Begijnhofs

Frankie (my sister) told me about the ‘Begijnhof’ that she visited in Leuven some years ago; sounded interesting so I thought I’d find out a more whilst we are in Belgium …….

The terms begijnhof (used in Flemish part of Belgium) & béguinage (used in French part of Belgium) relate to the areas where women who were part of an early women’s movement lived; there are begijnhofs / béguinages in many Belgian & Dutch towns – many now are major tourist attractions. We visited several and I thought this would make for an interesting blog.

The origin of the Béguine movement is debated, but, around 1150, groups of women (eventually called Beguines) began living together for the purposes of economic self-sufficiency and a religious vocation. The Béguine lifestyle swept across Europe during the 12th & 13th centuries. It is believed to have begun by the widows of the Crusaders. These women resorted to a pious life of sisterhood following the death of their husbands, rather than accept another husband (if indeed one could be found) or return to live under their father’s roof. Some came with their children. Single women also opted to join; some could not find, or perhaps did not want, a husband or to be dependent on their families.  All these women sought an independent, secluded existence devoted to charitable deeds, but not bound by formal religious vows.

Around 1230 these holy women had started to be called “béguines”, a term that was most likely initially used pejoratively, but whose original meaning is lost to history (sometimes attributed to Saint Begga patron saint of beggars, but not universally accepted). Some of these groups of women formed separate, walled communities called begijnhofs or béguinages outside the city walls. The biggest béguinages housed thousands of single women, a remarkable feat in medieval Europe.

The Béguines committed to chastity & to live by the rules of the community but they did not commit to poverty and they could leave at any time, unlike those taking religious vows.  Many were quite well off, and could support themselves; others worked in order to pay their way and to live independently.

In the beginning, clerical attitudes towards Beguines were ambivalent. The groups were religious and the women were dedicated to chastity and charity, which could not be condemned in any way. The fact that they existed, and existed without men, (except for priests and confessors to lead them) was suspect to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. For this and other reasons, many Beguines came to be known as heretics and were persecuted as such. Though they were never an approved religious order, they were at one point granted special privileges and exemptions customary for approved orders. The Church, however, did not approve of their lack of permanent vows. Women were not supposed to have that much freedom! What is particularly interesting about the Beguines, unlike most who were considered heretics, these women considered themselves orthodox, but still Béguines. Some strongly identified themselves as such and while in court testified to that effect, demonstrating self-identification with the group. Yet the group was diverse and is hard to define. This diversity was due in part to the geographical distribution as well as to the individual autonomy of each community.

The last béguine Marcella Pattyn died in 2013, and with her the movement that had lasted for hundreds of years.

Béguinages, now empty of béguines, still exist in most Belgian and Dutch cities, with their medieval houses, tight alleyways and bleached walls. The béguinages where the béguines lived and prayed – ‘cities of peace with architectural & urban qualities’ – have become centres of tourism, and oases of peace in the heart of bustling cities. Many have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.

 

Adrian and I have tried to visit the Béguinages in the various Belgian cities we have visited. At each one we see different things and learn more about that particular Béguinage and the life of the women who lived there.

Turnhout

The first major Béguinage we visited was at Turnhout.

Founded before 1340; UNESCO World Heritage site 1998.

 

 

You could see that this was originally situated outside the city walls. Unfortunately the area was undergoing major works when we were there, so that the general feeling of the place was affected. Most of the houses here are occupied (general housing) and the Church at the centre is still a focal point. There is a lovely little museum which we visited and got talking to the Chairman of the League of Friends. He was extremely knowledgeable, passionate and welcoming.

The women here decided the rules by which they lived, elected their Mother Superior and supported themselves by developing various cottage industries – laundering the ecclesiastical robes of all the surrounding parishes; making the communion wafers (both large and small) for the area (there was even an estimate of the number they made!); lace making; providing education to local poor children and, of course, caring for the sick.

The béguinage covers quite a large area with a wide courtyard & the Church towards one end. The museum is housed within a pastor’s house & aims to show how the béguines lived, supported themselves and practised their faith. The last Mother Superior died in 2002.

