2015 Link Visit to Leuven

Hosted by Rotary Club of Brugge-West in the University town of Leuven near Brussels, 8-10 May

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Leuven is a small 15th century University city with 95,000 inhabitants and 40,000 University students,  we were advised everything was within walking distance. It is famous for its history and architecture, especially the St Pieterskerk and Stadhuis, and has long been  a bastion of Flemish Catholicism.

We were given the warmest welcome by our hosts Brugge-West club and all met over a buffet lunch on Friday. Friends from Meersbusch and  Bruges arrived by car (bikes, lycra and all) and the Pinner club arriving via Eurostar from St Pancras. 

We (all 54 of us) were then met by guides who took us to the Grote Markt, lined by tables and chairs on which to participate in the national Belgium Sport of Beer Drinking. In the Grote Markt  there is a statue of a landlady who looks more akin to a - let me see - a model, who apparently took care of the delicate 13 year old students in their University residences. Might I also draw members attention to pictures of colleagues seated in her lap…… 

The Stadhuis, built 1450ish, is a highly decorated flamboyant Gothic building almost as high as it is long with three storeys of Gothic windows surmounted by a steep roof of dormer windows and six turrets. There are statues, hundreds of statues, of medieval grotesqueness representing eminent citizens, physicians, artists and public figures.

The St Pieterskerk was preceded by two previous churches, one destroyed by lightning the other by fire, and the ancient crypt was not revealed until the building was bombed. The present late Gothic building dates back to 1425 and has 90 windows and 15 chapels.

We also viewed the outside of a college where there is a ‘Tree of Sorrow’, green in plumage and grand in height. This is where tears were shed by the lady students who cried before saying farewell to their boyfriends and fiancés at the door before departing to bed. The University is Catholic and did not admit ladies until 1920.

We were then taken straight from our walking tour, with no time to dunk a tea bag into a cup lest we kept the Professor waiting, to be shown round Holland College which was opened exclusively for our members. Holland college is a school for Priests and gave us an insight into how they lived, and boasted a magnificent staircase. 

In the evening we were taken to a local restaurant, Ter Eycken, and had a meal of chicken stuffed with soft cheese. This was served at 2130 which was very late, though tasty and much appreciated. They were responsive to my request to be fed as having had my insulin I was starving and we had waited 45 minutes in between courses. The restaurant as requested produced a lovely fruit salad especially for me at 2230 as I cannot eat sweet puddings. We all walked back to the hotel, some of us exhausted by the day and others to the bar for a nightcap. 

The Martin’s Klooster Hotel in Leuven where we stayed was very comfortable and breakfast delicious with a great variety of healthy option foods as well as a cooked breakfast and as much coffee and tea as you wanted.

Saturday began with a walking tour of the University buildings of Leuven - an amazing, memorable 15th century town with cobbled streets. Some of the members of the  Meerbusch club  brought their families and the group swelled, with extra numbers from the local Brugge West club also.

We then had an exclusive and private tour of the interior halls of the University and a lecture which filled us in on the history of Leuven. The town was initially founded on the woollen industry and the outside of the University Halls has a sculpture of sheep being sheared. As the cloth industry declined so did the viability of Leuven until it was saved by the University and became a great seat of learning, mostly financed by the breweries. This tradition continues today with many breweries having their headquarters in the area, and the University continues to thrive.

During lunchtime we had the opportunity to visit the private salons of the Rector. A stand up lunch was served with tasty sandwiches punctuated with hedgehogs of cheese, grapes and sausages on sticks and endless sparkling wine and tea. 

In the afternoon there was an arranged 30km bicycle ride into the countryside which three of our Pinner members participated in. Many of the Meerbusch and Brugge clubs had brought their own bikes especially for the ride and the weather was beautiful. The rest of us enjoyed a leisurely afternoon, some visiting the M-museum, others the market. We visited the botanical gardens which were lined by a path of wisteria trees in full bloom, a remarkable sight, and the rest of the gardens were inspirational.

Our farewell dinner was arranged in the Faculty Club, a fabulous building dating back to  the 13th century which is in the Groot Begijnhof. This was originally a hospital but now hosts awesome dinners and receptions by private arrangement. The dinner started with sparkling wine and an unusual selection of canapés as we mingled, to be followed by a herring starter and sirloin beef steak which was as tender as it comes (I think probably Aberdeen Angus!!)and raspberry mousse. The Bordeaux had a bouquet of blackcurrants, grapefruit and chocolate and the taste was amazing.

The children were starving and some exhausted so there were a few souls sleeping peacefully around the club looking angelic. The meal was criticised by being served too late at 2200 and finishing at 2330. Most of us would have enjoyed it better had it been served earlier, having had my insulin I only managed to escape becoming unconscious by eating glucose tablets!

On Sunday we enjoyed a hearty breakfast with the sound of champagne corks popping .

Our last tour on the Sunday morning in my opinion was the best, walking through the Groot Begijnhof sited on the river Dijle and founded in the 13th century. A Begijnhof is a community for Christian women, not quite nuns, who characteristically wear white caps rather than the usual black. They are allowed to travel freely in and out of the area and can join later in life and bring their young children. We were told a Begijnhof has 3 essential characteristics; a Hospital, a Church and a Table of the Holy Spirit which provides food and firewood for the poor. The women buy their home to enter the community, often sharing, and have servants! 

The river runs through the Begijnhof and much debate and many letters were found criticising and complaining about the male University students who swam in the nude. No Begijnhof resident admitted to having seen this, but judging by the many letters of criticism there is a discrepancy.
We walked back to De Clijne Taefel, a local pub, and enjoyed a lunch, then sadly it was time to say ‘Bye Bye’ and thank the Brugge members for hosting the event and our Meerbusch colleagues for their company.

We all look forward very much to seeing everyone again next year in Meerbusch, what wonderful memories and jokes we have to share.

Til next year, 
Your correspondent
Dr Hilary Hogg