Ghent is an easy day trip from Brussels. The city was built on the basis of textiles. As a major trading center in the Middle Ages, it built a grand city center to celebrate and demonstrate its position and wealth. It continued being prosperous through the mid-17th century until the Dutch closed the canal that fueled the city’s fortunes. While Ghent suffered about two centuries of diminished fortunes, it reinvented itself around another aspect of the textile industry in the mid-19th century when it emerged as a major center for spinning cotton into cloth. It continues as a textile center to this day, but has diversified its economy by becoming an education center with about 18,000 students, and as a tourist center.
Our tour began in the center of Old Town. It is surrounded by three churches, each built by a guild that demanded its own church and sought desperately to outshine the others. These churches are:
- Sint-Baafskathedraal (aka, St. Bavo) was named after the city’s 7th-century saint. It was built between the 13th and 14th centuries and combines many different phases of Gothic architecture. For a 4 euro fee, you can enter to see and listen to an interesting audio-guide explanation of the dozen panels of the van Eyck brother’s (Jan and the lesser known Hubrect), recently restored, 1432, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” triptych.
- Saint Nicholas, an austere, Gothic 13th-25th-century church;
- Saint Michael’s Church, which was supposed to have the tallest bell tower for the guild having run out of money and an unstable foundation that forced the architects to reduce the height and weight.
Other buildings around the main square include:
- Belfry is a lovely, 299-foot watch tower that was built in 1313 both as a symbol of the city’s wealth and as to warn citizens of potential dangers, such as fires or invasions. The 19th-century, addition of s 54-bell carillon is topped by a golden dragon, which was bought back from the Crusades.
- Cloth Hall is a 14th-century building that was used in the city’s medieval textile trade.
- A Guild building topped by several cast-iron dancers that were intended to rotate in the wind (but were are too heavy to do so). Currently it is the site of a major annual music and dance festival.
- Several buildings that appear to be from the 16th and 17th centuries, such as a theater that was actually built in the late-19th century and one with a Big Ben-inspired clock tower that was actually built for the city’s 1913.
- A modern, seven year-old civic concert and entertainment venue that was originally protested by the people, but that eventually gained their support afar bring ridiculed by the rest of the country.
Several other fascinating buildings are located within a kilometer or so of the Old Town Center. Among these are:
- Graslei, and Korenlei, Two lovely groups of several elegant, step-gabled 16th and 17th-century guild houses are located on either side of the city main harbor. Some, such as the Free boatman’s and the corn measurer’s houses are decorated with ornate carvings. Other buildings in these blocks have their own histories and charms. The current Marriot, for example, bears the symbol of two swans that indicate its previous role as a brothel. A tiny building, cramped between two large guild houses was a tux office. Another larger nondescript, Romanesque structure, the 12th-century Spyjker was one of the most important buildings in the city—a grain warehouse.
- Stadhuis, or City Hall is a huge, schizophrenic building. This 16th century building has Gothic section with walls lined with intricate carvings. It stands in sharp contrast to the austere Reformation section and the most recent, Neo-Classical section. why so many different sections? The city had a tax dispute with Charles V, the Holly Roman Empire who retaliated by publically humiliating and eventually executing 25 of the city’s leaders. He extracted so much money from Ghent that it took centuries to complete the structure.
- Castle of the Counts, part of which was built in the 11th century, but generally completed in the 14th. While initially the city’s primary center of defense and Count’s residence, it was later repurposed as a prison and later, a cotton mill;
- Mad Meg is a 16th century, 16-foot, 35,000 pound cannon that could fire stone cannonballs that were well over a foot in diameter.
- Great Meat Market Butcher’s Hall is a low-roofed, early 25th-century building whose huge wooden beans are now, for tourist purposes, being used to cure hams.
- Patershol is a lovely neighborhood in the city in which clerics used to live. It had become quite run down, but has been gentrified into a desirable neighborhood that has become one of the culinary centers of the city.
- Korenmarkt is the Old Town city square. It connects the area’s busiest commercial streets and is surrounded by historic buildings and packed with restaurants and cafes.
Restaurant Du Progres was our lunch place during this day trip. Our anticipated fast meal turned into a very long wait for our food. When it finally arrived, both dishes were fine. These were a chicken fillet with mushroom sauce and a vol-au-vent with chicken, mushrooms, and small meatballs in cream sauce with puff pastry. Both came with much welcomed salads and of course, Belgium fries. Tom took advantage of lunch to sample another Belgian beer–a local Delerium Tremens blond beer.