Exploring Flanders and Why I’ve Been #LeuvenIt

Leuven Belgium main square
Leuven main square

I was contacted on Twitter a couple of months ago about a press trip to a place I had only vaguely heard of before. It was Leuven in Belgium (phonetically it is pronounced something like lurven and often on social media, people would say #leuvenit which I certainly was after I’d been). I had travelled to Brussels, Belgium for the first time this year and it was fast becoming one of my favourite places. I have neglected countries closer to home in the past 11 years of solo travel so I’m only discovering some of the real European gems now.

Leuven is the 4th largest city in Flanders and has a famous university. The only reason I had heard of Leuven before was due to my job at Durham University in the UK and Leuven being one of our partners for the Erasmus programme. This link to my day job made me want to go and find out more. Established in 1425, the Catholic university is the oldest still in existence. So on that one good reason, I decided to say yes and take off on a fast paced, 48 hour trip with BMI Regional and Visit Flanders. I didn’t regret the decision to take this opportunity and couldn’t believe there was so much history, culture and FOOD in one small place.

Leuven is around 15-20 minutes by train east of Brussels. After a short, very early morning flight on our dinky aircraft, we took a short train ride to Leuven. We barely sat down, updated social media (blogger problems!) and we were there. I had very little knowledge of where we were heading and had decided to do no research before I visited so I had no idea what to expect.

Stepping out of the train station, I saw familiar architecture that reminded me of both Brussels and even Amsterdam. We were absolutely in Flanders. Our first stop with Visit Leuven was at a chocolate shop. They certainly know how to treat you! We were then taken to drop our bags off at the hotel and whisked away on a fantastic city tour with Jakob from Leuven Leisure.

Tour with Jakob

Our first look at Leuven on our guided tour

Thinking we would go straight to the hustle and bustle of the city, I was completely wrong and found myself in parkland. We had come to see the remains of the ancient walls and towers standing after 850 years. A beautiful place to stroll in the city. The autumnal colours of the park were gorgeous and the temperature wasn’t as low as the UK so it was nice to walk around without a coat on.

Leuven Groot Begijnhof is the beguinage and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the city. This is actually the first time I’ve heard of the architectural complex and the term beguines. Beguines were women in the city who were single or often widowed who went to live in these religious communities. They did not take any vows to become nuns or retire completely from the world outside but they were protected by the community and importantly, so were their assets. A pretty clever way of not getting all of your personal belongings taken away if your husband or father dies. In Leuven, this complex dates from 13th Century and housed hundreds of beguines at its peak.

Beguinage Leuven

UNESCO World Heritage Site – Beguinage

We walked through a series of streets and alleys passing lovely houses and gardens. This area was protected from being demolished by the university. It has been restored in places and now houses some very lucky university students.

If you’re thinking that maybe this area was protected from destruction and conflict due to its religious background, you would be wrong. War frequently took over the whole city and surrounding region. The small streams that are from the main rivers allowed weak points into the city, taken advantage of by foreign soldiers. It is fantastic that so much still stands and this interesting period of history has been preserved. I personally love the resilience and strength of these women.

Beguinage houses

 

Beguinage Leuven stream

Stream running through beguinage

 

St Gertrude's Church in the Grand Beguinage

St Gertrude’s Church in the Grand Beguinage

St Gertrude’s church stands at the centre of the beguinage and is considered significant because it was built between the 13th and 15th Century with a tower using no nails. The buildings and cobbled streets are a must see point of the city. Incredible architecture and great history.

Leuven town hall and the Grote Markt in the very first photo of this post have to be my highlight for architecture and the main focal point of Leuven. This main square had been a major trade centre and very rich due to draperies then the brewery tradition. The town hall is extremely well adorned with statues and decoration on its front. The back has no similar detail which I found funny. Its like two different buildings. St Pieter’s or St Peter’s church is another beautiful and significant building just across from the town hall. Trade and religion (the two main powers) facing each other throughout the centuries.

Statue Leuven

A famous statue symbolising wisdom

A discussion was had about this statue. We knew more about the city as a centre for teaching and learning but it is also famous for booze. Was this a cheeky symbol of both by the artist? Like Manneken Pis in Brussels, this statue is often dressed up for different occasions.

