You might not have heard of Leuven. It’s not a big place. 100,000 people live in this city, a 30-minute train ride away from Brussels. In Belgium, Leuven is considered the country’s equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge. The city is home to the biggest and oldest university in this part of Europe and the world’s oldest Catholic college.
The sizeable student population of 50,000 gives the city a hipper edge – you’ll notice that from the range of cool shops and boutiques. In fact Derek, my tour guide from the Beerhop, told me there are just 35,000 regular residents within the city, so it’s easy to understand how students dominate.
If Leuven’s name seems familiar to you, perhaps you saw it on a bottle of beer. It’s home to the world famous Stella Artois Brewery. Leuven is Belgium’s beer town. “They say New York is a city that never sleeps. In Leuven, it’s a city where you will never be out of beer,” Derek joked.
Leuven has a sense of importance that you might not expect from the eighth largest city in Belgium. Leuven used to be the capital of the former Duchy of Brabant and that made it equivalent to the modern Belgian capital of Brussels. City tour guide Gert Van Aken told me that the city became less important when the Duke of Brabant moved his court from Leuven to Brussels. That’s why Brussels is the capital today.
Leuven’s wealth came from the wool trade and that brought a close association with Britain – from merchant deals to monarchs marrying. “Cloth made from wool was a luxury product that we made here and we made a lot of money from it,” Gert told me. “We have a lot of good relationships with England because we bought the wool from Britain. The King of France was our king at the time but we dealt with the English more. A lot of the daughters of the Dukes of Brabant married English kings.”
The British and Belgian royal relationship has continued and, as I arrived by train, I should thank that royal link. The special relationship meant that Belgian became the first Continental country to get the British invention of the railway. “Queen Victoria called the Belgian King ‘Uncle Leopold’,” Gert explained. “In Belgium, we had the first railroad between Brussels and Mechelen and the second one between Mechelen and Leuven. That’s the reason why when you have a double track, the trains drive to the left and not to the right.”
After arrival at Leuven’s large railway station I walked down the grand, wide, tree-lined boulevard towards the city centre. I headed towards the Town Hall. It’s the city’s most distinctive site, and it’s a work of art. Gert was showing me around on one of the excellent tours. “It is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Belgium. It’s so delicately built,” Gert proclaimed as our party stared upwards at the high stone walls, covered with ornate carvings and figurines.
They started building it in 1439 and it is breathtaking. It’s a tall, cream-coloured stone structure with a steep roof, flanked by three ornate turrets on either side. Its height and presence dominates the gently sloping cobbled Grote Markt Square. At night, this beautiful building appears even more stunning as lights pick out its niches and parapets.
The detail on the Town Hall stonework is so intricate, it looks like one of those painstakingly-built matchstick models. Workers chiselled this imposing structure over decades. When you get close you’ll notice there are statues in the many alcoves and recesses. They depict both biblical characters and local benefactors. “It’s a lesson in history really. A pantheon of the history of Leuven,” Gert said, breaking the silence of collective wonder. “Every figure meant something in the history of the town. Sometimes you didn’t need much of a reason to have a place there. Napoleon came here two or three times to visit but it’s quite posh to have Napoleon on your City Hall!”
I thought it strange that Napoleon should make an appearance on a medieval building but Gert explained that the figures were actually added in the 19th century. I gave up trying to count all the characters, but Gert has done that already. “There are 236 to be exact.”
The Town Hall’s interior is also impressive. Each of the reception rooms, former offices or meeting rooms is lavishly decorated. Some rooms have the appearance of a medieval castle and other spaces appear more like a French palace. “It was to show off really,” Gert explained, as he led us along corridors and let us take in the opulence of the roped-off rooms. “They wanted to make an impression.” They certainly achieved that. I’d recommend booking a guided tour at the Tourist Information Centre as soon as you arrive in Leuven, because they sell out fast.
Much of the city centre sustained severe damage during the two World Wars but miraculously, the Town Hall emerged mainly unscathed. “While all of the buildings around were practically destroyed in 1914, the Town Hall was saved because it was the military headquarters of the Germans. In the Second World War there was some minor damage from a bombing raid by the Allied forces. A bomb that fell on one side of the building didn’t explode, luckily,” Gert said.
