BRUGES, Belgium — The shy Benedictine nun hastened along the narrow cobblestoned street and entered the tiny gift shop, escaping the chilly North Sea gale.
Dressed in original 15th-century vestments, the nun worked in the store that is part of the Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaerde in Bruges. Founded in 1245 as a lay sisterhood for single and widowed women who sought a religious life without taking final vows, the walled-off former beguinage has been a Benedictine convent since 1927.
The beguinage’s founding was in the Middle Ages and a time of widespread war.
“Young men were scarce, so the only future for women was either a cloistered convent or prostitution,” explained my guide Edmond van Meenen, who also is a civil engineer. “You could say this was the start of women’s emancipation.”
Visitors enter the beguinage over a small bridge and through a gatehouse. The tranquil courtyard is bordered with houses dating from the 18th century, set around a grassy park-like area. With its narrow streets and whitewashed row houses, the Monasterium De Wijngaerde (Monastery of the Vine) is a town within a town, an oasis of peace, quiet and simplicity. The courtyard is a huge lawn dotted with limes, Canadian poplars and yellow daffodils leaning in the wind. Originally built to house several hundred women, only a handful live here now, most from Madagascar as there is a shortage of nuns across Europe.
Bruges was once the greatest trading centre in northern Europe. Today, it resembles a vast beautifully preserved open-air museum. Bruges is the most popular tourist destination in Belgium though it is often overlooked by overseas visitors.
A good place to start a walking tour of Bruges is the Belfry. First built in 1280 then destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt over a century. Some 66 persons died building the Belfry, many no doubt just climbing the 366 circular steps to the summit. Visitors who make it to the top are rewarded with a view of the four-octave carillon, regarded as one of the finest in the world. The symbol of independence against the counts of Flanders, the Belfry also was the watchtower for threatening dangers.
The belfry overlooks the busy Market Square where a gallows and guillotine once took centre stage. Now, a bronze statue stands guard over the most colourful buildings in Bruges, with their brick facades, pointed roofs and distinctive narrow architecture. City hall is the oldest building in Belgium. The gingerbread building, built between 1376 and 1520, still houses the lord major’s office.
There are no less than nine streets and lanes leading off the storybook Market Square. One of the streets leads to the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The church contains the famous Relic of the Holy Blood, the bloodied cloth said to have been the cloak of Jesus.
Bruges, the most popular tourist destination in Belgium though often overlooked by overseas visitors, has many fine restaurants that are on par with the best in Brussels and Paris but are much easier on the pocketbook. A recommended restaurant near the beguinage is Maximilian van Oostenrijk where you can enjoy Belgium’s staple: beer, French fries and a huge porcelain pot of steaming mussels.
Belgium has three varieties of beer — high, low and abbey — and some 780 kinds of amber, brown and white beer (the latter made of wheat). For a sample close to the source, visit the Brewery Straffe Hendrik that dates from the 16th century.
About midway between Bruges and Brussels is the delightful city of Ghent. Renowned for its historic buildings, the largest city in medieval Europe after Paris is well known for its antiques, cookies and sharp mustard.
No other city in Belgium has as many protected monuments and buildings. For starters there are five old abbeys, three beguinages and 18 museums. At one time, the abbeys were the richest and most powerful in Europe. The main buildings of the former St. Peter’s Benedictine Abbey have been preserved while St. Bavo’s Abbey is the setting for open-air stage performances.
Three of the most prominent buildings are located in the city centre, and all in a straight row. St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the seat of the diocese of Ghent, is regarded as the most beautiful church in Belgium. It contains the famous masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystical Lamb, one of Belgium’s Magnificent Seven. One section has been missing since 1934, its whereabouts a great mystery in Belgium.
The Castle of the Counts is worth a visit. Built by the Count of Flanders in the 12th century as a fortification against the town, the medieval castle is a model of the Crusaders’ castle in Syria. In one section is a collection of torture instruments, including a reconstructed guillotine.
“Last used in 1856, the guillotine was a painless execution,” said Van Meenen, with the precision of an engineer, “because the 60 kg knife fell at 100 km/h.”
The monuments of medieval architecture are magnificent in daylight but when the sun goes down they take on a new life, brightly illuminated to emphasize their majesty. But there are no lights at the Beguinage of St. Elisabeth of Hungary.
Also called the Holy Corner, the 13th century landmark was home to Roman Catholic, Orthodox and two Protestant churches. Because of declining worshippers, the bishop of Ghent disaffected St. Elisabeth Catholic Church, and Saint Elisabeth’s Anglican Church held its first service in January 2016.
Former travel writer-photographer and editor and publisher of the Humboldt Journal, Telfer has contributed to over a hundred newspapers and magazines in Canada, the U.S. and abroad.