Ghent is one those perfectly-formed well-balanced European cities that just can't shake off that 'hidden treasure' moniker. Historical without being fossilized, small without being provincial, and lively without being boisterous, Ghent has a reputation for going its own way – and raising the proverbial finger to any Duke, Emperor or King inclined to meddle in its affairs. But despite a lively history of revolt, Ghent has managed to avoid the devastation so-often meted out to other Flemish cities. It has also managed to dodge the tourist hordes typically headed for the bright lights of Bruges or Brussels.
As a result Ghent remains an eminently approachable feast for the sight-see-er, its streets groaning with the full architectural load of history – streets which are happily not too crowded out by visitors. But it's also a modern bustling centre of commerce, sustained by the Belgium's third largest port, the cultural capital for East Flanders, and home to the 40,000 students and staff of Ghent University (which is one of the top 100 universities in the world). It may well be the constant influx of young blood that stops Ghent from becoming a museum of a city (although it has plenty of those, for those of you curious about its past). That, and its unusual take on the art of beer-making (see 'For the Love of Beer' below)
Canal arteries defining Ghent
Sitting halfway between Bruges – out on the northern Channel coast – and the capital Brussels, to the south-east, Ghent is home to some 250,000 people. The city has waxed and waned with the canal arteries, that have often struggled to connect it to the sea, some 25 miles north. Offshoots of those same canals thread through the city itself, offering a touch of Amsterdam to this Dutch-speaking city, which is similarly mad on bicycles. In fact that proudest of British Olympic cyclists, Bradley Wiggins, was born right here in Ghent.
But Ghent's story didn't start with two wheels – rather with four legs and a woolly back. Because what first placed Ghent on the map, for the rest of the world, was its expertise in transforming the sheep of Flanders into the finest Flemish cloth.
A city of sorts had existed on the site of modern-day Ghent since the Stone Age. In fact city's name probably came from the Celtic word ganda, which refers to a place where two rivers meet – in this case the rivers of the Scheldt and Lys. What made Ghent special in the Middle Ages, though, was those flat water-meadows, where the rivers met: they were ideal for grazing sheep. Although the wool industry proper kicked off in neighbouring Bruges, it was Ghent's genius at working wool into cloth that led to it becoming the wool-working centre of Flanders – and the second largest city of the Medieval era, after Paris.
By the late 13th century, wool was pouring in from England, and even Scotland, and the city wool-working guilds were exporting Ghent's fine cloth across Europe. However, the Hundred Year war between France and England, in the 14th century, did Ghent no favours, and the city was punished for its alliances with England. Ghent then fell under the influence of the Dukes of Burgundy. It was still a rich, and proudly independent, city in the 15th century – but the powerful Duke, Philip the Good, saw that wealth in his vassal city as ready for higher taxes. The guildsmen of Ghent begged to differ, and there was revolt in the city – the first of many thumbing's-of-the-nose by the city's inhabitants to their supposed rulers.
Revolting Ghent and the Stroppendragers
That revolt led to a war – involving some of the world's first pitched artillery battles and 20,000 dead – a war that didn't go too well for the city. But Ghent was spared the worst when the the city's elders decided to surrender, after its army was defeated in the woods to the south, rather than suffer assault. The Burgundians were soon replaced by Hapsburg’s. Then, in 1500, Ghent was the birthplace for a colossus of 16th century Europe – and an eventual nemesis of the city – Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Despite being Ghent-born, Charles V had little affection for the city, except as a cash-cow. It was his demand for more taxes that led to a second revolt – and the tale of the strange nickname Ghent's inhabitants give themselves – the Stroppendragers.
In 1539 Ghent's Council tore up a calf-skin treaty which Charles V had imposed on them, and rejected his new taxes. Charles simply marched his army from Spain, up through France, and right through Ghent's gates – and the surprised rebels offered no resistance when the Holy Roman Emperor was seen at the head of the soldiers. Charles decided humiliation, rather than destruction, was the order of the day, and marched the city's notables barefoot – some in white under-shirts with nooses around their necks – to his palace, to beg for mercy. Since then, to be a "noose bearer", or Stroppendrager, has been a badge of honour for Ghentians – and every summer they re-enact the parade as part of the Ghent Festival.
