On a cool but bright Autumn morning I walked from my hotel to the centre of Bruges and realised this was it – I felt at home. It was my first visit to this miniature medieval masterpiece, and I was instantly swept away by the tranquil buildings yawning in the rising light, the still waterways weaving their way through the city, and the chocolate shops with their irresistible displays of confectionery bounty.
I wandered around my new favourite place slowly and aimlessly, eventually crossing a bridge into a silent enclosure. Identical houses squatted in a neat circle around a courtyard filled with trees, a few supporting small wooden huts between their branches – a contemporary art installation. Nuns in pairs shuffled out from one door and into another, smiling shyly at their visitors. I’d found the Begijnhof – the start of another Belgian love.
Flicking through my guidebook, I discovered that this beautiful haven had a fascinating history. Founded by the Countess of Flanders in the 12th century, it was created for the widows of the crusaders. The original buildings have been replaced by 16th and 18th century models, but the female community remains – it is now inhabited by an order of Benedictine nuns (find out more in the small museum there).
My pre-visit readings had prepared me to expect history, culture and food in Bruges, but on my first visit to the Begijnhof I also found a place of tranquility, reflection and welcome that I had not anticipated. I will admit that it brought me to tears. When you travel alone, these little moments of discovery can be transformatory and I left the city feeling somehow fuller. More complete.
One a second visit, the artist’s tree huts had been removed and the central space was now dominated by a stunning carpet of bright yellow daffodils. It was coming up to Easter, and the nuns had woven shapes from corn to decorate the church. Once again, I was filled with something otherworldy – a calm you rarely have chance to experience when the modern world moves so fast.
While beer, chocolate and climbing the Belfry should all be on every visitor’s to-do list in Bruges, be sure to visit the Begijnhof too. You don’t have to be religious or even interested in history or culture to enjoy this special place – it offers its welcome to everyone.