30km away from Brussels the traveller finds a unique "project" in Belgium: the University-city of Louvain-la-Neuve, or New Leuven; new, but completely independent from its Flemish parallel. How did this happen?
To answer this question, we need to go back all the way to the 60s. Leuven, the city with the most ancient University in Belgium, had been reached by the Belgian "language debate". Leuven is sitting at the Flemish area, so in theory, they had the right to teach only in that language. However, on the one hand, the French-speaking professors refused to do that, but on the other hand, they did not want to lose their position in such a good University. Thus, they came up with the perfect solution: they would open a new branch of the Leuven University on a French-speaking soil, in Wallonie. It would be called Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL). A new exciting idea came along; what if they also built a whole new city around this university? At this point, the expectations were high; no new city had been founded in Belgium since the 17th century. The King himself came to place the first stone.
They found the perfect spot next to Ottignies. They baptized it "Louvain-la-Neuve", as a tribute to their roots. Since the University was being built for the first time and from the beginning, they had the opportunity to create something unique. Louvain-la-Neuve is not like any other city. It is a sort of a "student microcosmos". When you enter it by train from Brussels, you walk right into the pedestrian area: there are no cars to be seen. Streets have stone pavements and everything is within walking distance. There are small parks here and there, and a beautiful lake just outside the city. All the faculties can be found in the centre.
What strikes the visitor the most is Louvain-la-Neuve’s population. You almost never see any kids or elderly people: they are all students! The whole city is made for them, so they have all the faculties in the centre. From Monday to Friday it is always busy. Classes can last until 5 or 6 pm, so you see them around the city center eating a sandwich, a cone of delicious French fries or a waffle from Gofidor on their way to the next class. After that, if by very good luck it is not raining (it’s Belgium!), they go to hang out at the lake. Everybody owns a small BBQ set and you see boxes of 24 cans of beer everywhere (yes, beer is pretty much the only thing you can drink there). You can always follow the party at the Cercles, which are bars run by students. But don’t get too comfy there: UCL knows that you must go to classes the next morning, so they will have everything closed by 3 am. Every day passes basically like this, until Friday afternoon when the trains collapse: everybody goes home for the weekend, so Louvain-la-Neuve looks like a ghost town for two days.
The project for the new University was a total success. The UCL is between the 150 top universities in the world, and students can find there their perfect microcosmos to develop their careers. It's a city with a unique student ambiance, full of good ideals and people living together in Kot-à-Projet, theme houses, in which students with the same likings are grouped.
Louvain-la-Neuve is the perfect cocoon to nurse you while studying and before you enter the savage real world. And it certainly leaves a print on everyone that has ever lived there. As the hymn of the city goes…
Louvain-la-Neuve, you never sleep during the night. You make me sing non-stop. We party all year long, sometimes we cry in June but never, we will never forget you.
Cover picture © Credits to iStock/ Stéphane Gallay
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