Published: 06/01/2017 10:22 - Updated: 06/01/2017 11:00

Ghent - a city of troublemakers

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

Now I must say at the start that it is not me who called the proud Ghent folk troublemakers, but it is reputation that they are happy to continue. Ghent was started around 630 AD when St. Amand set up here at the confluence of the rivers Scheld and Lys. (The independently minded Ghent people initially threw him into a canal, but then relented) The flat land was, and is, marshy, good only for sheep, so they started a wool trade, leading to a textile industry. By 1100 Ghent’s harbour was packed with ships trading cloth, tapestries and grain as far as North Africa. Ghent was bigger and more important than London right through to 1550!

Ghent's post office
Ghent's post office

Around 1200 a new type of man was developing in Flanders (as this part of what is today Belgium is called).This new man was enterprising, practical, innovative, critical of existing power and authority. He believed that all men are equal under God and man and boldly developed trade and industry. They claim that Capitalism started here, with this spirit of free enterprise. One man, Lieven Bauwens, travelled to England and actually stole a spinning machine. He smuggled it, bit by bit, back into Ghent. Within just a year or so there were thousands of folk working in cloth factories, all helping to build up the huge trading activity. The coast line silted up, and Ghent lost access to the sea using its river, so they simply built a canal and carried on!

Emperor Charles V was born in Ghent in 1500, and even he couldn’t impose his will on the stubbornly independent Ghent folk, so in 1540 he returned, harshly took control, and made all the dignitaries of the city kneel before him bare foot, wearing hair shirts, with a rope noose around their necks, as if he was about to hang them all. Even that didn’t cow them, and still today a rope necklace is worn on special occasions to show how they are still independent, and is a symbol of the city.

Today Ghent is still an enterprising city. It is full of wonderful historic buildings, winding streets, canals, great cafes and restaurants, and becoming very popular with tourists – and yet it is not “touristy”. You will have difficulty finding shops full of tourist tat, or fast food outlets. The local people are tourist friendly, and give you help and advice quite cheerily, and in English too!

You cannot escape the history. In the middle of the city centre is the Castle of the Counts, built in 1180, they claim that it is the only one in the world in a city centre. It is a fairytale castle, worth looking round. Opposite is the old fish market, today full of tables and chairs from the cafes. There is the entrance to the old market, with huge figures of Neptune keeping watch, with the figure of Scheldt (male, and representing the river) and Lys (female, and the other river) on either side. Nearby is the Vedstraat, the main shopping centre and antique and bric-a-brac shops.

Wall art in Ghent
Wall art in Ghent

Then comes St. Michael’s church with its 138 metre high tower. This tower is flat at the top, because it has never been finished! There follows a row of spires. The impressive 13th century St. Nicholas’ church has the main tram lines running around it. Then there is an ultra modern unusual building, the City Pavilion. This is used for concerts, shows, markets and so on. It is a very clever way of putting a modern building into an ancient setting, it somehow blends in. Underneath it is the “Belfort Stadscafe and Restaurant”. It is just below ground level (but accessible by wheelchairs, prams and the tired!) It is a great place to eat – but one word of warning, go there hungry as the portions are large, and it is excellent value for money. It is like an oasis in the city. Their symbol is a red dragon. This leads you to the next tower, the Belfry and cloth hall. On top of the Belfry (built also in 1180) is a dragon wind vane. This dragon keeps an eye out for invaders, fires or floods, and is another symbol of Ghent, you will see dragons everywhere. 

Sint Niklasskirk
Sint Niklasskirk

Next in this row of marvels is the great St. Bavo’s Cathedral. This was started in 942, but the oldest bit left today dates from “only” 1150. This is another gem of a place to visit. It has the painting “The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb” by the Van Eyck Brothers, painted in 1432. It DID have their “The Just Judges” but this was stolen in 1934. They are still keeping an eye out to see if it appears anywhere in the world. Just to your left is the ornate Theatre, and then the Town Hall. This is unusual. It is built in 16th century flamboyant Gothic style on one side, and the later Italian Renaissance style on the other. Inside there is six centuries of history to explore, there are guided tours. Then comes St. James’ Church. Everywhere you look, there are wonderful old buildings to catch your eye.

