Which is curious, because Belgium -- an independent nation only since 1831 -- is a welcoming country and lends itself to independent travel. The country is small in land mass but has the highest population density in the European Economic Union. The public transportation system is fast, fully integrated, and reasonably priced, so wise travelers establish a base and make day trips to places of interest. Brussels is an expensive big city, like any other megalopolis, so it's best to make a smaller city your headquarters. Louvain, Namur and Dendermonde offer a less stressful environment from which to explore Belgian beer, chocolates and churches.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ocated just 16 miles from Brussels, Flemish Louvain is the ideal European college town. The prestigious Katholieke Universiteit Leuven has been in place since 1425, and the happening scene for students is the cobblestone Oude Markt (Old Market) just off the town center.
As far back as 1890, Spokane connected with Louvain. Father Emil Kauten, a Catholic priest trained at the American College of Louvain, arrived in Spokane that year as the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. Among the hundreds of priests who matriculated between 1857 and 1907 at the American College, some 109 of them received assignment to the Pacific Northwest. By 1875, two-thirds of the priests in Oregon were either born or educated in Belgium; six years later, men from Louvain sat as bishops with authority over ecclesiastical affairs in Oregon, Washington and the province of Vancouver Island.
When Father Kauten came to Spokane, the city supported only four Catholic parishes, one of them administered by Jesuits at the recently opened Gonzaga College. Father Joseph M. Cataldo, S.J., superior of the Rocky Mountain Mission of the Jesuits and the founder of the college, had his own association with Louvain: he had been ordained there. Moreover, Cataldo held in high regard the Belgian Jesuit responsible for bringing the Society of Jesus to the Inland Northwest in the 1840s: Peter John De Smet. Today the city of Spokane remembers De Smet with a street bearing his name, and Gonzaga University honors him with both a building and its most prestigious award.
St. Pieterskerk Church, where Father Cataldo was ordained, is in Louvain's Grote Markt and dates from the same time frame as the incredibly ornate town hall decorated with more than 300 Gothic style figures. German military forces purposely torched 1,800 buildings in Louvain during World War I, but the city survived -- only to be invaded again during World War II.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & N & lt;/span & amur, once a proud extension of the Roman Empire, is now the seat of government for French-speaking Wallonia in the southern part of Belgium. The Citadelle, a well-preserved fortification, changed hands with invading armies more than 20 times over 1,000 years. The Jesuits built the Church of Saint-Loup in the 1630s, modeling it on the famous Chisa del Gesu, the main Jesuit church in Rome.
In the mid-19th century, Father De Smet brought a cadre of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to the Oregon Country where the "lady black gowns" established the first two convent schools in the Pacific Northwest. Emil Kauten, the progenitor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, was a native of the Ardennes region surrounding Namur.
Dendermonde, half the size of Namur, is the ancestral home of the De Smet family. A giant statute of De Smet stands in front of Our Lady's Church; inside the church is the Romaneque baptismal font where the future pioneering missionary entered the Catholic faith. The city museum features Inland Northwest Indian artifacts that De Smet sent back to his family as souvenirs.
Robert Carriker is a professor of history at Gonzaga University. He returned to Belgium this past spring as a member of a doctoral Board of Examiners at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.