Probably like many of you, I had never heard of Leuven before my trip to Belgium. And I would not have if it weren't for the fact that I had booked my hotel stay there because Brussels was packed. But boy, was I in for a pleasant surprise! A mid-sized town located only fifteen minutes away from the Belgian capital, Leuven is styled after her big-city cousin in terms of art and architecture. Plus, it harbors several area colleges, and therefore has the bonus of an active nightlife. This travelogue concentrates on the city center -- its Grand Market, cathedral, and university environs. However, Leuven is actually quite a large and spread out place with lots of other attractions. So, you might say this travelogue merely scratches the surface.
I arrived at Leuven late on a Saturday afternoon after having spent the day at Brussels and not knowing what to expect. My hotel was only a couple hundred yards from the Grote Markt and the Stadhuis, or Town Hall, shown in the first picture. The Dutch influence in the architecture was very clear -- the incredibly ornate Stadhuis resembled some of the thinly-columned structures of Brussels' Grote Markt, and the gabled buildings along the square were reminiscent of other gabled buildings in Amsterdam.
My next stop was the Oude Markt (Old Market) in the second photograph, not far away from the center. This market square was absolutely magnificent -- imagine both sides of a street crowded with similar red brick gabled buildings, each of which hosting colorful red, white, yellow, and blue flags like the ones in the first photograph. This was the pub district, I found. I would learn that many of those pubs serviced the university clientele and seemed to be all-night establishments ... or rather some of them had their doors open at 6:30 am on Sunday and they had some rather ragged people inside of them.
After my initial exploration before sunset, I followed a narrow inclined street (don't know the name of it) that was lined with outdoor restaurants. I chose one that advertised traditional Belgian food, and was introduced to paté with raspberry jelly, a combination I had previously never heard of. I followed that with the traditional Belgian specialty of a cast-iron bucket of mussels cooked in one of several different sauces, downed with a classic Belgian abbey ale. I found the prices of such a meal much more reasonable in Leuven than they were in Brussels or Bruges.
The architecture of these market squares are fairly representative of the architecture around the full part of the city that I explored. I spent Sunday morning exploring the university square and some of the residential districts. The university was very impressive and clean. The residential areas were dominated by traditional Belgian-style red brick row houses, similar to those I encountered in other Belgian cities, though it was clear that Leuven's were far better cared for. (These style of brick houses can look rather nasty if not preserved as I found driving through cities such as Charleroi). Leuven also had a couple canals cutting through the old town, but these were not nearly on the small scale as Bruges are were not a central feature of the town.
Leuven's other primary feature is its churches. The largest and most prominent is St. Peter's Church, shown at night in the fourth photograph. Small by European Cathedral standards, this beautiful little church shares space at the Grand Market. However, there were many other churches I passed by in my walks, perhaps a half dozen of varied styles from basic boxy red brick to Gothic. I attended Mass in St. Peter's in the very early morning (hence what I was doing at the Oude Markt at 6:30am as the barflies were still buzzing), and found the very traditional Latin-spoken ceremony a unique experience.
Because the original version of this travelogue was written back in summer 2001 (you might say, before I knew what I was doing with this website), I referred to the Leuven home page to look up some of the names of places I didn't originally catch. In doing so, I discovered that the outer reaches of the city has as much to offer, particularly with several abbeys and a UNESCO-preserved village (Het Groot Begijnhof). Should I get another chance to visit Leuven, these locations will be part of the itinerary.
Trip Taken 4-5 August 2001 -- Last Updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin