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Belgium's most famous university town, Leuven (in French Louvain) has a charming position beside the banks of the Dijle, east of Brussels. The Catholic university here was founded in 1425 and rose to prominence as one of Europe's most highly-regarded places of learning. The great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam and Justus Lipsius both taught here, the geographer Gerhard Mercator studied here, and one of the university's chancellors became Pope Adrian VI in 1459. Leuven has also been lucky enough to hang on to much of its early architecture, despite suffering heavy bombardment in both world wars. With its illustrious university college buildings and fine Gothic buildings in the city center, Leuven is a wonderful town to get to grips with Belgium's architectural heritage.
St. Peter's Church (Sint-Pieterskerk)
Standing in the middle of the Grote Markt is St. Peter's Church, one of the best examples of Brabant Gothic architecture in Belgium. The main nave's notable features are its straight line of sheaf pillars and high-pointed arch windows. Among the treasures in this part of the church are the late Gothic brass font in the chapel, to the left of west gate, and the splendidly carved Baroque pulpit of 1742. The choir and ambulatory have been converted into a Museum of Religious Art (Stedelijk Museum voor Religieuze Kunst) where you can see the outstanding Last Supper by Dirk Bouts, painted 1464-1468. The supper takes place in a Gothic hall and the figures are arranged around Christ; unlike many representations, the betrayal of Judas is not in the foreground, instead it is the symbolic Eucharist, as also portrayed in the side panels.
City Hall
Leuven's over-the-top, ornate City Hall is the town's most distinguishing landmark. Three rows of sculpture adorn the main facade and both side facades showcasing 236 figures, added in the 19th century, that represent eminent personalities throughout the town's history. The roof, meanwhile, is richly decorated with small turrets, while along the niche bases, you can see biblical reliefs that date from the original medieval building of the hall. Inside, it is no less decadent in style. In particular the Great Gothic Council Chamber with its carved beamed ceiling dating from the 15th century and the Small Gothic Hall with a Gothic vaulted wooden ceiling are both noteworthy.
To the right of the City Hall is Naamsestraat where many university buildings are found, either in this street or nearby, in particular, the college buildings funded by various patrons from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Look out for King's College (Koningscollege No. 59) founded by Philip II of Spain in 1579, the Premonstratensian College (College van Promonstreit No. 61) founded in 1571, and Arras College (No. 63) founded in 1508 by the future Bishop of Arras. St. Michael's Church (Sint-Michielskerk) built 1650-1666 by Willem Hesius is also worth a look for its splendid Baroque facade, renowned as one of the finest of its kind in Belgium.
Oude Markt
Not far to the west of Naamsestraat is the Oude Markt, the bustling old square of the city, which is still the center of Leuven. The entire plaza hums with energy, especially on summer evenings. Although its historic brick gabled houses were almost completely burned down in 1914, they have been beautifully rebuilt and now accommodate many cafés and restaurants. A bronze sculpture here commemorates the "Kottmadams" of Leuven, the landladies of the student rooms. On the narrow south side of the square is the Holy Trinity College (Collegium Vauxianum (Heilig Drievuldigheidscollege) with a glorious Baroque facade dating to 1657.
Groot Begijnhof
Leuven's beautiful béguinage, (known as the Groot Begijnhof) where hundreds of béguines once lived a simple, nun-like existence, is the town's most enchanting area. This romantic complex, traversed by a tributary of the Dijle, was founded in the 13th century, and today comprises more than 1,000 houses and a church; earlier it encompassed a hospital and a farmhouse. In the 18th century, when 300 béguines were still living in the béguinage, the houses were renovated with stepped gables, mullions, and transoms, but the French Revolution brought a temporary halt to life here, and only a few béguines returned afterwards. In 1962, the site was bought by the university and underwent extensive restoration to create student residences and lecture halls. Only the second cottage on the right past the entrance is still furnished as it was when the last béguine died in 1988. The early Gothic béguinage church Sint-Jan-de-Doper, built in the 13th to 14th centuries, today serves the university community as a place of worship.
Abbey Park
Southeast of Leuven lies the gloriously peaceful Abbey Park (Abdij t' Park), founded by Gottfried the Bearded in 1129 and once home to a monastic community. Most of the buildings standing today date from the much later 16th to 18th centuries. You enter through a grand gateway, passing a windmill on the way to the prelate's house. From here, you can explore the former abbots' palace; the chapter house with its mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles; the library and the refectory, which both have fine stucco reliefs. The monastery church is of 12th- to 13th-century origin, being redesigned in the 17th to 18th centuries.
Chateau de Merode
The township of Rixensart is worth a visit for the pretty red brick Château de Mérode that was built between 1631 and 1632. It is square with four corner towers and many windows and is open to the public. The interiors host impressive and highly tasteful furnishings, including Gobelin tapestries, Louis XV pieces, pictures (including some by Nattier and Tischbein), as well as a collection of weapons, which the French mathematician Monge brought back from Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. A little outside Rixensart lies the Lac de Genval renowned for its lakeside restaurants and good fishing: it's a favourite rendezvous at weekends for locals from Brussels as well as Leuven. The surrounding countryside here is the stuff of picture-perfect, old-fashioned bucolic landscapes - the perfect respite to time spent amid the architectural finery of Belgium's towns and cities.