Belgium has sites of great beauty, charm, and history. One of the most precious gems in this Northern European country is Ghent, a city whose most illustrious son was Emperor Charles I, who ruled Spain during the time of glory of the Spanish Empire.
Ghent, the capital of East Flanders, is located at the confluence of the Scheldt and Lys rivers. It has navigable channels like Amsterdam or Venice, and thanks to her geographical advantage, it has been—historically—a metropolis dedicated to trade. Commerce turned this city into a flourishing enclave during the Middle Ages. In fact, Ghent was—in the 16th century— the second largest European city north of the Alps, after Paris.
When you visit this noble city, you come face to face with a glamorous past of ancient palaces, beautiful monuments, charming squares, and streets that remind us of life in this part of Europe in the 15th and 16 centuries. Walking through town is an unforgettable experience for the travelers who love history and traditions.
If you ask a native which is the best way to see the city, he will tell you that it depends on whether you prefer to see it walking or by boat. I recommend—if you have the time— to do it both ways, then you will find that the city has two faces. If you choose to walk, you’ll discover the details in every corner while by boat you are sure to enjoy fascinating tales told by an expert guide.
But for those who want to enjoy their visit to the fullest, I suggest a horse and carriage ride. At dusk, the dim sunlight shining over the calm waters of the channels—while the sound of the horses’ hooves resonates on the cobblestones of the quiet streets—brings another dimension to the beauty of the town.
Top: Botanical Garden
Bottom: City life in Ghent
The city is a living museum with a flourishing past, but there are milestones not to be missed, such as the Saint Bavo Cathedral, which houses the Ghent Altarpiece, a polyptych by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, known as “the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. The work consists of twelve individual panels—a priceless example of Flemish art that survived the Protestant iconoclasm, fell into French hands under Napoleon Bonaparte and was requisitioned by the Nazis during World War II.
A horse-drawn carriage ride by the Gravensteen castle
Another stop we can’t elude is the Castle of the Counts of Flanders, a medieval fortress in the heart of the city with cold halls and even colder dungeons, endless stairs going up to the towers, and a museum of torture. It is not a cozy place, but it is certainly awesome. And by all means, go up to the Tower of Homage, from where the views of Ghent will leave you speechless.
Don’t forget to take a stroll around Graslei-Korenlei, the medieval port surrounded by historical buildings like the house of the Grain Weighers, the Guildhall of the Free Boatmen, or the Spijker (former grain store), all silent witnesses to the economic growth of the city over 500 years ago.
The Ghent Altarpiece housed at the Saint Bavo Cathedral
And, as a finishing touch, spend an afternoon in the STAM museum, located in a 14th-century abbey where you can explore the present, past, and future of art in a city that is as charming as it is eternal.
Photos: VisitFlanders & Visitgent. ■