Ghent is a port and university city, with an interesting history stretching well into the Medieval period. Indeed, around 1300, Ghent had a population of over 50,000 people, making it the second largest city in Europe north of the Alps (the largest was Paris). Ghent was a rich city and much of its stunning medieval architecture survives today.
Being only a 30-minute rail journey from Brussels, where we were based, our plan was to see as much of this historic city at the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Leie, with as little expense as possible, within a day. By the time we had finished, however, we had realised that Ghent was worthy of a far longer trip.
The main railway station – Gent St-Pieters – is surprisingly far from the historic centre of the city. On foot, it takes around 30-minutes to walk. A lengthy walk, but, as we soon realised, this was a blessing, since the buildings that line the road that takes you into the heart of Ghent are full of architectural gems. We especially liked the ones that had beautiful Art Deco and Art Nouveau touches.
We stopped at the Spithouse Rotisserie for quick bite to eat, before continuing to our first attraction – The Monument’s Men.
The Monument's Men
Ghent is an absolute treasure house of street art, and one of the most famous is the mural created by Smates near St. Michael’s Bridge. In 2014 the Hollywood movie 'The Monument's Men' featuring George Clooney was premiered. As this movie is about the famous painting the 'Ghent Altarpiece' the city wanted to do something special. So, they commissioned this delightful 100m² mural.
St. Michael's Bridge
We continued onto to St Michael’s Bridge, which allows a fantastic panoramic of beautiful architecture. The bridge itself is fairly unspectacular, having been a flat turntable bridge, which was replaced by stone arches at the beginning of the 20th century, but its position in the heart of medieval Ghent is perfect. In the middle of the bridge is a beautiful central lantern with a bronze statue of St Michael, from where the bridge received its name.
Perhaps the most striking building surrounding the bridge is the Post Plaza and we gained an even better view when walking round to the front of this former post office building. The richly decorated building, which was built in 1909 using several styles, has been turned into the ‘De Post’ shopping centre and luxury hotel '1898 The Post'. Remember to look up at the beautiful 52-metre clock tower!
Church of Saint Nicholas
Directly in front of the Post Plaza is the beautiful Scheldt Gothic style church of Saint Nicholas, built from Tournai bluestone. Interestingly, one of its unique elements is that the tower is not above the entrance but above the crossing of the nave and transepts. We explored the interiors and were impressed by the lighting within this sanctuary.
Mason's Guild Hall
On leaving the church, we made sure we checked out the exterior of the Masons' Guild Hall. This is a 16th-century building with a stunning stepped gable, with six dancers turning merrily with the wind.
Passing the Post Plaza again, we walked into the centre of the Koremarkt and couldn’t help but be impressed with the striking bygone facades of the square. Almost 1000 years ago, this was the place where grain was traded after arriving in the city along the Scheldt and Lys rivers. This enabled the Korenmarkt to grow into an economic centre over the course of the Middle Ages and subsequently a series of exquisite buildings were constructed around the trading hub.
Our itinerary then took us to the impressive 12th century Gravensteen Castle, the 'Castle of the Counts, which is the only remaining mediaeval castle with a moat and largely intact defence system in Flanders. The gatehouse, ramparts, keep, count’s residence and stables are open to visitors. Interestingly, during the late 18th century, the Castle of the Counts was sold to private owners who later converted it into a factory complex. In 1807, the fortress in the heart of Ghent housed a cotton mill, and its outbuildings served as primitive dwellings for about fifty families of workers.
We then spent the next half hour or so wandering the streets of the Patershol neighbourhood around the castle, taking in the wonderful murals that decorate this area. We found the ‘De musketiers’ on the side of a food store. A fun artwork created by Buè the Warrior. Then there was the ominous ‘Abracadabra’, created by Violant and the impressive ‘The Traveller’ created by A Squid Called Sebastian.
Our wanderings then took us into the Heilig-Kerst area of the city, where we took in the ‘Goodnight’ mural, created by Scarpulla, we then crossed back over the Leie river, examining the ‘Baudelohof jam’ and ‘Lost at Sea’ murals on the periphery of the Baudelopark.
