Leuven’s response to Brussels’ famed urinating child, Manneken Pis, is the equally renowned but less explicit Fons Sapientiae, better known simply as Fonske. In a town that’s home to the oldest university in the Low Countries, this cheeky statue has to make reference to learning – the diminutive scholar is reading a book – but that’s just about where agreement on the meaning of Fonske ends.
Yes, he’s reading a book, but he’s also pouring a glass of liquid into his open topped head. Is it liquid wisdom? Is he being brainwashed by reading? Is the book or the liquid the formula for happiness? Is it just a thirst for knowledge, and if so, is that water or beer he’s pouring into his skull? These are the sorts of thoughts that idly occur to people sipping Belgium beer in Leuven.
Fonske is found in a rather unglamorous spot outside a well known American burger franchise, but also in the shadow of the 15th century Sint-Pieterskerk, a massive medieval church that houses The Last Supper and The Martyrdom of St Erasmus, two masterpieces by Flemish artist, Dieric Bouts. It’s a vast building that faces off across the Grote Markt with the remarkable Stadhuis.
Leuven is equally famed for being the home of Stella Artois. Stella was first brewed at Brouwerij de Hoorn, a brewery that has existed in one form or another since 1366. Today, it has been transformed into a parkside restaurant, bar and arts centre not far from the massive brewing facilities of AB InBev, where Stella is made on an industrial scale on the banks of a canal connecting Leuven to Mechelen.
After a morning of strolling in the historic centre, it was to Brouwerij de Hoorn that we headed for lunch. This building has been serving up beer for close to 700 years. While it may not brew it anymore, it’s a lovely place to spend a lazy lunch sipping a beer on the terrace. It’s an historic spot that was, thankfully, resurrected after being left derelict when the Stella Artois brewery moved to its new premises in 1990.
Refreshed after taking advantage of drinking beer in an ancient brewery, we weaved our way through the Klein Begijnhof, the 13th century refuge for pious single women, or béguines, en route back into the centre. It’s small and pretty, but it simply cannot hold a candle to its larger counterpart, the Groot Begijnhof on the opposite side of town.
The Groot Begijnhof is exquisite, a peaceful haven away from the world. The red brick houses, grassy squares, cobbled streets, and the pretty Sint Jan de Doperkerk, were founded in 1230 as a community of religious women who wanted to live independently without either marrying or becoming nuns. Today, it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and it houses university students. Seriously, students live there.
Leaving this tranquil enclave behind, we walked the short distance to Leuven’s Botanical Gardens. A small but lovely spot that began life in 1738, it doesn’t take long to explore the gardens and glass house, but it’s worth making the detour. We just had time before our train to swing through the Oude Markt for a beer at De Kroeg, which claims to be the oldest bar in town.
On our way back to the station, we found ourselves walking through the courtyard of the Atrechtcollege to reach the Sint-Donatus Park, which retains parts of the city’s 13th century defensive walls. In the courtyard is the remarkable replica of a celestial sphere built in the 1670s by the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest for the Chinese emperor. The globe has over 1,900 stars accurately marked on it.
It’s a map of the heavens, and Leuven is one of Flanders’ celestial bodies. Quite why it doesn’t attract more tourists is a mystery, but it can expect more visits from us.