Almshouse complexes, peaceful places in the city
Many tourists are struck by the beautiful small white or yellow almshouses all over the historic centre of Bruges. They are not unique for Bruges, some other cities in Flanders, Holland (de hofjes) and Germany also have almshouses. In France they are called Maisons-Dieu.
There are 46 complexes, each of them counts several almshouses (about a total of 250). The oldest date back to the 14th century, built by rich traders and guilds (bakers, weavers, bricklayers), the youngest were built in the 20th century. In the beginning widows and elderly people of a certain guild lived in them. In one case they were inhabited by blind people (Godshuis Blindekens).
These almshouses are mostly one floor high, built in a long row along a street, sometimes closed by a gate or door. They have an interior garden and most often a chapel. In those times poor people were supposed to pray for spiritual welfare of the rich benefactors. Those wealthy founders usually painted their name on the wall or façade. The picturesque gardens are mostly open for the public and offer a silent oasis midst crowdy streets.
In the past these almhouses had only one room and there was a common toilet in the garden. Housing was not free but cheap, the inhabitants had to be a citizen of Bruges and a good moral living standard was required. Today elderly people live in them. The dwellings are nicely restored and contain modest housing to them. Actually they all belong to the Public Service of Social Welfare (OCMW).
Exceptionally a set of seven almshouses in a long row (Balstraat)has been converted into a museum, namely the museum of Folk Life. Some of the almshouses are real works of art and have a baroque façade.
Christian charity was common in the old times. Certainly after the Golden Age of Bruges, many citizens suffered from poverty. Begging was forbidden; church, guilds and rich families gave support in housing but also in food and fuel. Nowadays charity in a town like Bruges is structured but still numerous organisations and volunteers do extremely nice work for poor people.
Every visitor is welcome in the garden. Enjoy but respect tranquility !