The deliberate destruction of the city centre was more devastating. Germans torched dozens of buildings during the Great War in a revenge attack. Some historians suggest it might have been a terrible mistake. Bo Van Koeckhoven, co-manager of tour company Leuven Leisure explained what happened.
“The theory is that it was a misunderstanding. A section of the German army had fallen behind the men who were marching in front. This created confusion and led to the Germans firing on their fellow countrymen. The Germans came in to Leuven thinking that they had been attacked by locals and they wanted to take revenge. They set the whole city on fire. About one sixth of the city centre remained after the blaze, the rest was destroyed.”
As we stood in the market place, next to the Town Hall, Bo showed me the extent of the destruction. “On the square, all the buildings that you see, which look very old, were all destroyed completely. They were rebuilt after the war.” The builders and architects had clearly done a very good job of it.
Just around the corner from the Town Hall is the Cloth Hall, so called because this pretty 14th century Gothic building would have been used by merchants buying and selling wool. This was the place where 300,000 books and manuscripts were lost due to that act of arson in August 1914. The University now occupies the building.
Their newer library is ten minutes walk away and a visit is recommended. The huge reading room is distinctive, with light wood panelled walls, balconies and wooden carvings. It looks ancient but in fact it’s not even 100 years old.
In the Second World War, when the library was set on fire again, a further 900,000 books were burned. The Germans clearly didn’t want the citizens of Leuven to have books!
You’ll notice inscriptions on stone around the library referencing American universities. Hoover, who was later president, started fundraising when the world learned how Leuven’s university library collection had been lost for a second time.
“Leuven and the burning library was used as propaganda throughout Europe and the US,” Bo explained. “Herbert Hoover started the relief fund for ‘poor little Belgium.’ They gave a lot of money for food, clothes and to rebuild houses. And part of that money also went to the building of a new library for Leuven. There was not enough money in that fund so Hoover went around other associations, schools and universities in the United States. He also sent letters out to schools in India and Africa and in Britain to ask for money.”
And books were at the heart of more conflict in the city. When disagreements between Flemish and French speaking Belgians escalated in the late 1960s, many books left Leuven in a bizarre ‘divorce settlement’ caused by Belgium’s language division.
Belgian is a complicated country. The Flemish or Dutch speaking Northerners who occupy the area known as Flanders, which includes Leuven, don’t always get on with the French speaking southerners, the Walloons. The Walloons were traditionally the wealthier side, but now it’s Flanders that’s flushed. Gert explained that when Belgium was founded in 1830, all of the wealth was in the French-speaking area. “They had coal and steel. But these are all industries that have died. Now, all of the wealth is in Flanders.”
There’s an invisible language line across the country – one side is Flemish, the other French. “You have this linguistic border, which we institutionalised in 1963, but it’s been there for centuries. There was a time when the French language was dominant because the ruling elite was French speaking. You couldn’t study in Flemish because they thought it wasn’t suited for science and culture. The accomplishment of the Flemish movement was to make Flanders proud again,” said Gert.
Locals in Leuven speak Flemish. It is similar to Dutch but not exactly the same. Bo gave an example. “It is like ‘trousers’ and ‘pants’ in English. Some words we have in common, others are different. But we also use a lot more French words than the Dutch.”
I had noticed that locals greet each other with the French term, ‘ça va.’ “We also use it to say okay,” confirmed Bo before adding, “Normally in Dutch you would say ‘dank u’ to say thanks, but in Leuven, most people say ‘merci’.”
So language and national identity has been an issue and, once again, books bore the brunt of the dispute. “In 1968 the university was split. It was mostly a French-speaking university but because we are in Flanders, it should have been Flemish. They decided to split the university into two. It was a divorce and they had to cut the whole library collection into two. Books are indicated with numbers, of course. All the books that ended on an odd number got to stay in Leuven. The even numbered books were sent to the university in the Wallonian part of the country,” said Bo.
The University Library’s soaring, red brick bell tower offers amazing views to anyone prepared to climb the stairs up its 73m height. There are displays at various stages as you climb, allowing you to catch your breath and recounting the history of the library, its destruction at the hands of the Germans and the rebuilding. Just protect your ears at chiming times – the bell is very loud! You can buy a ticket for admission to the library and tower on site.
