When I ask you to think of spots that offer a bit of peace and quiet in cities all over the world, you probably think of parks or libraries.
The Low Countries of Europe (Belgium and the Netherlands) have something different: beguinages. Beguinages first started to appear as early as the 13th century and whether you are interested in history or not they are great to visit.
Let's start with some history: a beguinage used to house a community of religious women -Beguines– who devoted themselves to God, but not as strictly as nuns. The beguines took a vow of chastity but were allowed to keep their possessions.
The last beguine died in Kortrijk in 2013. Although the beguines are gone it doesn't mean beguinages are no longer used. Most of them have been repurposed as houses, although there are often rules you have to follow if you want to live in a beguinage, such as respecting silence.
My hometown Leuven has both the Grand Beguinage and the Small Beguinage. If you take a trip to Leuven you can't skip a visit to these world heritage destinations which have such an interesting history.
The Grand Beguinage
The Leuven Grand Beguinage, known as the Groot Begijnhof was founded in the 13th century (1232). With historic documents officially dating it back to the 13th century, the Grand Beguinage is believed to be one of the oldest known beguinage sites. The houses you can still see today, however, only date back to the 16th century. The last beguine who lived in the Grand Beguinage died in 1988.
Today the Grand Beguinage – except for the church – is the property of the Catholique University of Leuven. The University rents the houses in the Grand Beguinage out to students, university employees, and visiting academics.
The University of Leuven bought the Grand Beguinage in 1962 under the condition they would restore it. The Grand Beguinage now houses a meeting center for the university community as well as a congress center for more formal university events. The restoration of the houses on the Kerkstraat was not completed until 1990.
The Grand Beguinage is one of the most visited sights in the city and one of 13 Flemish beguinages with UNESCO World Heritage status. Steeped in history it makes for a very interesting visit.
Tourists often combine the visit with the historic Sint-Jan-de-Doperkerk, the adjacent gothic church which houses artwork from the 17th to 19th century.
The Small Beguinage
Also known as the Saint-Catherine Beguinage, the Small Beguinage of Leuven is nothing more than a street with two little alleys. Founded in the 13th century, it never housed more than 100 beguines. These beguines depended financially on the St. Gertrude Abbey, which is located just next to the beguinage.
The French Revolution put an end to the Small Leuven Beguinage as it was known and in the 19th century, the church was demolished. The last beguine who lived there passed away in 1855. In 1974, the beguinage 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 to make room for the expanding Stella Artois brewery. Today some houses are still rented out by the OCMW while the others are private properties.
Accomodation & getting to Leuven
If you're looking for an apartment in Leuven rather than a hotel, I recommend checking airbnb. Sign up through my link and get a discount on your first stay!
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Leuven can easily be reached by train from other cities and from Brussels Airport, which is the best airport to fly to if you plan on going to 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; visiting a beguinage is on it.
Each item on the list has information on where to go to check it off and you can literally check it off on the website to keep track of your score.
If you update your progress on Twitter or Facebook, you can win a weekend break! So if you visit the Small or Grand Beguinage in Leuven don't forget to check it off!
Pretty cool, right?
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