A September 2002 trip
to Ghent by Linda Kaye
Quote: Two medieval castles, nineteen museums, five abbeys, dozens of churches and countless historic buildings can keep a tourist busy for days-no other Belgian city has as many preserved monuments. Ghent is a warm and gracious city with an equal measure of art, history, culture and romance.
Ghent is the fourth largest city in Belgium and the capital of Flanders, the Dutch Region of the country. It is an important harbor with a canal connecting it to the sea and also a network of waterways connecting it to the "hinterland". It is known as the Flower City of Belgium, raising and shipping Begonias and Azaleas all over the world.
It is at St. Bavo’s Cathedral that you can find the most precious art treasure of Flanders. The Altarpiece known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan Van Eyck is said to be the most significant art masterpiece of 15th century Flemish art.
Ghent is a photographer’s paradise including the picturesque Row of Towers, encompassing the tower of St. Nicholas Church, the Belfry, the municipal tower and symbol of power of the Guilds and the St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the beautiful waterways lined with majestic Guild Houses and the Gothic/Renaissance City Hall.
It is also the location of the Gravensteen, known as the Castle of the Counts, an 800-year old fortress right in the heart of the City Center and an extraordinary Lapidary Museum.
Stop at the Tourist Office in the lower level of The Belfry in the City Center to get any information you need, or before your visit, log onto Visit Belgium.
Take one of the many boat tours available through the oldest areas of Ghent. Have your camera ready, as you will see so many beautiful sites, including the backside of the Castle of the Counts.
For lunch or dinner, try a Ghent original called Waterzooi. It is a wonderful hardy soup that is eaten as a meal; it is unlike any soup I have ever tasted.
If you find yourself in Ghent on a Saturday or Sunday there is a large open market in the city center. Items for sale include everything from soup to nuts, and hats to socks.
Take the elevator (lift) to the top of The Belfry right in the center of Ghent. The view from the top is splendid and gives you a wonderful prospective of this very compact city. Stop on the floor just below the observation parapet and watch the bell ringer operate the equipment on the hour and each quarter hour. Be sure to cover your ears.
If you arrive by car, there is a large underground parking garage at the city center, adjacent to the main market. We parked our car all day and the cost was 10 Euro. Once at the City Center, walking to all the attractions is easy.
The easiest way to get to Ghent from Brussels is a 40-minute train ride. The main station, Gand-Sint-Pieters, is 1.5 miles from the City Center. From the station you can take Tram #1, 11 or 12 to the Center. Bus transportation is also available. Maps of the tram and bus routes can be picked up at any ticket or information center.
For sightseeing, water cruises are readily available ranging from 5 to 12 Euro, and the very romantic can take a horse drawn carriage ride through historic Ghent. A half hour carriage ride will cost 20 Euro per carriage.
Hotel | "Monasterium PoortAchere"
We are always looking for unique accommodations to replace the conventional hotel and although we could not spend the night here, we couldn’t resist learning more about the PoortAchere and simply asked if we could "have a look". We were invited to walk around the grounds, through the downstairs dining and meeting area and were given a key to one of the empty rooms.
As we walked down the long wooden-floor hallways with magnificent neo-gothic arches above us, we couldn’t help but imagining women dressed in long black robes, habits covering their heads, hands folded in prayer as they walked these same halls.
The rooms are divided into two categories: the Hotel Monasterium has 34 impeccable hotel-style rooms with private bathrooms, television, telephone and internet availability. Rates are between 70 and 120 Euro. The Guesthouse rooms are simple convent cells with one or two beds and a washbasin. A few of the double rooms have private bathrooms, but most have shared facilities. Rates are 45 Euro for single and 95 Euro for a double room with a private bathroom. The rates for both styles include the breakfast buffet.
The room we viewed was for one person. It was very simple with a single bed. The walls were bare except for a lone painting of Christ. An undraped window overlooked the quiet street that bounded one side of the monastery. This certainly would be a humbling experience.
