Once Upon a Time in Leuven.
Once Upon a Time in Leuven, Belgium.
September 2004 – August 2007.
Cover photo courtesy of Fonske.
The Belgian university town of Leuven will always be a special place to me. I arrived in the autumn of 2004 feeling excited by the prospect of a fresh start. I was in the midst of an exciting (and ultimately doomed) romance with a Belgian girl I’d fallen for while we were teaching English at a summer camp in England.
Young and impulsive, I dropped plans to take up a job in Italy so that we could start a life together at her apartment in Leuven. Some of you have read about this topsy-turvy period of my life in my short stories Car Crash Girl Part I and Car Crash Girl Part II.
The short stories deal with the drama of those early Leuven days. In this article though, I’m simply delighted to add Leuven to my travel report library. To celebrate the city that I came to know and love in the years that followed the implosion of my relationship with Lucie.
In the days after our breakup I moved out into a tiny room on a nondescript residential street called Jean-Baptiste van Monsstraat. It really was a box, while I had to share the bathroom with a bunch of students who also lived in the building. But you know what, once the pain of my split from Lucie was over I was actually pretty happy there.
Once Upon a Time in Leuven.
It was in that humble abode where I met an Iraqi refugee by the name of Zaid. Our friendship and his eventual disappearance is something that still haunts me whenever I think of the good times we had together. The spirit of which I tried to capture in my short story Zaid.
Before long, I secured a crappy call centre job in the nearby town of Diegem. Readers may recall my experiences there from the short story A Single Man. On the weekends, I began exploring Leuven, a city that I quickly fell for. In fact, I found the place effortlessly charming, with its cobbled streets, laid-back café culture and second hand record shops.
Take the Grote Markt (Big Market) square, for example, with its stunning collection of 14th century Gothic structures. Those are the city’s guildhalls pictured below. Never has paying for taxes looked so lovely.
And yet, it was one edifice that stole the show, no arguments. Dating back to 1448, The Stadhuis (Town Hall) is a giant wedding cake of a building that is truly a sight to behold. Its three stories look like finely woven layers of lace. Moreover, it has octagonal turrets pierced with slits. This allows for light to pass through, which on a fine day can give the structure a shimmering effect.
Stadhuis (Town Hall).
Photo courtesy of Ghirlandajo.
It is such a mesmerising and unmissable landmark that it serves as one of Leuven’s most popular meeting points. Indeed it was here I would often stand waiting to meet friends before moving on to a favourite pub. While I waited, I would invariably gaze up, admiring the pointed gothic windows and the numerous niches with their sculpted biblical characters and figures from Flemish history.
Leuven is a fantastic town for sculptures and statues. One of its best loved creations stands right in front of the aforementioned Town Hall. It shows a student pouring a mug of water over his head while deeply engrossed in a book. His name is Fons Sapiente, which is latin for source of wisdom.
The statue is a tribute to the history of Leuven University and the benefits of a fine education. The water represents knowledge flowing directly into the brain. Or at least that was the intention back in 1975 when it was erected to celebrate the university’s 550th anniversary. Nowadays many students like to believe that he’s really sloshing beer over himself, a reference to the city’s lively pub culture!
It’s funny (peculiar not ha ha) that they called that square The Big Market. Because its neighbouring square is way bigger, absolutely huge some might say. This one is called De Oude Markt (Old Market), a massive cobblestone square that started life as a market in the 12th century.
Once Upon a Time in Leuven.
Today most of the square’s handsome buildings are home to bars, cafes, restaurants and underground clubs converted from grand 18th century townhouses. Locals call it “the longest bar counter in the world”. Despite living in Leuven for over two and a half years, I never did manage to have a drink in every joint.
Rather, I had my favourite spots. One was Cafe Cadi 61, an Americana themed bar. That place had such a great vibe, with retro newspaper walls, vintage jukeboxes and 1950s and 60s rock playing on the sound system. Heck, they even had a replica Cadillac (I presume it wasn’t an original) running along the back wall.
