There’s a reason that one of the first things to greet you upon arrival at Leuven’s main train station is a massive and strangely beautiful monument commemorating the First World War. As German troops marched en route to France in violation of Belgium’s neutrality, they doled out punitive and brutal treatment to Belgian civilians, whom they decided were offering resistance to the German occupation.
This came to a head in Leuven. Over five shockingly violent days, the German army subjected the townsfolk of Leuven to terror. They had warmed up by massacring 674 civilians at the village of Dinant two days earlier, but on August 25th, 1914, the German army arrived in disorder at this ancient town. They burned Leuven – and its renowned 15th century university and library – to the ground.
They also looted and killed hundreds of civilians, all in front of the international media. Leuven became the global symbol of German brutality, British media referred to it as “Treason to Civilization”. Today, as well as the grand municipal memorials to those events of 1914, each house that suffered a family member’s death has a stone plaque above the door in remembrance.
The town again found itself on the front line in the Second World War, and was severely damaged by bombing for a second time. It’s all the more remarkable then, that today, Leuven doesn’t feel like a place of such terrible destruction. In fact, the closest it comes to such scenes is the raucous nightlife that accompanies ‘Europe’s longest bar’ in the Oude Markt.
That the mass of bars spreading down this ancient market place come to resemble a single bar when packed with students from the oldest and largest university in the country, is less surprising when you also learn that Leuven is home to the world’s largest brewer, AB InBev, maker of Stella Artois. It may be a small place, but even a fleeting introduction to Leuven reveals a place that punches well above its weight.
Leuven comes with a much restored but remarkable historic centre. The picturesque heart of which is the exquisite and intricate 15th century Town Hall sitting across from immense Saint Peter’s Church on the Grote Markt. In the early morning with few other people around, this is an atmospheric spot. Later in the day it is busy with shoppers and groups determined to enjoy Leuven’s reputation as a beer paradise.
There was extra excitement about Leuven when we were there, the town was in the grip of cycling fever. In little over four days the World Cycling Championships were to be held there. Belgium is a cycling obsessed nation and this was the first major sporting event to be hosted in the town. Leuvenaars, as the locals are known, were determined to throw a cycling party worthy of the occasion.
It pays to be conscious that a lot of the 25,000 students who live in the town cycle for more practical reasons. We had several close calls with speeding bikes when we were aimlessly wandering around. Apart from that hazard, Leuven is a relaxed place – most of the centre is car free – and feels far more cosmopolitan than its provincial town status would lead you to believe.
We had a day of exploring ahead, but the easy-going charm of Leuven was infectious. The clock definitely hadn’t struck midday before we found ourselves taking a seat outside one of its historic bars in a small back street, ordering a glass of the locally brewed Luvanium, and watching the world go by. When in Rome as they say … and Leuven is considered to be the beer capital of Belgium, after all.