A March 2004 trip
to Ghent by billmoy
Quote: Ghent is almost a forgotten town, as it is usually overshadowed by Brussels, Bruges, and Antwerp. However, travelers will see that Ghent is a charming old university town that is not afraid of embracing modern trends. The city is spelled as Gent in Flemish and Gand in French.
American travelers may wish to find the storefront where the Treaty of Ghent was signed. The peace treaty in 1814 technically ended the "War of 1812" between the United States and Great Britain.
The Boekentoren (Book Tower) is the central library of the University of Ghent. The architect of this prominent modernist design was Henry van de Velde. Built from 1933 to 1940, the tower "campanile" of the library has 26 floors and reaches the height of 210 feet.
As this seems to be a prevalent policy throughout Belgium, museums are closed on Mondays.
Ghent is nicknamed the "city of flowers", so naturally it holds the renowned Gentse Floralien horticultural show every five years at the Flanders Expo hall. The next one is scheduled for April 2005. The colorful (and mostly free) annual street theater festival held every July for ten days is the Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festivities).
Automobile traffic is now generally prohibited in the historical center of Ghent, good news for pedestrians and visitors. One can take a bus, tram, or a taxi towards the city center, or just walk. Many handy bus and tram routes go from Sint-Pieters through Korenmarkt. Plans are afoot to create more boat transportation along the waterways, which would be a great way to see Ghent along the Leie (Lys) River. Guided boat excursions typically are launched along the Korenlei (Corn Quay) and the Graslei (Herb Quay), the original port of Ghent and a very picturesque area indeed with its Flemish guild house facades.
Take a look at my journals on ANTWERP, BRUSSELS and MECHELEN.
The menu features many seafood dishes. There is a display tank filled with mussels, which are specialties in Ghent along with crevettes (shrimps). During our lunch one of my colleagues enjoyed tomate crevettes, a salad-like dish with little gray shrimps stuffed in a juicy red tomato. A side of Belgian fries goes well with this light entree (heck they go well with almost anything). I ordered another Ghent specialty, chicken waterzooi (a fish version is also a menu mainstay in Ghent). This dish is a bit of a cross between a soup and a casserole, as you get three meaty pieces of chicken (bones included) swamped in a delicious broth that is not too creamy or too soupy. Tender vegetables get to swim along with the chicken in the bowl. You will probably use all of your utensils to enjoy every morsel and drop of the waterzooi. Supposedly there is a more refined version where you get chicken chunks instead of whole chicken pieces, but this version seems very authentic and was the perfect tonic for a rainy afternoon. The menu includes perennial favorites like steak, lamb, salmon and other fish specials. The wine and beer list has many nice selections.
There are appetizing set menu lunch and dinner specials, and a breakfast buffet on Sundays. The dessert list looks particularly delectable, with typical choices including creme brulee, chocolate mousse, tiramisu, cakes and tarts.
De Foyer seems like a very fancy place to go for lunch, but during my visit there were several solo diners enjoying light fare and relaxing with racked newspapers that are provided for customers. The restroom facilities seem very low key for such a refined establishment, but the wall postings of upcoming events in the city is a refreshing touch. This is a lovely restaurant for a night-on-the-town dinner before or after a show, or on a special occasion.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 9, 2004
De Foyer Brasserie
+32 9 234 13 54
Restaurant | "Local food specialties in Ghent"
Temmerman is the famous candy store, or should I say confectionery, that is located along the waterway at Kraanlei 79. It is located in a former inn nicknamed the “Seven Works of Mercy” because of the notable relief panels located on the facade above the storefront. The candies of Francine Temmerman have made this store an institution in Ghent. There is a treasure trove of giant lollipops, sugary candies, novelty sweets, funny looking cookies. There are candies with long names that are seemingly all inside jokes. For instance, some fluffy white and pink concoction has a name that vaguely translates to “flabby old lady’s behind” (hopefully it tastes better than it sounds). The local population likes to think of themselves as serious folk, but with a sharp sense of humor as well.
VVE Tierenteyn-Verlent at Groentenmarkt 3 is a grocery store and deli that has been a Ghent establishment for over a century. The attractively charming storefront lures you in with teas, marmalades and jars of the famous Tierenteyn hot mustard.