In the square opposite the University Library is a 20m high chrome pole, which looks like a giant needle. It’s spearing a massive green housefly. It’s art, apparently.
The university plays a large role in city life and it’s responsible for many artworks, some more unusual than others. The Oude Markt Square is filled with back-to-back bars. Appropriately, there’s a bronze statue of a middle-aged woman who helps sober up drunken students. She is slouching down at one end of a bench. In her right hand she is pouring a large, old-fashioned coffee pot. It’s a tribute to the role of the kot madams. They are the landladies of student blocks, responsible for cooking and cleaning. She’s offering strong coffee to the revellers in the hope they can quickly return to their studies.
Another statue near the Town Hall features a young male pouring a drink over his own head. His other hand is clutching a book. On the open page is an algebraic equation. Apparently it’s the formula for happiness.
The University has taken two historic parts of the city under its wing. The beguinages were closed communities built to house single women and Leuven’s two examples have been recognised by UNESCO. Gert told me that the women who lived there could take temporary vows. “If you go to a monastery, the vows are eternal and there’s no going back. The women at the beguinages could go and live with the other women in the community. When they wanted to go back to their everyday lives, they could. They could get married, for instance.”
Bo told me there were beguinages all around the Low Countries. “It’s something very Flemish. You’ll find them in Flanders and a few in the Netherlands. They used to be found throughout Europe but they were closed in France and Italy. Apparently, in the 13th century the Vatican thought that women reading and writing without the control of a man could create trouble!”
The bigger of Leuven’s two beguinages is more impressive. It is a walled district of medieval, red brick buildings, churches and gardens set alongside the river. “It’s a little walled village within the town,” Gert told me. “It has over a hundred houses set around its own streets and squares, church and hospital. It was founded outside the small wall that was put up around Leuven in 1150. Around 1350 a second wall was built around the city and this little village was then inside the larger city area.”
I caught the bus for the twenty-minute ride to Heverlee, a posh and leafy suburb at the edge of the city, where the University has taken on another monument, Arenberg Castle. It’s a red brick chateau set in peaceful parkland alongside the river and a watermill. Bo told me this 12th century structure was built for the Lord’s of Heverlee. It passed to the ownership of German nobles through marriage, who retained it until after the First World War. “Then the Belgian state confiscated the building because the family showed sympathy for the German army. They gave it to University shortly after,” Bo explained.
With so many students in Leuven, you might expect weekends to be boozy and boisterous. But that’s not the case at all. If you’re in Leuven on Friday you’ll hear a very particular sound – luggage being dragged over the cobbled streets. That’s because Belgian students nearly always head home for the weekend. “It’s something very Belgian,” Bo told me. “The students go home at 4 o’clock on a Friday and return on Sunday evening. We call them ‘the Tupperware boys and girls’. Mothers often cook for their sons or daughters who are away at university during the week and give them Tupperware boxes filled with food that they have put in the freezer. Sometimes they are labelled with the days of the weeks so they know what to eat when!”
Locals reckon Leuven is the world’s most important beer town and Derek from Beerhop, who led my beer tour, went further. “It’s the beer capital of the world!” he proclaimed. You can smell the Stella Artois brewery the moment you alight from your train at the station. Gert had told me that brewing was a big part of Leuven’s history. “In the mid-18th century there were about fifty breweries in the city. We are very proud of that.”
Bo shared that sentiment. “If you come to Leuven you have to have beer. If you haven’t had beer you haven’t experienced Leuven.” She didn’t mean having a pint of Stella, though. “Stella is not necessarily a brewery – it’s more like a factory. It’s very corporate and commercial. Smaller breweries have been growing all around Leuven. In the past, Stella has bought them all and closed them down.”
Bo says the 1366 date on Stella bottles might be a bit confusing. “It’s pure marketing,” she told me. ”Stella was brewed for the first time in 1926. It’s Pilsner lager, which was only invented in the Czech Republic in the 1920s. The Stella star is actually a reference to a brewery called Den Hoorn, which was located next to the hunting grounds of the Duke and dates from 1366. It was later bought by Sébastien Artois. He worked there as a master brewer from 1708 and he started a brewery, called brewery Artois, and purchased many of the smaller breweries.”
