Antwerp to Leuven is a pleasant 60km route taking you along the railway between Antwerp and Mechelen and then along a canal the rest of the way to Leuven. The result of being such a direct ride is the lack of sites and anecdotes to build a post around. However, that did not make the ride unenjoyable. It just means that for most of 60km, my brain and body were in cruise control. This ride did not have the characteristics of my usual beer & bike rides and was more about getting to the beautiful city of Leuven. Here are the route specifics from the GPS Tracks app.
This could have been more of a beer & bike ride had I chosen to stop halfway on the journey at one of my favorite breweries in all of Belgium, Het Anker, brewers of the Gouden Carolus line of beers. However, Het Anker is deserving of a full pilgrimage and not a quick stop. They are located in Mechelen and a stop there would have taken the steam out of my momentum, so I carried onwards to Leuven.
The Canal & Fietscafe
The second half of the journey along the Leuven-Dijle canal was the most scenic. This is one of the oldest canals in Belgium, approved for construction by Habsburg Empress Maria-Theresa (mother of Marie Antoinette) and started in 1750 in order to open up Leuven to shipping. On this nice Saturday afternoon, cyclists of all levels were cruising up and down its lengths and it seemed only ducks, geese, and swans had any use for the canal’s waters, except for a few scattered fishermen sitting along the banks.
As I zipped along the canal wondering what beers awaited me in Leuven, the light-headedness of hunger started to set in and I regretted my decision to not pack a candy bar or something. And this allows me to point out something else amazing about Belgium. It is a cycling country and the infrastructure is built up around its cycling culture. One of the unique cuisine options in Belgium is the fietscafe. Signs along most bike routes will indicate the direction of the nearest one. Some may be a few hundred meters off the route, but many are found immediately next to the popular bike routes. At a fietscafe will be groups of cyclists sitting around in their colorful attire sipping Chaudfontaine, sparkling Lipton ice tea, or for the gutsy diehards, a cold, foamy, delicious Belgian blond or tripel beer. In this way, fietscafes are both a blessing and a curse. They offer a convenient place to take a break and socialize with other people doing the same activity, but they are beer pubs at their heart and soul, and the last thing your legs need when there are several kilometers to go is a 9% alcohol beverage swimming around your blood stream. But I love them. To me they are part of the Belgian character and they typically offer a surprising selection of beers so I’ve found myself many times untapping a new beer at a fietscafe. The food is not so fancy, but on an empty stomach revved up by exercise, a simple Uitsmijter is like Heaven. One such fietscafe was along the canal right at one of the several locks – Cafe Maritime. Since I was headed to Leuven, I was quite ecstatic to find a new beer to try called Leuvense Tripel brewed by Brouwerij Van Steenberge.
After a sandwich and the tripel, I set off buzzing from the 9%. Thankfully it was only more canal that lay in front of me and not the Ardennes. So I re-established my pace and about 30 minutes later, the familiar feel of cobblestone beneath my bike tires indicated I had reached the city center, and I found myself in front of this:
Stadhuis & Flower Carpet
One of my favorite events in traveling are the serendipitous experiences like this. I had no idea beforehand that Leuven had a flower carpet of begonias on display. And what better place for it than in front of my favorite city hall in all of Belgium. Sorry, Brussels.
But on to business. My first pilgrimage was to the Domus microbrewery, which is just around the corner from the city hall. Domus is clearly modeled after a German-style beer restaurant rather than a Belgian, which is unique in Belgium actually, and it’s beer fits that classification as well. The Con Domus is a German style pilsner but actually tastes closer to an American pilsner. The Nostra Domus is listed as an American Red Ale (whatever that is), but I think it not far removed from a German amber lager. The Seizoensbier, a saison or farmhouse ale, was the only Belgian style in the mix.
After 3x25cl sampling of Domus, it was off to take a break in what is the finest Begijnhof that I have seen in Belgium. Every time I visit Leuven, this is always a place I must visit. Begijnhofs were semi-religious communities of unmarried women which started popping up in the 13th century, including the one in Leuven.
The buildings as they appear today are in the appearance of their 17th century construction but renovated starting in the 1960’s. Currently the Begijnhof is owned by Leuven University and used for housing of students and guests.
There is a Charles V link, which seems to be a regular occurrence with my posts lately. The only Dutchman ever to be pope, Pope Adrian VI, was a priest at this begijnhof and tutored Charles V when he was a child. Regarding drink experiences, out of the entire day, perhaps my favorite drink was a lemonade from two girls living in one of the quaint homes. The 1 euro charge seemed a fair price for happy faces. Free apple pieces as well.
Oude Markt & The Capital
Back to the city center for another beer pilgrimage. I was heading for the beer collection of all beer collections, but first passing through the Oude Markt which is nicknamed the Longest Bar in the World as it is lined with several pubs and beer cafes.
After you get past the Oude Markt towards the Grote Markt, there sits a very unassuming beer pub, nothing remarkable from the outside, 4 or 5 small tables and inside is long and narrow. The name is a bit unBelgian, The Capital. However, it claims to have the largest beer selection in the world. The sign says 2000 and it is hard to argue with that. I chose a blond beer from the taps called Luvanium Blond and was told by the bartender it was a Leuven beer. When I pressed him for information, I realized I was wasting my time. The beer is not made in Leuven but just outside Mechelen. Based on Google maps, I came within about 100m from it on my way to Leuven (albeit across the canal).
In terms of beer, Leuven is best known for being the home of InBev and Stella Artois. Of course, I am not going out of my way to have a common pilsner beer like Stella while I am on my Beer & Bike adventures, but the brewery is hard to miss as you come into the city center either by train, bike, or car. But there is no other beer that seemed to fit perfectly with the flower carpet in the background. Two icons of the city, Stella and the city hall, and a beautiful arrangement of begonias.