A series of blog posts written for easyJet holidays…
It’s always great catching up with old friends, it’s even better if you get to do so in Belgium. A good friend of mine is currently studying at the University of Leuven so after an early start in London, a few hours travelling and about ten ‘I’ve forgotten my passport’ panics, I finally arrived in the beautiful Flemish city just in time to see my friend approach the station on bicycle – very European!
Exploring Leuven is number one on the itinerary, but first a quick Stella Artois in the sunshine – it really does taste different when it’s poured only minutes from the brewery. The Het Stadhuis, town hall, is quite something. Built in the 15th century, the Gothic architecture is intricate and delicate, almost lace-like. Next-door, St. Peter’s Church adds to the collection of Gothic architecture and, although it is a third of the size it was planned to be, it is still an impressive sight. A short walk takes you to Het Groot Begijnhof, the Great Beguinage, a city within a city. The streets and gardens are perfectly preserved and though they originally housed unmarried, religious women, the 16th century buildings are now used as some pretty incredible student halls. Museum M provides a contemporary fix for art lovers, while 30CC organizes shows and performances all over the city.
Leuven is often described as a student city. The increasing population of the university gives the city a student vibe unlike any you’d find in the UK. The University Library is the most eye-catching of the KULeuven buildings. My friend managed to convince the librarian I was a fellow colleague from Sheffield so I was able to explore the library inside and out. Maybe it’s the book nerd in me but I found it fascinating, it really looked like something that had fallen out of the wizarding world! If the library is where the students spend their days, the Oude Markt is where they spend their nights. Known as the ‘longest bar in the world’, one big terrace connects all of the inns on the square and you’re guaranteed to find a drink any time of day or night. The locals and the students all come together to sit back and enjoy some Belgian beers – only in the matching glasses of course! Currently there isn’t smoking ban in Leuven but it’s on its way. Restaurants are friendly and relaxed, the food in Leuven is good quality and ranges from tradition Flemish stew to Italian pizzas and late-night kebabs. Expect to pay the same price for a starter as a main meal but you certainly get enough food for your Euros.
While Leuven is a fascinating place to explore, I was getting itchy feet to visit the next place on my itinerary. You never have to travel far to get anywhere within Belgium and the fantastic public transport makes it easy. One train journey later and we arrived in Bruges, the place everyone said I should visit during my stay. After finally containing my awe of my friend’s ability to switch between English, Dutch and French without batting an eyelid, I started to look around this historic city. The mixes of French and Dutch influences on the city are very evident and, to me, it bears a striking resemblance to Amsterdam. The tourist shops aren’t too overbearing and it’s difficult to leave without some souvenir lace or chocolate.
The old streets and charming houses all lead you to the main market square; the whole city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site. The town hall is magnificent; it dates back as far as 1376 and boasts incredible Gothic architecture. There are more museums in the city than you could ever hope to visit in one day. The Archeology Museum gives a great insight to the history of Bruges while in the Gruuthuse lets you glimpse the lives of Belgian Lords and Ladies. The Beguinage in Bruges really is a place of beauty. It is still in use by the nuns of the Order of St. Benedict and signs everywhere encourage you to keep silent. Only a step away from the bustling centre, the Beguinage feels calm and amazingly peaceful.
The canals are one of the most distinguishing features of Bruges. Canal tours run every half an hour throughout the day from several points across the city. They are definitely worth taking 30 minutes out of your visit for and are a bargain. Our tour guide was Captain Jack Sparrow (apparently) and he sailed us around the back streets of Bruges and we had the opportunity to see hidden treasures that would be difficult to find on foot.
For a reasonably small country, there’s a lot to see in Belgium and only halfway through my trip I had already seen most of Leuven and Bruges. With two days left, I decided to split my time between Antwerp and Brussels, both fascinating cities with a lot to explore and plenty to blog about.