Two years ago at the end of the year I went to the Belgian city of Bruges for a weekend, last year Antwerp was the destination and this year I am in Ghent for a weekend. It’s cold, but beautiful sunny weather, perfect to spend a weekend at our southern neighbors.
Ghent is located in the province of East Flanders, where two rivers, the Leie and the Schelde, meet. The entire city center is car-free, but I can park my car at an old monastery on the edge of the center, where I will also spend the night. From there I walk into the historic center of Ghent. The center is compact and almost all sights are within walking distance (if you like to walk).
First I arrive at the Sint Veerleplein, where the Oude Vismijn is located. I had no idea what the word ‘vismijn’ meant, but it turns out to be the medieval market hall where the fish was traded at the time. The striking gatehouse, with a large statue of Neptune, was added in the eighteenth century. At the back, the Vismijn is located on the water, where the waters of the Lys and Lieve meet.
On the north side of the Sint Veerleplein is the unmissable Gravensteen. This imposing fortress was built in 1180 by order of the Count of Flanders. The Castle of the Counts is surrounded by water and has high fortress walls with towers and battlements. From the keep, the central tower with the living quarters and reception rooms, you have a beautiful view over the city.
Via the Groentenmarkt (‘vegetable market’) I arrive at the Groot Vleeshuis (‘big meat house’). Built in 1404, this forty-metre-long, stepped gabled building was the central market hall for the meat trade. On the corner of the Groot Vleeshuis is the Galgenhuyseken (‘little gallow house’), where the gallows and pillory stood in the Middle Ages.
From the Groentenmarkt it is only a short walk to the most famous part of Ghent. The Graslei (‘grass quay’) was the port of Ghent in the Middle Ages. All grain trade in Flanders at that time had to pass through Ghent, which provided the wealth with which the beautiful houses along the Graslei and the opposite Korenlei (grain quai) could be built. The houses on the Graslei date from the twelfth to the seventeenth century and most were restored in the early twentieth century. The houses on the other side of the water, on the Korenlei, are somewhat newer: they were built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From the Sint Michiels Bridge you have a beautiful view over the Graslei and the Korenlei, and, if you look the other way, on the towers of the Sint Niklaas Church, the Belfry and the Sint Bavo Cathedral.
The Sint Michiels Bridge leads to the Korenmarkt (‘grain market’), a square dominated by the Sint Niklaas Church on one side and the old Post Office on the other. Construction of the Post Office began in 1898, in preparation for the 1913 World’s Fair. It doesn’t look like a post office; it’s a large, stately building, with a richly decorated facade, which now houses a hotel, shopping center and supermarket.
After having lunch on a terrace at the Korenmarkt (al fresco lunch in November!), I continue walking towards the Ghent City Hall. The City Hall was built in two phases at the end of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, resulting in a building that consists of two parts, each with a completely different architecture. The oldest part, the House of the Aldermen of the Keure, has a richly decorated Gothic facade, the newer part, the House of the Aldermen of Ghedeele, has a much more austere Renaissance facade. They seem to be two separate buildings. Between the City Hall and the Belfry is the modern City Hall, an open, covered hall of concrete and wood. It contrasts quite a bit with the historic buildings around it, but I think that combination of old and modern architecture is not out of place.
The 91 meter high Belfry (‘bell tower’) was built in 1313. The bell rings every fifteen minutes and can be heard throughout the center of Ghent. In the fifteenth century the Cloth Hall was built against the Belfry. As the name suggests, this building was used for the cloth trade (just like the Cloth Hall in Leiden), but the cellar once served as a city prison. The Cloth Hall is located on the Sint Baafsplein, with the cathedral of the same name and the Royal Dutch Theater built in 1897.
I don’t know why, but the Vrijdagmarkt (‘friday market’) is held every Saturday and Sunday… In the middle of this square is a large statue of the Flemish folk hero Jacob van Artevelde, to whom Ghent owes the nickname Arteveldestad. From the Vrijdagmarkt I walk towards the Patershol district, on the north side of the old center of Ghent. The oldest houses here date from the Middle Ages. Later it became a neighborhood for the wealthy, only to become impoverished. After a thorough refurbishment in the eighties of the last century, Patershol is again a picturesque neighborhood with numerous cafes and restaurants. The district is bordered by the Kraanlei, on the water of the Leie.
A visit to Flanders is of course not complete without good food and drinks. At the end of my first day in Ghent I therefore have dinner at Chez Leontine; Flemish stew with local Ghent beers (with odd names such as Gruut and Gentse Strop).
After spending the night in the old monastery and having a quiet breakfast, the next day I visit the Museum of Fine Arts. This museum, the oldest in Ghent, has existed since 1798 and contains a collection that covers the entire period from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. The museum is located on the edge of the Citadel Park, on the spot where a citadel once stood. Only the old entrance gate of the citadel has survived. The Citadel Park is a lovely park for a walk, especially in the midst of the beautiful autumn colours.
It’s a relaxed end to my weekend in Ghent. I have the feeling that I have not seen everything yet and will come back again. After all, it is only a two-hour drive from my home base in Leiden.