Students were everywhere and we were staying near some renowned student bars. You couldn’t ignore that this is largely a student city. The buildings housing academic departments and accommodation were prominent. The most significant university building was of course the library.

The library had been at the centre of a very targeted attack during World War I in which German soldiers burned and destroyed a huge part of the library. Over 230,000 books were destroyed including medieval manuscripts which was a devastating and unnecessary act of violence. During this conflict, around 300 civilians in Leuven lost their lives. Great Britain and the USA helped with funding the rebuild and restoring or providing books, however during the conflict in World War II, nearly a million books were lost in the shelling.

After the Second World War, the USA and many prominent Americans funded the new library building. There are bricks visible inside that show the names of American funders and symbols all over the building outside show gratitude to America as the country who helped to restore this important landmark of education.

Leuven University library

Leuven University library

Back at St Pieter’s church, we came to a very small chapel and Jakob told us the story behind it.

The chapel dedicated to Fiere Margriet

Hearing the story of this tiny chapel and Fiere Margriet

One of my favourite stories or myths on the tour was about Fiere Margriet. Margriet of Louvain (Leuven) is honoured by the Catholic church as a saint. She had been a bar maid and helped to run a pub in the 11th Century. One night some pilgrims came to the door and asked for food, wine and a place to sleep. They had money and the owner did not want to miss out on making some money. He welcomed them in and realised they had no wine so he sent Margriet to get some from across town. When she returned she saw that the men were not pilgrims but robbers and they had murdered the owners. They tried to rape her but she fiercely fought them off. They tied her up and took her with them. They tried once again to rape her on the outskirts of the city next to the river. She once again fiercely protected her virginity and so they killed her and threw her in the river. A priest was by the river when he saw a bright light floating towards him and he discovered Margriet’s body. It was taken as a sign that she was virtuous and she was buried properly. Miracles were said to happen in the area and eventually a chapel was erected next to the wall of St Peters and her body was transferred. She has been venerated by the church and is a story of virtue and faith. Naturally, a pub stands today named Fiere Margriet with an impressive 280 beers on their menu.

That brings me to food and drink. This little place packs a serious culinary punch.

From posh hot dogs or haute dogs, to the famous Artois beer and not to forget the delicious chocolate, Leuven is stepping up as a real foodie contender. We ate a lot of great food on our short trip and I could see there was much more to be savoured. I would go back just for food and drink tours again and would highly recommend this city to any food/beer/chocolate lovers.

Haute dog lunch at Wurst

Posh dog at Wurst

Beer and chocolate needs to be a completely different post because there is so much to say about the pairings and brewery tour. We definitely enjoyed this part of our trip. I didn’t think I was much of a beer drinker, but I’m converted in Belgium. They do a huge variety of different flavours and some are heavy but others very light. There is also a chocolate to go with each one. I’m sold!

Beer and chocolate in Leuven

Jakob explaining beer and chocolate pairings

The longest ‘bar’ in Europe or Oude Markt has a vibrant social scene and this was where we headed on our only night in the city. We got to see a lot of student groups playing games and no doubt doing a pub crawl. We ordered what was actually a very reasonable round of beers and enjoyed sitting outside people watching. I really enjoy this kind of atmosphere and wish we had more places like this in the UK. I guess our lower temperatures don’t help during autumn and winter.

Leuven bars

The longest ‘bar’ in Europe

The city comes alive and is at its best lit by soft yellow glow at night. I think it must be the romantic side of me that loves this kind of scene at night. Everything looks better.

Leuven town hall at night

Leuven town hall lit up at night

Penta Hotel was the place we stayed in Leuven and I previously did a room tour on my YouTube channel which you can check out below. It was a very quirky place and had great buffet breakfast. The bed was comfortable and it was in a very central location, just a quick walk to St Peter’s church and the Grote Markt.

Visiting Leuven has made me want to explore more of Belgium and particularly Flanders. It has a charm about it and I like that it has been re-invented throughout its history. There has been significant destruction and the need to rebuild but Leuven has survived and I do have a soft spot for places that have been through tragedies and difficult periods of history. I spoke to the Visit Flanders team in November about more places in the region next year. Watch this space!