 

 

Lier

Outside what would have been the mediaeval town walls a network of narrow twisting streets with a convent and Church. Many of the old houses and the convent were being renovated. Lier lace making (cross between embroidery and crochet) was one of the main industries and it is still practised by a local group of enthusiasts.

 

 

Mechelan

The béguinage area is a thriving, slightly off beat part of the city! Weekly flea markets take place through the twisting streets and a central attraction is the Het Anker brewery which was started by the béguines in 1369, and was their major form of income! Now brews Carolus beers …. and whiskey!

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Ghent – Béguinage of Our Lady at Hoyen

 

There are 3 béguinages around Ghent. We visited the ‘small béguinage’ – it was huge! Entered through a stone archway off a fairly main street, you come into a large, walled, open, peaceful area. The béguinage was started in 1235.

The oldest part is the courtyard, with baroque Church and surrounding houses & convents with walled front gardens. Streets around this area were added later and have now been renovated for social housing and much work continues.

 

Bruges

Beside the kanaal & ‘pool of love’ the béguinage is arranged around a large courtyard with spectacular plane trees & the Church. Unusually there is an order of nuns still living here and they have adopted the béguines’ style of head dress.

A museum is housed in a corner house complete with small cloister and well.

Strange to hear the tourist boats running up & down the just outside the window!

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Stats 2017

France Belgium Total
Waterways River Seine

River Marne

Canal de L’Aisne à la Marne

Canal des Ardennes

La Meuse – French

River Meuse – Belgian

Zuid-Willem Svaart Kanaal

Herentals Kanaal naar Beverlo

Kanaal van Dessel over Turnhout

naar Schoten

Albertkanaal

Netekanaal

Beneden Nete Kanaal

Kanaal Leuven

River Rupel

Boven Zeeschelde

River Dender

Ringvaart – Ghent

River Leie

Afleidingskanaal

Kanaal Gent-Ostende

Kilometers

452

475

927

Locks

109

40 + 7 sea locks

156
Lifting bridges

20 +

Engine hours

98

82

180
Fuel

765litres= 4.25 litres per eng hr

Deinze to Bruges

Piedaleau & Laura Marie decided to form a little convoy for the final stage to Bruges. We haven’t invested in AIS system which enables you to ‘see’ other vessels around you on the waterways ie those BIG boyos, and we had been warned that there are a couple of narrow stretches en route to Bruges where it could be ‘interesting’ to inadvertently meet such a big boyo. For boats 20m+ it is mandatory to have AIS. Chris does too. So Piedaleau decided it made sense to tuck in behind Laura Marie and be warned of said boyos!

On Monday evening we all gathered for a farewell dinner at Bruno’s and prepared for the off early on Tuesday morning ……. best laid plans and all that …….. we learnt that there is a 24hr transport strike on Tuesday and so the lifting bridge keeper advised us to stay put as we couldn’t know if any of the bridge / lock keepers would be on strike. Not worth getting stranded somewhere when we can stay at this very nice mooring and have another farewell do tomorrow!!

We finally left on Wednesday with Keith acting as crew for Chris – ain’t easy to cruise on your own, particularly for a long period (how can you go to the loo, even!). Anyway we had quite a jolly time of it, keeping in touch by radio, waving at Lucrèze standing on a bridge, trying to get the lst lifting bridge to open……..

So we are now in Flandria, our winter mooring in Bruges. They are still dredging and no one seems to know when this will actually be finished! We are rafted up to Vlinder (Ellen & Peter – who have returned to Aus) but not sure if / when we’ll have to move again. Fun! But we are here!

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And then on Weds 18th Oct we got word that boats could move into winter positions…….

So first we acted as shore crew for Maria of Zadam when she came backwards round the corner……

Then we acted as a tugboat and moved Vlinder out and up to raft up to Maria….. Then we moved Laura Marie back a bit while other boats were also being moved and eventually moored Piedaleau between Inevitable and Laura Marie. All tucked up nice and cosily for the winter!

So Weds evening we went out to celebrate with Jo & Tim (Maria), Chris (Laura Marie) and another couple called Diana and Chris who have a rather beautiful boat in the other mooring in Bruges. Jo said she thought I’d get on rather well with Diana, said she had worked at Addenbrookes Hospital …….. in fact she worked at both Addenbrookes and Papworth so I asked where they used to live –  ‘a little village you won’t have heard of ….. Offord D’Arcy’! Its literally a mile from where we live! I even recognised the name of one of Diana’s previous boats which she had on the Great Ouse here. Eeeh life’s full of surprises and happy meetings!

