COVID-SPECIAL – Travel local! – 17 August 2020

Not one art city is like the others. They all combine a rich history and a contemporary buzz, yet all in their own unique way. In Leuven, everyday life is intertwined with the university. Since many centuries, the art city near Brussels has been a mix of old and new, tradition and innovation, hometown of brewers, scientists and artists. Some will compare Leuven with the German university town of Heidelberg because it also has its campuses spread out all over. For beer lovers, Leuven is the home of Stella. And for me, it has become ”home” for more than half of my life.

I bet that Leuven will make you feel welcome, just as it did to me so many years ago!

Pieter Ghijsels a wheelchair user  himself, provided us with this COVID special. He works at VisitFlanders. His private travel website www.toegankelijkopreis.be  provides information in Dutch about accessible tourism in destinations all over the world.

Location

Leuven (Lovaina in Spanish, Löwen in German, Louvain in French) is situated 20 km to the east of Brussels, along the E40 highway. A train journey from Leuven to Brussels South Station takes just half an hour.

Tour Operator/Free Information

The walking map and brochure are available in English and in Dutch. Download from the Visit Leuven website or ask for a printed copy at the visitors’ centre.

For more information and tips, contact the VisitFlanders accessible tourism team:

VisitFlanders
Grasmarkt 61
1000 Brussel
+32 2 504 03 40
accessible@visitflanders.com
www.visitflanders.com/accessibility

The main thing that made me decide to stay after graduating was the friendly, open mind that vibrates in its streets and shops. And still, every day when going to work or buying some groceries, I pass so many historical buildings and remarkable places that I easily feel charmed as on my first day. Imagine how proud I felt when “my hometown” decided to issue a dedicated publication that specifically welcomes visitors with accessibility requirements.

For this, Leuven has taken important steps to appeal to visitors with disabilities. Touristic highlightspublic spaces and services were screened, adapted where possible, and connected to walking loops. The result is a booklet with hands-on accessibility information for visitors with disabilities and a walking map that lets you enjoy the charms of Leuven without worrying about obstacles. Because, indeed, like many historic places in this part of the world, Leuven has its share of bumpy cobblestones and steep hills.

VisitFlanders, the tourism administration for the northern region of Belgium, had already assisted and supported Bruges and Mechelen for similar projects. Now it was Leuven’s turn. I’ve been working many years for VisitFlanders already, but this was the first time that I could follow the production of such a publication from the first row.

First, the city’s tourism body identified the main highlights that domestic and international visitors enjoy. This was a remarkable choice, because many would be tempted to ignore the touristic value at the beginning and rather go for easier, yet less interesting tours. Leuven made it clear that they want their visitors with accessibility needs to enjoy the same assets that everybody visits. This laid the groundwork for the rest of the project.

Many important museumshotels and landmarks had already been thoroughly audited by an independent accessibility agency, called Inter. That allowed, for now, to concentrate on the routes between these highlights and the restaurants, bars and public facilities along the way. The routes were repeatedly tested, both by a specialised architect and by people with disabilities. Together, they wrote an itinerary from the visitor’s perspective. After some final amendments by the city’s services, two walking loops were ready, plus a few spots that are worth the detour when you stay a bit longer. For public toilets, bars and cafés, we concentrated on those along the routes.

The map and booklet are available in English and in Dutch, both digital and in print. They show you the way along the city’s highlights while avoiding the worst stretches of cobblestones and thresholds. In a no-nonsense style, any remaining difficulties are indicated, with some possible alternatives or bypasses. As the routes are connected, visitors can choose any walking distance between 1 and 5 km.

The booklet has information about everything you encounter on your way. While reading some amazing stories from Leuven’s rich history and folklore, keep an eye out for some exceptional views. To enhance your experience, or to receive more explanation in your mother tongue, be sure to arrange a guided tour (contact details are in the brochure).

Food

Afterwards, there’s plenty of choice to enjoy some good food and drinks in one of the excellent, accessible bars and restaurants in town. No need to worry about finding an accessible toilet during your visit, either. With a clear system of ‘thumbs up or down’ for important elements, the booklet tells you exactly what you need to know. People who need a changing table find a suitable public toilet adjacent to the main square in the subterranean bicycle parking lot.

Activities

If you have an extra afternoon to spare, the brochure has some extra gems for you. You’ll be surprised by the many different faces of Leuven: roam into the peaceful botanical garden with several hidden coins or explore the canal zone that is in full metamorphosis to a vivid new artistic and innovative area. Or take a peek into the beguinage, an ancient village within the town. The place where religious women used to live away from the hustle and bustle is still an oasis of tranquillity and a real-life time travelling machine (wheelchair users, be sure to bring an extra cushion for the cobblestones). If you are a bit adventurous a cycle tour might be your pick.