The large dining tables remain from years gone by and invite its guests into the Kapittelzaal (Chapter House) where the Chef prepares wonderful dinners. This is also where a Breakfast Buffet is served.
In the morning, you can watch the sunlight illuminating the stained glass windows in the Church at the Monastery, just as it has for hundreds of years. Although the absence of creature comforts was evident, the sense of simplicity drew us closer to its intriguing atmosphere.
Another great possibility to get away from the ordinary is the Boatel. We were not able to see this location, but I felt it was well worth passing it on to you. It is located on the Leie River on Voorhoutkaai #29A and is a rebuilt and completely transformed ship, with each room having its own unique character. There are five standard rooms (2 persons, 95 Euro) and two Deluxe Rooms (2 persons 119 Euro) and this price includes breakfast. Talk about being rocked to sleep; I can just imagine after a long day of sightseeing, cuddling up with that special person in your life to the quiet and gentle movement of the Boatel. We must return to Ghent for this wonderful experience.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 19, 2002
Oude Houtlei 56
Ghent, Belgium 9000
32 (09) 269 22 10
It was about 5:00 p.m. and having just completed a rather hectic day of sightseeing, we bid our guide goodbye. And wanting to avoid the traffic back to Brussels, we decided to find a quiet restaurant and have dinner. Although the sun was low in the sky, the early evening was warm. Excited from a full day of sightseeing activities, we were ready to sit, relax and reflect on the day. As we walked back to the banks of the River Leie, just around the corner from the Castle of the Counts, we found the Chez Loentine Restaurant. The wonderful fragrance waffling over the umbrellas that were covering the tables tightly packed into the terrace drew us in.
The first thing I recognized on the menu was Waterzooi. It is the Flemish version of Cream of Chicken soup according to our guide and is a Ghent original-a must try for first time visitors. Waterzooi started a long time ago when the town’s people did not have much food. They would boil water in a large pot in the town square, adding fish heads and any vegetables available. The name itself means "simmering water". When the soup was done, it was shared by all.
Today the most common Waterzooi is made with chicken, big pieces of white meat in a light cream soup with carrots, onions and celery. It has a wonderfully unique taste, served in a large soup tureen and would have been plenty for two people. Waterzooi was my choice. Harry’s was the Flemish Stew; a rich tender beef stew served with famous frites (French fries) and steamed vegetables. Both dishes were to die for and dessert was out of the question.
I cannot say that we received friendly service, the waiter seemed somewhat impatient with our lack of knowledge regarding the menu, and when asked for a refill of a drink it was forgotten. But this did not detract from the delicious food or the beautiful scenery and certainly did not dampen our enthusiasm.
I am not sure which was better, the food or the atmosphere. As we sat at the Chez Leontine overlooking the Leie River, with all the beautiful flowers around us, we recounted the sights we had visited: The Castle of the Counts, the monastery turned into a hotel, the view of the City from atop the Belfry, the river cruise, and St. Bavo’s Church, and we though to ourselves this can’t get any better—but then it did.
Chez Leontine Restaurant
Groentenmarkt # 10-11
09 225 92 56
The Pakhuis Restaurant’s slogan is One Place-Many Worlds. As we walked through the doors of what appeared to be a historic building in the heart of the old Ghent, we were pleasantly surprised to see the modern and innovative interior design blending well with the historical theme. This massive restaurant has a seating capacity for 200. Originally a warehouse, it has been transformed into a beautiful multi-level facility that includes a tearoom and bar. It is elegantly furnished and is full of natural light and live plants.
The Pakhuis offers several "menu" selections that include appetizer or salad, main course and dessert ranging in price from 21 to 27 Euro and a la Carte meals starting at 10 Euro. The fare is French/Italian style mixed with contemporary dishes. Oysters, shellfish and seafood are its specialties; vegetarian selections are also available. The wine list boosts wines from all over the world and I am told the bar is one of the best in Belgium.
