LEUVEN, Belgium The cobblestone path dips below street level to a small haven of mottled red brick buildings and arched doorways. The occasional bicycle is propped up against a wall. A trilingual sign forbids sunbathing, picking fruit or loud talking.
This place, these buildings, are different from the clapboard student houses of most American university towns. It looks like a place where people live a peaceful, simple life.
Once upon a time, it was.
It now houses students and professors. But centuries ago, this hamlet in Leuven a university town, 20 miles east of Brussels was a beguinage, a sort of commune for unmarried, religiously inclined women known as beguines (pronounced bay-gueens).
Beguines most likely derived from the Flemish word beghen, which means to pray were women in the Low Countries who, beginning in the 12th century, chose to live neither under the care of a man nor the vows of the church.
Theirs was, in essence, a feminist movement and its remarkable architectural legacy is still evident in cities across the Netherlands and Belgium. But nowhere in greater splendor than in this old university town.
The Leuven beguinage (called a begijnhof in Dutch) was founded in 1230. Exquisitely restored in the 1960s, it is today a quaint little town of tiny gabled homes and gardens that spreads across 17 acres.
UNESCO has declared the beguinage a World Heritage site, a place of outstanding cultural importance. There are neither cars nor shops in this spectacular urban oasis that delights visitors year-round.
If you stroll down the quiet, centuries-old cobblestone streets and peek into the gated garden areas, you can almost see the beguines growing vegetables.
A canal runs between the buildings. There is no tour boat, just greenish water flowing between red brick buildings. Ivy, growing thickly, dives into the water. The cobblestone street becomes a bridge, just for five yards or so.
This place housed hundreds of beguines in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today it offers a quiet escape from urban life, a place where a person could reach a higher plane. Or go stark, raving mad.
What is so unusual about the beguinages here and in the Netherlands there is still a beguinage in Amsterdam is that they survived revolutions, social strife and terrible wars across six, seven centuries.
The history of beguines is somewhat muddled.
Beguinages were home to generations of religious women who sought to live a more independent life than that of women who married against their will. They made their homes, catered to the sick and poor, and sought to serve God without separating from the rest of the world.
As Catholic women devoted to prayer and good work, beguines lived simply, wore loose robes and headwear similar to nuns' habits.
But nuns they were definitely not.
Beguines took no religious vows. They could leave and marry, if they chose. They could own property and took no alms. Women of all classes were welcomed. They carried on professions, often in the textile industry. They elected women to be leaders Grand Dames and each Grand Dame was often assisted by an elected council. Each beguine was expected to support herself and make a tangible contribution to the beguinage, either through labor or rent income.
Belgium's beguinages are intact, but the beguines are long gone. In 2000, there only five of them left in Belgium.
A walk through the Leuven beguinage is a spectacular march back into time. Meeting someone here in a habit would make more sense than that young man over there in cargo shorts and Birkenstocks.
Jeroen Laureysens, an 18-year-old theology major, lives in the Leuven beguinage. "I love the atmosphere because I like things like abbeys," he said. When he first saw the beguinage, he recalled, "it was like, 'wow' maybe in some months I will live here."
The church bells chime the hour. The white stone chapel now the university parish rises above the three-story red brick buildings. Today students and professors of the Catholic University of Leuven to which the beguinage now belongs live in the small houses that were once home to beguines.
Studying economics or computer science here would feel wrong. This place calls for the study of romantic literature or medieval history. Or, of course, theology.
Living an essentially religious life without taking vows made many of the more conservative members of society and the church suspicious of the beguines. Why not, they wondered, simply take on the vows of sisterhood and live in a respectfully cloistered manner?
To supporters, however, the beguines represented a worthy attempt to live a godly life within a tempestuous world without shutting themselves out.
The early beguines made their homes on towns' peripheries. But eventually they became gated or walled communes which put at ease those wary of the women's insistence not to join religious orders.
Each beguinage had its own way of doing things and that could be a problem.
The clergy felt threatened by beguines' attempts to provide spiritual guidance to the community around them, particularly when they propagated mysticism over ecclesiasticism.
Following investigation by church authorities, some of the smaller beguinages died out.
Some, particularly in the Netherlands, escaped condemnation by accommodating the church hierarchy and espousing Catholic tenets up to a point. Vigorous condemnations lead to the decimation of beguinages in the Rhine Valley.
In Belgium, the beguines made concessions to survive, limiting the ability of members to leave the commune, taking on habit-like dress and being more stringent in following a vow of chastity.
By the 17th century, the beguinages had almost completely disappeared from the Calvinist provinces of the north, but were maintained in the Catholic Lowlands.
After a time, many beguinages were elevated to parish status and were assigned their own priest. Though still individualized, they moved toward organized religion and became increasingly bourgeois.
In the 19th century, the fates of the beguines varied. Some retained possession of their homes. Others were taken over by religious orders or transformed into hospices and orphanages.In 1998, 13 Flemish beguinages were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, including the Grand Beguinage of Leuven.
If you go . . .
GRAND BEGUINAGE: Leuven, Belgium; whc.unesco.org/en/list/855. Leuven is 17 miles east of Brussels on the E40 Highway. There is train service three times an hour from the Brussels Central Station. The beguinage is only a 20-minute walk from the Leuven rail station through the town's centuries-old heart. Alternatively, several buses (among them No. 2 and 16) pass by the beguinage. Entrance to the beguinage is free. Link to route and map: www.neurogastro.be/IMAGES/BEGIJNH.HTM.