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The Begijnhofs

So here’s another cool feature about the Low Countries that I want to share with you.

Those would be the Begijnhofs. Until the eighteenth century, most cities and large towns throughout Holland, Belgium, and northern France had a least one begijnhof. The Beguines (the French word for begijnhof is béguinage) were lay religious orders of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. These women were not nuns, and the communities they lived in were not convents. They did not take vows of poverty — some of them had servants. They did not marry while they lived in community, but were free to leave at any time. They supported themselves by teaching or by working as labourers. And they lived in houses surrounded by a walled courtyard (hof is Dutch for “court”). The gates were locked at night, and the community usually included a church and sometimes an infirmary.

One of the reasons these communities came about was simply due to the demographics in Europe at that time: there were more women than men. But also, living in community like this offered these women freedom and independence and choice in how they lived — basic rights that today we all take for granted.

I was introduced to the Amsterdam Begijnhof a long time ago by my Dutch cousin. Amsterdam is full of hofjes, most of which are private, but this one — one of the city’s oldest, dating back to the fourteenth century — is open to the public.

The Begijnhof was allowed to continue to exist as a Catholic institution during Calvinist rule because the homes were private property. The Beguines lost their chapel, however, and today it is the English Reformed Church. Later, they built a “hidden church.” (For the period of time when Catholic churches were banned in Protestant Amsterdam, Catholics built their churches behind the façades of regular houses. From the outside, they look like ordinary houses, but on the inside, they look just like a church.)

One curious fact about the Begijnhof: it is at medieval street level, which is about a metre below the rest of the city. What I also find particularly curious is how its entrance backs onto the Kalverstraat, one of the city’s busiest shopping streets. The last Beguine died in 1971, but the Begijnhof continues to be occupied by about 100 women.

It was my familiarity with the Amsterdam Begijnhof that led me to explore the ones in Belgium. The Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde (Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard) is located next to Brugge’s Minnewater. Dating back to the mid-thirteenth century, it is one of the best-preserved begijnhofs in the country. You enter it through this gate.

It contains a church and about 30 white painted houses.

For the last 90 years, it has been the residence of a community of Benedictine nuns.

The Oude Begijnhof in Gent, also built during the mid-thirteenth century, is no longer walled. During the French Revolution, the city acquired property rights to the Begijnhof and then, in the eighteenth century, it wanted to take it over to use as housing for labourers. The Beguines moved to a new purpose-built begijnhof in the suburbs. The houses in the original begijnhof became worn and run-down, but were eventually restored in the twentieth century.

None of the original medieval houses are still standing in any of the begijnhofs throughout Belgium and Holland, although the layout of the communities remains essentially the same. Wooden houses were rebuilt in brick or stone from the sixteenth century onward. An exception is the single wooden house in the Amsterdam Begijnhof (the oldest wooden house in the centre of Amsterdam and one of only two still standing).

What I find fascinating about the begijnhofs is the witness they bear to a long tradition of women living independently in times when few were permitted to do so. As communities, they developed an architectural style of their own, which fortunately has been preserved.

And for the tourist overwhelmed by the chaos of central Amsterdam or on a whistle-stop tour of Belgium, they are a welcome oasis from the hustle and bustle of a tourist-overrun city.

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A Tale of Three Cities

When you hear the word “Belgium,” what comes to mind? Waffles? Chocolate? Maybe a good beer?

My first visit to Belgium was on that long-ago European trip with my family, when I first got hooked on travelling. I remember liking this wee country a lot. Yes, the waffles were pretty awesome, but so was the architecture. And the artwork. Everything I saw and tasted in Belgium instilled in me my lifelong interest in architecture, art, and regional cuisine.

But I haven’t been back to Belgium since. Because, truth be told, Belgium is one of those countries you fly over or travel through on your way to some more exciting place, like, um, Paris. (Guilty.)

Which is why, after spending two months in Amsterdam, I decided to finish my European summer with a return visit to Belgium.

But here was my dilemma when I started planning my trip to Belgium: I wanted to visit three different cities, but had only five days in which to do it.

Three cities in five days? Was I crazy? We North Americans are fond — at our peril — of overestimating how small European countries are, and even though Belgium is one of the smallest of Europe’s many small countries, it seemed a bit of a foolish plan to me.

Hee.

What’s the point of travelling if you don’t challenge yourself? I decided to give it a go, and resolved to hit the ground running as soon as I arrived in the country.