We started with a fresh green salad, a mixture of several types of lettuce in a light and flavorful vinaigrette dressing. The main dish was a delicate broiled white fish in a light cream sauce with tender mussels. The fish was served on a bed of shredded cooked cabbage and a baked swirl of potato completed the plate. It was almost too pretty to eat. We topped off our meal with dessert and coffee and some wonderful conversation with our guide and a representative from the Tour Office, who had joined us for lunch. The service was excellent, the food delicious and the atmosphere memorable.
The Pakhuis was filled with both tourists and locals enjoying a business lunch or a relaxing mid-day visit with friends. The wide range of languages and dialects we could hear enforces its slogan of One Place-Many Worlds. The Pakhuis is open from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. weekdays and 2:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays. It is closed on Sunday.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 19, 2002
09 223 55 55
Attraction | "History Tour of Ghent"
Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts) has been described as a "grim and muscular fortress". It was built in 1180 by Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders, upon his return from the Crusades and was influenced by castles he had seen. After the 14th century it was no longer needed as a military stronghold and was used as a jail, law court and later a cotton mill. It was restored between 1894 and 1913 and is now a museum and tourist attraction. As we stood at ground level and looked up at this massive structure, it was not hard to imagine how this medieval castle represented a much harsher time, and today, in the middle of a bustling modern world, still boggles the mind.
This is a great place to wonder the grounds and the different rooms. We climbed up the walkways to the upper walls that overlooked Ghent and tried to imagine life in the Middle Ages. Justice was dispensed from this castle, harsh and unforgiving as evidenced by the instruments of torture and execution on display in the museum. Guilt or innocence was not relative in those days; the degree of punishment was the only thing that mattered.
Admission is under 5 Euro for adults- children under 12 free. Allow at least one hour to visit the grounds, the buildings, and the Museum of Court Paraphernalia, a unique collection of coercion and torture instruments used on prisoners in past centuries.
We visited the Lapidary Museum at the ruins of the former St. Bavo Abbey, Gandastraat #7. It is an incredible collection of historic pieces from renovated or demolished buildings, such as statutes, window trim and beautiful carved stone. There are impressive tombstones from the 13th – 19th centuries, including the tombstone of Hubert van Eyck, brother of Jan van Eyck who together painted the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The pieces we saw were outside just passed an iron gate and there was no charge to walk through these wonderful pieces of history.
Boat Excursion on the Ghent Waterways: Dodging a rain shower, we timed our boat ride just perfectly. The sun had returned and there was no line waiting for a boat ride at the Graslei, the old Ghent port area. It was a 40-minute trip through the historic city from a totally new prospective traveling on both the Leie and the Lieve Rivers.
From river level we gazed up at the magnificent, Guild Houses along the Graslei and the Korenlei, the backside of the Castle of the Courts, the old fish market and the Meat Hall. The continually changing sights along the waterway were enchanting - the small shops and restaurants, a popular hostel and three unique towers at the turn-around point for the boat tour. On the ride back, we saw things we had missed earlier. It was so relaxing to just sit back and enjoy all the beautiful sites.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 18, 2002
Ghent History Tour
Attraction | "St. Bavo's Cathedral"
St. Bavo’s Cathedral has been entrusted with many treasures including the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and a painting by Pieter Paul Rubens. Mass services are no longer held in the main church but in the underground chamber just beyond the ancient crypts. These areas are not open for sightseeing. The Cathedral was named for a beloved saint from Ghent, St. Bavo, who lived in the 7th Century.
There is a small fee (under 3 Euro) to view the original Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and it would be a shame to visit Ghent and NOT see it. But, before you do, I highly recommend that you spend a few minutes learning a little more about it. A replica has been created and is located on the right side of the main church. You can photograph the copy of the Altarpiece, something not allowed for the real thing.