Charles V stripped Ghent of all its privileges. Then the continuous war that erupted between Spain and the Dutch, in the 16th and 17th centuries – which ran back and forwards around Ghent – left it as a city of dwindling trade, and importance. That decline paused in 1800, when a Ghent local successfully stole the English designs for weaving machines. Ghent fast-forwarded itself into the Industrial Revolution – making cloth from cotton, rather than wool this time. But revolting hadn't been crushed out of Ghent entirely, and the city played a role in the 1830 Belgian revolution. The Catholic bishop of Ghent was a prominent mover for turning Flemish opinion against being part of a 'United Kingdom of Netherlands', which was dominated by the northern Dutch. Ultimately, in that revolt the Belgians won – with a little help from the French – and a new country was born.
That was great for the newly-created Kingdom of Belgium. But not so great for Ghent. Its freshly dug canal, north into the Scheldt estuary, opened out onto the now-hostile shores of the Netherlands. Trade was restricted, the cotton-weaving industry collapsed, and workers' wages went south with it. Ghent was to endure a long dark tea-time of its soul, before its ultimately successful reinvention – as a city of study and culture – in the last 50 years.
Getting There & Getting About
Train travel is a pretty time-friendly, and stress-free, method of hopping the Channel over to Ghent. The Eurostar will get you from London St.Pancras to Brussels in a couple of hours – and the onward journey to Gent-Sint-Pieters Station is short and covered by your Eurostar ticket-price. Or, if you prefer, you could fly in – but again, you'd have to go through Brussels airport and its train station, then onwards to Ghent by train.
Getting to Ghent by car is easy enough, along the E40 from the channel ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge, but the city is proud to have one of the largest car-free areas in Belgium. Parking is therefore somewhat limited and costly. So if you do want to motor your way here, it makes sense to park the car up at one of the Park and Ride zones next to the motorway, and get the tram in.
Trams and buses abound in the city, with four tramlines and seven bus-routes. So, too, do cyclists, and four special cycle-routes have been laid on for visitors, running along the rivers and canals, through the parks or between the many city's main churches. But with so much to see and do in the city centre, many visitors find walking to be the ideal means of locomotion around Ghent's historic streets. If you want to get a different take on Ghent, then hop onto one of the riverboats, and see the town from the river up. And if you have your own boat, then your best point of disembarking will undoubtedly be at the well-equipped Portus Ganda, less than a mile from the city-centre.
As a student town, Ghent has the great advantage, for the visitor, of an abundance of cheaper lodgings like B&B's and hostels. Many of these lie in heart of the city, like the Ghent Youth Hostel. Far from being on the basic side, hostels can offer bars, internet access and excellent bathroom facilities – although rooms are shared. The University also puts some of its student residences out for rent, at fair prices, during the summer months.
There are also a large number of well-furnished, and well-presented, hotels at the lower end of the pricing scale. And naturally Ghent has a good number of top notch four-star hotels, making the most of the city's historic architectural charms (though sadly it has no five-star hotels, so no first-class pent-rooms to cater for those from the more pampered classes).
If you're keen to bring your own roof, however, in the shape of a tent or caravan awning, then Ghent has just the thing for you in the west of the city. Tucked into a curve of the Ringvaart is the Blaarmeersen Sports and Recreation Park, which has tennis courts, football pitches and its own beach. It also provides pitches for campers and caravanners, and has been rated as a four-star camp-site.
For The Love Of Beer
Ghent does very well in the international league of establishments dedicated to beer-drinking. Bars of all shapes and sizes – student dens, classic pubs, beer-cafes, and chic minimalist clubs – abound in the city. And there are many bars dedicated to the pleasures of the serious beer-connoisseur, gifted with beer lists that would take a lifetime to drink through (try, for example, the cluttered streets of Het Gravensteen). That's because beer courses as strongly through the arteries of the typical Stroppendrager as the water that flows along Ghent's many canals and rivers – and fortunately for the beer-tourist, it tastes much better too!
But history has not been kind to Ghent's indigenous brewers. Where once they could be counted in the hundreds (peaking at over 500 in the 17th century) today there is just one. And in the best tradition of Ghent going its own way, the beers they brew there are firmly hop-free. That's because the Gruut Brewery (found on the corner of Grote Huidevettershoek, right in the middle of town) has gone decidedly 'old school' in its approach to beer and ales.
Medieval beer/ale fault-lie
Back in the Middle Ages, Ghent lay on an ancient beer-making fault-line, one with religious overtones, and which split the town in two. On the right bank of the river Lys, under Dutch influence, brewers used the (now-dominant) approach of flavouring beer with hops. But on the left bank, which was ruled by a French-speaking elite, the brewers kept to the much older tradition of Gruut beer-making. This used a whole range of local herbs to add flavour to malted beers, and avoided hops entirely.