Disclaimer: As mentioned above, this was a press trip with Visit Flanders and all expenses in Leuven were covered by the Tourism company. My views are, as always, my own. 

13 Comments

  • chloe lin says:

    Leuven is absolutely gorgeous. The architecture is so pretty and I just love the vibe this place exudes. I always want to explore Europe soon!

  • knycx says:

    Wow. Any square and plaza is Belgium is so beautiful – the town hall of Leuven main square is just exquisite it made me gasp in awe when I see the photo of it, can’t wait to go there and see it up close and personal myself. Thanks a lot for your introduction!

  • Hannah says:

    Wow, that town hall is exceptionally beautiful, although funny that only one side of the building has been decorated as such! And a church made using no nails? Honestly, they were super smart with architecture back then! I love the look of the Haute Dogs (also love the name) – I’m a fan of jazzed up street food! I wonder if they have any hop-free beers, as I am allergic to hops 😦 Looks like a great place to visit!

  • What an interesting village. I’m so glad you took them up on the invitation. Beautiful about the city protecting the widows and abandoned women. Pity the wars left their mark. Looking forward to that post about the food and drink!

  • I was in Brussels this past summer with Leuven being 20 minutes away, I should have visited it. I am loving the architecture. Oh, the haute dogs reminds me of Budapest. I bet it was delicious.

  • Meg Jerrard says:

    I’ve been to Brussels before, but not to Leuven – I’ll have to get back as it sounds like a beautiful place! I love that there’s so much nature, history, and European heritage to explore. And I’m a big fan of unique architecture – Leuven town hall looks stunning! Sad to hear that the city was so impacted by the world war, what a story of resilience that communities around the world came together to refund the library, and put the town back together.

    I would love to visit – thanks for the tip on Penta Hotel 🙂

  • hertraveltherapy says:

    This is such a beautiful city. I had vaguely read opinions from other bloggers that Belgium is boring, but this looks delightful. I like the story about the beguines and how the women were protected without having to become nuns or similar. Very forward-thinking and cool.

  • Holly says:

    I went to Brussels this year for the first time as well. Now I’m wondering did I pass this on the train. Definitely beautiful place. Maybe next time I’ll get to see it. Very cool you were contacted for a trip.

  • Mei says:

    I’ve never visited Leuven, because It’s so close to home, and we’re just like you: we’ve neglected closer destinations to explore more of the world. 🙂 But It looks a bit like Bruges, which we love, so we should definitely explore Leuven one day. And Belgium is always good for beer and chocolates! So autumn and winter are in fact the best time to go there, otherwise it’d be too hot to try out their chocolates! lol

  • Kerri says:

    I adore Leuven, much like I adore Belgium. We visited here two years ago and it remains one of my favourites. It was in Leuven that we first learned about the beguinages. How amazing are they? So glad you got to see them and experience them for yourself. We walked around here and rode our bikes too, so easy given it’s notoriety as the university town. The Gothic architecture is just stunning, I agree. The Town Hall – wow ! I made sure I visited everyone in every Belgian town thereafter. There are so many small towns like this in Belgium, I hope you get to visit them all. Unlike you, we never got to experience the longest bar as it was freezing cold and everything was all covered up and not open.

  • Claire says:

    Chocolate is definitely the best way to start any trip!! Green spaces in a city are so important, I’d never heard of Beguines either until reading this! I’m not a fan of beer but if it is served with chocolate every time, perhaps I should convert!! 😀

  • Jenna Kvidt says:

    Leuven looks like a great city—I hadn’t heard of it before! We loved the other cities in Belgium that we visited, and would love to check this spot out on a return visit now. Sometimes not doing any research is the best, isn’t it?! St Gertrude’s church looks really pretty and it’s crazy that they didn’t use nails to build it! The food you tried sounds amazing too, especially the Posh dog at Wurst! Yum!

  • Paige Wunder says:

    Belgium is one of the places I’m most excited to visit in the near future. I’ve never heard of Leuven, but I would love to visit! I would definitely be down to eat at Wurst, that looks amazing! The architecture is absolutely amazing and I’d love to visit myself.

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