The little town where time stood still

April 15, 2016 § 2 Comments

Courtyard in the Begijnhof, Leuven

Courtyard in the Begijnhof, Leuven


Two years ago I had a work trip to Leuven. It was brutally short and I was there for a grand total of 16 hours, of which approximately seven were spent sleeping. The only sightseeing I got to do was a very abbreviated wander through the Begijnhof. Even that tiny taste made me resolve to go back and explore it properly. A month ago, I got my chance: last year my friends M and M moved from Brussels to Leuven. When I went to visit them, the Begijnhof was at the top of my list… and this time I had my camera. I used turquoise film again (blue and moody Belgian cityscapes just seem made for each other, William Degouve de Nuncques discovered that a long time ago) but it behaved very differently to the roll I shot in Kraków: this time the sky was overcast so no blazing, almost metallic yellows. Just blue, blue, blue.

Begijnhof fountain

Begijnhof street

Leuven’s begijnhof (French: béguinage) is one of several that dot Belgium and the Netherlands. They originated in the 12th century as communities of béguines: unmarried women who devoted themselves to prayer and good works but who weren’t actually nuns, but more like a lay sisterhood – they didn’t take vows and could return to the world if and when they chose. The begijnhof isn’t a monastery, more a city within a city, not cut off from the outside world but still very obviously separate, running to its own rules and its own time.

river wall

Begijnhof double exposure


Begijnhof double exposure 2

Begijnhof church

The last of the Leuven béguines died in 1988 (!) but the begijnhof is still inhabited: it’s now owned (like seemingly everything else in Leuven) by the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and the houses are now filled with professors and visiting fellows. Even so, it feels strangely deserted – M, M and I were almost the only pedestrians on the streets, and at no point did we see anyone enter or leave any of the houses. It was like wandering around an empty film set that the actors had left ages ago.


Begijnhof empty street

bike and windowsill

There were signs of human presence – bikes leaning against walls, pots of flowers on the windowsills – but it was easy to imagine ourselves in a ghost town. A little town where time stood still.

Begijnhof door

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, standard lens, Lomochrome Turquoise XR 100-400 film)


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§ 2 Responses to The little town where time stood still

  • I spent 6 happy months in Leuven as an exchange student. To my shame I knew the clubs and bars far better than the history (I was young, up to all sorts and partying a lot at the time!). It was said that if the bikes were unlocked you could ‘steal’ them but equally you left them unlocked to be stolen in turn by someone else. I never quite knew how understood this was but everyone seemed to do it.

    Leuven could be empty, like you found it, or bustling depending on the term times as it is so dominated by the students. Great place, great times, sadly lost touch with virtually everyone from that time but thanks for bringing back memories!

    • Leuven itself wasn’t quite as empty as the Begijnhof… although as I arrived there on a Friday afternoon I did witness the uniquely Leuven phenomenon of the mass exodus of students taking their washing home to mum and dad for the weekend. Didn’t know about the bike tradition but I was amazed at how many I saw left unlocked. That would never happen in London!
      Glad to have brought back good memories, anyway. Maybe you’ll make it back there someday…

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