Leuven to Tervuren

a whiff of colonialism on a sunny day

Saturday the 13th of June was a wonderful day, at least as far as the weather was concerned. I had recently bought a new mid-range touring bike, and so it was a good day to try it out a little over a relatively short distance, but longer than the typical shopping commute.

GPS data of photos I took

GPS data of photos I took

A little to the east of Brussels lies Tervuren, which, along with its adjacent towns and villages, was and to an extent is typified as the retreat of a (French-speaking) bourgeoisie and nobility next to the bustling capital. Tervuren has a very nice and large public park with an abundance of ponds, the remnants of a hunting grounds of the dukes of Brabant in the 12th century, and has been used by nobility and royalty for centuries, up until the later 19th century, when Leopold II constructed a “Colonial Palace” on the ruins of the old royal pavillion built by a Dutch prince before the Belgian revolution.

This “colonial palace” in Tervuren was built as an extension of the Brussels 1897 international expo. Leopold II was keen on the construction business, so keen in fact he was long known as the “Builder-King”. Well, it’s easy to find funds for renovation projects when you have the resources and inhabitants of a huge swath of land in middle Africa to mercilessly exploit in the most horrific ways as your private property to fill your personal coffers, I suppose. In any case, this part of the exposition proved quite popular, and so it became a permanent colonial museum one year later in 1898. The original museum got cramped, calling for more construction funded by the colony. The new museum would be inaugurated under Albert I in 1910, when Congo had already ceased to be the king’s private property and instead became a colony of the Belgian state. These days the museum is called the AfricaMuseum.

Leopold II, colonialism and its atrocities are of course a hot topic right now in Belgium[1], in an international wave of longstanding but only now really broadly considered criticism of colonial pasts and their relations on modern anti-racism efforts. Leopold II statues and reminders of the Congolese colony have long been controversial, with a statue of a mounted Leopold II only being removed quite recently from the Tervuren museum’s premises, but many remain in place to date.

So this was one of the destinations that crossed my mind when I was coming up with a nice 1-2 hour cycle trip.


Let’s start from Leuven with a couple of generic city centre sights, shall we?

The two iconic buildings on the Grote Markt are the extremely gothic old town hall, and the newly renovated St. Peter’s church. Both the town hall and the church lack towers, because at the time of construction, the swampy soil prevented such ambitions. Consider the gothic extravaganza as a way to compensate.

Two churches on the Naamsestraat on the way.

The Great Beguinage

A beguinage is similar to a convent, except that the women it houses aren’t nuns but beguines, who are lay sisters. In the south of the city centre of Leuven, there is a historical quarter which is a wonderfully preserved former beguinage, now property (like so many sites) of the university KULeuven, which uses it as a housing campus for (a select few) students and internationally visiting scholars. Other than its housing function, it’s also a favoured nice and quiet date spot.

Arenberg campus & castle park

Leaving the city centre from the beguinage, you find yourself at the edge of the Arenberg campus and castle park in Heverlee, named after the noble family the House of Arenberg, an important one in Belgium and other European countries, who inherited the domain and others in the 16th century from the original noble overlords of Heverlee, the De Croy family.

Just like the great beguinage, this too is a university campus belonging to KULeuven[2]. Here you will find much STEM research, as well as sports grounds. If you would like to go for a kayak ride on the Dyle river, there is a kayaking starting point here. Not the most exciting of waterways, perhaps.

Bertem – Leefdaal

Between Leuven and Tervuren and its boroughs (like Vossem) lies Bertem. I didn’t take a whole lot of photos here, but the Leefdaal castle in the Leefdaal borough should be worthy enough.


Before Tervuren proper is the borough of Vossem[3]. See if you find anything unusual in this nice small town terrace café setting.

Tervuren is connected to Brussels by a tramway. I’ve always liked the Tervuren tram station, surrounded by trees.

Park of Tervuren

The park of Tervuren is 207 hectares in size and encompasses a load of ponds, shrubs, lawns, a little restauration, even some valuable ecology where the birches are concerned. At the edge of it is the AfricaMuseum, with the old Colonial Museum building and the Colonial Palace pavillion adjacent to the new museum building. A lot of scientific research is conducted here.

As I mentioned in the introduction, there used to be a statue of a triumphant mounted Leopold II on these premises, which has been removed a couple of years ago. In the park, however, is still a bust of Leopold II, under three Congolese warriors and flanked by a lion and an elephant with a peacock on rear guard duty. As far as I could see there was no destruction during the recent protests here, just some slight vandalism where someone tagged the bust with “FDP”[4]. The mayor of Tervuren has argued against removal, pointing out it’s a monument that’s supposed to be anti-colonial, which is indeed in line with the interpretation of the AfricaMuseum itself:

The title, ‘The Congo I Presume’, is a parody on the words Henry Morton Stanley famously pronounced upon meeting David Livingstone, i.e. ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’

The sculpture group is installed in a water feature and refers to the African village that was built near the water during the 1897 colonial exhibition. Seven Africans died from pneumonia during this exhibition.

The sculptures in the water feature evoke this Congolese village, which also exhibited exotic animals and native Africans.

The stone blocks are a reference to King Leopold II’s nickname, the ‘King-Builder’

The elephant and the lion symbolise Congo’s magnificent nature and the abundant natural wealth beneath its soil.

The eight flamingos, which are migratory birds, symbolise the Congolese diaspora.

Amid this evocation of nature the artist has installed the bust of Leopold II, the owner of Congo Free State, whom the Congolese consider the undisputed “Father of the Nation”.

Behind the bust a peacock graciously spreads its wings, as the epitome of vanity, megalomania and hubris.

The elephant looks away from the bust, as if to symbolically distance himself from the legalised ivory robbery, with which Leopold II shamelessly enriched himself.

The lion, the king of all animals, also pointedly looks the other way.

Three African warriors, in stunning tribal costumes, stand behind the king, like humble, obsequious soldiers. They are “exhibited”, as the king’s three personal trophies.

Interestingly the feet of these brave warriors have been chopped off in a clear reference to the darker side of colonisation.

This sculpture group is the only anticolonial statue in Belgium and is therefore unique. – AfricaMuseum

Some of this explanation makes sense! It’s a bit of a pity, though, that the plaque placed by the author is terse and monolingual, the above text is only available online.

Bonus video: an African goose[5].

  1. Personally I am waiting for all the ways in which Belgium mistreated Congo in the post-colonial era to become topics too. Our involvement in Mobutu’s dictatorship and the assassination of Congolese president Patrice Lumumba aren’t really brought up much, let alone Congo as a colony of the Belgian state, it’s generally limited to the horrible atrocities in Congo Free State.

  2. Rather than one huge campus, the university is basically interwoven with the fabric of the city when it comes to the centre with faculties spread out all over it. Arenberg is one of their big campus-like campuses.

  3. Trivia: I helped inventarise the municipal archive of Vossem from roughly the French occupation to the beginning of the 20th century.

  4. “Fils de pute”, son of a whore.

  5. These popped up out of nowhere half a decade to a decade ago in our parks, and since then their presence has only increased.