The Groot Vleeshuis (Great Butchers’ Hall) at Groentenmarkt 7 retains its old use nowadays as a fun food market, more formally titled as a “Promotion Centre” for local products from Ghent and East Flanders. Locals and visitors alike can try samples and purchase various foods and snacks, all grown or produced in the region. Specialties include pungent Tierenteyn mustard, ham that is comparable to Parma or Croatian ham, and quirky egg puddings laced with liqueur. Fresh breads, flavorful with multigrain crustiness, are typically quite good. There is some seating where you can relax and soak up the atmosphere. Look up and you will see entire hams hanging from the old wooden trusses of the rehabilitated covered market, originally built from 1407 to 1419 after a design by Gillis De Sutter. Now complete with modern additions, visitors here can fully enjoy its dramatic location along the Leie (Lys) River.
Ghent Food Specialties
Attraction | "“Adoration of the Mystic Lamb"
The crypt is the largest one in Flanders. It contains some low vaults and other Romanesque elements of its predecessor, the Sint-Jean Church from about 1150 AD. The original outline is marked in a black outline on the floor. Observe some tombstones and fascinating old documents from the Middle Ages.
There is a separate gallery and admission fee to see the prized possession of the cathedral, the altarpiece polyptych called “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” by Jan Van Eyck (he may or may not have been assisted by his older brother Hubert). This painting is certainly admired nowadays, but it was perhaps even more famous in its own day as a major technical and aesthetic achievement. People were known to make pilgrimages to be dazzled by this religious masterpiece since its placement in 1432. The theme is from the Apocalypse according to St. John the Baptist. The numerous panels depict about 250 distinct figures, over 40 species of plants and flowers, plus the Mystic Lamb on an altar. The brilliantly illustrated scene features realistically depicted forms and fabrics, which were enhanced by glittering precious stones.
The masterpiece was moved out of its smaller chapel into the larger baptistery space, which was converted to ensure its safekeeping. Over its history the altarpiece has been well traveled due to theft and politically motivated transfers. Unfortunately the “Righteous Judges” panel on the lower front left was stolen in 1934 and has been replaced by a copy. The crowds can be quite staggering in the viewing room, so be prepared. You may get a little space by admiring the Annunciation scenes on the “backs” of the wings. Once you exit the viewing room, look for the “alternate” Adam and Eve panels (dressed a bit like Tarzan and Jane) temporarily placed over the original ones after Austrian Emperor Joseph II objected to the original’s nudity in 1794.
“The Conversion of St. Bavo” by Rubens (1623) has a prominent location in the cathedral’s transept. Its setting seems even more dramatic while looking at it when climbing the stairs out of the crypt. Amongst other noteworthy artworks and interior elements are the massive organ (1653) and the luxurious Rococo style pulpit designed by Laurent Delvaux in 1741 with marble and oak.
As a special bonus, many masterpieces of the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Museum of Fine Arts) are on display throughout the crypt and ambulatory, as the museum is undergoing a lengthy renovation. This is a unique opportunity to admire works by Bosch, Rubens, Jordaens and many others in the environment of the cathedral.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on April 9, 2004
Saint Bavo Cathedral, Sint-Baafskathedraal
Sint-baafsplein (st. Bavo's Square)
Attraction | "Belfort"
The Belfort (or belfry) was constructed from around 1300 to 1338 following a plan credited to master mason Jan van Haelst and has undergone various renovations over the years. The current stone spire of 1913 was designed by Valentijn Vaerwijck. It is topped with a gilded copper dragon, the third one to stand on this lofty perch over the years (its two predecessors are shells of their former selves but rest comfortably in the museum of the tower).
Upon entering the tower you will notice the newly remodeled “secret” room, which was used to store the significant town documents. There are four figures that represent the all-important lookout guards of the Belfort. Climb up some stairs and have a look around the small museum of the tower. Take the elevator up to the next level, where you can see the collection of 53 carillon bells. Ride the elevator up one more level to see the carillon drum and the clock mechanism (the clocks on each of the four faces still function). Then climb up to the next level, which houses the carillon. Finally climb up to the lookout level at the top. The outdoor views of the town from these heights are staggering and you will be sure to be snapping your camera many times.