So after all this excitement we spent Thurs preparing to return home on Friday (20th Oct) for a few weeks, to see the kids and for me to attend my annual get together with me old (ie long standing) college buddies!

 

Ghent to Deinze

And on Friday 29th Sept we left our lovely mooring at Portus Ganda – we had to go through Ghent as the way we had come up was now closed. There are ‘open’ locks around the Ghent Ring Vaart (ring road!) which can be closed to protect the city in times of flood and this particular lock had now been closed for the winter. So through Ghent we went and very interesting it was too! We passed Bella Fortuna and Andy was out to take pictures of Piedaleau so I took pics of him taking pics of us…… you get the picture?

Knowing that there are still issues & delays re the dredging at Flandria (our winter mooring in Bruges) we decided to take the scenic route down the river Leie. So we crossed the Ring Vaart, avoiding a large fast moving commercial barge coming round the bend. Luckily, Adrian was going very slowly & I was up on the bow peering in both directions to check all was clear……. Phew!

We then meandered down the Leie – literally meandered because it sure is twisty and turny – but beautiful and the HOUSES! Absolutely stunning real estate.

We moored at Sint Martens Latem for the night which my ‘I spy book of Belgium’ describes as having been ‘adopted’ by a number of artists who became known as the St-Martens-Latem school.

Unfortunately the museum was closed but we found a fabulous gallery, we could both have come away with several items in our bags! Would have had to be BIG bags, mind!

Sint Martens Latem is a delightful village / town but obviously caters for the seriously rich! We decided against eating out when we saw the price tags just for the beers! But we thoroughly enjoyed walking around, looking in the shops & estate agents’ windows. The Church, which is seen in many paintings, was interesting, quite simple, but obviously had sculptures from local artists.

Onwards next day hoping to stop alongside one of the restaurants with moorings along the way. We stopped at one such establishment but were told we couldn’t stay overnight – basically ‘eat your dinner and go’! So we went – without having dinner – and headed to Deinze. There was one lifting bridge to negotiate and I discovered the guy there is a Brit! Keith came down to talk to us when we got to Deinze. We also met up with Chris on Laura Marie so we had quite a jolly time and went off to dinner at Bruno’s across the way with Chris. Busy place, friendly staff & really good wholesome food at reasonable prices. Great.

Sunday saw us shopping and then wandering around the town, visiting the museum and watching the Brabants Trekpaard (like our shire horses) championships which was taking place in one of the main shopping streets.

Keith and his wife Lucrèze stopped by and we ended up going to a locals’ café / restaurant on the outskirts of town. A tourist would never find such a place. Unfortunately I couldn’t try their apple cake (too late, all gone!) but we all enjoyed the smoked ham platter. Keith and Lucrèze invited us back to their house where we met their daughter Charlotte. What an interesting young woman! She works with young mothers who are under supervision by the courts. But animals are her passion! She has 2 pedigree horses, 4 pedigree whippets and 200 pedigree sebright chickens – yes, 200! She breeds them, shows them, wins lots of prizes with them and sells them all over the world! Apparently someone in Saudi Arabia wanted 100! Never seen such beautiful, calm, stroke-able chickens.

She also breeds whippets and is due to come to UK, to Soham in Cambridgeshire, for Olivia to rendezvous with a rather gorgeous looking male whippet! So we hope we can see them when they come over.

 

 

Promenade through an enchanting city…..

this is the title of one of the leaflets we were given at the Tourist Information Centre in Ghent. Apparently Ghent started developing a ‘comprehensive light strategy’ for the city in 1998. The light plan was developed to emphasize prominent monuments, to improve safety and enhance the nightly landscape of the city.

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We decided that we just had to see what this was all about so we set off soon after dark for our promenade……

 

 

 

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Ghent Glorious Ghent!

