An October 2003 trip
to Ghent by Drever
Quote: Ghent is a showcase of medieval Flemish wealth and commercial success containing awesome architecture. Cathedral, church, and belfrey towers pierce the sky and fill the air with the music of their bells. Beside ancient harbours, ornate guild houses line the banks. Street markets flourish as in previous centuries.
The new blends in seamlessly with the old. The city now has a modern link to the sea via the canal Ghent-Terneuzen. It allows seagoing vessels access to the city.
Ghent is the flower city of Belgium. The region supplies begonias and azaleas to the world market. Since the eighteenth century a flower and bird market takes place in Kouter Square on Sundays. Every five years the successful 'Gentse Floraliën’ (Ghent Flower Show) attracts thousands to the city.
'Stropke' is the nickname of Ghent people. A quaint name considering it is the noose of a hangman’s rope. The citizens of Ghent received this name because of the punishment inflicted on the city for refusing to pay more taxes by its most famous citizen, Emperor Charles V.
The Belgian State University with its many young people and students has turned Ghent into an important Flemish cultural centre.
The weather is much the same as in England so come prepared for wet days. We were lucky and escaped without a single shower although we visited in October. It was very cold though.
According to my guidebook tipping is not a problem. The bill usually includes service charges. Where this was not the case as in canal cruising or buggy rides they weren’t reticent in announcing that a tip would be appreciated.
Hotel ratings I was advised have little relationship to the quality of the rooms. It is better to inspect rooms first before taking accommodation if possible.
It is also possible to take the sea route. A train or bus ride from Ostend will get you there in about 30 minutes.
The best way to see historical Bruges is on foot. A boat trip will add variety. Whether the version of historical events given by the boatman is entirely accurate might be open to doubt. It is, however, usually entertaining. Pretty much the same holds for a horse-and-buggy ride.
Like many towns that have no hills, Ghent has bicycles everywhere. Hiring one is a travel alternative for the cycling enthusiast.
Hotel | "IBIS Centrum Kathedraal"
On entering, we came into a small lobby with reception desk, a small lounge area, and little else. We had prepaid, so it was just a case of handing over our voucher and taking one of the two lifts to the top floor (fifth floor). I have a prejudice against electronic keys, but this one worked without any fiddling around with it – a day later, it needed reprogramming!
The room was only as big as it had to be. In the limited space was a double bed, a small wardrobe tucked away in a corner with a TV perched on top, a desk top and chair, a telephone with seating area, a suitcase stand, and a table lamp. The bathroom had a shower placed above a midget-sized bath, a wash-hand basin, and a toilet. At first, I thought the room lacked a hair dryer and iron, but the information sheet pointed out that these could be had on request.
My prime hate is those hotels that do not provide a second pillow. I don’t sleep properly with only one pillow, but it doesn’t seem right that I should have to ask for another, as it should be available in the first place. This hotel only provided one.
On opening the window, I had a stupendous view. There were spires everywhere. Just opposite was St-Baafkathedral. In the middle of the square was the Belfort, and looking further down, St-Niklaaskerk. There was a downside to this view. When there are three bell towers busy with their cacophony when I am trying to sleep, it has strange effects on my subconscious. I can’t remember having so many dreams in my life. They all related to my childhood.
Breakfast was first-class, with a wide choice of cereals, meats, cheeses, rolls, toast, juices, and coffee or tea. During the day, snacks were available. On the first occasion I tried these snacks, I asked for toasted sandwiches with bacon-and-cheese filling. Those were unique. At first, I thought my teeth were not going to be able to penetrate this succulent morsel. The bacon had mysteriously turned to concrete. Thinking this must be a one-off, I tried their lasagne another night. It was nearly as bad. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that their snacks had few takers.
Mind you, a restaurant at the other side of the square deposited three pints of beer in my lap, and at another one, the sun umbrella collapsed on my wife’s head. It is so easy to work up conspiracy theories!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 26, 2003
Ibis Gent Centrum Kathedraal Hotel
Attraction | "St Bavo Cathedral – an Art Treasure"
At the site of the present cathedral a wooden church founded in 942 and dedicated to Saint John stood. In 1038 a church in Romanesque style replaced the early building. Part of which still exists in the early medieval crypt under the present gothic choir. The Romanesque church had become too small and run-down by the end of the 13th century. Ghent had become one of the most important and well-known cities north of the Alps due in part to the Flemish cloth trade. It needed a church that reflected the status of wealth and importance.
On June 7th 1569 the finished building, named after St Bavo a 7th century local nobleman who became a saint after he had given away his possessions to the poor and entered the monastery stood supreme -- a beautiful gothic construction. In 1561 creating the diocese of Ghent changed the status of the church to that of cathedral (seat of the bishop of Gent). On entering a forest of stone bathed in light led my eye onwards and upwards to the rib vaulting. Formed with bricks it stands 33-meters high.