At Cadi the pintjes (little beers) were an incredible 1 Euro apiece! Hence I had some epic nights within these walls. Back in the days when I actually went out drinking.
The below shot captures a visit from my friend Ben, a fellow Englishman. You might remember Ben from my short story collection The Slovak Files. We had a great night at Cadi reminiscing about all the shenanigans we got up to during our year living and teaching in Bratislava. R.I.P. Cadi, I knew you well.
Cafe Cadi 61.
Another Old Market staple was Cafe de Weerelt (The World Cafe). The bar had a retro nautical theme, so this time the walls were covered in ancient maps and sketches of legendary European ships and fearsome captains.
If I recall that they had an awesome 2 for 1 happy hour, which admittedly led to disaster for some patrons (see below). Happily, the cafe survived the challenges of the past sixteen years and remains open.
Summertime sees the Old Market transform into a giant, open-air bar, with tables, chairs and umbrellas spilling forth from all establishments. In June 2006 my old pals Steve (C), Steve (P) and Adam came to visit from England.
The FIFA World Cup had kicked off in Germany, thus they’d come to Leuven for a catchup over some live games. It was a memorable couple of days and even England managed to win, bumbling to an unconvincing 2-0 win against the footballing powerhouse that is… err… Trinidad and Tobago.
The Old Market also played host to one of Belgium’s most intimate music festivals, Marktrock. I managed to grab a ticket for the 2006 event, which took place in August. I remember being blown away by the quality of artist the festival managed to secure, with the likes of Iggy Pop, Pet Shop Boys, Starsailor and Stereo MCs taking to the main stage.
Once Upon a Time in Leuven.
Furthermore, the icing on the cake for me, I also got to enjoy a raucous set from Admiral Freebee, my favourite Belgian singer-songwriter. Unfortunately, it looks like Marktrock is no more, a sad but predictable outcome after years of financial problems, legal issues and… yes… COVID.
Another stupendous Leuven square is the expansive Ladeuzeplein. This one is the city’s biggest, a huge space that often hosts events such as farmers and Christmas markets. The spectacular Neo-Renaissance Central Library of the university dominates proceedings.
Photo courtesy of wouterhagens.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the library is a 19th century delight. However, it actually sprang up in 1921 as a gift from The United States after German forces burned down Leuven’s original city library during World War I.
The Americans even brought in one of their most renowned architects, Whitney Warren, to design it. Sadly, The Second World War also wreaked havoc on the new building, necessitating a grand post-war reconstruction.
Photo courtesy of Michielverbeek.
I used to make regular visits to Ladeuzeplein. This was due to the fact that it was home to one of my favourite music stores, Bilbo Records. I spent hours browsing Bilbo’s hallowed shelves and reckon I came away with at least several hundred albums over the years. I see they are still going today, which is nothing short of a minor miracle these days.
Leafing through my archives for the making of this article, I came across a photo of myself with my buddy Mat Kovacs on Ladeuezeplein. Like Ben, Mat was one of the Slovak crew and had swung by for a quick visit. I have since lost touch with Mat, but see that he has done some acting and even has an IMDB page!
Away from the squares, Leuven plays out across a beguiling network of narrow stone streets. Predominantly pedestrianised, I’d often lose myself in the various cafes and bookstores. One of the most idyllic is Parijsstraat (Paris Street), an exceptionally pretty stretch with several restored 15th century residences.
Parijsstraat was where I discovered what became my other treasured Leuven record shop. This one, Sax, is also still standing, 25 years after owner Jos Vandeput first opened its doors.
Sax is the ultimate record shop in many ways. Small, a bit cramped, but with wonderful discoveries to be unearthed if you dig around among the shelves, boxes and stacks in corners. Jos was a very quiet man, I don’t think we ever struck up a conversation. But I always smile when I think of Sax, the shop in which I began musical journeys with the likes of Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and Dusty Springfield.
By early 2006 S and I had gotten together and after a brief period of dating she came to live with me in Leuven. As a result, I said goodbye to my little room on Jean-Baptiste van Monsstraat and we moved into a proper apartment on Muntstraat.
