and is under half an hour east of Brussels in the Dutch speaking part of the country. It is a gem of a place to visit.
In the 15th century Leuven made its money in the cloth trade and became wealthy. At that time the rival town of Brussels started building its magnificent town hall, so Leuven's Burgers decided that they would go one better, and started building their one in 1439. It took 30 years to complete! The first plan was to have a huge tower with an entrance to the Hall, but the foundations, and the sub soil, could not support this, so to compensate another floor was added and four smaller towers added, two at each end. The facade was made with many niches, but statues were, for some reason, never put in them. It was not until 1850 that the King, Leopold I, encouraged the city to put statues there, depicting Biblical scenes and also famous Belgians. There are 236 of them! At that time, Belgium had only just become an independent nation (in 1830) and the King was doing a good job of creating a Belgian identity.
The statues have weathered badly, including more recent ones, and the old ones are stored in the attic of the town hall, one of the many interesting things to see inside it (guided tours are available). In the foyer there are flags of the seven main families of the city, and two bronze plaques listing the names of those who fell in the 1830 war of independence, and World Wars I and II. The town hall is fortunate that in WWI it escaped the widespread destruction and in WWII was only grazed by a bomb. The rest of the city was not so fortunate.
The university was founded on 9.12.1425 by Pope Martin V. It is the oldest Catholic university still in existence in the world. Over 40,000 students study here every year. In WW1 the Germans burned it, destroying the best part of the 900,000 books in the important library. After that war, it was rebuilt on Mgr. Ladeuzeplein in the 1920s. In WW2 it was again burned, destroying more books. Today the library has over 1 million books in it. The tower has a carillon of 63 bells, the largest in Belgium. When it rings, it is a marvel of campanology.
The University also has a herb garden. This was started in 1738 to provide the raw ingredients for medical students. It is still there today and is an oasis of calm in the city.
The influence of the student population is very good for the city. There are 182 restaurants and 240 pubs / bars for a start. This means that you can eat well and cheaply, as well as many upmarket gourmet restaurants. There is a brewery that started brewing on this site in 1366, and in 1926 started the world famous Stella Artois beer. A tour of the brewery is good fun, and it has a great cafe too. Belgian beer can be (by law) flavoured with fruit or spices so there is a vast range of beers available.
There are student colleges and dormitories dotted around the city. Arras College used (from 1921 to 1977) to be a dormitory for girls. There was a Japanese Pagoda tree that was not doing very well. It was transferred to the front garden of this building, and flourished, and is still doing so. It is said that it flourishes because it was watered by the tears of the damsels. They would have to say "goodnight" to their boyfriends at this tree as they had to be in by 7 pm when the doors would be locked, and their tears fell on the tree's roots.
Facing the ornate town hall is St. Peter's Church. This was started in the 15th century with great ambitions for a massive 170 metre high tower. This would hold a ducket for the watchman. With the land being flat, he would be able to see invaders approaching from far away, and also keep an eye out for fires in the city. Unfortunately, once again, foundations and sub soil prevented such grand ideas. After a couple of collapses, the tower was limited to 50 metres high. The watchman is still there though, a gold life sized figure of Meester Jan stands ready with his big hammer and strikes the hour on a big bell.
There are several statues dotted around Leuven, all with some meaning and often some humour. Nearby the town hall is a cleverly built underground bicycle park, toilets and pram hire - to encourage even more citizens to cycle into the town centre. Nearby this is a statue of Fons Sapientae (fountain of wisdom). This is a fountain, and Fonske is reading a book, whilst pouring knowledge (water) into his head. This statue was gifted to the city by the University in 1975 to mark 550 years of the University. Another one from the University is opposite the library, and is a 23 metre tall spike with a beetle impaled on the top. The needle represents human memory while the beetle represents nature's memory. This was presented in 2004 to commemorate the 575th anniversary of the University.
A special place to visit is the Beguinage. The Beguines were a medieval body of women who lived together in community, but not tied to any religious order. They grew as a movement principally in the Low Countries, and had some power and influence and even some wealth. They also had the right to brew beer without taxes, as the water was not fit to drink and they could give beer to the sick people whom they nursed. The Beguinage is typical in that it is a collection of very neat little houses with a communal green or two, with a water supply running through, both for sanitation and for doing laundry which brought in an income, and a church. No men were allowed inside after sunset. This Beguinage has survived almost intact as it now belongs to the University. Its houses are inhabited by professors, staff and students, so it is in tip top condition. It is peaceful to stroll through the neat little streets.
One place not to miss is the M-Museum. This is the museum of the city. 100 years ago a Mr Vanderkelen offered the large 16th century house for a museum. It still retains the family sitting room as it was in 1917! This museum is very forward looking. They studied visitors, and found that we spend around 12 seconds looking at a painting and its label. They have changed the basic ideas of a museum. With 52,000 items, they can keep changing the displays. They do not label anything. You can have an audio guide, but as they say, if a painting is labeled as, say Rembrandt, you automatically think it is important and good. But - it may not be to your taste. If you look at it differently, you will see things with a different eye. Likewise, there was a line of baby Jesus statues. You had to work out what you made of them. Children are so very well catered for, to engage their minds. One of the statues of Jesus is different to the others, so the children have to search and find the odd one out. They are also given cards to write their own titles to paintings, and so on. It is an innovative and lively place to go round. The word "Museum" is a stuffy word - M-Museum is certainly not stuffy, you come away with a greater appreciation of so many things. A large new extension is discretely tucked away behind the original building, shoe-horned into the typically Flemish buildings round about it.
There are many more historic places, including churches like St. Gertrude's which was entirely built of stone, including the steeple, and not one nail or iron bar was used. But Leuven is not just old buildings. They have the longest bar in Europe! This is the Oude Market, an oblong "square" that is all cafes and bars, and local specialities are served along with the expected menus from around the world. There is the shopping too - Mechelsestraat and Diesestraat are pedestrianised, and all the shops you can imagine are there, as well as special Belgian ones and local ones. Again, the student influence ensures that there are many "economical" shops if you like bargains. One shop I liked was the "Damp Shop". Not what you would think - "Damp" means smoke, it is a shop for tobacco and e-cigarettes.
Leuven has the "feel good" factor. This is hard to pin down, it is a combination of a working small city, busy but not too crowded, people going about their day to day business, not so many tourists, lovely buildings and quaint streets, ancient and modern happily blended together.
There is one massive attraction that so far I have not mentioned - the Abbey. It is so special that I will have to give it an article to itself - this follows soon.
To get to Leuven is easy. You can fly from Edinburgh to Brussels and from the airport a direct train takes around 17 minutes. Eurostar trains to Brussels have direct connections, taking around 20 to 25 minutes (and Belgian rail fares are so cheap!) or you can take the KLM from Inverness or Aberdeen to Amsterdam - book through to Brussels and KLM put you on a high speed train from Schiphol airport directly to Brussels.
For accommodation, there is a full range, again the student aspect. I stayed at the lovely Martin's Klooster (Convent or Monastery) which is a converted building with other bits added on. It is quiet, very clean and tidy, excellent food, helpful staff - couldn't be better.