The intricate carving of the baroque oak and marble pulpit (sculpted in 1745 by Laurent Delvaux), sweeps the eye up to where the preacher stood. Above his head grew a marble tree of knowledge complete with gilded serpent and fruit.
The 1624 painting of 'The Conversion of Saint Bavo', painted by Rubens hangs in the far left side of the chancel is full of drama as was his style. It also contains his self-portrait in a red-cloaked convert. The crypt under the choir also harbours an extensive collection of paintings and church utensils belonging to the church treasures. Among these is the striking ‘Calvary Tryptych’ of Justus van Gent painted in 1466 – following Van Eyck in its precise attention to detail. Behind the transept on the right –hand side is Frans Pourbus the Elder’s 1571 painting ‘Christ Among the Doctors’. It shows a youthful Jesus surprising the elders of the temple with his knowledge and wisdom. Craftily portrayed among the crowd are contemporary luminaries.
Nothing, however, matches the beauty of the most important work of art in Belgium that displayed in a side chapel to the left of the main entrance. Variously known as the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’ or ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, a polypthic panel painted by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck in 1432 for the chapel of Joost Vijd with God the father wise and beneficent looking kindly upon all. The altarpiece becomes increasingly detailed the more you look at it.
St Bavo Cathedral is not only a work of art in its own right but it is also a treasure house of art.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 26, 2003
Saint Bavo Cathedral, Sint-Baafskathedraal
Sint-baafsplein (st. Bavo's Square)
Attraction | "The Belfort tower- treasury and watchtower"
Ghent’s prosperity depended on its Charters. Rulers in the early Middle Ages often gave powerful cities rights and privileges, such as the right to organize markets. In return, the counts received money or soldiers for their wars to expand their territories. Each new count or duke when sworn in had to promise to uphold the city’s existing privileges.
The city’s prosperity depending on keeping the Charters secure. It needed a medieval version of a bank vault. In the Belfort Tower they had it. Two large doors each with three locks protected the secret or treasury room containing the Charters. Just as in modern times when more than one finger is need to press the nuclear trigger Ghent had similar multi-stage security. Different gilds held different keys. Therefore, the treasury only opened in the presence of the main representatives of these powerful leaders of the economic life of the city.
Using the tower as the command headquarters of the city's militia, and as a watchtower increased the security further. The militia occupied two floors. They must have been fit from the constant climbing of stairs. The clanging of the bells in case of fire or attacks from a foreign army alerted the population to danger.
The site itself has had previous buildings on the site. On entering we studied excavations of these on the ground floor. Four symbolic stone soldiers also stood to attention there. Three were new but the other one was suffering from weather damage from standing guard dutifully at a top corner of the tower for centuries. Copies of the originals guarding the other corners had replaced his companions. Four real soldiers also stood guard on top of the tower. Every hour, they had to blow their horns to show their alertness.
Up one floor the three treasury boxes are on display. Present also is a gilded copper dragon. Originally he had a prime position at the top of the spire but a modern replica has replaced him.
Taking the lift to the top we were able to see the bells. The apparatus whirred into action and the bells began to sound. The Carillon (or set of Bells) is part of the Flemish tradition of bell music. In 1914, one of the bells when electrically tested burst. This bell, the 'Triomfant', now stands in the square next to the tower.
Close trading ties existed with England - England supplied the wool for the Flemish weavers. To honour the English king Edward II, on completion of the tower in 1338, the bells rang loudly, long and merrily for him.
Moving to the surrounding balcony we had a splendid view of the city with its competing towers, waterways, castle and noble town hall.
Belfort of Ghent
Attraction | "Gravensteen –Castle of the Counts"
The first stone castle on the site arose 1000 years ago. Its chimney and the fireplace still exit in the walls of the lower floors of the main tower. Archaeological excavations proved the existence of three earlier fortified castles built in wood. Today’s castle was never seriously intended to be battle proof. Its walls are too thin for that. Nevertheless it makes a statement about might and power. Its walls surrounded by a moat incorporate crenellated cylindrical towers and a vast brooding keep. The main keep or 'donjon' (tower) with its panoramic view over the city symbolized power.
Fillips of Alsasse built the present Gravensteen. He was count of Flanders between 1157 and 1191. The opening in the shape of a cross, above the main entrance gate, proves that he had taken part in a crusade. He took part in one too many, dying during the siege of Akko in the Holy Land. After the counts moved to more comfortable mansions in the later centuries, the castle served as the Mint and later as the main prison of Gent. In the nineteenth century cotton plant hummed within its walls. In the inner court little houses where built for the textile workers of the plant.
Today, beautifully restored the Gravensteen is still partially surrounded by the medieval moat. Open all the year-round, inside is a museum about the history of prison life and organization, with an instructive collection of medieval torture instruments. Among the displays are suits of armour, guns, swords and daggers. A realistic display shows a man stretched on the rack. He has a funnel in his mouth to force him to drink copious quantities of water. Presumably it increased the pain or increased the stretching process. Schoolchildren often roar with laughter when they see it. Other grisly objects include ankle irons and a collar with sharp spikes that inflicted wounds if the person moved.