Once Upon a Time in Leuven.
Tucked away behind the Town Hall, I loved that apartment and could easily wax lyrical here about why. But I think it’s already been covered in my short story Muntstraat. Instead, I’ll share just two of my favourite bits of the street. First prize goes to Café De Libertad, certainly the best bar I’ve ever been privileged to be a regular patron of.
Poky, smoky and with the music played loud, De Libertad wouldn’t be my cup of tea anymore. Yet I adored the place back then. Especially the music, which ranged from rock gods like Neil Young and Bob Dylan to alt-rock titans Whiskeytown and Wilco. And scandalously underrated Belgian bands such as dEUS.
Another Muntstraat gem is a Japanese joint called Samourai. They do classic and fusion Japanese dishes that are “a pleasure for the eyes, a celebration for the taste buds”. I only came here three times in the two years I lived in Leuven, which feels a bit criminal. The most memorable was when Adam revisited with his new girlfriend (now wife) Rebecca.
The whole experience always felt authentic. From the flowery traditional robes handed to us on arrival to the skilful, nimble-handed chefs whipping dishes up right in front of us from the open-plan kitchen. According to my trusty old notes, we destroyed an absolute feast that night with tray after tray of springy soft sushi and several plates of Teriyaki Chicken.
Samourai Japanese Restaurant.
For total tranquility, I would occasionally head out of the centre for a stroll around Leuven’s Historic Quarter (Groot Begijnhof). Originating in the early 1200s, this incredible network of cobbled lanes, garden squares, alleys and bridges was once home to Belgium’s largest community of beguines.
Photo courtesy of Benoit Brummer.
What the heck is a beguine? Basically, a self-sufficient semi-monastic woman who remains unmarried and dedicates her life to helping the sick, poor and generally disadvantaged. Such a community is called a beguinage and by the turn of the 17th century there were over 350 such women living in Leuven.
Today very few beguines remain. That’s why UNESCO recognises the importance of Leuven’s ancient quarter and why they have helped to protect the historic buildings that stand here. Now the university owns many of the houses, which are students digs, classrooms and campus offices. The below photo is from a visit I took with the wonderful Bill and Mary when they came to Belgium to attend S and I’s wedding.
Once Upon a Time in Leuven.
I’ll wrap this piece up with a look at my favourite cocktail bar, Hotel Professor. As a resident, I never stayed here myself, though a few visiting friends did and seemed happy with the place. It enjoys a super central location on Naamsestraat, pretty much on the doorstep of the Town Hall.
I must’ve come to Professor dozens of times. With coworkers… on the occasional date… and with the good friends I made in the city. That’s Henry pictured below, back in his Colin Firth days. You may remember that whenever I go back to London, it is invariably at Henry’s house that I stay. We were so young.
When my mum and brother came to stay for my birthday in July 2006, we paid a visit to Professor for their famous ice cream. The best in town, some insisted. We definitely didn’t hold back, ordering a trio of their largest and sweetest monstrosities.
In September 2007 things changed. S got a new job that required her to move to Brussels. We (mostly I) didn’t want to go, but of course we did what had to be done. Thus we packed up and departed for a city that never truly charmed me like Leuven did.
A few years later we left Belgium altogether and I’ve never been back. I feel one day I simply have to return to Leuven. To show Sladja the place she’s heard so much about. To see the city through new eyes, maybe even catch sight of a ghost or two.
For a more personalised slant on my Leuven days, dive into my story collection Based In Belgium.
You can also have a look at my travel report on Brussels.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.
I’ve never been to Leuven although I’ve visited and liked other small Belgian towns – Mechelen in particular. But now I’ve seen and read your memories I’m thinking it could be the perfect spot for a short break, especially as Eurostar would take us there 🙂 That Stadhuis is stunning and the streets and squares all very inviting!
Thanks Sarah for reading and kicking off the comment thread. This was such a nostalgic piece to write and put together. I’d love to go back one day and would be curious to see how much the city has changed over the past fifteen years. I guess if you go I will be finding out soon!
