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