Gentse Gruut Stadsbrouwerij
After all this walking, we had worked up a thirst. Handy then that the Gentse Gruut Stadsbrouwerij was situated at the edge of the park. The Gruut City Brewery is no ordinary brewery. You’d be forgiven for thinking that its distinctiveness comes from the quirky interiors, which includes giant stuffed animals! However, what is special about this brewery is the way they brew their beer – they do not use hops, but rather a combination of herbs. To make sure we tried as many different blends of herbs as possible, we had to try a flight of beers. All in the name of travel research!
St. James' Church & Vrijdagmarkt
After being well rested, we walk past St. James' Church, which is situated in the Bij Sint-Jacobs square, right at the heart of the world-famous Ghent Fetivities, the annual people’s festival in mid-July which really signals the beginning of summer in Ghent. Beyond the church we found the Vrijdagmarkt and the imposing Monument to Jacob van Artevelde. The monument was made by the Ghent sculptor DeVigne-Quyo in 1863 and is of the Flemish patriot, anti-French statesmen and politician from 14th century Ghent.
We always enjoy our street art wherever we travel throughout the world, and we were in for a treat when we then walked through Graffiti Street. We found that Graffiti Street was an interesting contrast to all the medieval architecture in Ghent. More of a lane than a street, artists are allowed unlimited access to express their spray-can art on the surrounding walls, making Graffiti Street an ever-evolving work of street art. If you are lucky like us, you will also get a chance to watch one of the artists compose another signature piece.
The Town Hall
By now our itinerary was taking us back to the medieval centre and past the Town Hall. This local government building has been built in two parts making it a fascinating sight. The façade on the Hoogpoort side shows you the flamboyant Late Gothic style that dates from the early 16th century. This style is in sharp contrast to the Renaissance style on the Botermarkt side.
By now, we were at the back of Saint Nicholas Church. From here, we checked out the rear of the church, as well as the architecturally controversial Stadshal (City Pavilion), and the more traditional Belfry and Cloth Hall. We didn’t have time, but the belfry tower can be ascended, giving a stunning view over Ghent.
St. Bavo's Cathedral
We then visited perhaps Ghent’s most famous attraction - St Bavo’s Cathedral – Ghent’s oldest parish church stands on the site of a 10th century church and a 12th century Romanesque church. In the Middle Ages, Ghent was a rich and powerful city that had the means to commission ever-larger and more opulent churches. St Bavo’s Cathedral has a rich history and it is also filled with art treasures such as ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ by the Van Eyck brothers. So that you have a chance to admire all the panels of the Ghent Altarpiece in all their glory, the outer panels of this masterpiece by Van Eyck are folded inwards every day between 12.00 and 13.00.
After visiting St. Bavo’s Cathedral, we walked less than fifty metres to find the small oasis of calm called Achtersikkel. This beautiful little square is often graced by a muscian or two, since the buildings surrounding the square houses Ghent's music academy. The Achtersikkel’s name is derived from the name of rich patricians, the vander Sickelen family. This family enjoyed political and social prestige and long owned the buildings around the beautiful inner courtyard.
The Castle of Gerald the Devil
By now we were heading into early evening and heading towards our dinner destination. We did, however, have a chance to walk past another eye catching piece of street art, called ‘Geluksvogels’, by Venom. Then, as we walked along the banks of the Reep, we couldn’t help but notice the fantastically sounding building that dominates the canal. The Castle of Gerald the Devil 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. Despite the name and its grim appearance, the devil has never actually resided in this 13th-century fortress.
The Vooruit Arts Centre
Our dinner date was at The Vooruit Arts Centre, which is housed in an impressive 100-year-old building and offers a variety of cultural events, including theatre, dance, performance, festivals, lectures, concerts and parties. The centre boasts a spacious Art Deco café, once the heart of Ghent's socialist movement and it was here that we had our meal.
By now we had to head back to the railway station and our connection to Brussels. On the train, we had time to reflect on this beautiful city and plan our next visit to Ghent and take in further of its delights. A trip that hopefully we can make soon.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue in the Highlands of Scotland.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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