Tag Archives: begijnhof

BRUGES, BELGIUM – finding an oasis in an oasis

There are still a few corners of Bruges like this...

Bruges (officially ‘Brugge’ in Flemish) is reputed to be a quiet, olde worldy mediaeval place, where people can step back in time to an era when life was slow and strawberries were small and tasted like strawberries.

...but a lot of it is like this...

...or like this.

Millions of visitors can’t be wrong. Bruges is beautifully preserved, and there are spectacular old buildings around every corner. Come to think of it, the corners themselves are made of spectacular old buildings.

This is the oldest hospital in Europe. Never mind the leeches and the blood-letting – the brickwork alone should make you feel better!

St Jan's Hospital is now a museum.

Fortunately there is a place where we can escape the chocolate and lace shops, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carts, the amplified commentary of the tour boats, the I Love Bruges and 50 Great Beers t-shirts.

Elizabeth Beguinage, Bruges


The Elizabeth Begijnhof attracts only the devout few. I’m one.

And Belgian strawberries look like strawberries, smell like strawberries and by golly they still taste like strawberries too.

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BEGIJNHOF, GHENT, BELGIUM – beginning the Beguines

Begijnhof, Ghent

When in Belgium or the Netherlands, it’s always worth popping into a begijnhof or two. William Makepeace Thackeray put it nicely in 1840…

“Before you is a red church with a tall roof and fantastical Dutch pinnacles, and all around it rows upon rows of small houses, the queerest, neatest, nicest that ever were seen (a doll’s house is hardly smaller or prettier).’’

Ghent’s Begijnhof is still as queer, neat and nice as ever, and now has UNESCO world heritage listing to boot.

The Recommended Walking Route in any decent Belgian town, and lots of Dutch ones too, always includes the local begijnhof. Visitors who take the trouble to pass through the arched gate in the wall find chocolate box photo opportunities everywhere.

The Begijnhof is the community of houses where the Beguines formerly lived. They were devout single women who took vows of obedience and chastity but, unlike nuns, didn’t renounce worldly goods, and brought their own possessions to the begijnhof. Not all were needy. Some well-to-do women joined the movement, with the prospect of living in one of the better houses of the complex, and maybe being elected ‘grootjuffrouw’ or ‘grand-dame’ of the place. Vows were temporary, and beguines were free to leave if ever they decided they’d had enough of it all. They were thus not totally or permanently withdrawn from the world.

Lier begijnhof

Predictably, independent women were not always flavour of the month with the established church. Beguines were regularly threatened and persecuted, but it was hard to justify opposition to these devout women, and they often found powerful sponsors to protect them. Moreover, by working together, particularly in the textile trade, the beguines could achieve a measure of financial self-reliance.

Today there are very few beguines still alive, and beguinages have been turned over to other uses – student accommodation in university town Leuven, a centre for those with mental disabilities in Diksmuiden, and the Begijnhof in Turnhout now mostly houses the elderly.

Diksmuiden begijnhof


Visitors are welcome on weekdays but residents get a break from the tourist trickle at weekends. We like the little churches and gardens, but also the sense of community and shared space. When we’ve enjoyed a little quiet time out, like the beguines of old, free to leave at any time, we step under the arch and go back to the real world.


World Heritage-listed Belgian beguinages are in the towns of Hoogstraten, Lier, Mechelen, Turnhout, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren, Dendermonde, Ghent, Sint-Amandsberg, Diest, Leuven, Bruges and Kortrijk.

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AMSTERDAM’S 10 most beautiful streets

A newspaper poll asked people to vote on their favourite street in this most beautiful of cities. The results are out, and it was a good excuse for me to spend a sunny day going round on the bike, with the camera.

The top 10 were:

Brouwersgracht

1. Brouwersgracht. Oh, we did want to live here! The old brewers canal features houseboats, bridges, markets, trees and 17th century warehouses converted to apartment blocks. Unfortunately inside the apartments are usually dark, small, low-ceilinged, structurally dodgy and far too bloody expensive! But they do look great from the outside.

Nieuwendammerdijk

2. Nieuwendammerdijk. Some would consider the “new dam dyke” to be outside Amsterdam, but it is just across the water from Centraal Station, then a ride along the North Holland Canal. Old wooden cottages and very little car traffic give it a village feel, and make it a perfect place for a bike ride.

Amstel river

3. Amstel. It’s hardly fair to call this a street. It’s the wide river on which old Amsterdam was built. Features the Hermitage Museum, the State Opera building (Stopera), the Waterlooplein flea market, the Carre Theater, the posh Amstel Hotel, elaborate bridges and lots of glass-topped tour boats!

Begijnhof

4. The Begijnhof. Begijnhofjes were originally built as housing for the Beguines, devout single women who didn’t want to take vows – sort of plain clothes nuns. Now the hofjes are attractive complexes built around lovely communal gardens. They’re usually open to the public during the week, but close at weekends to give the residents a break from the stream of visitors.

Drawbridge onto Prinseneiland

5. Prinseneiland. Another place we could easily live. Amsterdam’s western islands, not far from the centre of town, are a quiet backwater of bridges and canals, converted warehouses, boatyards and artists’ studios. If you’re not an artist here, try to dress like one. Shame about the train line running right across in front of the island, but it makes it feel more like a real artist’s garret when you have noise.

Kromboomssloot

6. Kromboomssloot One of many quiet little places no visitor knows about but locals love.

Groenburgwal

7. Groenburgwal Any street which ends with a view of the beautiful Zuiderkerk (southern church) tower is going to be a strong contender for Amsterdam’s Most Beautiful. Of the ten streets others voted in, this could be my favourite.

Noordermarkt

8. Noordermarkt. Dominated by the 17th century Noorderkerk (Northern Church), this is where the popular farmers’ market is held every Saturday, and a clothing and material market happens every Monday in the adjoining Westerstraat. Cafe Winkel on the corner regularly wins the award for serving the best ‘appeltaart’ in the city. It’s perhaps not particularly beautiful to look at, but it is very lively and interesting, especially on a market day.

Henri Polaklaan

9. Henri Polaklaan Right by Artis, the Amsterdam zoo, this is a street of handsome gentlemen’s residences. A little too grand for me – maybe I’m not enough of a gentleman.

Reguliersgracht

10. Reguliersgracht. One of the classic canals of the city. You could make a case for many of them, but this is as good as any. All the tourist boats stop here so visitors can admire the seven or nine (depending on who you listen to) bridges in a row.

TRIP NOTES:

Riding around all ten of these streets took about four hours, including camera adjustment and coffee and appeltaart stops.

Next time I’ll go looking for my own personal street list…and if you have suggestions as to other beauty spots, let me know and I’ll try to cover them in the sequel to this post.

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