The Belfort has served as the central watch tower of old Ghent and is a powerful symbol of the independent spirit of the town. Reaching the height of 298 feet, it also was used to house vital documents like the local charters and statutes, and contains the carillon of the town.
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.