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We spent a couple of days at Aalst on the Dender river – Voirrey and Andy had recommended a stop here because the people at the Yatchhaaven – Mario and his brother Ivan – were so nice and helpful. And, having spent about 10 days on different free haltes, without services, we were definitely in need of water and the laundry situation was becoming somewhat dire! Talk about a warm welcome! Like long lost friends! and they really couldn’t do enough for us. The restaurant suggestion was excellent so we went to bed refreshed and slept very soundly.

We then retraced our steps to the Dendermonde sea lock, waited for the rising tide again and headed off towards Ghent. Another good run in sunny weather – reached the Merelbecke sea lock and turned off the Boven Schelde to moor at Merelbecke Yatchclub for the night . Very pleasant mooring, off the main waterway, away from the big commercial boys, so much calmer and quieter – apart from pigeons chucking acorns at us from above!

And so on Thursday 21st Sept we headed up to Ghent where we had booked to stay a week, having heard what a beautiful city it is. The map shows 3 possible mooring places in Ghent but as several people (including Mario & Ivan) had recommended Portus Ganda, that’s where we headed for. There is one lock to go through and we had been wrned that the lock keeper is a bit testy; however both we and the boat already in the lock were subjected to a long diatribe cos we called in on the VHF and he only has a mobile! Took a while but he finally let us both through!

And a lovely mooring it is, quite central (about 15 mins walk into centre) and we were lucky to be placed on the end of a pontoon with security gates. We paid for a week, met an Aussie bloke (Geoff & Leanne on Sunshine Coast) who immediately invited us round for drinks later! Met a second couple there (Peter & Ellen on Vlander) and we all got together for dinner on Friday, so a most pleasant, sociable start to our sojourn in Ghent.

We walked into town to the Tourist Info Centre and were bombarded with leaflets, information and suggestions. Could not have been more helpful. We bought ourselves 72hr visitor passes and then it took quite a bit of planning to work out what to see when! Such a lot to see and do and real Indian summer type weather in which to do it! How fortunate are we?

Museum Arnold Vanger & the Hotel D’Hane Steenhuyse – a guided tour of two beautiful manor houses opposite each other on the main shopping street demonstrated how the upper classes lived in the 17th & 18th centuries. The guide frequently referred to ‘upstairs downstairs’ when translating for us. She told the story of the silk wall covering in the main salon which really was stunning.

The Castle of the Counts – Het Gravensteen – Once the seat of the counts of Flanders, the Castle of the Counts is a mediaevl moated castle in the heart of the city centre. An imposing and majestic building which has seen many changes over the centuries. Parts date back to the 1100s but there are many later additions. It was the main military stronghold in the 14th century and then was used as the city’s jail until the late 1700s and later it was used as a cotton mill. There is a section on instruments of torture used in the jail. Nice!

Klein Begijnhof – we visited the Klien (small) Begijnhof and it was anything but small! More in blog on Beguines to follow.

Het Hinsvan Alijn – Folk Museum in old whitewashed almshouses, complete with café in the courtyard.

Cathedral – St-Baafskathedraal – St Bravo, who was Ghent’s own 7th century saint, left the life of a wealthy degenerate to become first a missionary to France and Flanders and then a hermit. It was built in stages over several centuries and therefore represents every stage of Gothic style. The main attraction is van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ which is on display in a side chapel.

Belfort (Belfry) is one of the city’s landmarks, 299ft high & topped by the guilded copper dragon at the tip of its spire, guarding the city. Originally built in 1313, it was restored in 19th & 20th centuries. 54 bell clarion which play lovely tunes to accompany the clock chimes.

Design Museum – housed in an elegant 19th century mansion. Frankie had told me how wonderful this museum was with room sets in the Art Nouveau period. How disappointing to find that they are packing up to move the museum and so there was little of interest there for us. Only one small area with some Art Nouveau glass.

Museum of Fine Arts –only about half the museum was open to visitors as they were changing exhibitions.

There was a section about the restoration process being undertaken on the sections of the ‘Adoration of the Mystic lamb’ which was most interesting.

Museum of Contemporary Art – across the road from the Fin Arts Museum but a big disappointment as the whole of the ground floor was closed and we were not inspired by the pieces that were on display.

Perhaps the moral of the story is to do with timing – end of the summer season but not yet the winter season.