There are scheduled daily guided tours of the Belfort during the warmer months if you do not want to ascend on your own. The use of a local guide involves no additional charge, and you will get lots of inside information about the rich history of the Belfort and Ghent overall. Conveniently, the local tourism office is located in the crypt below. Take a peek in here and see the squat columns straining to support the immense loads of the tower.
Back on terra firma, you will notice the adjacent Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) with its construction beginning in 1425 after plans by master builder Simon van Assche. This structure was only completed in 1903, but it serves as a visual horizontal base for the Belfort. The small Mammelokker construction was built in 1741 to access the town jail, which was on the ground floor of the Lakenhalle. The curious relief above the Mammelokker entrance depicts the Roman legend of Cimon being breast-fed by daughter Pero to get around his death sentence of starvation. Not far is the big bad bell named Roeland or “the Great Triumphant One” (the Belgians like names and further nicknames for their big bells), which was formerly in the Belfort until it cracked in 1914. Next to Roeland is the gracefully haunting “Fountain of Kneeling People” (1892) by local sculptor Georges Minne.
Belfort of Ghent
Attraction | "Sint-Niklaaskerk (St. Nicholas Church)"
The church was dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myre (now in Turkey), the patron saint of merchants and sailors. The construction of the church began about 1200 and lasted for about two centuries, displaying an exemplary regional style called Scheldt Gothic (named after the nearby river) in one variation or another. The interiors were eventually gutted, and a Baroque style was utilized in the interior spaces and the west gateway to the Korenmarkt up until about 1681.
The church fell into disrepair for ages and campaigns to restore the building have had moderate degrees of success. Currently there are still parts of the church undergoing repairs, namely the nave. The interior is relatively quiet and not too crowded with tourists, a perfect place for meditation or just quiet appreciation of the ecclesiastical architecture. There are several interesting exterior views of the “back” end of the church, the east end towards the Belfort. If you climb to the top of the Belfort, there is a postcard-type shot of St. Nicholas for you to marvel at.
St. Nicholas Church faces the Korenmarkt (Cereal Market), a busy area with cafes, tram traffic, and shoppers on the go. On the other side, the facade of the Masons’ Guild Hall stands out. The building dates from the 16th Century, but the eyes are drawn to the six dynamic figures delicately perched atop the recently renovated facade. The figures were created by Walter de Buck, a versatile local who is a sculptor and folk singer. The elevation also features a relief of the Maid of Ghent and the lion, a pair that is a recurring symbol of Ghent.
Saint Nicholas Church
There are subtly lit spaces reconstructed to look like the banqueting halls, reception rooms and living quarters of the Count’s House. The Historical Court and Weapon Museum includes a guillotine and execution swords amongst its collections. Displays of medieval weapons, armor, and other accessories are keenly lapped up by the youngsters. The Instruments of Torture Museum features displays of archaic and unspeakably horrible torture instruments and methods (thumbscrews anyone?). Look for the crypt and the hole to the dungeons below. Expect lots of tour groups at the castle, especially student groups.
The layout of the reconstructed castle is elliptical in plan, with 24 defensive towers surrounding the central gatehouse or Meestentoren. Climb up to take a walk around the perimeter of the castle ramparts and turrets, and also to the roof of the keep. Those not afraid of heights will be rewarded with splendid panoramic views of Ghent.
The Gravensteen is at the junction of the Leie and the Lieve, so there are some interesting vantage points from the outside. The old Vismarkt (Fish Market of 1689), based on a design by Artus Quellin, is across from the castle. The Baroque portico features sculptures by local sculptor Karel de Kezel representing Neptune, and also the Rivers Scheldt and Leie (Lys).
Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts of Flanders)
The original plans were credited to master builders Dominicus de Waghemakere and Rombout Keldermans. The main facade is on the east side, although this item could be debatable. The earliest section on the northeast corner was designed in a Late Gothic style. This is the Huis van de Schepenen van de Keure (Charter House). Construction began in 1518 but sputtered to a halt in 1535. This portion features a small balcony, a chapel, and various statues. The section to its left, called the Huis van de Schepenen van Ghedeele, is in an Italian Renaissance style and was built from 1595 to 1618. This house, named after the arbitrating aldermen of the city, contains the main entrance to the edifice. This portion of the facade features a blend of black trim and half-columns capped by golden capitals.