If you are now feeling like a rest and a meal, I can recommend two more places. On the Graslei, the quay from where boats take you on circular trips along the canals, there is the Belga Queen restaurant. This is in a sombre grey stone building which dates from the 13th century, and is the oldest building on the quay, and was a grain store. They have a slogan “Belgian Wonderfood Place”, which is not an empty boast – you will eat very well here. Another unique restaurant is the Pakhuis. This means warehouse, and you go down a narrow lane and suddenly there it is, set back into the row of houses is a large glass doorway. Inside the restaurant the upper floor is supported on rows of stout iron pillars. It is a busy and popular place, maybe best to book, and again you will not go away hungry! Ghent is also very “veggie” friendly and the very efficient tourist office in the city centre – or on line – can provide you with a vegetarian guide to all the restaurants and markets.

Belga Queen restaurant, Graslei
Belga Queen restaurant, Graslei
Belgium is famous for beer, and Ghent of course is no exception, you can even have your hair cut while drinking a beer! The Barbier barbers serve beer while they snip!  Ghent is a clean and tidy city. Graffiti is a problem everywhere, except here. A lane has been designated for graffiti, and this has become a tourist attraction too – with so many tourists taking photographs it has encouraged the artists to keep spraying here and exhibiting their work. There is also the “Concrete Canvas” idea. You will see many gable ends; some tucked away, some more obvious, with huge designs and artistic paintings on them.

As you would expect with a city with so many students, (around 70,000 of them) there are plenty of places to eat cheaply, (and not just the famous chips with mayonnaise) and a lively night life. Check out www.use-it.be for details of free concerts and events. There are also art galleries, the Botanical gardens (with a 2 metre wide Amazon water lily) and bicycles everywhere. Bikes are a good way to get around, everywhere is flat of course, much of the centre is car free, and bikes can be hired.

One very interesting side of Ghent is the three Begijnhofs. The Beguines were communities of women. Although Christian, they were not religious orders. Single women could join, agreeing to abide by the rules, and live in houses, usually built in streets around a church. Some of the ladies came from wealthy families, and all of them had to work. They developed textile industries, washing and cleaning, tended the sick, and built up quite an organisation. The movement started around the 12th century and flourished in Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France particularly. The Beguines gradually declined, with the last lady passing away in 2003. Today the neat clusters of houses in their quiet areas of Ghent are much sought after residences.

There is a full range of accommodation here, to suit all pockets. I stayed in the Novotel. This is discreetly tucked away behind St Nicholas’ church, tastefully integrated into the surroundings. Inside it is like the “Tardis” as it opens out with all the most modern and up to date facilities. It is easy to get there too. Ghent’s main railway station is Ghent St. Peters. Trains go from here to anywhere in Belgium and beyond. This makes it easy to visit other towns like Bruges, (25 minutes) Brussels (35 mins) Antwerp (45 minutes) or go to the coast. The whole Belgian coast has the longest tram line in the world running all along it from France to the Netherlands. You can go to Knokke in the north (one hour) visit several coastal places and return from Ostend, or go all the way to De Panne and come back from there, also one hour.

Theatre and Belfry with dragon
Theatre and Belfry with dragon

To go to the city centre form the railway station, take tram number 1. This takes about 12 minutes to arrive at St. Nicholas’ church, and the Novotel hotel, for example, is just 3 minutes walk from there. There are many cards to give you public transport, museum entry, and many offers and discounts. Ancient towns can be tricky if you are in a wheelchair, but the Ghent tourist office has thought of this too, and can give advice, also on www.toegankelijkreizen.be Ghent is easily accessible from Brussels airport (direct trains) from Eurostar trains (again, direct trains from Brussels Midi where the London trains arrive) or from the coast.

This was not my first time in Ghent, and I am sure that it will not be the last. There is so much to see, so much going on, and the local people are friendly and helpful, with a good sense of humour too. They all seem to speak English which helps. Their reputation as troublemakers is well deserved, but in the positive sense that they are independent, and go-ahead and get things done. At night there is the “Ghent Light Plan”. From dusk until midnight (when the street lighting takes over) the centre of the city is lit up tastefully (and practically too, it uses 20% less electricity and reduces light pollution) and it is magical to stroll around with all the ancient buildings subtly lit, reflexions on the canals, and is a perfect way to end a busy day in this charming city.

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