Boat trips – hop on / off and historic Ghent boat trip. Thoroughly enjoyed both trips – provided welcome sit down in between lots of walking around and gave us some history of Ghent. You really get to see classic Ghent buildings from the waterways which have been so important to the city throughout its history. The Graslei and Korenlei embankments which face each other were once Ghent’s main harbour. The guildhouses include the guildhouse of the free boatmen, which is decorated with detailed nautical scenes. The earliest building is 12th century and the smallest was the toll house – now the smallest bar in Ghent! A really delightful area and excellent setting for a beer or dinner! We managed both, of course.

Markets – there are several markets in Ghent quite near to us so we have been able to visit the food & general markets and the bric a brac market where I bought beer glasses and Adrian bought a new workmate! The Sunday flower market is lovely.

And sometimes we have been treated to music in the streets – first Sunday we saw 2 bands playing in front of the Cathedral. First a Caledonian Pipers Band and then a marching brass band with 2 sousaphones, no less!

We find everyone friendly and helpful even though we don’t speak any Flemish. Cn’t get over how well everyone seems to speak English – even the school kids who were kayaking for their PE session and formed a rosette beside Piedaleau on Friday morning. Naturally I took photos and one girl asked me to email them to her, which I did. Following several of them came over to thank me. Told me they are in their final year of school 3 groups (Latin / Greek; Latin / Maths & Latin / Science) and will be off to uni next year. And all speaking faultless English.

And we have walked and walked around the city, sampled the food and the beers, people watched and just thoroughly enjoyed it all. Both agreed that Ghent is gorgeous. So much so that we have decided to stay a little longer before heading to Bruges for the winter. We have heard that they are dredging the Flandria port which means that things are somewhat chaotic. So we will delay our arrival there and enjoy more of Ghent. Such a difficult decision! Voirrey and Andy are also now here for some time – extended due to lock closures – so its great to catch up together again.

 

Going with the flow ……

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Sat 16th September – we finally got our dander up having checked and rechecked the tide timetables.

I was anxious +++ about going out into a falling tide and being whooshed along! I didn’t sleep at all well Friday night but was rewarded by being up before 7am to watch the sun rise over the nature reserve beside us.

We set off at abut 3pm – through the lock – and into the falling tide – heading for Wintam about 13 kms – where we would moor for the night before continuing the next day on the rising tide. We got up to about 13kph in the tide so it only took around an hour to do this stretch.

The waiting mooring at Wintam is on an extended ferry pontoon on a huge cantilevered arm from the bank which allows the pontoon to rise and fall with the tide. Mooring took a little time as we had to do a ‘Uey’ in the strong tide in order to moor into the current. Took time but beautifully executed and the ferry driver came over to take the ropes. We made quite a cat’s cradle of the ropes – with springers in both directions – because we knew the tide would continue to fall and then turn again during the night. We didn’t want any nasty nocturnal surprises! As t was I didn’t sleep well again, alert to the different water type noises through the night.

The ferry driver turned out to be very helpful and pleasant. Told us that he only works at the ferry a few days a month, his proper job is as a tug boat captain in the port of Antwerp. The ferry operates to take people across the Rupel river and many use it to go to & from work but we saw a lot of cyclists & walkers using it that evening. We went over to the nature reserve – mainly just saw ducks and geese but a lady told us that Spoonbills were known there – so I looked them up in me bird book and discovered that the behaviour I had attributed to egrets (wading with head down, bill in water sweeping from side to side) was actually Spoonbills!

After a bit of nature we headed up to the pub for a beer before rechecking our calculations for the next day & an early night. Next morning we headed off at about 10am, out onto the Boven Seecheldt on a rising tide – not easy to judge when it is just right for the distance we had to go – around 30kms – to get to the Dender river where we decided to take a break and go to visit Aalst, as recommended by Voirrey & Andy on Bella Fortuna.

Fortunately the weather turned most pleasant, warm and sunny, and very little traffic. We did however see quite a few ferries at different places along the way. Passed one commercial that was fully loaded with sand and saw that there were kiddies sand toys in it. One hell of a sandpit!!

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It was not always easy to see exactly where we were supposed to go and one bridge was so wide it was almost like entering a tunnel. We were pleased to get off the Schelde, onto the Dender and head for the little town of Aalst for a couple of days.