Leuven (Louvain in French, Löwen in German; pop. 90,000) is a university town 25 km east of Brussels. The Catholic University of Leuven was founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V. It is one of the oldest university in the world (the oldest catholic university) and remains one of the best European universities.
The town first appears in documents in 891 as 'Loven'. The same year, the Viking invasion of Brabant was finally defeated in the vicinity, on the shores of the Dijle River. It is thought that Leuven's red-white-red city flag depicts the blood-shed of this battle.
Leuven grew as an important centre of trade from the 11th to the 14th century. Its renowned linen cloth, were mentioned in late 14-15th-century texts as 'lewyn', a corruption of 'Leuven'.
The cloth trade was already faltering in the late 1300's, but the founding of the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, or K.U.L.) in 1425 brought a new lease of life to the city.
Beer brewing developed in the 18th century and acquired world-wide fame with the local Stella Artois. In 1988, Stella Artois merged with the Liège-based brewer Piedboeuf (manufacturer of the Jupiler beer) to form the Interbrew Group, the largest brewing company in the world, owning such brands as Labat (Canada), Beck's (Germany), Staropramen (Czech Rep.), Bass (England), Leffe (see Dinant) and Hoegaarden (from the nearby town of the same name). In 2004, Interbew merged with the Brazilian Companhia de Bebidas das Americas and was renamed InBev. The new group made the headlines in Europe and America in 2008 when it successfully took over the American giant, Anheuser-Busch (owner of Budweiser) for $52 billion. Nowadays, the global brewing company is still based in Leuven and still owned by the descendants of the Artois family.
Leuven suffered a lot from the two World Wars in the 20th century, when the university library was destroyed twice, although completely rebuilt thereafter. In 1968, increased tensions between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities led to the split of the university. The French-speakers founded the Université Catholique de Louvain and moved to the newly built campus in Louvain-la-Neuve, in what is now Walloon Brabant. K.U.Leuven now hosts around 29,000 students, more than 10% of whom are international students (from over 100 nations), making it one of the liveliest town in the country from October to June.
Unlike most Flemish cities, Leuven is dotted not with one, but two beautiful market squares, the Great Market Square (Grote Markt) and Old Market Square (Oude Markt). Both squares boast delightful 15th- and 16th-century architecture.
The Town Hall (Stadhuis) on the Grote Markt is the most impressive building in Leuven, and indubitably one of Belgium's most magnificent construction. Erected in a Brabantine Late Gothic style between 1448 and 1469, the Town Hall has three main stories and six octagonal turrets. There are 236 statues in niches all over the façade, representing people in Burgundian clothes. These were not part of the original construction and were only added after 1850, though. The Town Hall has guided tours (in Dutch, 2 €) every day from 3:00 pm, as well as from 11am on weekdays from April to September.
The second most important building on the Grote Markt is St Peter's Collegiate Church, the city's oldest church, founded around 986. The present Gothic building was was put together between 1425 and 1497. Its three towers, one of which planned to rise to the vertiginous height of 170 metres, were never completed. The church was severely damaged in both World Wars. It is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (until 4:30pm on Saturdays, and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm on Sundays and public holidays). It is closed on Mondays from 16 October to 14 March. The Treasury of Saint Peter (entry 5 €) contains the 15th century paintings "The Last Supper" and "Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus" by Dirk Bouts.
150 metres east of the Grote Markt is the monumental University Library, on the Ladeuzeplein. It was built in 1921 by the American architect Whitney Warren in the neo-Renaissance style. The building was a gift from the American people to Leuven after World War I, during which the Germans burned down the original library, causing the loss of countless and irreplaceable historical manuscripts and books. The tower houses one of the largest carillons in the world.
1 km south of the Town Hall, are the Béguinages (Begijnhof), once located the edge of the city walls. These Catholic sisterhoods were built between the 13th and 16th centuries. They are typical of the Low Countries and are found in almost every Flemish city.
The community grew over time, and in the 17th century some 300 Béguines, i.e. women who lived a religious life but kept their own property and supported themselves, lived at Leuven's Great Béguinage (Grote Begijnhof). The collection of small buildings forming the Béguinages were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000, along with the other Béguinages in Belgium and French Flanders.
Other noteworthy religious buildings include St. Gertrude's Church and Abbey, Park Abbey, Vlierbeek Abbey.
Situated in the suburb of Heverlee, Arenberg Castle is one of the most sumptuous Flemish Renaissance castles (along with Ooidonk Castle). This princely estate came into the possession of the Croÿ family in 1445, when Anthony of Croÿ, Lord of Le Rœulx and Governor General of the Netherlands and Luxembourg, acquire a ruinous medieval castle from an impoverished feudal lord. Construction of the present castle started in 10 years later, and was not complete until 60 years later, in 1515.
The castle passed to the House of Arenberg in 1612, when Charles III of Croy, the 4th and last duke, died childless. The 8th Duke of Arenberg had planned to sell the castle and its grounds to the Catholic University of Leuven shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. However, the property was seized by the Belgian state at the onset of the war because the Arenberg belonged to the German nobility and had close connections with the ruling Habsburg monarchy of Austro-Hungary.
The University of Leuven acquired Arenberg Castle in 1921 and installed its natural sciences and engineering campus. At present, the castle is the main building of the Faculty of Engineering and houses lecture rooms and studios for the Department of Architecture, Urbanism and Urban Planning, including the Post-Graduate Centre Human Settlements and the Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation. The building is freely accessible to visitors.
How to get there
Leuven is on the train line Ostende-Brussels-Leuven-Liège-Cologne. Trains takes 29 to 43min from Brussels and 33 to 52min from Liege.
By car, Leuven is on the E40 Leuven-Liege.
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