If you were looking to film a fairy tale or a magical romantic story then Ghent in Belgium is the perfect made-to-order setting for it. It’s incredibly well preserved buildings date back to the Middle and Medieval periods.
The historic inner city is an area of splendid buildings running along picturesque canals. Glorious architecture, the old Graslei harbor, cobblestone streets and numerous churches make Ghent a gem of a city. The belfry of Saint Bavo Cathedral, the beuinages and the Cloth Hall are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The highlights of Ghent revolve around its history embodied in wonderful monuments and buildings. If you are not a history buff or art connoisseur don’t be put off as Ghent offers a variety of great things for every one of her guests.
1) Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen)
Right in the middle of the city stands the fabulous 12th century stone castle, Gravensteen. It dominates the city as it was meant to do. Gravensteen, built on the lines of crusader castles, is everyone’s idea of what a castle should look like. It has everything – a soaring keep, conical turrets, dark, steep spiraling staircases, and imposing stone walls punctured by arrow slits, a moat, and battlements. The restored interior features suits of armour, a guillotine, sundry torture devices in a brilliant (if grim) torture museum that also has a replica of a man undergoing water torture, a prison pit and wandering knights. The movie guide for visitors is a treat too. The best place to photograph the castle is from St – Widostraat.
2) Rope Bearers
Way back in 1539, the good people of Gent rebelled against the all powerful Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. After subduings the rebellion he forced many of them to parade around town dressed in nothing but their undershirts and a rope noose around their necks as a warning against future mutiny.
Check out the statue erected in Prinsenhof to commemorate that humiliating time. You will also find a memorial plaque close to the statue.
3) St Bavo’s Cathedral
The enormous Cathedral of St Bavo incorporates and blends the best of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Unlike Gothic churches it is a unique mix of red brick and stone. It is relatively lacking in decorations and ornamentation – the result of puritanical Protestants who stripped it of statues and paintings. That was remedied in the Baroque period when the superb and ornately carved pulpit and altar were installed along with the Van Eyck masterpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
4) Ghent Museums – Masterful
As is to be expected Ghent has a wonderful group of museums. A background of commercial power and wealth combined with a long history has ensured that the arts and sciences flourished in this gorgeous city. Ghent’s museums house works by many of the world’s greatest masters. The variety and quality means that everyone will be entranced.
Important museums in Ghent are the Museum of Fine Arts, with paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, and many Flemish masters. The SMAK or Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst contains works of the 20th century including Andy Warhol. The Ghent City Museum (Stadsmuseum, abbreviated to STAM) explains the city’s past and is committed to preserving the present.
5) Ghent – A Foodie’s Paradise
Whether it is bakeries, chocolatiers, restaurants or candy makers, Ghent is generous with her culinary pleasures. There are many mouth-watering delicacies Ghent has developed that are unique and local. “Mastel”, a delicate bun; locally made praline chocolates; nose-shaped (neuzekes) purple jelly-filled candies and a hard butterscotch candy called babeluten (babblers).
The region has also come up with the intense refined mustard (Tierenteyn). ‘Stoverij’ is a classic Flemish meat stew, made with a generous dose of brown ‘Trappist’ (strong abbey beer) and served with French fries. ‘Waterzooi’ is a local stew originally made from freshwater fish caught in the rivers and creeks of Ghent, but nowadays often made with chicken. It is usually served nouvelle-cuisine-style.
The city promotes a meat-free, vegetarian diet day on Thursdays called Donderdag Veggiedag. Ghent has the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.
6) Graslei and Korenlei
Ghent is an architectural wonderland and walking through its cobblestoned streets is like living in history. This is especially true of the Graslei and Korenlei areas, which are a tour de force of castles, churches, monasteries, guild (merchant) houses, old market places and meeting houses. It is like being in the middle of a medieval painting.
Graslei and Korenlei are the original medieval docking areas for trading ships that came to unload and load goods from across the world. The elegant guild buildings date back to the 12th century and simply take your breath away with their beauty and style. Today it is a great place to sit at one of the several outdoor cafés and admire the view.
7) Take A Boat Ride
Ghent was founded by Celts 2,000 years ago on the confluence of the rivers Lys and Schelde. Their many branches intersect the city. Ghent was once an important and bustling medieval port city. Its growth and existence depended on its waterways. Even today they retain that importance and the best views of the city are from a boat on its picturesque canals.
For a small city Ghent hosts some pretty big cultural events. The most famous is the ten-day-long “Ghent Festival” (Gentse Feesten) which is held mid-July every year and attended by about two million visitors. The festival features music and theatre on virtually every street corner. The Festival of Flanders, now in its 50th year, involves about 50 concerts at locations around the inner city.
Flanders Expo is an annual event and has raised the global profile of Ghent as a great venue for trade fairs and exhibitions of all kinds. Several other events take place around the year in Ghent.
9) The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
Adorning the walls of St Bavo’s Cathedral is a fabulous and outstanding masterpiece – The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Painted by the famous Van Eyck brothers in 1432 it represents the pinnacle of the Flemish Primitive style. The painting – a polyptych of 24 panels – has survived fires, the destructive Protestant Iconoclasm, Napoleon’s avarice, being hidden in a salt silo and Nazi acquisitiveness. One panel, the Just Judges, stolen in 1934, has yet to be recovered. Thousands of people visit Ghent just to view this work of art and it is certainly worth it.
We should never forget that culturally, artistically and architecturally wonderful as she is, Ghent started life as a market and trading post. Much of her history revolves around that fact. Many of her markets are wonderful places of business and serve as windows into her history.
Groentenmarkt was originally a fish market and since the 18th century a vegetable market. In the Middle Ages the pillory stood here. A mustard factory and shop still operate in one of the surrounding houses. The long Groot Vleeshuis is a medieval period covered meat market with a guild house and chapel. The building dates back to 1406-1410.
The Korenmarkt (corn market) is surrounded by 16th and 18th century buildings and was the business center of old Ghent. The “Huis der Kruideniers”, the guild house of the grocers, is close by. The Oude Vismarkt is a superb Baroque building built in 1689. The gateway depicts Neptune and allegorical representations of the Scheldt (male) and Leie (female).
Ghent is one of Europe’s best kept secrets and is often missing from the tourist map. With several UNESCO listed sites and high ratings by National Geographic its anonymity is fast changing.