The bartender of Proud Margriet place a bottle of strong dark beer in front of me. “Gouden Carolus,” he said. “Brewed 15 miles away”. A cold night has fallen over the city outside, but the dimly lit pub is warm and dazed. Hops are threaded along the walls; a stuffed fox is looking out the window. “This pub,” the bartender continues, stroking his beard, “has been here for fourteen hundred – and …” it pauses for a while “… something.”
History is elastic in the small Flemish town of Leuven, which currently hosts CLICK!, a city-wide festival dedicated to the big bang. On the wettest nights of the weather – or, strictly, before the time was right – a convulsion of bewildering quantum forces brought about the birth of the galaxy. About 13.8 billion years later, in 1931, a jolly Belgian with specs and a dog collar came up with a concept to explain it. Albert Einstein initially rejected the idea, then backed down later. The Belgian in question was Georges Lemaître – Catholic priest, father of the big bang theory, and resident of Louvain.
The name of the city remains relatively unknown despite this cosmic claim to fame and the fact that it is home to one of the best universities in Europe. Indeed, the place is perhaps best known for being the home of leviathan lager Stella Artois – the HQ is on the outskirts of town – so when I get off the train on a sunny November afternoon, I find bikes knocking on the cobblestones and Renaissance facades above the chocolate factories, it’s a pleasant revelation. Fifty thousand students are here during school term, making parts of the city feel like a Dutch speaking waffle-scented Oxbridge wrapped in a scarf.
“We should have been the national capital, really,” smiles guide Jan van Coillie, retired linguistics teacher and champion of all of Leuven (well, not at all: he doesn’t like Stella). “Leuven and Brussels were once part of the Duchy of Brabant – a state of the Holy Roman Empire – and at the time we were the largest colony, but in the 13th century the Dukes decided to settle in the streets of Brussels. “
Leuven, however, recovered from the snub, prospering both thanks to the medieval cloth trade and the opening in 1425 of its university – where Lemaître himself would later study and teach. Jan and I chat under the ridiculously ornate Town Hall, a Gothic fantasy of lacy stones and fairytale turrets, where 235 statues gaze out from the facade (the total was 236 until last year, when the hated monarch Leopold II was kidnapped). “The building survived the two world wars almost unscathed,” says Jan. “They say he’s guarded by angels.”
For visitors, the Town Hall and the adjacent 15th-century Church of St. Peter – which was not so lucky during the wars, but still looks like a picture today – mark the heart of a compact city. It takes me seven minutes to pedal from the church doors to the shaggy, cow-covered meadows on the outskirts. Locals on sit-up-and-beg bikes ride the streets lined with universities. Helmets are a rarity (“we don’t really like them,” I am simply told), as are skyscrapers. Even the trendy cafes – and there are plenty of them – have a small town vibe and homemade cakes. So during Eurostar Brussels Midi terminal can be less than 30 minutes by train, any metropolis feeling seems pleasantly distant.
Louvain’s associations with Lemaître are celebrated through BANG !, the Big Bang City festival, until the end of January. In addition to a series of ambitious exhibitions, there are a number of one-off events, from orchestral performances to temporary art installations. I visit two of the exhibits. Both are excellent. The first is at the art gallery M Leuven, where a selection of art through the ages focuses on the origins of humanity; the second is at University Library, where To The Edge of Time focuses on science and cosmology. Among many others, he understands Lemaître’s fascinating views on why his findings were compatible with the biblical version of creation (“if the theory of relativity had been necessary for salvation,” he writes, “it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses ”).
Apart from the festival, Leuven is a captivating destination in its own right. The university library is one example. I climb its 240-foot steeple and look through rooftops and bell towers to the flat Flemish countryside beyond. The vast library, with its wonderfully wooded reading room, is essentially a war memorial. Burned down by German forces in World War I – destroying 300,000 books, including hundreds of invaluable ancient manuscripts – it was completely rebuilt with American funds. A giant statue of a sword-wielding Virgin Mary stands outside, her foot crushing a German eagle.
A five-minute cycle is an even more moving slice of history. The Unesco list Groot Begijnhof was a medieval beguinage, a convent-like community for widows and nuns, and its tight network of cobbled lanes, narrow bridges, and red brick gables can be wandered around at will today. On a quiet morning, I feel like stepping into a painting by old masters, and I’m back that evening for a meal in the chic silence of the Faculty Club, formerly the Beguinage infirmary but today hui all in modern lighting, delicate eggplant dishes and heady wines.
The Groot Begijnhof residences now accommodate international teachers and students. However, many of the city’s undergraduates gravitate towards a very different landmark each evening, the Oude market, a square filled with terraces presented as the longest bar in Europe. I find this impressive, especially since most of the buildings towering above the Stella Artois umbrellas have been reconstructed since the destruction of the war. Plates bearing the date 1914 nail the square.
Drinks are definitely better elsewhere, however: try the taps at the craft bar Malz, the list of sourdough pizzeria drinks Baracca or the newly reopened brewery Abbey Park on the outskirts of town, whose monastic confines produced a dedicated beer for the BANG! festivities. An abbey creating a galactic brew provides a neat summary of Leuven, falling somewhere between deeply traditional and very open-minded. “It’s a small town,” I am told at Fiere Margriet, as fleets of bicycles parade through the night. “But he’s got a lot of soul.”