Cities & towns

Cycle to Leuven’s four abbeys

A 14 km cycle ride that passes Leuven’s four abbeys – with a couple of delightful taverns on the way for a lunch stop.

Recently I introduced you to the Park Abbey in Heverlee, Leuven. I mentioned that Leuven is blessed with no fewer than four abbeys – and that I would soon be describing a cycle route to connect all four of them. Here it is. The map is shown below, which you can download as a PDF here. The GPX route is available from my RouteYou page. It’s a 14 km route. I’ve tried to avoid main roads as much as possible.

This particular route starts and ends at Leuven railway station. This is ideal if you are travelling to Leuven by train. You could hire a bike from Blue Bike Leuven if you are not bringing your own bike. You could however easily start and end it from one of three abbeys on the route: the Keizersberg Abbey (2), the Vlierbeek Abbey (3) or the Park Abbey (4). At each of them there is car parking if you are bringing your bike by car.

St Gertrude’s Abbey

This abbey – the first of Leuven’s four abbeys on our cycle ride – is reached by crossing a bridge over the River Dijle which runs through the centre of Leuven. It’s located in the heart of Leuven’s Small Beguinage (Klein Begijnhof), which was constructed between the 14th and 17th centuries. The Beguinage was restored in the late 1970s and repurposed as a residential complex. The former chapel is home to a scouting museum. The Abbey itself dates back to the 15th century and was a shining example of Brabant Gothic architecture. Get off your bike and enjoy wandering around the inner courtyard, which is an oasis of peace. I’m sure the ancient trees in the courtyard have some stories to tell!

The KEIZERSBERG ABBEY

At the end of the 19th century, some Benedictine monks from the famous Maredsous Abbey in Wallonia came up to Leuven to establish the majestic Romanesque Revival Keizersberg Abbey. A long wall encloses the building and the surrounding land, but you can lock up your bike or wheel it around with you to visit the publicly accessible park. Try and find the giant statue of Mary on the southern side. It was carved by a local sculptor in 1906. From here you get some outstanding views over the city. The Keizersberg is the name of the hill. Local legend connected it with Julius Caesar. A castle used to sit proudly on the hilltop, but was demolished in 1782 by order of Emperor Joseph II. The abbey is still inhabited, primarily by university students.

Once more local resident and amateur photographer Marijke has come up with some delightful photos of this abbey and its grounds.

VLIERBEEK ABBEY

Do you remember reading about the wonderfully monikered Duke of Brabant, Godfrey I the Bearded, in the history of the Park Abbey? He played a role in the creation of Vlierbeek Abbey too. In 1125 he designated land to be used to create a church and monastery. By 1163 the abbey was up and running, and flourished in religious and political importance. As was the case with the nearby Park Abbey, in the 16th century it was destroyed by soldiers of William of Orange. It wasn’t until 1642 that work on a new abbey began. Thanks again to Marijke who went out specially to take some photos of Vlierbeek Abbey for Discovering Belgium:

Vlierbeek Abbey ©Marijke Vaernewyck
©Marijke Vaernewyck

The Tragedy of Vlierbeek

A notable date is 1728 when the “tragedy of Vlierbeek” happened. The Abbot of Vlierbeek, Petrus Paradaens, publicly supported and even sheltered Jansenists. Jansenism was a distinct movement away from the Catholic Church. The Abbot’s actions were not appreciated by the Bishop of Antwerp, Karel d’Espinosa. The Bishop arrived in Vlierbeek with a military escort on 7 July 1728 at 6.30 a.m. and arrested Abbot Paradaens. The Abbot was taken to Gembloux Abbey where he was virtually imprisoned. On 30 August, Paradaens was taken seriously ill (poisoning was suspected but never proved). On 18 September he died and was due to suffer the public humiliation of being buried in unconsecrated ground. To avoid this, some sympathetic monks managed to disguise the corpse as a monk, sit it upright in a carriage, and drive it to Vlierbeek. Here the Abbot was buried in holy ground but in an unmarked grave. Despite various searches over the years, the remains of Abbot Paradaens have never been discovered.

If you’re ready for some kind of refreshment by now, just inside the main gate of Vlierbeek Abbey is the In Den Rozenkrans tavern.

In Den Rozenhoek tavern ©Marijke Vaernewyck
Vlierbeek Abbey in the evening sunshine ©Marijke Vaernewyck
Vlierbeek Abbey grounds ©Marijke Vaernewyck

PARK ABBEY

This is the fourth and last stop on this cycling tour of Leuven’s four abbeys. I’ve already covered the history of the Park Abbey here. You might like to lock up your bike in the racks by the car park and walk around the lake. It will take about an hour. The Abdijmolen Brasserie might be a good place for lunch too.

Park Abbey Heverlee (this one’s my photo!)

So there you are. A pleasant 14 km cycle ride around Leuven’s four abbeys. If you take your time to look around each of them you could make a day of it. And I can recommend the two cafés I mentioned. Let me know how you get on. Any questions on this route, just drop me a line or send me a message:

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Categories: Cities & towns, Cycling, Flemish Brabant

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14 replies »

  1. Yes, so much history but of course Henry 8th destroyed so many in the UK. You keep reminding me to visit Belgium again, Denzil, so close by now but such strange times but thanks to you we can see such interesting places and history. We just recently did some research on my husbands Belgium grandmother and great grandmother. It looks like a marriage may not have been approved and the couple ended up in London! A De Bequer married a Vogelaire? Hope all well with you and yours/

      • Oh interesting. All we know is the de Bequer parents didn’t approve and she seemed to be pregnant before marriage. They got married in Molenbeek, Brussels? I love the social history and there was movement of people.

      • I thought I had replied, connection playing up. We know the De Bequer family disapproved and the great grandmother was pregnant with Trevor’s grandmother before marriage. They got
        married in Molenbeek, Brussels. T’s grandmother was sent to Belgium for her education. They all lived in East London and Essex. I find the social history fascinating and will look up Walloons too.

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