Like most things in Ghent, the Monasterium PoortAckere has a long history. It was founded in the year 1278 (or earlier) as a beguine house and was used for various religious purposes until the time of the French Revolution, when it was confiscated by the town council. In 1863 the site was sold to Count Joseph De Hemptinne, who is described on the PoortAckere website as “a Catholic industrialist and great patron of the Neo-Gothic movement.”
At first there were plans to restore the old medieval buildings, but instead a new cloister was built, in the Neo-Gothic style that was popular at the time. So most of the buildings of PoortAckere are from the 19th century, not the 13th.
Later I looked up this Count Joseph De Hemptinne and found out that he had made his fortune by exploiting the workers at his textile factory in Ghent. He was well-known as a spokesman for the far-right wing of Belgian Catholics. He supported several reactionary Catholic newspapers and later financed Catholic missions in the “Belgian” Congo.
After the Second World War the buildings at PoortAckere were used as an orphanage, then as a house for young women, later as a student residence and finally as a nunnery. In 1998 there were still six nuns living on the premises, “but due to the extravagant maintenance costs the buildings were sold.”
Now a private investor has renovated the old buildings and transformed them into a hotel with a seminar center and a restaurant. The site still has some of its old monastic atmosphere (with little candles in the halls and religious music playing softly in the background at breakfast), but nobody tried to proselytize me or save my soul or anything like that, so I felt fine there and came out feeling just as secular as when I went in.
My room was in the House of the Rector. It was fine though of course rather dark and gloomy as befits a former monastery.
Like most historic buildings in Ghent, as in the rest of Belgium (and the Netherlands, northern Germany, Denmark and Poland) the Monasterium PoortAckere is made of bricks, rather than stone or wood.
The choice of bricks as the main building material is logical when you consider that this low-lying region has no huge stone quarries or towering forests, but it does have ample supplies of sand and clay to make bricks out of.
By using bricks of different colors and shapes, architects can create a wide range of effects, as in these buildings on the Oude Houtlei across from the Monasterium PoortAckere.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2019.
See also: The Dead City
(scroll down to chapter eight for the Béguinage in Bruges/Brugge).