I must be honest. I’d never heard of a beguinage (or begijnhof, in Flemish) until I came to Bruges. Somehow the concept passed me by in my preliminary pass through the guidebook: I was too busy getting excited about bell towers, boat trips and windmills. And even the friend who comes to show us round (a task he’s performed for endless visitors) doesn’t seem to know what I’m talking about.
The Background to the Beguinages
First the facts. Beguinages are places where, in the middle ages, widows or unmarried women went to live if they sought a life of contemplation but didn’t want to become nuns. They are peculiarly Flemish, at least so far as so many have survived, and on the basis of their physical characteristics (they preserve a remarkable green space in a built environment) as well as their reflection of the cultural and religious tradition, they’ve been declared a world heritage site.
Quite how they have survived so long is a bit of a mystery to me. The one in Bruges, in the south of the city, has clung to the religious tradition in its own way and is now a convent, though a very large one occupied by a very few nuns. The beguinages were, the UNESCO citation says, ‘miniature towns’ and yet if you don’t know the Bruges beguinage exists you might walk right past it. It’s surrounded by high walls and is, frankly, forbidding.
Visiting the Bruges Beguinage
As you’d expect, Bruges is heaving with people. It’s high summer, peak tourist season. Tour groups are so busy following their guides that they run the risk of being knocked down by the constant stream of horse-drawn carriages which provide an alternative to the city’s boat trips. I don’t quite know what to expect as we cross the Arsenalstraat and approach the gate. You can see nothing but high walls and the bulk of a brick-built church behind above it.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Beguinages are a historic remnant of a time when Flanders was dominated by religion.
- You want to step from the busy streets of Bruges into an oasis of peace and quiet.
- Great for those who seek a moment of contemplation.
We’re left in no doubt that this is still very much a religious foundation, even as a secular world washes up against its defences. A polite notice asks for silence and requests visitors not to take photos for commercial use, so in the absence a photograph I have to use words. A mini wood stands in front of us, tall, slender tress above long grass dotted with wild flowers and dappled by sun. High brick walls enclose us, lined on three sides by white-painted buildings with steeply-angled roofs and characteristic red tiles.
The crowd of visitors, not observing the request for silence, flows chattering along the paths of this oasis and we follow the stream. It takes us to that enormous brick church and draws us in through the tall west door. Just inside I stop, so abruptly that the person behind me almost cannons into me. The roof is high and soaring and the light is dim. It’s Sunday morning (how could I have forgotten?) and the voices of a bare half dozen nuns are rising sweetly upwards among the swirls of incense.
I back out and others go on. It doesn’t feel right to me. It isn’t just that the idea of tourists gaping at other people’s religious observance strikes a false note. It’s that this sight, and this sound (the nuns are singing timeless plainsong) raises a crazy feeling that this is not the real world but a window into the past, that if I step too far forward I’ll fall through a crack in the space-time continuum and be trapped for ever in the Middle Ages.
Beyond the Beguinages: Bruges’ Almshouses
I withdraw from the church and wander through the open space to the exit. Even with all the visitors the nature of the space seems to muffle much of the noise of the modern age. We drift out: we’ve spent less than ten minutes within the walls and yet somehow those ten minutes have revealed more of the character of the place than hours or even days spent elsewhere.
Spurred on by this glimpse into history I consult my map and make a point of looking out for another part of Bruges’ religious history which persists as part of the cultural fabric. The city has dozens of almshouses (or Godshuizen) which were built by the rich to provide for the poor –- perhaps an early form of socialism. They’re built like mini-beguinages, whitewashed and clustered round a central courtyard. And like the beguinage they’re still occupied. And at least with these I feel a little easier poking my nose inside, as though there’s less risk of becoming trapped in the past.
- The Beguinage in Bruges is now occupied by nuns but you can still visit, although you should treat the place and its inhabitants with respect
- It’s located in the south of the city, close to the Minnewater Park and admission to the grounds is free. There’s no access to the buildings other than the church and a small museum (for which an admission fee is charged)
- You can’t visit the almshouses per se but many of them can be seen from the outside or by taking a peek over the walls or through the courtyards.