The south elevation was completed about 1750 and has some Flemish Baroque tendencies. One could mistake this as the main facade, as it has the most prominent location towards the open plaza space and the three towers. All of these pieces are slammed together into one large Stadhuis, an interesting but far from cohesive aesthetic whole. Perhaps it is best to concentrate on each styled element individually to appreciate them.
Guided tours allow visitors access into the Stadhuis to see some of the elaborately titled interior spaces such as the Council Chamber, The Arsenal Hall, the Court of Justice of the Pacification Hall, the Throne Room, the Assembly Hall, and the Gothic staircases and chapels.
The innocent veneer of the Hotel de Coninck conceals a wide range of arts, periods, styles, and innovations. The original creamy white facades of the inner courtyard have been restored, and the new additions exhibit a similar cool white color although in a more contemporary design mode. The centerpiece of the courtyard is its signature piece, “Grande Vaso di Gent” by Andrea Branzi. This enormous and whimsical sculpture, visible to all who gaze into the courtyard, looks like a giant vase with a cool green color found glazed onto typical Korean earthenware. The centerpiece of the interior is a colorful hydraulic lift in the middle of the building. Yes, think giant elevator, with its floor consisting of colorfully backlit squares that give it the impression of a disco floor or game show stage. Funky as it may be, the lift serves the important purpose of allowing for adaptable floors and displays, making the jobs of the curators simpler and yet more challenging at the same time.
Visitors who like old continental arts and crafts will enjoy the furniture displays of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Palatial salons contain lavish chandeliers, royal portraits, silk wall coverings and elegantly carved furniture. The original dining room is a snapshot back in time with wooden walls, tasteful china settings, dreamy scenes painted on the ceiling, and a distinctive wood chandelier carved by local sculptor J. F. Allaert. These spaces are elegant and elaborate yet familiar and cozy.
Venture into 1900 by visiting the new wing, and see some interior reconstructions related to the finest Art Nouveau talents. Step into rooms featuring Belgian stars like Victor Horta, Henry van de Velde and Paul Hankar along with European legends like Josef Hoffmann and Le Corbusier. The modern furniture selections are quite eye-catching if not necessarily comfortable. Collections from the last few decades feature the talents and creations of many Belgian and Italian designers. Notable architects with items in the collections include Graves, Hollein, Botta and Meier. Temporary exhibitions can be fascinating, like one that features interpretations of teapots by a slew of contemporary designers and architects.
If you have the time, try to make a stop at the Design Museum Gent. You will be pleasantly surprisingly. The museum is closed on Mondays, and there is free admission for individual visitors on Sunday mornings.
Design Museum Gent
Jan Breydelstraat 5
Attraction | "SMAK"
It was amusing to approach the museum one day as a smattering of colorful ducks was waddling across the grass, which had developed a marshy quality thanks to an all day rain. The cute ducks enjoyed the wet grass and they formed a counterpoint to the outdoor sculpture, including a magenta mass that looked like a giant tangle of yarn. Look up at the upper right corner of the rigidly symmetrical facade to spot the golden figure of a man, who is looking towards the sky above.
Up until recently, the curator and director was the quotable Jan Hoet, who was on the cutting edge of the art world and who organized the famous Documenta IX exhibition in Kassel, Germany. The new director is Peter Doroshenko, formerly the director at INOVA (Institute of Visual Arts) in Milwaukee and a noted curator of Chicago art extravaganzas. The arts community in Ghent seems very excited to have him on board. The SMAK collections start from about 1945 to the present day, including works by Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Panamarenko, Juan Munoz, and members of the Cobra group (artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). The skylit interiors are vast in order to properly exhibit the largest installations of modern art. A recent exhibition featured rooms and rooms with video and film art.
SMAK is closed on Mondays, and there is free admission for individuals on Sunday mornings. It is not too far from the Gent Sint-Pieters train station, although a bit removed from the historical town center. Its Citadelpark neighbor, the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Museum of Fine Arts) and the former home of the contemporary art collection as well, is undergoing a massive renovation that should last a few years, so there may be a few more visitors at the SMAK.
Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst