Loving Leuven

Sometimes you simply need to go with the flow. I saw Leuven in a holiday ad in The Guardian. Struck by the utterly beautiful buildings, with their peculiarly Flemish roof facades, I parked it as a place to visit, mentioning it in passing to my offspring who were as keen as me to see it.

So, last week, four went to Leuven in Flemish Brabant, by Eurostar.

Eurostar is very comfortable. It feels like train travel should be. Smooth, spacious and pleasant. Belgian trains are similar. The luxury of having space for self and luggage, with a regular, clean, inexpensively frequent service is not to be underestimated. Under 26 and you get a discount, with or without a railcard. Britain could learn from Belgium.

Leuven is an ancient capital, friendly and safe-feeling, a university town, which while historic also feels young and energised. It is less anonymous than Antwerp, which we also visited (the latter does have a stunning station though and an imposing cathedral but the city is currently a massive construction site, not too different to Manchester). Leuven is small enough to capture in a day (we did over 32,000 steps trying) with some marvellously picturesque buildings.

In the Grote Markt is the iconic Stadhuis, a Gothic dream of turrets and statues, each representing a noble or academic from the city’s history. Astonishingly, it survived immense damage during many wars, most recently when a World War II bomb failed to explode. It is a place of loss and revival.

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The university library is inspired. It was rebuilt after World War I’s terror of the German occupation (in 1914) with the help of the Americans. It had to be built again after World War II. As my son put it, these Germans seemed hellbent on destroying everything.  That’s probably not PC, but when you look at the devastation wreaked on Belgium and France during two World Wars, it is not unreasonable.

The library tower contains 300 steps, but there is an unspoken rule in my head that if there is a tower, then it must be ascended, for a bird’s eye view is totally different to anything else. We were well rewarded.

Two gems are St Anthony’s Chapel which we entered unknowingly, assuming it was a small church on the way to the Beguinage. It tells the story of Father Damien, a missionary priest who died in 1889. Damien was beatified in 1995 and canonised in 2009. His missionary life was spent working with lepers in Hawaii. The lepers were quarantined in a leper colony. There Father Damien brought them to the Catholic faith. He cared for the people and established an infrastructure through his leadership. He also dressed their ulcerating skin, made coffins and dug graves. He contracted the disease (only realised when he scalded himself and felt no pain). The youngest of seven children, Damien grew up on a farm. Uneducated, he was not considered good priest material but he was able to learn Latin and the “earnest peasant” took the place of another Father on the Hawaiian mission.

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We now know that leprosy is a bacterial infection causing skin ulceration and nerve damage, which is easily cured with appropriate medication. However, then it was considered terrifying and stigmatising. Sufferers were cast out, literally, into the wilderness of social isolation. Now we know it is not that contagious and indeed that most people are immune to it.

Slightly tucked away but also so worth seeing is the Groot Begijnhof, home to beguines, religious women who lived in a community (yes, a Beguinage) without taking vows or shutting themselves away. In the Low Countries, Beguinages were early gated communities of courtyards, houses, a church and an infirmary, usually slightly outside the main town, so separated off. Why women chose to live there is moot. Traditionally, it was thought to attract single women who had no partner due to men lost in war, but increasingly, it is thought to be related to work opportunities, the chance to live a religious life, coupled with personal independence, all of which were hard to access as a woman. Even all those years ago, some independent women sought to live their own lives.

It is a fascinating place to explore by foot and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1998).

Put simply, as my daughter said, I loved Leuven.