Saturday, 24 October 2015

Leuven Old Town Running Route

Click here for route map
Length 5.6 km (3.5 miles), terrain: fairly flat, gain 30 meters

Leuven, Belgium, ("Louvain" in French) is one of the most beautiful towns you'll ever visit: the old town is full of architectural treasures, starting with the breathtaking gothic town hall on the Grote Markt ("Great Market"), lined by beautiful guild-houses and Sint-Pieters church. There are many other beautiful squares, a little river and some canals, a few tiny parks to add a splash of green.
The Leuven town hall on Grote Markt
And then there are those other gems found only in the lowlands: the Begijnhof ("Beguinage") neighborhoods with their tranquil lanes and picturesque little homes. A Begijnhof was a medieval institution where single women could live together in a walled-in compound surrounding a green courtyard around a church. The community had a strongly religious atmosphere, but the women were free to work at jobs in town, as long as they were back home before the gates were closed in the evenings. Most of the Begijnhofs were still used as such until a generation ago, but most have now been rented out to the general public, and -- for some -- the walls have been removed.
Groot Begijnhof in Leuven
Leuven has two of these uniquely quiet places, the Klein (little) Begijnhof and the Groot (large) Begijnhof, and this running route will visit both. The little one, at the north end of town, no longer has walls, and has been rented out to the public. The large one has been painstakingly renovated by the university and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Center. It is used as housing for students (those lucky students!) and for visiting professors.

Speaking of the university, the Catholic University of Leuven is huge, and the town definitely has the feeling of being a college town, with all the lively street-life and drunken revelry that it implies.
Grote Markt
So, if you're ready to explore beautiful Leuven, get yourself to the start, at the Grote Markt. This old square has been here for at least 600 years. Take a look around you first: the town hall, Sint-Pieters church, the guild-houses. In one house at the west end of the market is The Capital, a beer bar with 20 kinds of great Belgian beers on tap, and a whole cellar full of thousands of rare beers.

Now, turn to the west and run out along Brusselsestraat for two blocks until you come to the little Dijle River. Turn right and run northwards along the S-curve of the river (you can run along either bank).
Along the Dijle
After passing the little Dijleterrassen park, continue a few steps along Brouwersstraat and then take the little footbridge to the right to the modern apartment building across the river. Follow the tree-lined path along the riverside.
House on Mechelsestraat
You'll come to Mechelsestraat, where you turn left and run past some nice old medieval houses.

At the end of the first block, turn right and you'll be right in the Klein Begijnhof, facing Sint-Geertrui church.
Klein Begijnhof
Now turn left onto Klein Begijnhof street and run past the little row-houses, circling the block clockwise. After passing the 2-kilometer mark, you'll return to the church by running along Sluisstraat along the Dijle. That was indeed a little Begijnhof.
Sint-Geertrui churchyard in autumn colors
Back at the front door of Sint Geertrui, head south through the gate into the quiet little churchyard, exiting at the little footbridge over the Dijle again.

Keep heading south along Karel van Lotharingenstraat, and after a block it leads into the Vismarkt ("Fish Market").
The fish market
Exit the square at the south end, heading southeast along Mechelsestraat along a pedestrian street with old houses and some interesting second-hand shops.

This will bring you back to the front doors of Sint-Pieters church again, where you turn south and exit the Grote Markt along Kortestraat, taking you right into the next square, Oude Markt ("Old Market"). This lively square is lined by beautiful houses that have almost all been turned into student pubs and clubs. The square is known as "the longest bar in Europe", and is full of students every evening. Now, that's a lifestyle that I can get excited about...
The Oude Markt living up to its reputation
Run south through most of the square, until you come to the main university hall, then turn left onto Krakenstraat ("Crash Street").

Run east until you come into a quiet little square called Hogeschoolplein. On the right is a great student pub called Dewerf. But we'll ignore the charms of Chouffe beer and cross the square, then turn left, passing the courtyard of Paus College. There are a lot of university colleges like this spread out over the old town.
Hogeschoolplein with Dewar patrons enjoying the good life
Exit the square at the north end, running a short block to Muntstraat, where you turn right and run east along this beautiful, narrow pedestrian lane lined with restaurants.
Muntstraat
After a block, the lane runs into Tiensestraat, passing the old courtyard of De Valk College on the left that houses the law school. The street is full of students heading from one college to another. It is hard to imagine that in the late 1960s there were street battles going on here where the Dutch-speaking students were trying to get the French-dominated university to let them have their own university. The Dutch side won, and the French-speakers moved out and formed their own university, Louvain-la-neuve, southwest of Leuven.

Continue eastwards until you come to a big, park-like square that opens to your left side, Herbert Hooverplein. Off to the left, you'll see the university library, with its huge tower. The library, with its priceless medieval manuscripts, was bombed out in World War I. Then people donated replacements for many of the lost books, but then the library was destroyed by fire again in World War II. The library collection was restored again, but then, when the university split into two parts, the collection was split up again.
Herbert Hooverplein and the library
Turn left to run to the library and take a look, then head back to the south end of Herbert Hooverplein, to head through the stone archway into the narrow Sint Donatuspark ahead.

A long walkway takes you to a wider part of the park with a little pond and an old stone tower from the old city walls. Run past the tower, keeping to the right, then run towards the old wooden bandstand. Exit the park through the gate to the right of the bandstand.
Sint-Donatus park, keep to the right, past the stone tower
Now run through the following university courtyard and you'll come out to busy Naamsestraat. You'll face Van Dale College across the street.

Now either run through the beautiful college courtyard, exiting in the back, or first run to the left side of the college, along Naamsestraat, then take the path beside the college buildings, running through a small parking lot.

You'll now be in a little green park, heading straight downhill to the street below, Schapenstraat.

On Schapenstraat, turn right then left again after a few steps onto Regingenstraat.
Begijnhof house
You'll now cross two arms of the Dijle again, and turn left to continue following Regingenstraat along the river, until you come to the first bridge to the left, at Zwartzustersstraat. You have reached the Groot Begijnhof! Turn right at the first chance and run past the Begijnhof houses that line the river, getting a first glimpse of this world cultural treasure.

The brick houses and the cobblestone lanes exude a peacefulness that immediately make you want to stay a while. If you haven't gotten the feeling already, by now you'll be wondering where you can sign up to become a student asap!
Begijnhof across the river
Run south until the street ends, then turn right to run over the little footbridge into the part of the Begijnhof across the river. Loop through this small neighborhood, then return to the same spot again, east of the bridge.
Begijnhof at the bridge
Now, when you come to the Begijnhof church, Sint-Jan, turn left and run north through more of the neighborhood.
Double pumps at a Begijnhof well
At the north end of the Begijnhof, there is a little park where you exit and come back to Schapenstraat, towards the right.
Statue in a niche
Now turn left onto Schapenstraat and head north again. You basically just have to follow the street the whole way back.
Parijsstraat in early morning
The street name changes to Parijsstraat, which becomes a pedestrian street (meaning full of bicycling students) for the last few blocks before coming back to Brusselsestraat, where you turn left and run the last few steps back to the start at Grote Markt.

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