Sunday, 9 February 2014



A Belgian enclave


You may be aware that Belgium is divided into two parts, French and Flemish, but what you may not know is that there is another curious Belgian boundary that is not so well known.    Looking at the map one can see a small town in Holland to the north of Turnout, several kilometres from the Belgian border, called Baarle-Hertog.   However, on closer inspection one finds that the town is in fact Belgian territory, an enclave in Holland.   This unusual situation came about in the 12th century when the town was divided between the Dukes of Brabant and the Lords of Breda.   The confusion is completed when we find that the town is still divided and the sister parish of Baarle-Nassau is Dutch, a Dutch enclave in Belgian territory!    Baarle-Hertog / Nassau is a   pleasant little town now thriving as a very popular tourist destination,  but the people belong distinctly to two different countries.   Each parish has its own church, school, post office and police station and the dividing line is very clearly marked.    

One half Belgian, one half Dutch

The houses are clearly numbered in the conventional way, with one significant addition, the colours of the country of the people living there.


Belgian house

Dutch house



Legend has it that Antwerp (Antwerpen in Flemish) in Belgium originated in Roman times.   Apparently a giant called Bruon Antigonus had a castle on the site alongside the River Sheldt, and he is supposed to have cut off the hand of any passing seaman who refused to pay him a toll, throwing the severed hand into the river.
Legend has it that the giant was slain by a Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo, who hacked off the giant’s hands and tossed them into the Shledt, and so the place was named ‘Hanwerpen’ (hand thrown).   This is commemorated by a fine statue of Brabo in the Grote Markt in Antwerp.



Lier Sheepheads


 The people of Lier in Belgium are known as ‘Sheepheads’.  The story goes that in the Middles Ages the populace had a choice of having a university or a flock of sheep, and they chose the sheep.  Nevertheless the town prospered and the economy of the town is textile industry.


The legend of Orval


The Cistercian abbey of Orval in southern Belgium was founded in 1070.  and it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Round about 1076, the ruler of the area, the Countess Mathilda of Tuscany, was seated beside a clear bubbling spring within the abbey precincts, when she accidentally dropped her wedding ring into the water. She was distraught that this memento of her deceased husband seemed to be lost forever and she prayed to the Virgin Mary for its return.  It is said that a trout came to the surface of the water with the ring in its mouth.  Thereafter the valley became known as ‘aurea vallis’ or Golden Valley – Orval.

The abbey was  reconstructed in 1926 and is now famed as a brewery where the monastic community generates its income from a very fine Trappist beer, one of only 6 such breweries in the world.

The emblem of the Orval Abbey, a trout with a golden ring in its mouth, has kept this legend alive over the centuries and the spring still supplies the essential brewing water.

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia
A town within a town

The entrance to the beguinage at Lier




Beguinages, or Begijnhofen in Flemish, are a type of former religious community which can still be found in many old Flemish towns and are a testimony to the medieval mystical movement which produced them.   They are often described as a ‘town within a town’ and nowadays are a great tourist attraction because of their history and interesting architecture.
A  beguine was a very devout woman, a widow or a spinster, who did not wish to take holy orders, but nevertheless had a desire to lead an independent but committed  life, living in a community with like women, either in groups in large houses or sometimes alone in small ones.

These communities, which began as Catholic lay groups, were  started in the 12th century and flourished in the Netherlands and France.  The women met initially to discuss economic and religious matters and soon decided that their mission in life was to minister to the less fortunate members of society, without having to take lifelong vows.   As their numbers increased, so did the beguinages  which developed into small villages with a church  or chapel and often with a guesthouse, and surrounded by a wall with a gated entrance which could be locked at night.   
The beguines became subjected to strict discipline through the church and were headed by the Grande Dame, a type of Mother Superior nominated by the Bishop.  They promised to obey the rules of the community but were free to leave if they wished.  Two or three times a day they congregated for mass but in their free time they did community work looking after the sick, old and poor people of the town.  They wore a greyish-brown habit within the community and a hooded cloak when they went out.  They were allowed freedom of movement but were obliged to return to the beguinage in the evening.
Sadly many of these communities were destroyed in the iconoclasm and the religious struggles of the 16th century.  Some were rebuilt in the 17th century and are those  which we can see today.    Very few beguines remain, not many of the young ladies of the modern era wish to live the sober and isolated life. 
It is a delight to be able to walk along the streets of these communities, to enjoy the very individual architecture of the buildings and to soak up the peaceful atmosphere which still pervades.  No graffiti! and often no cars.   The beguinages are now usually owned by the town and  used as elderly or student accommodation, and the like.    It is a struggle to maintain some of the delightful old houses and if someone comes along prepared to pay the cost of a controlled restoration, then they are allowed to live in the property for life on payment of a peppercorn rent.
We spoke to one lady who had paid for the restoration of two adjoining cottages and she told us that she could live there for the rest of her life and that the property could then be taken over by her daughter.   Another elderly women who also lives in one of the larger houses with her grandson, told us that she had been housed by the authorities on a low rental for life,  after which the grandson would be able to continue the tenancy at an increased rental.   Sadly many of the lovely churches are in desperate need of restoration but many schemes are afoot to that end.  Some of the old guesthouses have become restaurants and other buildings are used by artisans,  which means that the communities are being preserved as a ‘town within a town.’
On 2nd December 1998, thirteen Flemish beguinages were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, recognising the exceptional universal value of these communities.  This of course expressed UNESO’s commitment to ensure their protection and conservation.    Amongst the finest beguinages are those in Brugge,  Lier,  Diest and Tongeron.    Often it is possible to find that one of the houses has been preserved as a museum, to give an insight into the way of life of the beguines.    


The Beguinage church at St Truiden

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