I’ve never been to Belgium, but I heard great things about it from others. Your post filled me with nostalgia (and heartache) and encouraged me to write more about the past.
By the way, your friend (the one from Hotel Professor) resembles Tarantino! I thought it was him at first glance 😂
Hey Bahanur, thanks so much for reading this nostalgic look at Leuven and indeed my short story ‘A Single Man’. Much appreciated! I have never thought of Henry as Tarantino, but I do see what you mean ha ha. I shall have to pass that on and see if he takes it as a compliment 😉
An awesome homage to Leuven, Leighton. No matter how many bad things happen in a place, it is always good to look back at the good things. This city seems to have it all going on and a great vibe, like you said. Thanks for tying your other posts, into this review. It has now all come together nicely. Have a great Sunday. Allan
Thanks Allan, it was a lot of fun doing a single full-length piece for Leuven as a compliment to the short stories. They were great days, I just wish that (as usual) I’d taken more and better photos. I definitely need to go back one of these years.
i think between your short stories and this travel report you have done leuven great justice leighton. i remember the stories fondly especially zaid and henderson which were genuinely touching. the stadhuis is an unbelievable building!
Thanks Stan, that’s very kind of you to stay. Not sure I have ever written a more personal short story than Henderson or Zaid. The Stadhuis is indeed a stupendous structure that could have so easily ended up being a kitschy mess in the hands of the wrong architect.
Leuven looks absolutely charming with the typical stepped rooflines of the stone buildings and cobblestone squares. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of the town hall though. Wow! It is such an ornately designed building. I’d love to see it in person. But at the opposite end I love the stoic look of the buildings in the historic quarter. I hear in your words how much you fell in love with Leuven, instead of the girl 😊 Maggie
Thanks Maggie, I’m so glad Leuven appeals. And that this article introduced you to the incredible Stadhuis. I think that my time there ended up being an unlikely success when I consider what a mess my first weeks were. It’s weird how life turns out sometimes.
I don’t remember any of the bars or restaurants but the architecture is unforgettable. The town hall and the university were fantastic. Always wish I had taken more time (like several months) to truly appreciate the place. Thanks for taking me back.
Yeah, architecturally I feel Belgian is somewhat underrated. What a feast for the eyes Leuven is, along with Ghent, Antwerp, parts of Brussels and of course the tourism monster that is Bruges. Thanks for walking down Memory Lane with me, Memo.
If you can find a town that’s still charming after a breakup, it must be special, right? I like the names of some of these places – Grote Markt, Stadhuis … it’s like reading your post in Afrikaans! I think I will like Leuven with its beautiful cobbled lanes, outstanding buildings (and lots of bars) 😉. Thanks Leighton, it was fun browsing through your old photos with you – I can see you have great memories of Leuven!
I agree, Leuven’s square and street names do have a lot of charm. It was fun (and often disastrous) trying to grapple with that language in those early days before I eventually (sort of) learned Dutch. Thanks for reading about my time in Leuven, Corna.
Belgium has some seriously charming cities. I’ve never been to Leuven, but from your pictures and impressions it sounds exactly like the kind of European city I’d love to spend some time on. Big plazas, cobblestone streets, mesmerising architecture, and a nice pub scene. It seems you’ve spent some remarkable life events here, and it seems Leuven was the perfect backdrop!
Thanks for reading about my Leuven years, Nic. You’re right that this place served as the setting for so many memorable life events, good and bad. No wonder I have such fond and nostalgic memories of it. I’m sure you’d like it too, as I imagine (and hope) that it’s the kind of city that hasn’t changed beyond recognition and still retains the core of what charmed me all those years ago.
Maybe when you have warm memories of a place it’s better to preserve those feelings because it’s never the same when you return. That happened to me on a return trip to Bali that I absolutely hated fifteen years later.
Sometimes it’s definitely better to let places be. In the case of Leuven though, I fear my curiosity will get the better of me one of these years. My hope is that it has retained most of its charm and what made it special, despite the fact that many of those old favourite cafes and restaurants are almost certainly gone. Thanks for reading, Mallee!