One instrument that I almost approve of is the guillotine. An import from France it tidied up the messy business of chopping of heads. If necessary, the least satisfactory way must be with the uncertain aim of an axe man. Beheading Mary Queen of Scots by order of Elizabeth I of England took two blows. The first blow went into the back of her head.
Next to the Gravensteen lies the Veerleplein (a market square). On non-market days public executions took place there. Anything for a bit of entertainment!
Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts of Flanders)
On the right side stands the medieval St. Michael’s church. The famous three towers compete for height. Beautiful medieval guild houses line the river. On the corner of the bridge the Post Office of Ghent draws attention. The neo-gothic building dates from the beginning of the 20th century, but the style blends with the existing beauties of the city.
On the left side of the bridge lie the 'Graslei' and 'Koornlei'. These streets run along the banks of the old harbour on the Leie River. Graslei means 'street of the herbs and vegetables'. Koornlei stands for 'street of the wheat'. Grain was traded or stocked in that area.
In the old harbour boat cruises are for hire. According to our boatman there were 52 guilds in Ghent and everyone had its own church. The total number of churches were 57 so there were some spare for none guild members.
The 'SPIJKER' is the oldest house at the Graslei. It dates from the end of the 12th century. Gent had a Charter to stock grain and wheat in the SPIJKER for two to three weeks to have reserves in times of famine. The guild house of the 'FREE BOATMAN' built in 1530 boasts a beautiful late-gothic façade - perhaps the most beautiful house. The guild of boatmen a powerful guild had the privilege for shipping through the harbour of Ghent.
On the left side of the Spijker stands the first 'GRAIN COUNTERS HOUSE'. Next door stands the 'ANGEL' with its beautiful renaissance facade.
This group of houses reflects the wealth and power of the medieval guilds. Even after the decay of the Flemish trade, they were still rich enough to change their original wooden houses into splendid stone mansions. One of the few remaining wooden facades can still be seen from the bridge of the Gravensteen, the castle of the count of Flanders.
Jan Breydelstraat branches off from the north end of Korenlei. At number 5 stands the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. Its rooms are decorated in period style. Turning right into St Veerleplein leads to Gravensteed, the castle of the counts. Between the castle and Kraalei is Sint-Veerleplein. The Fish Market a beautiful building with its baroque facade from 1689 stands in the corner of the square. On top of the façade, Neptune king of the seas dominates the doorway. The other two statues represent the two rivers that flow through Ghent, the Scheldt River and the Leie River.
Crossing the Leie River via the Zuivelbrug leads to Grootkannonplein. Here rests DULLE GRIET (Mad Meg) a large 15th century medieval cannon. The gun weighs 16,400 Kg and could fire cannon balls of 340 Kg. It cracked the first time it fired.
Views of Medieval Ghent
Attraction | "St Nicholas Church - a space of rich symbolism"
An older church stood here until the 12th century, when it burned down. Because of their growing wealth, the citizens of Ghent were able to build a new and much bigger church. The present-day St Nicholas dates from between 1220 and 1250. In the 14th century, they stabilised the tower, which required enlarging the church.
The tower had a brief spell of glory as belfry and watchtower until the real belfry was ready. Functioning as treasury and watchtower, it represented the real power in the city.
The style of Saint Nicholas is the so-called "Scheldt Gothic Style." It differs from the later Brabantine Gothic Style because of the use of the blue-grey stone from the Tournai area. The city of Tournai with its stone quarries in southern Belgium lies at the river Scheldt. In the Middle Ages, other cities at the river, such as Ghent, received stone from Tournai by water shipments. Also typical for this style is that the main tower stands above the crossing of the church, instead of above the western entrance, the latter being more typical for the Brabantine Gothic Style.
The church did not survive the centuries without damages. In 1566, during the Iconoclasm, a group of Protestants destroyed the Gothic decorations because they no longer believed in worshipping statues and paintings. During the French Revolution, when the French revolutionary army attacked Ghent, they used the Saint Nicholas church as a stable. After many discussions, restoring the church started in the 19th century. The building looked like a ruin and nobody was sure what the church originally looked like. This reconstruction continues today, but the Saint Nicholas church now once again counts among the most impressive monuments of Ghent. It however lacks the rich endowments of artwork owned by many other Belgian churches and cathedrals.
In studying a leaflet available in the church I came across these words, which describe the church better than I can.
"When you enter through the side door you are in a space of rich symbolism:
High walls and vaults, arches and domes draw our attention upwards.
The beautiful floor and raised altar keep our gaze on the earth.
The windows admit the natural light abundantly and at the same time are a look-out to the outside world.
The church has been built facing the east, because of the rising sun, symbol of Christ: in this position you will find the sanctuary.
On the right hand side in one of the chapels is the baptismal font, source of new life.
In the left-hand chapels the statues of our Lady and St. Nicholas signify the invisible Church, the communion of saints."
Saint Nicholas Church
Ayr, United Kingdom