Leuven part 2 - the Park Abbey
It was started by Norbertine monks in 1129 and has grown just about ever since. At its peak it covered 3,400 hectares, so as you can imagine it is not in the middle of the city! Today it covers 42 hectares. To get there you can take buses 4,5,6,and 630, walk (about half an hour) or even better cycle - it is all flat of course.
To put it in context, this part of Belgium never had the vandalism of the Reformation, so we have continuity over the centuries. The Abbey was a powerhouse of culture and education. The monks were the few people who could read and write. Until the printing press arrived, books would be laboriously copied out by hand by the monks. They provided education for the ordinary people, health care, and were very advanced in agriculture.
The Abbey is a collection of large buildings spread over quite an area. You enter along a cobbled roadway through large gate buildings, and the urban noise dies away and peace descends. You walk past the wagon house, dating from 1663, and the tithe barn from 1633. It is amazing to see these centuries old buildings still in use and still cared for. However, it has taken many years and a lot of money to bring the various buildings to their present state.
In October 2017 there was a grand opening of the Abbey, and the treasures were made available to view for the first time for centuries. The work is not finished. This is very apparent when you walk out into the square garden that is surrounded by the buildings of the Monastery. One side is gleamingly restored, the other is in a bad state and is next in line for restoration. It will be 2025 before it is all done - providing the money becomes available and the work does not over-run - which is common when you are dealing with such elderly buildings, you never know quite what you will find when you strip them back to bare brick, plaster or timber.
As I mentioned earlier, the Abbey is nowhere near as extensive as it was, but it still has its water mill (from 1534) for grinding their grain, the ponds for the fish, the herb garden - herbs were used as medicine, the orchard and some fields.
The Abbey had a carillon of 40 bells. It must have been marvellous to hear. In the 19th century the carillon was moved to the centre of the city. It was then destroyed by the fires of the German army in WW1. Because we have this centuries of continuity, the Abbey has the "plans" for the bells, and new ones are being made right now. It is planned to have them installed and operational on 11.11.2018. Unlike the originals, these ones will not require a team of bell ringers, they will be automatic. It really is quite something to go round the Abbey and marvel at the stained glass, paintings, statues and art work of all types. Because it is still an operating Abbey, you cannot just go in. Tours are at set times. They take three quarters of an hour to an hour.
The Abbey is not just the Abbey - there is Parcum too! This is a separate exhibition of the dialogue of religious art and culture. To go round this can take two hours easily! There are wonderful items that have never been seen before, or at least, not for over 500 years! There are just so many precious things that they could never be displayed together, so thousands of items were stored in cellars and rooms. At the moment they are on display in 800 square metres of space, when the Abbey is fully restored, Parcum will have 2000 square metres of space. Parcum has shot into a world class centre for thousands of religious items of great cultural value.
After seeing all these things, and having a welcome cup of tea in the cafe, you would be forgiven in thinking that you've seen everything - not so!
As you stroll back through out of the huge gateway buildings, pop inside to the Almire Foundation. It is a centre of Polyphony. This is the rescue and study of medieval songs. Back then, there were not so many instruments, so complicated music was made by the human voice. To demonstrate this, two people started to sing. They sang at the same time, but each one was singing a totally different song. When you heard the two together, it was making a harmony, or story.
The medieval music sheets for choirs was very large. It is about the size of a broadsheet newspaper opened out. The notes of the music are proportionately large too. This is because back then, the only way to be able to produce music for each choir member was to laboriously copy it out by hand. So, one copy was made to this very large size and propped up on a large scale stand so that all the choir members would be able to stand around it and see it.
In 2018 they plan to complete their library of human voices. As we all have different voices, it will not be a recording of each one of us, but of types.
I hope that I have been able to give you some idea of this scope of things to see here. Even if religion is not your "thing" you cannot fail to be impressed by all these ancient wonders. In a short article like this, I could not possibly list all the items, so please go to www.abdijvanpark.be www.parcum.be. www.almirefoundation.org and of course www.visitleuven.be
I know that we tend not to think about Belgium as a holiday destination, but Leuven will certainly change your mind. The range of accommodation is broad (reflecting the student population) and I stayed at the Martins Hotel Klooster (converted from a monastery of course!!) it is top notch and centrally located. Leuven is at the centre of Belgium, so an ideal base to explore -Brussels is around 20 minutes by train for example. So, you can fly to Brussels, or take the KLM from Inverness or Aberdeen to Schiphol where, if you book through to Brussels you get a train ticket on a high speed train directly through. There is Eurostar option too, or it is close enough to drive there. Belgium will surprise you!