Leuven, Mecca of Books and Beer? Yes but there's so much more...
Before anything else first this service announcement: don't make the same stupid mistake we made: visit the Town Hall and not step inside the 15th Century Saint Peter's Church just opposite the Town Hall. This church houses the only painting by a Flemish Primitive still in its original location: "The Last Supper" by Dieric Bouts. AND WE MISSED IT! Bad preparation. Ah well if ever we needed an excuse to go back to Leuven :-)
Back to the Town Hall on the Grote Markt then. This is without competition and in my humble opinion the most impressive building in Leuven. I would even grant it the honor of being one of Belgium's most magnificent constructions.
Erected in a Brabantine Late Gothic style between 1448 and 1469, no less than 236 statues in individual niches adorn the facade, representing an impressive selection of famous people. Although these statues are probably what first catches your eye and what impresses most, they were not part of the original construction but were only added after 1850. Turning the facade of the Town Hall into the 19th century social media equivalent of a present day Instagram collection of photos of famous people from the 15th up until the 19th century.
The fact that the statues were added to the building only later explains why some statues represent biblical figures, some famous scholars, eminent citizens, artists, judges, dukes etc.... but also an image of the vertically challenged Napoleon and one of the Belgian kings, the hand-chopping Leopold II from whom we inherited "the Congo". And these two jokers most certainly weren’t around in 1448 when the Town Hall was built. The interior is much less flamboyant and lavishly (not to use the word overkill) decorated as what you see outside although the interior does accommodate an interesting collection of artwork, including sculptures by Constantin Meunier and Jef Lambeaux. Inside can also be seen the portraits of the Leuven mayors since 1794. In fact it is not a small miracle that the Town Hall still stands and that it is indeed still the original building erected in 1448! It managed to survive two World Wars and the fury of both the invading armies and the liberators. Their concerted efforts did however succeed in destroying virtually everything around the Town Hall. In 1914 the guys you already know from my blog-post Train Station for a King, this famous German rock band “Wilhelm II and the Fritz”, came on a visit to Belgium and of course Leuven was on their list of must-see Belgian towns. They liked the Town Hall so much they decided not to look any further - probably motivated also by the raving TripAdvisor reviews granting the Town Hall a "Certificate of Excellence" - and declared it to be their HQ for the next four years - overstaying their welcome.
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities…
On the evening of the 25th of August 1914 shots rang out through the city of Leuven. The German visiting troops thought they were being attacked by civilian irregulars known as ‘franc-tireurs,’. It was later established that the shots were in fact fired on their own troops by a company of German conscripts who probably downed a bit too much of the local brew "Stella Artois" with their sauerkraut rations.
Unlike the German army, Stella later conquered Europe and the world but in 1914 the local beer clearly didn't go down well with our German neighbors, probably more used to less strong German beers. Or maybe it was the fact that Stella didn't adhere to the German "Reinheitsgebot" sometimes also fondly called the "German Beer Purity Law" (what is it with Germans and purity?) thus upsetting their stomachs. To err is human but their disastrous drinking habits cost Leuven dearly. All hell broke loose for three days and nights, with the much upset “Wilhelm II and the Fritz”-gang seeking revenge and going on a Stella induced rampage through town.
They rounded up and executed 248 civilians and torched over a thousand buildings, including the 15th Century Saint Pieter’s Church just opposite the Town Hall. The University Library was also burned to the ground, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of extremely rare and ancient manuscripts and incunabula (books printed in the 16th century and before) which caused worldwide consternation. If you were wondering where the raving mad religious islamist lunatics of DAESH got their inspiration?
But luckily the magnificent Town Hall was saved because, as you will remember, it was used by the Germans as their HQ. Don't shoot holes in your own boat they must have thought. After WW I Leuven rose like a phoenix from its ashes and through the generosity of American colleges and universities they rebuilt her library in the neo-renaissance style of the Low Countries. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany generously donated thirteen million marks (present day value of about 2 billion US$) in reparation resulting in 900,000 books on the shelves. Alas! apparently the choice of books bought by the library with the generous post war German funding was not that appreciated by the German donor. So history repeated itself in 1940 when “Adolf and the Krauts” came on their 4 year visit to Leuven and celebrated their much anticipated return by immediately torching the library and its contents yet again.
The library was again rebuilt after WW II - Belgians are like that - we are born with a brick in our stomachs; the Bob the Builder character was probably inspired on a Belgian construction worker.
You can admire the latest edition of the rebuilt library when you embark on a short walk from the Town Hall towards the “Ladeuzeplein”. Where, by the way, you're in for another surprise if you would just stop staring at that bl...y smartphone for just a minute and look up into the sky. Nothing in the quaint old town of Leuven really prepares you for the sight of that giant shiny green beetle impaled on a 75-feet high needle in front of the University Library. The sculpture was erected in 2004 to commemorate the 575 years of the venerable Catholic University of Leuven. I do hope that, when the insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics.
On Tripadvisor I read this review from a German after his visit to Leuven: "Eine der Hauptsehenswürdigkeiten von Leuven. Ein wunderbares Gebäude, das wir mit einer Gruppe besucht haben. Der Führer hatte einen Schlüssel, so dass wir auch die 3 Prunkräume besichtigen konnten"
In common English it goes something like this: "One of the main attractions of Leuven. A wonderful building that we visited with a group. The Führer had a key so that we could also visit the three state rooms". Isn't Internet a glorious invention for us history buffs? To discover in 2018 that Hitler actually had a key to the Leuven Town Hall when he visited Belgium! Amazing!
But I digressed yet again: back to the Town Hall. In May 1944, for two consecutive nights, the Allied “Bomb Command” under Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris tried to destroy the Leuven train station. Maybe the bomber-plane pilots had a few too many British Ale's to give them courage because on the night of 11-12th the results of their handiwork had not been quite satisfactory when they scattered their bombs several miles away from the train station with little damage to the rail infrastructure. So they came again the following night for a second helping!
And what a job they did! This time around they did indeed damage the rail infrastructure but also managed to completely destroy no less than 474 buildings in Leuven! Including a university building, three churches, two schools and a monastery. No less than 1300 buildings were severely damaged, including five university buildings, a church, four monasteries, eight factories and six public buildings. A thousand buildings were slightly damaged…well done chaps!
But by unbelievable luck or divine intervention, the Town Hall escaped virtually unscathed both bombing raids. Some of the statues were damaged when a bomb strike right in front of the building caused some minor damage. One of the bombs actually grazed the facade, decapitating some of the statues. It took until 1983 before repairs were completed.
But there it is, still standing proudly : the Leuven Town Hall!
Visiting Leuven and not visiting the Town Hall: not done! The Town Hall has an interesting guided tour every day www.visitleuven.be/en/town-hall