Which I did. I skipped the overpriced hotel breakfasts and began each morning in a café. Over my latte and croissant each morning, I planned my attack. This was my only time to dawdle and got me up and out the door early since I can only wait so long for coffee. Which meant I was able to cram a lot into each day.

Brugge was my first stop. This small, medieval city of almost 120,000 people is located just a few miles from the North Sea. And before I go any further, let’s get something out of the way. Brugge (pronounced BRU-huh) is in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of the country. It’s become popular with English-speakers to call the city by its French name (Bruges), which makes no sense to either me or the Belgians — I can only assume it’s because of a certain Hollywood movie.

Brugge means “bridge,” of which there are lots in this medieval town. Canals, too.

Despite my strong memories of Brugge from my first visit, what surprised me this time was how medieval the place is. No idea why I was surprised by that, but it was delightful. And so this photographer spent a happy two days here, clicking away to her heart’s content.

I started off here, at the Markt, or market square, the centre of Brugge’s medieval centre.

The Markt is dominated by the Belfort. There are a lot of belfries in Belgium and northern France. (In fact, the Belfries of Belgium and France, more than 50 towers in total, are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) Originally built as watch towers, they all house bells. This one was built in the thirteenth century and has a 47-bell carillon.

Then I was off to the Minnewater, also known as the Lake of Love. Yeah, it’s romantic, but really, just so peaceful and beautiful. And you actually can’t avoid it as it’s right on the way from the train station to the centre of the Old Town. I could have easily spent an entire afternoon here, but I had to move on.

I had more canals to photograph.

Turn around from the above spot, and you see this, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady).

And this church was the main event for me during my visit to Brugge, because of this.

That would be Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. My lifelong love affair with Michelangelo’s work began when I first saw this piece, oh so many years ago. My second viewing was no less mesmerizing. It is the only artwork by Michelangelo to leave Italy in his lifetime.

Brugge is full of tiny alleys and medieval buildings. On the other side of the above alley is the Oude Civiele Griffie (Old Civic Registry, below, at left). To its right is the Stadhuis or Town Hall. Built in the fourteenth century, it’s one of the oldest town halls in the Low Countries. Both of these buildings are located in the Burg, another square in the Old Town that is just around the corner from the Markt. And with that, I had come full circle and it was time to move on.

My next stop was Gent. I’m still in Flanders, but I’ve travelled east and am now about midway between Brugge and Brussels. Gent is about double the size of Brugge and proof that there are other lovely medieval cities in Belgium besides Brugge. It too has a belfry.

Also many lovely canals.

And … a castle!

I didn’t have enough time to check out the Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts) on the inside, because this is what I came to Gent to see.

It’s another stunning piece of art. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is located in the Sint-Baafskathedraal (Saint Bavo’s Cathedral), which is behind the Belfort in the photo up above.

Of all my stops in Europe last summer, Gent was where I spent the least amount of time, but did the most walking in one day. (Now that’s hitting the ground running.)

My last stop was Brussels. I had one goal here: to do some night photography in the Grand Place, one of the most impressive squares in all Europe. Sadly, my plans were thwarted by some miserable weather and dozens of market stalls in the centre of the square, which were empty, so I have no idea why they were there, but they certainly ruined any chance of a decent photo.

Brussels is an interesting mix of old and new. It’s the capital of the European Union and has shopping streets that wouldn’t be out of place in Canada. But then you turn a corner and see a street scene that reminds you of Paris. Also like Paris, security was noticeable but not obtrusive, and completely expected given recent events in both those cities.

Brussels also has a couple of iconic characters. First, there’s this guy.

That would be Mannekin Pis. He’s not very tall. A bronze statue and fountain have stood on this street corner for some 400 years, and there are all sorts of urban legends as to who he is and why he has been memorialized in this way.

And then there’s this fellow.

The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé first appeared in 1929 and has been translated into 100 languages. Did you know that Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world? And Brussels has an entire trail of comic strip murals, which I did not get to see, thanks to the heavy rain that kept up for the entire day. As it was, I had to scurry from coffee shop to church to restaurant in an effort to keep somewhat dry, which only worked so well.

Eventually, though, it was time for me to head to the airport to fly back to Canada. If I could have, I would have added at least one more night to my stay in each city, but, even so, my whistle-stop tour through Belgium was so worth the effort.

Because, as far as I’m concerned, Belgium is highly overlooked and underrated.

And has far more to offer the world than just waffles and chocolate.