The Stella that we know today was created as a seasonal drink. “In 1926 they wanted to make a winter beer. In Belgium, they normally make a special type of beer for the Christmas season. They thought they would try the new beer that was coming out of Czechoslovakia. They gave it the name of the winter star, Stella. It was meant to be a limited edition but it turned out to be so popular that they decided to stop the production of any other beer and just focus on Stella.”
An interesting crowd gathered for the Friday evening beer walk I’d arranged with Derek. There were real ale types, some wearing beer tee shirts – one had an impressive beer belly to display his passion. There was the cap-wearing American tourist who seemed to be very excited by everything and a couple who were new Leuven residents and who wanted a handle on where to go.
Most of the bars are set around a large enclosed square, the Oude Markt. It’s lovely in summer time, with brightly coloured umbrellas shading the benches and tables. It’s claimed that this is Europe’s longest bar, because of the continuous stretch of pubs.
Derek’s sampling tour took us to The Capital pub, which makes another claim – they say that they have the largest selection of beer in the world. They even have a dumb waiter system that brings different bottles up to the bar from its vast cellar.
Derek was full of stories about each of the bars, which livened up the evening – already being enhanced by the samples of strong Belgian beer. Café Belge features a painting of a former Belgian king on its ceiling. “It’s King Baudouin who died a few years ago,” Derek explained. “The painting isn’t so nice. It was in his castle in Brussels. One of the people who works there was given the painting as a gift by the King. He didn’t like it either, so he sold it to the pub and they put it on the ceiling.”
There’s a small local brewery called Luvanium, after Leuven’s Roman name, and they have started brewing a beer that was once made just for students but which had ceased production. It is very strong at 9%. The students were given the beer to prevent them venturing outside the college walls. “A marketing student stumbled across a recipe when he was meant to be studying in the university library,” Derek told me with a smile.
The beer walk continued to the M Café, a trendy bar that’s part of the city museum and has an art gallery minimalist look. Owner Jurgen Boloion poured us his special porter beer, made with a local ingredient. “It’s a stout made with some vanilla but also with sour cherries, a type of Belgian cherry you don’t often find today.”
Whilst we were sampling the beers an ex-pat identified my British accent and came over to introduce himself. Derek Maclean moved from Glasgow and is a home brewer who is full of praise for Belgian beer. He told me that the drinking culture is very different in Leuven. The beers are stronger and people take time over them and don’t do rounds like in Britain. “It’s much more relaxed. I learned pretty quickly after trying some of the strong beers that you cannot rush them. You do need to sit down, relax and enjoy the taste,” he advised.
With such a large student population there are lots of places for affordable food. “Because you have a lot of students you have a lot of low-budget cafes and also some very original places to eat, where can get great Belgian cuisine,” said Bo. There’s plenty of choice along a pedestrianised street called Muntstraat. It is so narrow, the awnings of restaurants on either side of the lane touch each other. The alley is lined with tables and chairs for outdoor dining with something for any taste – from sushi to Italian.
But it was Lieven De Mulver’s Lasagne Café that caught my attention. There are six versions of that single dish on the menu each day, including beef, seafood and seasonal varieties. They are served up in a tiny, narrow café, which is open late into the evening. “We try and be as seasonal as we can. And we try to be creative all the time with whatever we make.” Lieven told me. “Lasagne made with asparagus, a Flemish favourite, is fabulous. The Flemish, the southern Dutch and the Germans all grow asparagus. Tons and tons of it. You can buy them in any size either peeled or unpeeled, green or white.” I asked how he came up with the idea of a lasagne café. “It was kind of a eureka moment. I asked myself why does nobody else do this? It is so easy, cheap and quick to make!” replied Lieven.
Leuven’s University is a major social and economic force in the city. And the number of academics and young people gives Leuven a vibrant and cosmopolitan feel. “Every three years, all the people who are studying here are new people. You will see new things in Leuven all the time. It’s totally different every three years,” Derek told me.
If you’re a beer fan it’s worth taking the hop across to Leuven to sample the beers and to see the sights. And even if you’ve been before, its worth returning to see what’s changed. As Derek said, with so many students, there’s always something new to discover.
To reach Leuven you can fly or take the Eurostar to Brussels then transfer to the train for the 30-minute journey to the city.