It seems as though Leuven is a bittersweet place for you; I guess we take the good with the bad. Thanks for your openness about your time there. On a lighter note, Leuven looks a lot like Bruges, a lovely place in Belgium. Thanks, Leighton, for sharing this.
I think in many ways all Belgian cities have a familiar sculpted look and feel. Bruges is ridiculously pretty in parts, though just too busy for me to be able to fully enjoy. Maybe I’ll go back in the late autumn or winter one of these years. Thanks for reading as always Tricia.
We visited over 15 years ago when it wasn’t so busy. Maybe winter isn’t quite so crowded with tourists.
Enjoyed this post immensely as it was only last November that we spent a couple of nights in beautiful Leuven. The Oude Markt looked very different on our mid week visit though with just a few people in the bars and square.
Thanks Marion. I definitely enjoyed the Oude Markt much more in its quieter moments. In the winter months, for example, when the weather wasn’t too bad. You’d pretty much have the place to yourself. I’d also sometimes go for an early morning coffee in the summer before the crowds flocked in for brunch. Wonderful times.
Such a strange yet interesting statue. Cheers to a life well-lived.
Cheers Erik, I appreciate you reading and leaving a comment. To well-lived lives! *clink*.
What a wonderful city Leuven is, Leighton! Such history, amazing architecture, and it looks so clean! I can see why you loved living there, both as single and not-so-single. I read your short stories, and I can only say that I was captivated. I especially loved Zaid – he must have been a character, but also endearing. I’m so sorry that you have lost contact with him. It makes me wonder if he eventually went back to Iraq, but I hope not. Also, I’m SO glad you didn’t end up having to count Cruella as one of your family members. Needless to say, I always look forward to more of your posts!
Aw Kellye, I’m honoured that you took the time to read a few of those short stories. Your kind words make this whole writing lark worthwhile. I definitely dodged a bullet with Lucie and Cruella, while Zaid… well, I fear I shall never know what happened to him. I can only hope things turned out well.
I hope things turned out well for Zaid too. Can you even imagine what it would be like for your homeland to be war torn and hopeless?
Thanks for this trip down memory lane! I worked project once in this beautiful city, and was there many times!
Ah that’s great! I haven’t come across many people who’ve been to Leuven, thanks for reading and contributing to the thread.
So many memories! The city looks so charming, I’d love to photograph all the buildings and squares.
Thanks for your comment Lyssy.
I’ve heard of Leuven, but never went: it’s such a lovely city that I believe gets overlooked for the more-famous Belgian cities like Bruges and Ghent. However, it has so much to offer! The Stadhuis is an intricate feast for the eyes, and despite going through heartbreak and a less-than-fulfilling job there, you really dove into the Leuven life, exploring all the nooks and crannies of the city. I’m sure a return (with Sladja) is imminent!
Hey Rebecca, it’s great to have you back. One of these years I hope I can bookmark a return to Leuven. Thanks for reading!
Leuven looks and sounds absolutely lovely, and very much in keeping with the look of towns in that part of the world. You have to be tempted by the “longest bar counter”…especially knowing how much Belgians love their beer. Funnily enough I can place exactly where I was when I watched that Trinidad & Tobago match. Glasgow Airport. Not quite as enchanting as Leuven and being in Scotland I definitely wasn’t amongst “friends” when Peter Crouch headed home.
Oh lord, in the land of the haters. I have actually spent several entire tournaments supporting England (at home!) whilst living in Scotland. Their canned hatred and bile is impossible to avoid, no matter how low-key you try to keep it.
Past memories!!!!! Had to look in Google to see where town is located. I see it is about half an hour from Brussels. Did you ever consider staying in Leuven and commuting?
Hey Geoff. Yes, Leuven is right on Brussels’ doorstep, sigh. At the time S’s company insisted she relocate in order to be a short metro ride from the office. Lots of overtime, heavy work culture, late meetings, team events, drinks nights, all that crap. I fought my corner for a little bit, but ultimately gave up. As you’ll see from my next post Brussels didn’t quite do it for me, but it was a memorable (nearly) two years there nevertheless.
