When I ask you spots that offer a bit of peace and quiet in cities all over the world, you probably think of parks or libraries. Well, the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) have something extra: beguinages.
A beguinage used to house a community of women who devoted themselves to god, but not in such a strict way as nuns would do, for example. They took a vow of chastity but were allowed to keep personal possessions.
Today, there are no beguines left. The last one died in Kortrijk in 2013. That doesn’t mean the beguinages aren’t used anymore, though. Most of them have been repurposed as normal houses, although there are often rules you have to follow if you want to live in a beguinage, like respecting silence.
My hometown Leuven has not one, but two beguinages: the “Grand Beguinage” and the “Small Beguinage”.
The Grand Beguinage of Leuven
The Grand Beguinage of Leuven is one of the biggest there is. It was founded in 1232, but the oldest houses you can still see today date back to the 16th century. The last beguine who lived there died in 1988.
Today the beguinage is the property of the Catholique University of Leuven who rents out the houses to students, university employees and visiting academics. There’s also has a meeting and a congress center. The Grand Beguinage of Leuven is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited sights in Leuven.
Tourists often combine it with the Sint-Jan-de-Doperkerk, the adjacent gothic church with artwork from the 17th until the 19th century. However, more than a touristic attraction it’s an example of how heritage can keep having a function in a modern city.
The Small Beguinage of Leuven
The Small Beguinage of Leuven, also known as the Saint-Catherine Beguinage, is nothing more than a street with two little alleys. It was founded in the 13th century and never housed more than 100 beguines. These women depended financially on the St. Gertrude Abbey, which is located just next to the beguinage.
The French Revolution made an end to the Beguinage as it was known and in the 19th century its church was demolished. The last beguine who lived there died in 1855. In 1974, the place was protected as a monument and the houses were restored by their new owner, the OCMW (Public Center for Social Wellbeing). Unfortunately, the infirmary was demolished as well to make room for the expanding Stella Artois brewery. Today a part of the houses are still rented out by the OCMW while the others are private properties.
Where to stay in Leuven
If you’re looking for an apartment rather than a hotel, I recommend checking airbnb. Sign up through my link and get a discount on your first stay!
How to get to Leuven
Leuven can easily be reached by train from other cities as well as from Brussels Airport, which is the best airport to fly to if you plan on visiting Leuven.
Visiting a Belgian beguinage is a bucket list item!
Tourism Flemish Brabant has put together a bucket list of fun and quirky things to do in the province as a local and visiting a beguinage is on it. Each item on the list has information on where you can go to check it off and once you’ve done it, you can also literally check it off on the website and keep track of your score. And if you share your progress on Twitter or Facebook, you can win a weekend break.
Pretty cool, right?
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