13 fun & interesting facts about Leuven

Text: Claire Lessiau& Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

1. The beautiful architecture of Leuven’s picturesque squares is not original…

In 1914, Leuven was burnt to the ground by the occupying German forces: they set fire to the historical city centre to retaliate against the Belgian resistance.

The whole city centre was rebuilt. Leuven’s Oude Markt and Groot Markt are amongst the most picturesque squares of town, reconstructed in a similar style as to prior to the fire. On the other hand, the local Champs Elysées, the former residential Bondgenotenlaan Street that runs from the train station to the city hall, showcases a more eclectic architecture today.

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As a reminder of the 1914 fire, home owners who rebuilt their houses after the war had to adorn it with a commemorative carved stone on the façade.

2. … Only a tobacco shop was spared by the Germans!

That shop was called “The American House,” and the Germans thought it was linked to the USA… To not tickle the powerful nation that had decided to remain neutral (and that entered WWI only in 1917), this house was spared by the 1914 arsons. In reality, it was just a tobacco shop of a lucky owner, who had absolutely nothing to do with the USA!

3. The emblematic façade of the city hall had been empty for most of its existence.

It is thanks to the famous French writer and great man Victor Hugo that 235 statues are now in the niches of the façade, a landmark of Leuven. After he visited the Belgian city, he wrote to the mayor to advise him to fill up the empty niches along the façade with statues to emphasize the verticality of the building, and more importantly to showcase the history of the new independent state of Belgium.

As a consequence, the mayor created his own wall of fame, and in 1847, heroes and Saints of Belgium started filling up the niches:

  • all the way up, the earls, dukes of burgundy, kings of Spain who ruled the region,
  • lower, the important people of the city such as mayors and guild leaders, and
  • at the ground level, important people of the second half of the 19th century.

4. There is one empty niche on the city hall!

There used to be 236 statues adorning the richly decorated façade of the city hall. Recently, the statue of King Léopold II was removed as an acknowledgement of the role Belgium had in the slave trade under his reign.

5. And of these now 235 statues remaining, guess how many are women?

There used to be 220 statues of men, and now as per the previous fact, there are 219 remaining, for only 16 statues of women!

6. The Big Bang theory was formulated in Leuven by Georges Lemaître

The Big Bang theory was formulated in 1931 at the University of Leuven by Georges Lemaître (1894-1966). Every other year, in the fall, excellently curated exhibitions take place during lively festivals, highlighting scientific discoveries, arts and religions in collaboration with the University of Leuven.

7. “Beer before wine and you’ll feel fine; wine before beer and you’ll feel queer”

This sentence translates similarly in other European languages such as Dutch and German, where beer has also been a popular drink. Actually, this is not really a piece of advice on how to avoid a hangover…

It is in fact a social statement! During the Middle Ages, water was unsafe to drink, and the affordable and safe drink for the masses was the local beer. Wealthier citizens could afford imported wine. Going from drinking beer to wine was considered a social uplift, while falling from the high society, ending up poor and drinking beer was frowned upon.

Where else could we have cracked this fun fact, other than in the student town of world’s most famous beer country?

8. The university building is a tribute to the USA to show well-deserved gratitude

The University Library of Leuven was ravaged by fires several times.

When the Germans burnt down the city centre in 1914 (see fact #1), the library was not spared and over 300,000 books were lost. The French pushed for international donations, and the USA replied. This international help allowed to reconstruct the library in its current location. Whitney Warren (1864-1943), the architect of Grand Central in New York City was in charge.

Many symbols adorn the rich façade of the university’s main building to thank the generous American benefactors: sculptures of the American eagle, names of prestigious US universities, and tributes to the World War with animals representing the different nations and the final win of Madonna over evil. At this time, in 1928, the USA were comprised of only 48 states, and the carillon of the university contained an unusual number of 48 bells purposedly (since then, the carillon has been upgraded and contains 63 bells today).

But in 1940, the Germans were back, and set the library on fire a second time during the Nazis blitz through Belgium. This time, over 900,000 books burned down…

After the war, the University Library was rebuilt using Warren’s drawings to show Belgian resilience. The beautiful reading rooms were opened in 1951, and today over 1.5 million books are in storage at the University Library of Leuven. Amongst these, some books that miraculously survived the arsons are displayed, as a tribute to the priceless loss of culture that occurred during the wars.

9. Female university education is barely a century old in Leuven…

At the end of the 19th century, competing university cities such as Brussels and Ghent in Belgium, or others in France and Switzerland started to accepted female students. Religious and conservative Leuven did not. Bits by bits, Leuven started losing too many students to other universities, and eventually had to open up.

In 1920, the first female housing for the university opened. The few female students were to obey a strict set of constraints, far from the careless daily life of their male counterparts. These young women had to stay in a female residence, they had to respect a curfew; they had to always be accompanied to classes, they had to always seat on the first row, separated from the male students by a row of nuns and a row of priests. Even when engaged they could see their boyfriend only once a month in the presence of a nun.

It only the 1960 sexual revolution that led to more freedom and young women students could then integrate and enjoy a social life…

10. Leuven is home to the headquarter of the largest beer producer in the world!

AB InBev stands for Anheuser-Busch InBev. It all started in Leuven with the “Den Hoorn” brewery, about 600 years ago. After several mergers within Belgium, and then with the Brazilian brewer AmBev, the beer giant acquired the US brand Anheuser-Busch, to form AB InBev.

In 2020, AB InBev had the largest beer market-share in the world, controlling almost a quarter of all the beer volume sold (more than twice the volume of its runner up, Heineken).

The worldwide headquarter of this beer giant is in Leuven, where the Stella Artois brewery still operates in its new plant, and where one can enjoy one of its beers in its historical De Hoorn brewery turned into a hip restaurant and bar.

11. 60,000 students, 100,000 inhabitants… not always smooth!

In the Oxford of Belgium counting 60,000 students side by side with 100,000 inhabitants, not everything goes smoothly all the time. Student parties, reckless bike driving, cultural differences amongst the 196 represented nationalities, and binge drinking are a few of the nuisances for locals. Two “studentflikken” or dedicated policemen are on duty during the school year to bridge the gap between inhabitants and students and smoothen things when needed.

12. The iconoc Fonske got kidnapped by…

These “studentenflikken” must have worked a very peculiar case…

One morning, a very special student disappeared! Nicknamed Fonske, this student was known by all, constantly holding a book and pouring liquid from a glass over his head. Some say he was pouring pure knowledge into his brain; many think the glass resembles a glass of beer… Anyway, Fonske‘s proper name is the Fons Sapientiae (for source of wisdom in Latin), and Fonske is an emblematic modern art bronze sculpture in the heart of town.

After a lot of research, Fonske eventually turned up in the neighbouring city of Louvain La Neuve! In 1972, Louvain La Neuve was created to host the French-speaking part of the university, following a fairly violent dispute over the teaching language in Leuven. Leuven stuck to Flemish, and a “friendly” rivalry has remained ever since, with a few pranks now and then.

13. Bonus fact: Remember the on-screen static between TV channels on an analogue TV? This is a residual radiation from the Big Bang!

In 1964 engineers at Bell Labs accidentally discovered this radiation which supported the Big Bang theory. Lemaître received this news, proof that his theory was right, on his death bed in Leuven.

Where else but in Leuven during its great biennale festival can one learn about this?

Travel tips:

  • Visit Leuven is also a great source of info to help prepare your trip.
  • To stay in style in the heart of Leuven, the Fourth Hotel is your best bet.
  • To explore the city by bike, you can rent bikes at Leuven Leisure.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more highlights of Leuven & Belgium, click on the images below:

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