Travel: Student heaven in Lager Central

Louvain, home of Stella Artois and Belgium's first university, is an idler's delight. By Darius Sanai

In the middle of the Oude Markt square a handsome young couple was sitting. As the purple and white flowers planted around their bench bent in the breeze, he was saying no, he couldn't go out tonight, he had to study. She, her shiny blond hair waving along her back, said: "Please, we have to, I just finished my exams." They deliberated for 10 minutes before he, swarthy in denim, got up and walked off. She stayed on the bench, her face curled in disappointment, for a minute or two, before bounding off into the nearest bar.

Louvain must be a miserable place when you have work to do. The gabled Renaissance oval of the Oude Markt alone contains 40 cafes and bars, from glitzy space-age taverns to classical Belgian cafes with velour seat covers and 30 kinds of beer on draught. Every night until 6am, music wafts out of them: a little Louis Armstrong from Cafe Revue, the latest London beats from Cafe Oasis. Waiters run around bearing trays of contrasting beers: a lager in a flute, a red cherry ale in a bulbous glass, a hazy white beer in a mug. The atmosphere in the oval-shaped square is thick with chat.

Louvain is the home of Belgium's oldest university, founded in 1425. It lies on the River Ijse, its centre dominated by a beautiful 15th- century town hall. This is a rare showpiece of secular Gothic architecture, built by Matthaeus de Rayens, with three distinctive spires at each gabled end. Around its sides are 236 statues of famous town personages including the humanist Erasmus, who taught there. These were added in the 19th century.

As I walked along the Naamaestraat, the main road leading from the colleges, a group of students was heading the other way, all wearing scarves of blue and green. "Drinking society," they explained. Their aim was to down a different beer in each of the 90 bars featured in the local good pub guide - one a day for 90 days.

This seemed like a good, wimpy kind of pub crawl so I joined in. "I think I will drink a Trippel," said Jan, puffing out his chest. Trippels are the strongest beers brewed in Belgium, glutinous ales that knock you out.

The pub of the day was the Domus, a 17th-century beer hall with a gabled Flemish Renaissance exterior. It was one of those places where you get a good impression of what it was like to make merry 350 years ago. Only the dim electric lighting and gentle strains of the hi-fi spoilt the illusion that you could be a Belgian Falstaff, tucking into a quart of old sack and belching lecherously at the blond Flemish maidens giggling at the bar.

"Je deteste la biere," said Christine, sitting next to me sipping at her pina colada. The fact that she was French-speaking and not Flemish was a surprise. Louvain's previously bilingual university split, amid much acrimony, in the summer of 1968, with the Frenchuprooting, books, teachers, desks and students to the town of Louvain-La-Neuve 20 miles away in Wallonia.

I sipped my Trippel and staggered outside. As I wandered back to the Oude Markt the place looked subdued, as if itself recovering from the hangover imposed by its bars. Waiters leant on the partitions between the terraces, flirting with the waitresses in the next door cafes.

It was business as usual in the town's other central square, the Grote Markt, down an alleyway next to the magnificent town hall. Most Flemish cities have central squares, equivalent to the French grandes places; Louvain is unique in having two main squares.

The Grote Markt, cobblestoned, with gabled buildings on three sides, had a more austere air, hinting at what the town might be like without its students: a few old ladies sat with their dogs, on large, empty terraces; a liveried waiter, a contrast to the casually attired servers of the Oude Markt, took my order with a "Yes, sir" and served out a beermat as if dealing from a deck of cards.

Stella Artois has its main brewery on the edge of the town. The pride of Belgium's great brewing tradition, it owes its existence to the traditional thirst of the town's students, who were famed beer-drinkers from the 15th century onwards. Although the lager called Stella only appeared in 1926, the brewery, originally called Den Hoorn, has been operating since 1366.

Old, imposing cafes such as the Moorineken on the Grote Markt are among the fathers of the Belgian tradition of offering a list of 20 or 30 different beers on a menu. In the Moorineken, middle-aged customers sip their beers in reverential silence: an old man was gazing into his glass, his wife staring, hands folded together, at the decorations on the ceiling. The weekly special advertised by a poster on the bar was English Pale Ale.

FIVE CITY ESSENTIALS: LOUVAIN

Fly to Brussels, whose National Airport is just 10 miles from Louvain. Heathrow-Brussels costs pounds 85, including tax, on British Midland (0345 554554). A cab to Louvain is around pounds 15.

Swoop beneath the Channel by train from London Waterloo, changing at Brussels Midi for the half-hour hop to Louvain. The return fare to Brussels on Eurostar (0345 881881) is pounds 69.

Glide from Ramsgate to Ostend on a Sally Line jetfoil, then catch the hourly train direct to Louvain. British Rail International (0171-834 2345) has a return fare of pounds 61 from London.

Sleep cheap and centrally at the Hotel Industrie (00 32 16 22 13 49); pounds 25 single/pounds 35 double including bathroom and breakfast.

Ask the Belgian Tourist Office, 29 Princes Street, London W1R 7TG for free maps and literature; the inquiry line (0891 887799) is a premium- rate number.

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