Having visited Brugge a couple of years ago, we opt to stop in on the lesser known Ghent today. Yes! Freedom from endless driving, at last.
The morning’s freeway run yields a Disney surprise, a deer, in what I now know to be their modus operandi, cautiously grazing at the edge of a forest. The sun, directly on her, lights her red coat afire. Those deer signs were not lying it seems.
We can only laugh when we arrive in Ghent. Our parking spot is at the edge of a canal, a few kilometres out of town – we’ve been here before, on the way out of Brugge last time. We only stopped for the night en route to our next destination. Today proves we missed out on an absolute gem.
We cycle in along the tree lined canal which is bustling with watercraft and bicycles. It’s immediately clear that Ghent is a very special place. Founded in 630, Ghent’s skyline is dominated by a series of impressive church spires and the town appears almost wholly preserved with the bulk of its Flemish style buildings dating from the 1600 and 1700s. Some, like the Gravensteen Castle have a history that dates back to Roman times.
The canal is the finishing touch, its branches lined with beautiful old buildings and resturants. It’s all I can do to go into snap happy heaven – every turn reveals something new that I’m desperate to capture.
Ghent’s extensive development in the Middle Ages was owed to wool. Too marshy to support agriculture, sheep flourished. Wool brought riches untold growing Ghent to the point where it was second in size only to Paris. Later, thanks to a spot of smuggling, Ghent became the first industrialised city in Europe: an English spinning mule was brought in piece by piece.
The city prides itself on its rebellious history – the locals have been rebelling since the 14th century (a merchant uprising against a ban on trading with the English, enforced by a then French ruler) to more recently protesting over the poor working conditions during the industrial revolution, going on to the birth of unionism and the socialist movement.
It’s a university City too, with one of the largest student populations in Belgium. The uni students give the city a young, vibrant vibe, helped along by buskers at all the key spots.
We only have the afternoon, so sightseeing is necessarily succinct, but I’m already planning a return trip. First stop is the Gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts. Time doesn’t allow for a tour but I catch up on a little history. Set on a junction on the canal, the castle’s 24 towers form a formidable defence, still virtually intact today. In its time, it’s borne witness to Roman occupation, been home to the Count of Flanders, been raided by Vikings, the site of a cotton mill in the industrial revolution and home the poor. Acquired by the government in the early 1900s, it was thenrestored and opened to the public.
The churches beckon. Set along Limburgstraat, five impressive churches, each with their own distinct style, create a breathtaking sight. I just can’t get over how utterly beautiful Ghent is – every turn offers something glorious. It reminds me of our first trip to Paris, where every turn offered a new jaw dropping sight. I must have walked 100 km on that first trip, crisscrossing Paris until it was time drag me away.
With a history dating back to the 10th century, it was Romanesque church in the 12th century, rebuilt in its current incarnation in the 15th century. The cathedral’s interior is a black, white and gold riot of baroque and roccoco style.
Ornately over the top, it also features artworks by Rubens and Van Dyck. Unbelievably, we fail to see the famous Ghent altarpiece, the adoration of the lamb. I’ll never understand religion – a lamb? Why? It’s not until later that I work out it was behind the entrance in a separate display. Ah well, something for that next trip I mentioned.
We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering about, soaking it all in, crossing the canal many time and taking one of recommended historical walks. We see the Achtersikkel square, once privately owned with it beautiful Renaissance style painted buildings, the very modern city pavilion, which looks surprising at home amongst its ancient counterparts, the two faced Town Hall, one side Gothic, the other Renaissance with Corinthian columns, St Michael’s Bridge with its stunning view of all the churches and the town square, Vrijdagmarkt.
We also see the Sint Veerleplein building, noted for its charming tradition of lighting its lanterns each time a baby is born in Ghent – it’s directly connected to the maternity wards and the 12,500 kg massive red cannon that’s never been fired. Or moved, I’ll bet. There are many primary student tour groups touring the sights. They manage kids differently here. Everyone wears a hi-vis vest with numbers on the back. At least the headcount is easy!
Afternoon drinks turn to dinner in Vrijdagmarkt. It’s a welcome rest stop to what’s been a really busy day. The ride home along the canal yields a few more sights, including the giggle worthy Pussemier Straat. Meow.
We’ve only scratched at the surface of what Ghent has to offer. I think it would need a good 4- 5 days to do it justice. It’s absolutely beyond me why this town doesn’t have a UNESCO protection slapped across it. In the meantime it’s off to watch the sunset and feed the ducks and moorhens in the canal.