May 26th, 2022

Belgium’s best-kept secret?

Leuven: the small town with a big (bang) history

for The Guardian

The barman at Fiere Margriet places a bottle of strong, dark ale in front of me. “Gouden Carolus,” he says. “Brewed 15 miles away”. A cold night has fallen over the city outside, but the low-lit pub is warm and woozy. Hops are strung along the walls; a stuffed fox looks out from the window. “This pub,” continues the barman, stroking his beard, “has been here since fourteen-hundred-and …” he pauses for a while “… something.”

History is elastic in the small Flemish city of Leuven, which is currently hosting BANG!, a citywide festival dedicated to the big bang. Back in the soupiest mists of time – or, strictly, before time was time – a convulsion of baffling quantum forces resulted in the birth of the galaxy. About 13.8 billion years later, in 1931, a cheery Belgian in specs and dog collar came up with a concept to explain it. Albert Einstein initially dismissed the idea, then later backtracked. The Belgian in question was Georges Lemaître – Catholic priest, father of the big bang theory, and resident of Leuven.

The city’s name remains relatively unfamiliar despite this cosmic claim to fame, and the fact it’s home to one of Europe’s top universities. The place is perhaps best known for being the home of lager leviathan Stella Artois – the HQ is on the edge of town – so when I get off the train on a sunny November afternoon to find bikes bumping over the cobbles and Renaissance facades above the chocolate shops, it’s a pleasant revelation. Fifty-thousand students are here during term time, giving parts of town the feel of a scarf-wrapped, waffle-scented, Dutch-speaking Oxbridge.

“We should have been the national capital, really,” smiles guide Jan van Coillie, a retired linguistics professor and champion of all things Leuven (well, not all things: he doesn’t like Stella). “Leuven and Brussels were both once part of the Duchy of Brabant – a state in the Holy Roman Empire – and at the time we were the larger settlement, but in the 13th century, the dukes decided to base themselves down the road in Brussels.”

Leuven, however, recovered from the snub, prospering from both the medieval cloth trade and the 1425 opening of its university – where Lemaître himself would later study and teach. Jan and I are talking beneath the ludicrously ornate town hall, a gothic fantasy of lacy stonework and fairytale turrets, where 235 statues gaze out from the facade (the total was 236 until last year, when reviled monarch Leopold II was removed). “The building survived both world wars almost unscathed,” says Jan. “They say it’s guarded by angels.”

For visitors, the town hall and the adjacent 15th-century St Peter’s Church – which wasn’t so lucky in the wars, but still looks a picture today – mark the heart of a compact city. It takes seven minutes for me to pedal from the church doors to the shaggy, cow-browsed meadows on the outskirts. Locals on sit-up-and-beg bikes rumble down college-lined streets. Helmets are a rarity (“we don’t really like them,” I’m told plainly), as are high-rises. Even the hip cafes – and there are plenty – have a small-town, homemade-cake vibe. So while Eurostar’s Brussels Midi terminal might be under 30 minutes away by rail, any sense of a metropolis feels enjoyably distant.

Leuven’s associations with Lemaître are being feted through BANG!, the Big Bang City festival, until the end of January. As well as a series of ambitious exhibitions, there’s a number of one-off events, from orchestral performances to temporary art installations. I visit two of the exhibitions. Both are excellent. The first is at art gallery M Leuven, where a through-the-ages selection of art focuses on humankind’s origins; the second is at the University Library, where the emphasis of To The Edge of Time is on science and cosmology. Among much else, it includes Lemaître’s fascinating views on why his findings were compatible with the Bible’s version of creation (“if the theory of relativity had been necessary to salvation,” he wrote, “it would have been revealed to St Paul or Moses”).

Festival aside, Leuven is an absorbing destination in its own right. The University Library is a case in point. I climb its 240ft bell tower and look out across the rooftops and steeples to the flat Flemish countryside beyond. The vast library, with its wonderfully woody reading room, is essentially a war memorial. Burned down by German first world war forces – destroying 300,000 books in the process, including hundreds of priceless early manuscripts – it was rebuilt in whole thanks to American funds. A giant statue of a sword-wielding Virgin Mary stands outside, her foot crushing a German eagle.

A five-minute cycle away is a slice of history even more stirring. The Unesco-listed Groot Begijnhof was a middle-ages beguinage, a convent-like community for widows and religious women, and its tight web of cobbled alleys, narrow bridges and red-brick gables can today be wandered at will. On a quiet morning it feels like stepping into an old masters painting, and I’m back again that night for a meal in the classy hush of the Faculty Club, formerly the beguinage’s infirmary but today all modish lighting, delicate aubergine dishes and heady wines.

The Groot Begijnhof’s residences now accommodate professors and international students. Many of the city’s undergraduates, however, gravitate each evening to a very different landmark, the Oude Markt, a terrace-filled square billed as Europe’s longest bar. I find it an impressive sight, particularly considering that most of the buildings rising above the Stella Artois umbrellas have been reconstructed since wartime destruction. Plaques bearing the date 1914 stud the square.

The tipples are undoubtedly better elsewhere, though: try the taps of craft bar Malz, the drinks list of sourdough pizza joint Baracca or the brewery of the newly reopened Park Abbey on the city outskirts, the monastic confines of which have produced a dedicated beer for the BANG! festivities. An abbey creating a galactic brew provides a neat summation of Leuven, being somewhere between deeply traditional and expansively open-minded. “This is a small city,” I’m told back in Fiere Margriet, as fleets of bikes trundle past in the night. “But it has a lot of soul.”

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