Less than half an hour by train from both Mechelen and Brussels, LEUVEN offers an easy and enjoyable day-trip from either. The town is the seat of Belgium’s oldest university, whose students give the place a lively, informal air – and sustain lots of inexpensive bars and cafés. There are also a couple of notable medieval buildings, the splendid Stadhuis and the imposing St-Pieterskerk, which is home to three wonderful early Flemish paintings, and in the Oude Markt Leuven possesses one of the region’s most personable squares. Otherwise, the centre is not much more than an undistinguished tangle of streets with a lot of the new and few remnants of the old. Then again, it’s something of a miracle that any of Leuven’s ancient buildings have survived at all, since the town suffered badly in both world wars: in 1914 much of Leuven was razed during the first German offensive and thirty years later the town was heavily bombed. If you stay a while, you may also pick up on the division between town and gown; some of the students see themselves as champions of the Flemish cause, but the locals seem largely unconvinced.
The history of the university isn’t a particularly happy one, though everything began rosily enough. Founded in 1425, it soon became one of Europe’s most prestigious educational establishments: the cartographer Mercator was a student here and it was here that the religious reformer Erasmus (1466–1536) founded the Collegium Trilingue for the study of Hebrew, Latin and Greek, as the basis of a liberal (rather than Catholic) education. However, in response to the rise of Lutheranism, the authorities changed tack, insisting on strict Catholic orthodoxy and driving the university into educational retreat. In 1797 the French suppressed the university, and then, after the defeat of Napoleon, when Belgium fell under Dutch rule, William I replaced it with a Philosophical College – one of many blatantly anti-Catholic measures which fuelled the Belgian revolution. Re-established after independence as a bilingual Catholic institution, the university became a hotbed of Flemish Catholicism, and for much of this century French and Flemish speakers were locked in a bitter nationalist dispute. In 1970 a separate, French-speaking university was founded at Louvain-la-Neuve, just south of Brussels – a decision that propelled Leuven into its present role as a bastion of Flemish thinking, wielding considerable influence over the region’s political and economic elite.
The centre of Leuven is marked by two adjacent squares, the more easterly of which is the Fochplein, basically a road junction whose one noteworthy feature is the modern Fons Sapientiae, a wittily cynical fountain of a student literally being brainwashed by the book he is reading. Next door, the wedge-shaped Grote Markt is Leuven’s architectural high spot, dominated by two notable late Gothic buildings – St-Pieterskerk and the Stadhuis. The Stadhuis is the more flamboyant of the two, an extraordinarily light and lacy confection, crowned by soaring pinnacles and a dainty, high-pitched roof studded with dormer windows. It’s a beautiful building, though it is slightly spoiled by the clumsiness of its nineteenth-century statues, representing everything from important citizens to virtues and vices. In contrast, the niche bases supporting the statues are exuberantly medieval, depicting biblical subjects in a free, colloquial style and adorned by a panoply of grotesques.