Medieval Ghent for a long weekend

By | Category: Travel destinations
a view of the three towers in Ghent

a view of the three towers in Ghent

Ghent is very similar to Bruges as many of its buildings around its historical centre are built along the banks of the Rivers Leie and Lieve. Interestingly, because the city was hardly damaged in the World Wars, Ghent has more decorative buildings. The city itself is one of the biggest in Belgium but its historical centre, where visitors would want to be, is compact. Here, many of the streets are cobbled, and pedestrianised so the best way to discover this area is on foot, and of course by water. There is also a network of trams and buses to access other parts of the city.

The two tourist areas the historical centre and the arts quarter, where all the main museums are, blend into each other. First off was a forty-minute boat ride that took us around the medieval centre, as far as the Rabot, a fifteenth century Watergate built to defend the city, and where the boat turns around. Some of the bridges are very low so everyone in the open boat had to duck as we went under them. At one point we passed where I was staying, the Ghent River Hotel which used to be an industrial bakery on the banks of the River Leie, and has a Renaissance crypt. The trip inspired me to discover more of the city than just the historic centre.

Rabot

Rabot

From the boat the guide pointed out the façade of the only original wooden house left in the city as well as several terracotta red buildings, whose colour originated from the period when they used ox blood in their decoration. We were also able to see the three-tower row, which comprises the 14th century Belfry with a dragon on its top is on the UNESCO World Heritage list along with the adjoining cloth hall; St Nicholas’ Church, which is considered a fine example of the Scheldt Gothic style; and the Gothic Cathedral of St Bavo’s, which is currently being restored. Within the latter is one of the ‘must-sees’ of the city, the altar masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyke in 1432. Made up of numerous panels, one of them was stolen in 1934 and is still missing. The altarpiece is presently undergoing restoration by the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent but as this is being done in phases, I was able to see it most of it at a cost of €4.

At the end of the road housing these impressive buildings is the Castle of the Counts, Gravensteen. Built by Gerald the Devil, the Count of Flanders dates back to the 900’s when it was originally built of wood. At the weekend, at the castle’s entrance, visitors are greeted by people dressed in medieval costume who welcome you in.

Gravensteen - the castle of the counts

Gravensteen – the castle of the counts

The castle is geared towards children with a numbered trail that took me from room to room. Although the rooms are mostly empty, and there is no historical background although apparently this is about to change, some of them have displays. In two of the rooms there were instruments of torture, which included a guillotine last used in 1861. The prescribed route took me to the top where I was able to walk around the circumference of the castle, and was able to see the city from different viewpoints. The final part of the trail leads to the cellar of the keep where there are the remains of the original 11th century stone house. The grassed area, in the centre, seemed to be where people can picnic.

Opposite the Castle is the Old Fish Market where the canals split into two. The market is now a restaurant overlooking the canal as well as housing the tourist office, and has several cafés with outside seating in the area in front of it. In what used to be the Butcher’s Hall there is a shop selling local regional specialities. The city is a university town so there are lots of young people, and a good nightlife.

I ate at the Belga Queen. Converted from a grain storehouse, the restaurant faces onto the canal, and doesn’t look anything from the outside except that there are seats, and a kiosk heaped with shell fish on ice. Inside, it is a very stylish venue. On its top floor, as well as serving food and drinks, there is also a DJ. Their windows displayed promotional material for the Ghent Jazz Festival that takes place each July.

a river view of Ghent from one of the many cruise boats

a river view of Ghent from one of the many cruise boats

Ghent has Belgium’s biggest pedestrianised shopping area with lots of the well-known brands, but also some local names. When wandering around the streets out of the historical centre, in residential roads where I didn’t expect to see shops, I came across several selling quirky fashion items. Around the corner to our hotel the Vrijdagmarkt, a huge square, has a weekly market. In its centre is a statue of Jacob van Artevelde pointing towards England. In the fourteenth century, he was responsible for reversing the English boycott of wool imports, which resuscitated Ghent’s textile industry.

The 48 or 72 hour Ghent City Card provides access to its museums and attractions including free travel on its buses and trams. Museums, however, are closed on a Monday. From May to September, there are guided walking tours starting at the Ghent Tourist Office.

There is lots of parking around the historical centre with the car parks underground. Belgium is a short distance from Calais. I travelled to Ghent by car with my dog Poppy using Eurotunnel www.eurotunnel.com This is the best way to travel with your pet as she was able to stay with me in the car. Eurotunnel do however charge a £34.00 supplement for pets. Animals travelling out of the UK require a passport that documents the fact that they are micro-chipped, and have been vaccinated against rabies. Your pet will also need to visit a vet 24 hours prior to entry back into the UK.   www.gov.uk/take-pet-abroad/overview

 

For more information about Ghent, click here.

 

 

 

 

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