• Flemish Béguinages

Visit: 21st September 2014

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By Tom

The Flemish Béguinages is a World Heritage Site made up of 13 separate communities spread across the northern Belgian region of Flanders. The Béguinages of Belgium generally consisted of houses grouped around a central courtyard, focused on a church and inhabited by members of a lay sisterhood – what we would probably call nuns. It seems they differed from ‘full nuns’ in that they did not seek to retire from the outside world, but remained part of the local community. There are two remaining Béguinages in Ghent, which was the city we visited on a one-night weekend trip to Belgium. Natalie and I were joined by Louise, Ross and four of his friends from Luxembourg (Stef, Delphine, Simone & Justyna). They (including Louise, who had been staying at Ross’s) drove up from Lux, whilst Natalie and I flew in to Brussels and caught a train onward to Ghent.

One of my favourite places is Bruges, and Ghent resembles Bruges in a number of ways – being its nearest city of reasonable size and having enjoyed the same status as a booming trading centre at around the same time (in the 13th century Ghent was the second biggest city in Europe, after Paris). It also shares Bruges’s passion for stepped building facades and canal waterways.

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St Bavo’s Cathedral

Unusually, the reason I picked this city to visit wasn’t primarily a WHS. Ghent’s most famous attraction is The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – or the Ghent Altarpiece – by Jan van Eyck. After watching the series Civilisation by Kenneth Clark I took an interest in van Eyck and thought it would be good to see the altarpiece for myself.

We soon met up with Ross and the gang, but before that Natalie and I visited the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts. Located near to the main railway station, it is a quiet museum that contains a very impressive and varied – though not overbearing – collection. You start off in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and, via Baroque, Romanticism, Impressionism and other movements, end up at Modernism and a pile of tables and chairs that must either be installation art or the furniture storage heap of a scruffy janitor.

Some of the more notable works in the museum include an interesting ‘metallochrome effect’ Passion scene by Hieronymous Bosch and, notably, a section of the Ghent Altarpiece – which is undergoing restoration. The task, which is taking around five years, involves the removal of a portion of the altarpiece at a time, whereupon it is worked on by experts in a lab behind a glass screen in the Ghent Fine Art Museum. Compared to viewing the rest of the altarpiece in a hot, dark, crowded room behind glass in St Bavo’s Cathedral, the quiet, cool, white space of the museum allows for a much more pleasant viewing experience. But the best viewing experience of all is found online, at an excellent website the museum has created that allows you to view the altarpiece in phenomenal detail, zooming in dozens of times and comparing a normal photograph with infrared and x-radiography – both of which allow you to see the charcoal underdrawing. The work is noted for its fastidious attention to detail, and the website is probably the only way you can truly appreciate that.

So, after the museum and after meeting the others and seeing the inside of St Bavo’s, it was time to check into the hotel and hit the beers. Unfortunately the apartment I had booked didn’t have proper beds, meaning we had to improvise out of sofas. Still, this didn’t matter too much and we were soon outside trying the full range of brews Ghent has to offer.

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The next day, after a continental breakfast, we split up for a bit. Natalie and I went off to see the Béguinages whilst the others went to Ghent’s castle. The first Béguinage we visited was the grandest – the Grand Béguinage de Sint-Amandsberg, situated near to Dampoort station in the east of the city.

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The walled mini-town allows anybody to wander in nowadays, and I don’t believe it is still inhabited by Beguines. But it still retains an air of tranquility, and you lose the ambient city noise of engines and car horns once you get inside. We had a look inside the empty church that dominates the centre of the Béguinage and walked around the cobbled roads that surround it.

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Having seen the Grand Béguinage, we walked the mile or so to the Petit Béguinage, which lies to the south of the city centre. Along the way we tried to stop off at a number of recommended eateries, but because it was a Sunday almost everything seemed to be closed. Unlike in Britain, where town centres seem busier on Sundays than on weekdays, the people of Ghent still treat the Sabbath as a day of rest. Which is annoying.

The church at the Petit Béguinage is totally different in style to that at the Grand Béguinage. To me it resembled the Catholic churches of Old Goa (though the ones here in Ghent are presumably Protestant, so what do I know?).

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The houses of the Béguinages are reasonably old, with one bearing the date 1628 on its frontage. They are mostly in good condition, and all still inhabited – but by what appear to be ordinary people living ordinary lives, just in a slightly extraordinary setting. I say ‘mostly’ in good condition, because the term could not be used to described this wall, which we gave a wide berth when walking by!

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There isn’t a museum or anything at the Béguinages – just a sign or two informing visitors of their status as a WHS. So with little else to do we headed back to the group in the centre of Ghent. We bought some chocolates (obviously compulsory in Belgium) and ate a rather overpriced meal where we were forbidden from choosing more than four types of main course from the sizeable menu (presumably to save the chef from actually having to exert himself).

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St Nicholas’ Church

The brief trip was by now almost over, and all that remained was for us to say our goodbyes and head our separate ways. Ross was driven back to Luxembourg by Stef and Delphine, whilst Louise, Natalie and I were given a lift to Brussels airport by Simone and Justyna, who were catching a flight to Ibiza.

We arrived pretty early for our flight, and it was delayed an hour, leaving us to sit and talk in the airport bar for a pleasant few hours. Sometimes a flight delay can be annoying (as it was when flying back from Genoa in August), but in this instance it was more of a silver lining than a cloud because it prolonged our stay in Belgium by 3% and allowed us to drink another glass of beer (even if it was only Stella).

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