The history of Ghent begins in the year 630, when St Amandus chose the site of the confluence (or ‘Ganda’) of the two rivers, the Lys and the Scheldt, to construct an abbey. Nearly 1400 years of history are still palpable in the city today: a medieval castle surrounded by a moat, an imposing cathedral, a belfry, three beguinages… Nowhere else does one find so much history per square metre than in the historical heart of Ghent! From the year 1000 to around 1550, Ghent was one of the most important cities in Europe. It was bigger than London and second only to Paris in size. The 60,000 inhabitants it had in the 14th century clung forcefully to their rights: earls and princes discovered that the proud and rebellious people of Ghent would not relinquish their hard-won privileges and freedoms without a fight. The emperor Carl V was born in Ghent in 1500, the king of the first worldwide empire after the discovery of Americas: the Empire where the sun never sets.
SAINT BAVO CATHEDRAL
When Charles V was baptised there in 1500, the metamorphosis from a closed Romanesque church to a spacious Gothic one was fully underway. However, despite substantial financial support from the emperor, the cathedral still remained unfinished 58 years later. As a result, the funeral service for the deceased sovereign could not take place there.
All that remains of the original Romanesque church is the crypt. St. Bavo’s Cathedral houses an impressive number of art treasures: the baroque high altar in white, black and red flamed marble, the rococo pulpit in oak, gilded wood and marble, a major work by Rubens, the ‘Calvary Triptych’, attributed to Joos van Wassenhove, alias Justus van Gent, tombs of the Ghent bishops, and much more. However, one work stands out head and shoulders above the rest: the world-famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck around 1432.
THE ADORATION OF THE MYSTIC LAMB
The Van Eyck brothers painted this unique altarpiece in 1432. It is the highlight of the Flemish Primitives and a milestone in art history. The Polyptych survived the Protestant Iconoclasm, fell into French hands under Napoleon and was requisitioned by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. But it has now been hanging peacefully for more than 50 years in the place where it belongs: St. Bavo’s Cathedral. Though admittedly, the ‘Just Judges’ panel, which was stolen in 1934, is still replaced by a reproduction.
THE BUTCHER’S HALL
The Great Butchers’ Hall dates back to the 15th century, when meat halls were indoor market places with centralised sales to monitor the freshness and quality of the meat. The building has a remarkable and splendid open wooden truss roof. If you look up, the sight of Ghent’s special Ganda Hams hanging there will whet your appetite. The impressive medieval and covered Great Butchers’ hall houses the centre for the promotion of local East Flemish products. The ideal base to discover the East Flanders’ cuisine, from appetizer to dessert. Also arrangements for groups.
The Belfry is the proudest symbol of the city’s independence.
The Cloth Hall was built onto the side of the Belfry. In a euphoric Brabant Gothic style, this monument glorifies the industry to which the city owes so much. At the corner of the Cloth Hall is an old jailer’s lodge. The façade is adorned with the ‘Mammelokker’ which depicts the legend of Cimon who was condemned to starve to death. He was saved by his daughter who fed him daily from her breast (‘mamme’: breast – ‘lokken’: suck). The Belfry is the middle of the famous three-tower row, together with the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and the Saint Nicholas’ Church. Nowadays is the museum of bells.
SAINT MICHAEL CHURCH
The steeple of St Michael’s Church should have stood out above all the others, but history decided otherwise: the 134 metre high planned ‘monument of triumph’, has remained at a paltry 24 metres. In 1828, the unfinished tower finally acquired a closed roof. The church contains numerous paintings and sculptures by famous masters, including ‘Christ on the Cross’ by Anthony Van Dyck.
It is difficult to believe, but less than fifty metres from the bustling Sint-Baafsplein you will find an oasis of calm: the Achtersikkel. With a little luck, your stroll past this beautiful little square with its two towers and well, will be graced by a violin solo or a piano performance by students of Ghent’s music academy, which is housed here. The Achtersikkel’s name is derived from the name of rich patricians, the vander Sickelen family, who enjoyed political and social prestige and long owned the buildings around the beautiful inner courtyard. The brick corner tower belongs to the oldest part. The high round tower was built using sand-lime brick and completed with an octagonal stone belvedere in Renaissance style. The private well is proof of the original inhabitants’ wealth, as few could afford such a luxury.
PRINSENHOF AND LIEVEKAAI
In the 14th century, Lodewijk van Male swapped the Castle of the Counts, which had grown uncomfortable, for a town house in this neighbourhood. It was here that Charles V was born in 1500. The Prinsenhof, as it was called then (and still is), was around 2 hectares in size and fully walled.
Charles V represents more than merely a footnote in the history of Ghent. He humiliated the rebellious inhabitants of Ghent by making them kneel in front of him barefoot and with a noose. Today, they are proud of their nickname, “stroppendragers” or “noose bearers”, but back then that certainly wasn’t the case.
Of the gigantic, walled complex with more than 300 rooms, a zoo and a pleasure garden (!), only the Dark Gate remains today. However, this does not mean you should bypass the area: it is one of the city’s many hidden gems.
In the first week of September the Prinsenhof Festivities take place here, including the largest flea market in Ghent.
Ask ten inhabitants of Ghent what the most beautiful place in their city is and nine will answer the Graslei. Today this medieval port with its unique row of historical buildings, which are reflected in the long river, is the meeting place par excellence. Young and old, inhabitant and visitor, everyone meets on one of the many café patios or simply by the water. This is the thriving heart of the inner city.
The house of the Grain Weighers, the Guildhall of the Free Boatmen, the Spijker… every house on the Graslei has its own history. Together they form the story of the incredible blossoming of Ghent’s economy during the Middle Ages. On the other side of the water is the Korenlei. All that remains of some of the original buildings is the outer walls! Behind them is a brand new hotel.
CASTLE OF FLANDERS COUNTS
I’ll show them who’s boss’: that’s what Philip of Alsace had in mind. So he had the imposing castle rebuilt (1180). Overlooking the city from its battlements high up on the keep, one can sense the feeling of wealth and power that the lord of the castle must have had. Thanks to the movie guide, a unique, interactive computer-controlled guide, this remote history really comes to life. On certain weekends, you may even meet some real knights. Since early September 2014 a large part of the Castle of the Counts is concealed by scaffolding. Large white canvases cover the castle walls. The scaffolding has been placed there for the last phase of the restoration of the walls of the medieval keep. By summer 2015 the works have to be finalised.
CASTLE OF GERARD THE DEVIL
Despite the name and its grim appearance, the devil has never resided in this 13th-century fortress. Through the centuries, it has been used as a knights’ residence, an arsenal, a monastery, a school and a bishop’s seminary. In 1623, it became a madhouse for the mentally ill and a home for male orphans. Another part of the building was used as a prison or detention centre. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, it has been home to the State Archives.