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the accessibility team at work in Leuven

An ode to Leuven by one of its long time residents: Pieter Ghijsels, Accessibility Manager of the tourism board Visit Flanders. Peter tells us about his relationship with this charming historical city and the research and access evaluations which led to the publication of the brand new accessibility guide of the city.

Photo on the left: the accessibility team that created and “tested” the accessible itineraries in Leuven.

In Leuven, everyday life is intertwined with the university, that has its campuses spread out all over the town. Beer lovers know it as the home of Stella. 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. And it’s what I call ”home” already for more than half of my life.

It was the friendly, open mind that vibrates in its streets and shops that made me initially decide to stay and live in Leuven after graduating. And still, every day on my way to work or when I’m going out for shopping, 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 actively welcome disabled visitors with a dedicated publication.

Following the example of Bruges and Mechelen, Leuven has taken important steps to appeal to visitors with disabilities. Public spaces, buildings and services and touristic highlights were screened, adapted where possible, and connected to each other. Now, the result is ready: a booklet with hands-on accessibility information for visitors with disabilities and a walking map that allows you to enjoy the charms of Leuven without worrying about obstacles. Because, yes, as so many historic places in this part of the world, Leuven also has its share of bumpy cobblestones and steep hills.

Although I’ve been working already many years for Visit Flanders, the tourism administration for the northern region of Belgium, this was the first time that I could follow the production of such a publication from the first row, because Visit Flanders assisted and supported the city in this project.

First, Visit Leuven identified the main highlights that domestic and international visitors enjoy. That was an important first step: Leuven wants their visitors with a disability to enjoy the same assets that everybody visits. Many important museums, hotels and landmarks had already been thoroughly audited by an independent accessibility agency, called Inter. That allowed the authors, 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, marking points of attention 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. The map leads you along the city’s highlights while avoiding the worst stretches of cobblestones and thresholds. Any remaining difficulties are well indicated, as well as a possible alternatives or bypasses. You can choose any walking distance between 1 and 5 km.

The booklet has information about everything you encounter on your way. You will discover some great stories from Leuven’s rich history and folklore, and 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).

After your walk, be sure to enjoy some good food and drinks in one of the excellent, accessible bars and restaurants in town. There’s no need to worry about finding an accessible toilet during your visit, either. The booklet has this all covered, with a clear system of ‘thumbs up or down’ for important elements. People who need a changing table find a suitable public toilet adjacent to the main square.

A few extra hidden gems, away from the beaten track are also included for those who have an extra afternoon to spare. You’ll be surprised by the many different faces of Leuven, whether you prefer to roam into peaceful botanical garden with several hidden coins or explore the canal zone that is in full metamorphosis to a vivid new artistic and innovative quarter. Or take a peek into the beguinage, a historic 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 (best bring an extra cushion for the cobblestones, there).

Leuven will make you feel welcome, just as the town did to me so many years ago!

Practical info

Leuven is situated 20 km to the east of Brussels, along the E40 highway. If you take the Eurostar from London you can be in Leuven in 2.5 hours.

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

For more information and tips, contact the Visit Flanders office

Visit Flanders
Grasmarkt 61
1000 Brussel
accessible (at) visitflanders.com
DOWNLOAD THE GUIDE AND MAP

A big thank you to Pieter for this article about mapping and narrating accessible itineraries in Leuven! The beautiful photos appear courtesy of Visit Flanders, you can find more images here.

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