Gruut beer-makers used local herbs like mugwort, ground ivy, sweet gale, yarrow, and heather for bittering, and exotic spikes like aniseed, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. The term ale actually referred exclusively to these gruut-flavoured beers, back in the day. The Catholic church cornered this market in brewing, exacting taxes on the gruut-spice mix. So when hops became a preferred beer-drinkers tipple, and spread across northern Europe, the Church was not happy, and even banned the hop for a while.
Now Ghent is one of the few places leading a resurgence in gruut-ales, through the work of the Gruut Brewery. You can visit the Brewery for demonstrations, and to sample one (or more) of the five distinct beers made available for the ale connoisseur:
Gruut White (5% ABV): A creamy looking ale, White has an interesting combination of strong spicy and gingery aroma with a light body, giving a creamy finish to it's exotic promise.
Gruut Blond (5.5% ABV): A pale-straw barleyed ale, marked by a lightness and sweetness that belies its peppery finish.
Gruut Amber (6.6% ABV): A frothy coppery-ale, with plenty of unusual flavours, richly swelling from aniseed to pepper to tobacco leaf, while remaining eminently drinkable.
Gruut Brown (8% ABV): A dark nutty looking brew that does indeed have a strong nutty-flavour that lingers long on the tongue.
Gruut Inferno (9% ABV): A golden-brown pale ale that manages to let its bitter-sweet combination shine through its powerful alcohol content.
Food & Gastronomy
While sharing the general Flemish flair for quality cuisine that deftly avoids pomposity, Ghent has a firm grasp on its own gastronomic identity. An example is the fiery mustard, Tierenteyn, which has been made in Ghent for over two-centuries, from a blend of 27 different mustard seeds. Tierenteyn manages to be hot, without being eye-watering, on account of the greater amount of white mustard seed blended into it. Apparently this mustard is good to eat with another Ghent speciality, hoofdvlak, a jellied brawn made from a boiled pig's head. That one is still on our 'to do' list. Near the bottom.
Sweetmeats are popular here – as well as pralines, the local confectioners stock distinctive Gentse neus (or Ghent's little-noses), which are purple, raspberry-flavoured suckable treats, filled with jelly. They are also likely to have plenty of babeluten ('babblers'), which are hard butterscotch sweets. Ghent also has its own version of the bagel, the mastel, which is also called 'Saint Hubert bread', as it's traditionally eaten on that saint's feast day (November the 3rd). Eat plenty of these if you're unfortunate enough to be bitten by a dog – apparently it's a cure for rabies!
Ghent has around 300 restaurants, from Flemish and Greek to Italian and Thai. Some of the finest examples, serving Flemish cuisine, are to be found in the narrow alleyways of the Patershol quarter, close to the city's canal. Here you might want to try the Stoverij meat stew (with plenty of Trappist bruin of course), or the local Waterzooi. This creamy stew was once made with local fish,but since they became a rarity, chicken is a common substitute. And as an alternative to washing these down with a Belgian ale, the fragrant Roomer elderflower makes for a refreshing alternative.
Of course the aroma of frit, or Belgian fries, is never far from the hungry visitor in Ghent, with great examples to sample all around town. The frituur's around the Kleine Vismarkt bridge, though, do come highly recommended. And if you want to have a gastronomic break from all things Flanders, the de Zuid quarter around Vlaanderenstraat and Brabantdam is home to just about every national cuisine under the sun.
Shopping & Markets
Ghent is a city where shopping as much for its curiosities, as it is for life's staples. The main shopping streets of town are the Volderstraat and Veldstraat. Plenty of mainstream chain-stores and department stores can be found here, but the boutique and odd make an appearance too. Look out for the eclectic cigar, antique book and patisserie-shops, nestled in among the brand names – especially along the pedestrian-friendly Hoogpoort.
As well as the obligatory fresh veg and fruit stalls of the Groentenmarkt, which deck the central square every morning (except Sunday's), Ghent also has a number of thriving specialist markets. Oude Beestenmarkt, for example, displays a menagerie of beasts, birds and fish at the Vrijdagmarkt (confusingly on a Sunday, not a Friday). Second-hand books stalls have become the backdrop to walks along the banks Lys on Sunday's, where purveyors of old vinyl, posters, comics and pulp-fiction (by the box-full) congregate and invite haggling. And flowers take centre-stage everyday along the central market strip of the Kouter, with both fresh-cut flowers and potted plants for sale.