The Altarpiece has a total of 12 panels, a main section and two side sections, which can be folded over the main section. When open, the painting extends to the backside and you are able to walk all around it. The total dimensions of the painting are 12 feet by 27 feet. This was one of the first known oil paintings, encompassing 280 figures, including the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Adam and Eve, angles, musicians, and prophets and in the lower center, the Lamb of God (Christ sacrificed for the World).
Joost Vijd, a wealthy and influential cloth merchant and his wife, Isabella, of Ghent, commissioned the Altarpiece in 1420. The Altarpiece decorated their private chapel. In those days, the side panels were opened only on Sundays and religious holidays for the public to view. On most weekdays it was closed. Now, all panels can be admired every day of the week at St. Bavo.
As you look at the Altarpiece in the closed position, you will see a man on the lower left and a woman on the lower right. Theses are portraits of Joost Vijd and his wife who had commissioned the painting. The story behind the painting of this masterpiece and its journey through history is fascinating. Each part or scene on the painting represents a distinct element of the way of life of the region.
If you are not able to join a tour and hear the explanation of the painting, the price of the viewing the original also includes a recorded explanation in several languages on a handset. This will take you about 45 minutes to view. However, for those interested, there in no time limit other than operating hours.
Another of the St. Bavo treasures is a painting by Pieter Paul Rubens entitled St. Bavo's Entry into the Monastery. Rubens, who died in 1640, is said to be the most influential baroque painter of the early 17th century.
Also worth a look is the 1741 pulpit and a 1653 organ, said to be the largest in Belgium.
Saint Bavo Cathedral, Sint-Baafskathedraal
Sint-baafsplein (st. Bavo's Square)
Attraction | "Ghent Friday Market"
To our delight and surprise upon arriving in Ghent early on a Friday morning, we were greeted by a large outdoor market. We had followed the map and signs to the city’s underground public parking lot and there it was - literally above the parking area in a large square.
In the center of the Square overlooking the bustling market stands a large statue of Jacob Van Artevelde (1295-1345), Brewer of Ghent, Statesman and political leader during the One Hundred Years War between France and England. Van Artevelde was a man of many talents and skills. In 1338 he negotiated a commercial treaty with England and obtained recognition for Flemish neutrality. In 1340, he convinced his peers in the region to recognize Edward III as King of France and Feudal Lord of Flanders. Striking an impressive pose, Van Artevelde with his arm outstretched, is pointing in the direction of England.
We started walking very methodically, up one isle looking left and right, trying our best not to miss a single booth, if only to give it a quick glance, then down the next.
It appeared the most popular booths were selling food. There was an entire area that sold olives- every variety you could imagine. There were in large bowls to make choosing easier. After selection, the olives were gently placed in a container, weighed and sold.
The most popular item was fish- fresh fish- small fish-big-fish. There were at least three different fish markets. I was amazed that there was no fishy odor, probably because these fish were swimming in the ocean just hours before. Another popular area were the meat markets- sausages and chicken mainly and cheese, cheese, and more cheese. The fruit and vegetable stands were overflowing with all type of produce, some I could not recognize.
The bakery booth was one of the hardest to get passed. The aroma of the breads and sweets was a wonderful delight. It was quite obvious that the majority of the shoppers were local townspeople doing their routine shopping.
Some merchants had simply moved their merchandize out of a nearby store and into the square. There were ladies dresses, blouses and slacks, men’s shirts and ties, socks, and baby items. There were belts and shoes, and toiletries of all kinds. There was furniture, glassware, woodcarvings, and knick-knacks.
The only thing I didn’t see, believe it or not, was chocolate-the one thing I was really looking for. We were lost in a sea of shoppers, and for a little while, became apart of this wonderful tradition of the weekly market.
When we returned to the area after our daylong tour, the booths had been removed, the trash swept up and the only evidence of the market was the trucks packed with unsold goods waiting to leave. The statue of Jacob Van Artevelde stood alone in the Square.
Friday Market Square (Vrijdagmarkt Square)
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