Celebrating Christmas With Strangers In Leuven

Cobblestone streets

Waffles, beer, and Tintin come to mind when one pictures Belgium. After spending a few days in Luxembourg–to be honest, the place itself wasn’t so interesting, although I had awesome hosts–I decided to see for myself what Belgium had to offer. My first stop was Leuven, a mid-sized university town not too far from sprawling Brussels.

Sint Gertrudisabdij

In Leuven I couchsurfed with Martial, a Cameroonian earning his MBA at the Catholic university here. I arrived late in the afternoon from Luxembourg and noticed that the entire city center was more or less deserted; I should have known better than to expect anything to be open on Christmas day. My first challenge was to contact Martial, so I set off down what appeared to be a major road, looking for a cafe, restaurant, bar–anything with wifi. After being rebuffed three or four times by surly hostesses (who could blame them for not being in a good mood when everyone else had the day off?) I found a sushi restaurant with signal, and soon after met Martial.

Xmas Spread

He told me that we were going to share dinner with some fellow students, and I will admit I was more excited to meet other students than for whatever food we were going to eat. What a pleasant surprise it turned out to be that the food was as diverse and delightful as the company itself! Martial introduced me to Alisa from Ukraine, Nicoletta and Marius from Romania, Kristi from Holland, and Comyn from Poland. Each one of them prepared some type of food from home: we stuffed ourselves with Polish borscht, Ukrainian potato dumplings, and Cameroonian fish stew.

Discussion over dinner

For several hours we talked about politics, sports, culture, feminism, travel, and food–the greatest of all unifying forces. Unlike in the USA, where Christmas break is a time for university students to relax and recharge the batteries before the next round of classes begins after January 1st, my newfound friends had essays and exams to study for in the coming week. Sometime shortly after midnight Martial and I went home, bidding adieu and wishing them luck with their studies.

Flowers and spokes

The next morning I walked into the city center and found a cafe to read in; I’ve been reading an incredibly entertaining–and highly regarded–book about Spanish cheese that has proven to be too tempting to not open at every possible moment.

After a couple hours I decided to stretch my legs and take in some culture, so I put away my book and walked into one of two major squares in Leuven. Along the way I passed over a small river and saw boats moored in the water. That made me think of some of the best rowing machines, which I would occasionally use in the gym back home, for some strange reason.

Leuven Town Hall

Anyways, I finally made it to the central square of the town. Stacked like a wedding cake and covered from top to bottom in orderly rows of lacy Gothic sculpture, the Leuven Town Hall is a 15th century masterpiece of civic architecture. Every inch of the facade is covered with figures from the Bible, patron saints, and local nobility.

Nave and Pulpit, St Pieterskerk

On the other side of the square is Sint Pieterskerk, the parochial church of Leuven. Unfortunately the entire choir area was cut off for renovation so I stuck to walking around the nave; there were some beautiful Flemish altarpieces, including a piece supposedly done by one of Rogier van der Weyden’s pupils.

My First Belgian Waffle

As ever with me, I became hungry after walking around the church and looking at art. So I exited the square in search of a good Belgian waffle. I followed my nose and didn’t have to go very far to find one; for 2 Euro I bought my first Belgian waffle with a burnt caramel syrup. Whether or not the syrup was actually supposed to taste slightly burnt on purpose is a moot point; it combined perfectly with the crunchy, chewy waffle. Like any self-respecting waffle, this one contained a scattered array of sugar pearls, and each time I bit into one it burst with small saccharine pop.

Cool Art in Leuven Museum

Sated and feeling only slightly lethargic post-sugar high, I walked a few blocks down to Museum Leuven. For a city of roughly 100,000 inhabitants, the museum has a pretty respectable collection. There was a decent array of Gothic painted wood sculpture–not a surprise when you consider how influential the city was during the Middle Ages–but an excellent contemporary exhibition by Aleksandra Mir was both insightful and tongue in cheek. One eye-catching gallery was hung with collages featuring space-age objects such as rockets and satellites juxtaposed with Christian religious icons.

Anno 1691

It was getting late and I wanted to get a beer before bed, the sweet nectar produced by countless Belgian abbeys for almost a thousand years. On the recommendation of one of my Christmas dinner friends I checked out The Capital, a beerhouse on the same square as the Town Hall that claims to have the largest beer selection in the world. Though I wish I could have tried them all, I settled for a pint of St. Gummarus Dubbel, a belly-filling brew that “Pours dark copper with a beige head. Aroma is roasted caramel, fruity yeast and light nuts. Flavour is roasted caramel, fruity yeast, nuts, light pine and light metallic.” To say it was good would be an understatement; it was delicious and hearty and went down like a slice of wholesome bread. The beer was the knockout punch on a great day of exploring Leuven, and when I made it back to Martial’s apartment sleep came quickly and easily.

 

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