Sightseeing & Culture
Ghent's well-preserved old town is really an entire sight, in-and-of itself. But there's plenty to stand out as worthy of extra ogling, even amongst such an embarrassment of riches. A great place to start is the old harbour of Graslei, right in the centre of town where the two rivers meet. The 12th-century castle of Gravensteen looms ominously over the river, just north of here. It was built by Philip of Alsace, and is modelled on the brutal defensive efficiency of the Crusader castles of the Holy Land. Inside you'll find a museum dedicated to its history as a fortress, a prison and a torture centre – various instruments of torture, and a guillotine, are on display.
To find something a little more uplifting, move south from the Graslei area, and cross over onto the right-bank of the River Lys. Here you'll come onto the Cataloniestraat, a road which unites three of Ghent's biggest landmarks – St. Nicholas' Church, the Belfry and St. Bavo Cathedral. St. Nicholas' Church is closest to the river, and squatting proudly as a 'Ghent take' on what a Gothic church should look like – all blue-grey roof-tiles and castle-like turrets. Its central tower was used as an observation post until 1380, when the fortified watch-tower of the Belfry was completed.
That impressive 300-foot building is much taller than St. Nicholas' Church, and once housed a giant bell named Roland. It served to warn Ghent of incoming armies and threats. In fact, Roland in the Belfry became a symbol of Ghent defiance, and recognised as such by foes such as Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. On conquering Belgium, he promptly removed Roland the bell from the Belfry.
But it is the last monument in this line – St. Bavo's Cathedral – which houses Ghent's greatest treasure; one moreover it has managed to hold onto against all the odds. The Ghent Altarpiece is a collection of 12 painted panels, laid down by local-boy, and master of the Northern Renaissance style of painting, Jan van Eyck. It depicts a series of religious scenes, all centred around the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Some have called it one of northern Europe's greatest masterpieces. But only part of it is on display at the cathedral – some panels are being restored at Ghent's Museum of Fine Arts (Museum voor Schone Kunsten).
That Museum also houses paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Rubens, and by many other important Flemish masters. More modern works of art can be found at the City Museum for Contemporary Art (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst or SMAK),which includes works by Andy Warhol. If archaeology and history are more your thing, then a wander round the Museum for Industrial Archaeology and Textiles (Museum voor Industriële Archeologie en Textiel) should be circled on your tourist guide-map. This old weaving mill has been impressively decked out, to tell the whole story of Ghent's tangled relationship with wool, cotton and the making of cloth.
Activities & Entertainment
Ghent isn't all about history, or paying due deference to its well-preserved architectural treats. There's partying-a-plenty to be found in Ghent (it is a student town after all), and the party starts with the Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festival). This 10-day extravaganza had been ambling along for more 100 years until Ghent singer, Walter De Buck, decided to introduce a contemporary music stage in 1969. Since then the Festival has mushroomed into a monster, including 9 other festivals under it's awnings. These include the Gent Jazz festival, the International Puppet Busker festival, the Belgian Summer Sing choral festival, and Ten Days Off, an electronic dance festival.
Street theatre, world music, and comedy all get a look in with their own festivals too. All told, some two million visitors attend Gentse Feesten, which swallows up most of the central city in July, and which has been ranked as in the top three of Europe's festivals. Ghent also has its fair share of year-round entertainment, with nigh-clubs, concert halls and music venues, clustered especially in the Zuid Quarter, or the streets around the 'Three Towers'.
A thrilling spectacle that comes to Ghent every year is the 'Six Days of Flanders' event, which sees nearly a week of top-class indoor cycle racing, in the Kuipke velodrome. Belgians are quite seriously fanatical about their cycling, and the town has long been host to the cream of international cycling talent (including the father of our very own Bradley Wiggins). More sporty activity can be had (or viewed) at the annual Indoor Flanders track and field meeting. This is amongst the IAAF's top indoor events,and is held at the Flanders Sports Arena in Ghent.
B2B & Conferencing
Ghent is a city whose 'off-the-beaten-track' reputation enhances its attractiveness for business meeting and events. It is centrally located, right on the main road and rail transport arteries, and is small-enough to be manageable for events organizers. It also has some pretty impressive facilities. Flanders Expo, for example, is the largest exhibition centre in Flanders (and the second largest in Belgium), and is found close to the south-west of the city, on the Binnerring ring road. There are three other congress centres, each able to hold between 100 and 1,000 people.
As a University town, Ghent is well used to the handling of conferences and conventions. It also has a surplus of those increasingly-important cultural resources – world-class heritage, fabulous hotels and a vast selection of great restaurants – that make entertaining and business meetings a profitable pleasure.
The local Ghent MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Events) office is especially focussed on helping businesses to develop their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas in the city. It can advise on the logistical side of organizing meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations. MICE Ghent will even help with enquires on the availability of venues, and can help get discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.
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