CANALS, CASTLES & CHURCHES OF GHENT
After our initial look around Ghent yesterday we headed back out a bit earlier than usual today to catch a glimpse of the town before it got too busy. We were well rewarded for our early start with some lovely views across the canals and squares, sans tourists. It’s so nice seeing an old town like Ghent at your own pace like that, and to enjoy the sights and sounds of a town awakening. Once the main sites opened their doors for the day (which seems to be around 10:00am here), we also managed to fit in a good day’s sightseeing too, with Ghent’s castle, Gravensteen, and its many churches our priorities for today.
We had yet another awesome day in this wonderful little Medieval town, with the first couple hours of our morning taken up with a self-paced tour of the city’s canals and old streets. Generally Belgians do not seem like early risers, so we had most of the streets and squares to ourselves until about 9:00am, which was lovely.
*It’s not quite as bad as Amsterdam here though – there anything before midday seemed too early for most people to venture outdoors!
Our first stop for the day was Het Gravensteen (The Castle of the Counts), once the seat of the Counts of Flanders when they ruled this part of Belgium. The castle didn’t open until 10:00am though so we were forced to (joyfully) retreat to a nearby coffee shop for a morning shot of espresso and accompanying pastry*. In many ways it’s those moments which are the best of the day; just sitting back, relaxing and people watching and letting all that history and ambience soak in.
*Flanders, being closer to the Netherlands, is far more Flemish than other parts of Belgium. The French influence is still apparent here, though, especially in things like the food. For example, there’s a propensity towards rich sauces (which we’re not especially partial to), and morning croissants and/or pastries (which we ARE partial to). We seem to have acquired a pain au chocolat habit which could see us gain about 10kgs if we don’t get it under control. It’s just that they are SO GOOD here, and the chocolate in the centre is so very very delicious….
Once Het Gravensteen opened its doors we abandoned our post and set about exploring the 12th century castle.
Built in 1180 by Count Philip of Alsace, Gravensteen was modelled after the crusaders’ castles. The castle served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders until they abandoned it in the 14th century. Since then it has been used as a courthouse, a prison, and a factory.
Over the centuries the castle crumbled; stones were taken from it to repair nearby houses, and by the end of the 19th century, the castle was a ruin fit only for demolition. Luckily a group of concerned citizens managed to convince the Ghent city council to buy the castle and restore it, turning it into the tourist attraction and landmark it is today.
Inside the castle there were displays set up showing how life would have been for the Counts of Flanders during the Middle Ages, as well as exhibitions of Medieval weaponry and torture instruments (pretty gruesome). There were also areas set aside for artistic exhibitions, currently themed around death and dying (all a bit sombre, but interesting enough).
The best part of the castle tour was the views from the top of the parapet across Ghent. Despite the haze, it was a great way to see the city.
After Gravensteen we stopped in to visit Sint Michielskerk (St Michael’s Church), a Gothic Roman Catholic* cathedral dating back to the 15th century. The Church’s interior was richly decorated with many Baroque paintings and marble statues.
*Religion is one of the reasons Belgium rebelled and seceded from the Kingdom of the Netherlands – the Dutch were predominantly Protestant, whilst the Belgians were mostly Catholic.
Crossing the River Leie we crossed the Kornmakt (once a the main market square of the town, now the hub of all things touristy in Ghent), and headed towards Sint Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas’s Church). Built with donations from the wealthy guild merchants of Ghent in the 13th century, St Nicholas’s Church is one of the oldest and most prominent landmarks in Ghent. It’s 2 towers are visible from all points of the old town and are especially useful landmarks if you’ve gotten yourself (happily) lost down some narrow Medieval streets and need to orient yourself again!
Also prominent as a landmark is the belfry tower of Sint Baafskathedral (Cathedral of St Bavo). This is by far Ghent’s most visited cathedral, mainly due to its altarpiece by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck: “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (no photos allowed, so photo below from http://www.sintbaafskathedraal.be).
After such a hectic (NOT) day of sightseeing we needed a place to chill and settled in at a local brasserie known as ‘T Oude Clooster (The Old Cloister) where Shane sampled a few of the 800 local Belgian brews* and I sipped iced tea. As the afternoon slipped into evening we ordered dinner (hearty Flemish beef stew and a burger – both highly recommended) and relaxed just a little bit more.
*They take their beer very seriously ‘round here: each beer has its own (branded) glass to go with it, and its own serving directions. Also, there’s no such thing as “beer o’clock” – when ever you want a drink, it’s beer time. Lots of café/bars are open 24 hours a day and there’s no problem getting a breakfast beer a say 8:00am, should you so desire.
This long term holidaying business sure is fun, and Ghent is proving to be a pretty cool place to enjoy the balmy summer weather whilst enjoying the best of Belgian history and culture. If you’re thinking of passing by this way some time, we can highly recommend it!