After spending a day in Brussels we set out to see other parts of Belgium, starting with a visit to Ghent. Original settlements to this area started as early as the Iron Age where the River Scheldt and River Leie met. From there it went on to be one of the largest and richest cities of Europe during the Middle Ages.
Historians believe that the name Ghent actually came from the Celtic word ‘ganda’ which means confluence. The marshy land that came from the overflow of the rivers was perfectly suited for raising sheep and led to a great wool industry. Ghent became an industry and business port and established relationships with other areas in trade. Because of the access of the two rivers, this has always been an influential and powerful point of business.
In the center of the market square stands the fierce figure of Jacob Van Artevelde, heralded as being the Hero of Ghent and nicknamed The Wise Man of Ghent. In the early 1300s, during the Hundred Years War, Van Artevelde went against the boycott of any French owned territory trading with England. Because of his determined to still maintain the trading relationships established with England, and in doing so maintain Ghent’s dominant position in the textile industry, Van Artevelde saved the city of Ghent. To honor that, King Leopold I commissioned this statue in the market square and later on a local brewery named their trademark beer after him.
We came to the small red brick church that has stood here since the 12th century which was the scene of a Romeo and Juliet kind of story between two feuding families and the star crossed lovers between them. When two people died at the hands of the opposing family, they had to pay penance and money to the church every day after that in hopes of absolving themselves of the crime.
The church used that penance money to build a group of almshouses there in the square of the church. These almshouses were used to house the elderly and others in need of care. Called the Het Huis van Alijn, or the House of Alijn, after the family who lost their relatives to the feuding family. Today, the former almshouses are home to a folk museum showcasing different aspects and different decades of Belgian life.
We happened upon a group of local women who get together to made beautiful lace articles. The lace is hand made with a whirl of bobbins and thread as the skilled hands of the weavers overlap the bobbins to a fast and steady beat. It was incredible to watch the process and the bobbins moving so fast was almost mesmerizing.
Throughout so much of the city are the old houses and factories along the waterfront. Ghent still holds that air of the wealth and power that turned local textiles businesses into one of the richest areas of Europe during the middle ages. You can still see the influence of affluence in so many of the buildings like a visual showcase of those early days.
It is hard to imagine the canals through the city being a means of work and commerce because they are so beautiful. Most of the factories have been restored and recreated into hotels and restaurants drawing visitors to the city.
Not every city can boast of having a castle at its center, but of the few that can say that is Ghent. The castle is named Gravensteen which translates from Dutch as ‘ Castle of the Counts’. This castle dates back to 1180 when it was the residence of the Count of Flanders. The first view of the castle is that of its elaborate gatehouse guarding the entrance to the actual castle. Above the door to the gatehouse is a cross which symbolizes the count’s participation in the Crusades.
The castle was designed similar to Crusader Castles that were seen throughout the Middle East during the second crusades. The castle was meant as a symbolic representation of the power of the count that would serve to intimidate any of the titled class from challenging the count’s authority. It would continue to be a royal residence until 1353. After that it spent time as a prison, a judicial court, a currency mint, and even a cotton factory during the Industrial Revolution until it became a museum. The castle has been rebuilt many times, most recently during the 19th century idea of what a medieval castle should look like instead of a historically accurate castle design.
Along the river you can see the former guildhalls of Ghent. This was the original port area of the city and this was the powerhouse area. The buildings are incredible. While we were there, they were having a race through the city. I tend to think I would run much slower down this part because I would be too busy looking up at the buildings to focus on where I was running.
Of the old guild halls, the oldest is that of the ‘Koornstapelhuis’ which was the granary where all the grain claimed by the tax collectors was stored. Then there is the ‘Tweede Korenmetershuis‘ which was the residence of the grain measurer. And squished between them is the small and narrow tollhouse where the taxes were levied on grain shipments.
Near the old guildhalls stands the Sint-Niklaaskerk or Saint Nicholas Church. This is one of the city’s oldest and most prominent landmarks dating back to the 13th century. Because of the proximity to the guildhalls, this church was favored by the guilds and each guild had their own chapel within the church that were built onto the church in the 14th and 15th century.
The bell tower of the church is one of three defining towers that mark the medieval skyline that Ghent is so famous for. But this church was almost lost to time and deterioration when it became so unstable that it threatened to collapse at any moment. But in the early 1800s a renewed interest in the church and the desire to preserve it as a historical monument saved it as the funds were gathered to restore it.
Our last sight of Ghent was the Town Hall that is a strange mix of styles on one building. While the north side is Gothic the east side is perfectly Renaissance. But this interesting diversity of architecture is in some ways a representation of the city and the diversity they embrace.
Behind Town Hall was the 14th century belfry standing at 300 feet tall with a golden dragon on top of it. This belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The belfry along with the St. Nicholas bell tower and the St. Bravo bell tower are the three defining towers of the city.
We went to Ghent with only a slight idea of what was there. But the city had a wealth of history and architecture to share with us and determined to come back and spend more time here really understanding this interesting city that rose from the river’s edge to become such a powerful influence in medieval Europe.
If you have enjoyed this post with the castle in the city, then you may be interested in these other castles:
Thank you for coming along on this visit to the city of Ghent. May your fortress be strong and your moat be wide to keep you safe inside.