This was beautifully written Leighton. Not to get too existential, but I always find it so hard going back to special places. You write ‘catch a ghost or two’ and that really is what happens because I can’t help but feel how strange it is that the only thing separating you when you’re in the same place years later from a person/experience etc is time. It’s such a weird concept.
Thanks Hannah, I appreciate your kind words and thoughtful reflections. You know me, I’m always up for a bit of existentialism. It would be strange to go back to Leuven and yet I feel that it’s something that I possibly just have to do, for better or worse.
Sounds like you made a lot of memories and friends in Leuven. It seems like the city has a lot to offer in terms of architecture and entertainment. Heck, if drinks cost 1 euro, I’d be having some epic nights on the town too! How fun to be there for the world cup with all the excitement.
Something tells me those little pintjes aren’t 1 Euro apiece anymore. Such is the way of the world. Thanks for reading about my years in Leuven!
Car Crash girl still gives me shudders of relationship angst. While she may be what got you to Leuven, I can see why the city itself became such a special place for you. I really love the incredible detailed architecture of the market and the whole vibe of the longest bar counter and the cheeky statue with a great mix of education and beer being poured in. But I also really love the simple elegance of the historic area and the more ‘come as you are’ feel of the places there. Top it all off with a fantastic icecream and I would say this is a perfect place to land for whatever space of time you can 🙂
Ah Meg, you’ve made my day. I’m glad you enjoyed this look at Leuven, stripped free of all the strife that I detailed in the short stories. Leuven was/is a beautiful little city/town. Thanks for your observations, I couldn’t agreed more.
Leuven seems like such a neat area! I am impressed at the building designs and landscape. You have some beautiful memories and friendships from your time in Leuven too, along with some adventures!
Thanks for reading about my years in Leuven, Allie!
Leuven looks brilliant, never done much of Belgium but architecturally it looks amazing
Cheers Gary! Leuven is gorgeous and yet still plays second fiddle to the likes of Bruges and even say Ghent in terms of mass tourism. And I think it’s all the better for it.
A lovely post full of memories and beautiful architecture. Leuven looks like a perfect place for a short spring break as well as a place to build your home. The Stadhuis has a facade more often seen in cathedrals than town halls. You must go back, at least to visit Sax one more time.
Ah, thanks Anoush. I’m glad Leuven gave you a bit of wanderlust and yes, you’re right, I need to go back. I find it hard to believe that Sax will still be there in say 5 years time, so it might be my last opportunity.
I’m so glad to read about your stay in Leuven! I went there for the first time a few weeks ago despite living just 30 minutes away for 4 years! I only stayed a day and visited the most famous spots, but now I just *have* to go back and check out the places you mentioned!
Ah that’s great Juliette. Leuven is such a little gem, I look forward to reading about your return visit experience!
wonderful writing and images. leuven seems an underated city
[…] Once Upon a Time in Leuven. […]
Thanks for the repost!
Hi Leighton- I am catching up with your recent posts and loved this nostalgic recollection so much. I haven’t heard of Leuven before, but I can absolutely see why it was a special place for you- and that Stadhuis is gorgeous! I do hope you make it back to visit again, ghosts or not. I also just read your short story- Zaid- and am left with a bit of a haunted feeling. That must have been extremely difficult to lose touch without explanation and to be left wondering…
Laura! It’s great to have you back, thanks for taking the time to read ‘Zaid’ in addition to this article. I think “haunting” is the right word, though in recent years this has begun to fade as more and more time passes. It’s hard not to think of the worst, but who knows, he may well be out there somewhere living a great life.
I remember when you called home to tell us about “The Car Crash” Fearing for you all alone in Leuven we advised you to come back to Scotland straight away. To your credit you decided to stick it out and clearly you turned a negative experience into positive, happy memories and new acquaintances. A bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you fail to make the turn.
Ha yes, I clearly remember mum telling me to pack my bags and get on the next plane home. If Leuven hadn’t been so nice, I might have done just that. Thanks for contributing to the thread!