Enduring Leuven

Clare Thomson goes exploring on foot and falls in love with Flanders' fairytale town


WHERE?

WHERE?

Leuven's impressive station, about half an hour from Brussels, provides a suitably grand introduction to the city. Its tourist office is in the Town Hall at Grote Markt 9 (00 32 16 21 15 39; www.leuven.be); it opens 9am-5pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-1pm and 1.30-5pm on Saturdays.

The choice of places to stay is wide, with plenty of unusual venues. Het Klooster, at Predikherenstraat 22 (00 32 16 213141; www.hetklooster.com), was once home to Charles V's secretary and has a suitably stately feel. The building is 16th century, the garden is serenely tranquil and the 40 rooms mix medieval with modern. Doubles start at €215 (£149), including breakfast.

Continuing the imperial theme, Oude Brouwerij Keyser Carel is housed in the old Emperor Charles Brewery at Lei 15 (00 32 16 221481; www.keysercarel.be), with a garden and light, simply furnished rooms. Doubles start at €108 (£75), including breakfast. Or choose from two charming, central guesthouses with doubles from €85 (£59): Jeff's Guesthouse, at Kortestraat 2 (00 32 16 23 87 80; www.jeffsguesthouse.be), has airy, wood-floored rooms named after feminist icons - Gertrude Stein, Emma Goldman, Frida Kahlo; De Pastorij, at Sint-Michielsstraat 5 (00 32 16 82 21 09; www.depastorij.be), is a more celestial affair, with four-postered bedchambers named after saints and angels.

WHY?

There's only one problem with a town whose most famous sight is on its main square. As soon as you arrive in Leuven, you'll be drawn to its jewel-box town hall, so intricate and exquisite you could spend hours drinking in the details - and that café across the way looks the perfect spot from which to do so. Then, once you're settled, Belgian beer in hand, it'll take something special to shift you...

But shift you must, because Leuven has far more to offer. For a start, it's a great place to assess the country's contribution to global culinary culture. And as the seat of Belgium's most prestigious university since 1425, it's a vibrant, bustling place. Yet it has plenty of tranquil corners, pretty parks and serene riverside strolls. Despite the best efforts of two world wars, it retains a measure of its medieval majesty, thanks to a combination of good fortune and fastidious reconstruction. It's easy to imagine the city's most august academic, Erasmus, walking these streets five centuries ago, lost in thought - and you'd do well to follow in his footsteps.

WHAT?

The starting point for any stroll through the city should be the Grote Markt, though you should studiously ignore the temptation of its terraces for at least a little while. The florid 15th-century town hall, Stadhuis, is arguably Flanders' finest gothic building - and unarguably its most flamboyant. Its frills and flounces are thrown into even sharper relief by the sobriety of the nearby Sint-Pieterskerk (10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday, 2pm-5pm on Sunday, admission: €5). All the elements of the gothic interior are in perfect harmony, but the most compelling reason to visit is the luminous Last Supper triptych by the Flemish master Dirk Bouts. Then it's time to hit the road: the following walk can be done in a breathless day, but will be infinitely more relaxing over a weekend. Pick up a city guide for €0.50 at the tourist office in the Stadhuis (00 32 16 21 15 39; www.leuven.be; daily, 10am-5pm, from 1 April to 30 October, otherwise closed Sunday): the map is as precise as you'd expect from the alma mater of the cartographer Gerhardus Mercator.

Head north along pretty Mechelsestraat, (try Profiel, Mechelsestraat 37 for the latest Antwerp fashions and Elsen, at number 36, for cheeses and picnic produce), to Sint-Gertrudiskerk and its delightful 15th-century spire. The church is at the heart of the Klein Begijnhof, established in the 13th century as a refuge for Crusader widows.

North of here, via Vaartstraat, is the sprawling Stella Artois brewery, perhaps less picturesque than the Horn brewery that was established in the city in 1366 (have a look at the label and you'll see a link), but still strangely compelling. Once you've had your fill of industrial architecture, roll back the centuries by meandering down Halvestraat and Handbooghof, following the River Dijle, past ancient breweries and maltings, then cross the river on Brusselsestraat and take a left towards the Kruidtuin, the university's botanical garden, a marvellously manicured patch whose greenhouse groans with plants (Kapucijnenvoer 30; 00 32 16 23 24 00, open 8am-5pm daily; from 9am on Sundays). Opposite this is the 18th-century anatomical theatre, a reminder of Leuven's substantial contribution to medical science: the pioneering 16th-century surgeon Vesalius studied here.

You can return to the centre of town via Minderbroedersstraat: it's a left turn after the second bridge heads for another waterfront wander, or straight on, past the tower to the bustling bars of the Oude Markt. Rejoin the walk at the Grote Markt, this time heading south along Naamsestraat into the university district. Take a detour down Standonckstraat to reach the Hogeschoolplein, home to the Pope's College. It was established by Pope Adrian VI, tutor of Emperor Charles V, though you'd never be able to tell: like so many of the university buildings, it was rebuilt in the 18th century in suitably serious neoclassical style. Thankfully, amid this academic gravitas, Sint-Michielskerk retains all its baroque grandeur.

A stroll through Sint-Donatuspark offers glimpses of the 12th-century town wall, with plane trees lining the former moat; the Rambergpark, at Naamsestraat 70, is another delight, the more so for being invisible from the street. Then it's on, past the late-gothic Van Dale College, a delicate confection of pinks and whites, to Sint-Kwintenskerk, an airy gothic church perched atop a hill. All this is merely an appetiser, however, for the city's other great treasure, just a couple of streets away: the beautiful Groot Begijnhof (Schapenstraat).

Like all the begijnhofs of Flanders, it's now a Unesco World Heritage Site - and a town-within-a-town of almost edible redbrick houses and convents, with an early-gothic church, Sint Jan de Doper, and two arms of the Dijle at its heart. Home to as many as 300 women in the 17th century, it's now used as accommodation for students and professors - and it will make you wish you could join them.

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

't Zwart Schaap (Boekhandelstraat 1; 00 32 16 23 24 16) offers handmade shrimp croquettes, Flemish beef stew with Trappist beer or boozy lobster bisque.

Gambrinus (13 Grote Markt; 00 32 16 20 12 38). A classic, the timeless Gambrinus has views of the sumptuous Stadhuis as an irresistible side dish.

Ombre Ou Soleil (Muntstraat 20; 00 32 16 22 51 87), or a spot of light relief. It offers figure-friendly Mediterranean cuisine in a cheerful, sunny space.

Domus (Tiensestraat 8; 00 32 16 29 18 68). Beer buffs love the house ales here: a glass of Nostra Domus can truly be described as amber nectar. It would be rude not to sink a few Stellas, as they've been brewing it here for six centuries, and where better than on the Oude Markt, a slew of student-friendly watering holes that's known as "the longest bar in Europe"?

Wentelsteen (Busleidengang 6D). If all those students have left you with a sense of intellectual inadequacy, bolster your brainpower over a chess board here.

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