3 must-see cities in Belgium: Leuven

After my Sicily trip, and a few other short getaways in the neighbouring countries, it was time to get my adventure spirit re-kindled 🙂 A few lucky coincidences and – next destination was set to Belgium! I only had 3 days available, so I’ve aimed at visiting at least 3 cities – Leuven, Bruges and Brussels of course. But, due to the short distances between the cities, you can even see more within this time.

In a series of 3 posts I will tell more about each of these cities, interesting sights and what to do there.

Belgium in general

I had never been to Belgium, so in a nutshell, here’s what impressed me most within my short stay there:

  • the country has a very well-developed train system, so it’s possible to go literally everywhere via train (and since the distances are small, you don’t travel more than 3 hours between the most distant points). During the weekends there’s 50% discount on the train tickets, and kids under 12 travel free! Some of the trains are quite new and have electricity plugs and even bike hangers! Yay!
  • Few people speak English outside Brussels, and there are lots of immigrants. This made my travels kind of adventurous, as I often had to use my really scarce knowledge in french and german to find my way.
  • The French and Flemish parts of the country really don’t much like each other.
  • Belgian people don’t like to travel that much. They have the Alps handy, and also so many seas and oceans in the nearby countries, but few people take the chance to travel.
  • You have to wait for months to enroll in a photography course?
  • There are approx 200 beer breweries in Belgium (!) but Belgium people (or at least the ones I met) seemed to prefer wine
  • French fries are actually Belgium fries, named wrongly ‘french’ by the Americans in World War II. Read on that in my next post.
  • Belgium produces more than 172,000 tons of chocolate per year in Belgium and there are more than 2,000 chocolate shops (I tried visiting 1% of them 🙂

I really enjoyed the diversity of the country, and the completely different atmosphere in the 3 cities I visited. It was like I was visiting 3 different countries! But they all had in common the smiling and friendly people, who looked really positive, happy and content with the life they had.

Leuven

Leuven is located 25 kms from Brussels and perhaps is famous to most of you as the home of Stella Artois 🙂 Mmm…

Stella Artois signs everywhere 🙂

It a quiet and very beautiful university town (hence most of the population is Uni students), which I would be happy to bike through in the summer. Small, quiet and neat streets, parks and interesting statues, and a very curious church-museum of Padre Damien.

Small, cozy and quiet streets, and lots of university buildings dominate in Leuven

The first thing that strikes is a big upside-down beetle pierced on a 23-meter needle. The work is called the ‘Totem’, and is just on the main city square.

The Totem: Beetle on a Needle

In 2004 it was put there as a gift to the city by the famous Belgium sculptor Jan Fabre, and it is actually part of a whole collection of upside-down insects pinned on needles! What’s the idea the bug represented – nobody knew, I read later that it ‘emphasizes the relationship between art and science, because imagination is indispensable for both good art and good science’ (still can’t get it).

Anyhow, this bug was the beginning of a whole series of sculptures scattered around the city, with no specific meaning behind them (or at least none written on a sign of some sort).

Balloon sculpture

A very interesting sight is the Old Market, also called the Longest Bar in Europe. It has 35 bars in a row! In the summer all of them are bringing out their tables, and they all get merged into one endless bar 🙂 Considering the thousands of students residing here, you can imagine why Leuven is considered the party city in Belgium!

The longest bar in Europe

Very impressive is the Town Hall, built in the 15th century in Gothic style.

The Town hall

Something that very much touched me was the museum of Father Damien, originally from Leuven. He had dedicated 16 years of his life to taking care about the lepers on Molokai, Hawaii.

On my visit to Hawaii last year I had been to a museum and read the story of leprosy brought to Hawaii from China in the 1860s. Trying to restrict the spread of leprosy, those Hawaiians that caught the disease were isolated on Molokai island, in an area called Kalaupapa. It was surrounded by stiff cliffs so it was practically not accessible in any way but by sea. New lepers were brought by boats and often thrown into the sea, together with food supplies, forced to reach the shore fighting the big waves. Before Damien came to the island they didn’t have houses or hospitals, lived in the rocks. Damien built houses, church, hospital, arranged for medical services and funds from Honolulu. In the 1940s a cure was found that makes the lepers no longer contagious, and they could get out of the island, but most of them decided to remain there.

Damien’s church in Leuven shows enormous photos of Damien’s mission, of lepers, of Damien in the last stages of his disease..it’s a really touching story, and I was amazed how my trips to totally different parts of this world intersected with each other.

Photo of Molokai lepers missionary

Church/museum of Father Damien

 

My visit to Leuven was made even more memorable thanks to my stay with a like-minded Belgium couple who decided to travel the world by motor bikes after spending 2 years renovating the new house they got (which they were already selling). The meeting was so inspiring to all of us (and very delicious – I taught them how to cook Bulgarian traditional Banitsa dish, and it tasted even better with Stella), and we exchanged so much experience and plans, that I got totally recharged! Wish there were more people on this planet who would pursue their dreams, no matter what and when!

 

See you in the next part of my Belgium trilogy: dedicated to Bruges (or Brugge in Dutch).

2 Responses to 3 must-see cities in Belgium: Leuven

  1. Pol says:

    Nice Post ! Next time in Belgium you got to visit Ghent and Antwerpen in Flanders and Namur in Wallonia 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *