Northwest of Brussels, before you hit Bruges, you will find the shining stone city of Ghent. An area that used to be covered in swamp is now adorned with beautiful canals, rivers, and 260,000 lively characters, 73,000 of whom are students. On a sunny day, you may find them on “Lys Beach,” otherwise known as the side of a river named Lys, laying down in the sunshine, listening to music, or enjoying a nice bottle of Gentse Strop Blond Ale. But there is more to Ghent than students and Strop.
Ghent is home to the Castle of the Counts
Castle of the Counts is Ghent’s own medieval castle. Built in 1180 by Count Philip of Alsace, it was really more to intimidate the residents than to protect them. In fact, the few times the castle actually was attacked, it was attacked by the city’s residents. Perhaps the fact that it was built facing the city instead of away from it really challenged some folks. The bellowing rooms whose walls are now stone once were covered with plaster and color – anything to give the illusion of warmth. The castle served as the perfect place for parties, gatherings, meetings, and holding prisoners to stand trial. After years of non-use, it then became a solid structure for a factory during the industrial revolution. Now, it is the perfect place for a nice view and an informative climb through history.
Ghent is home to many different festivals throughout the year
Ghent Festival waves hello to 1.3 million visitors over the course of 10 days at the end of every July. It used to be that each region of the city hosted their own festival but it was determined that a combined festival would be a lot more convenient, and a lot more fun. It is described as not only a cultural festival for individuals, families, friends, and children during the day, but is also a drinking marathon that does not end until 8:00 am each morning! Other festivals include Light Festival and Film Festival.
Ghent is home to the Ghent Altarpiece
The Ghent Altarpiece is one of the most well-known pieces, or rather several pieces, of art in history. Painted on oak panels by Jan Van Eyck in 1432, this beautiful scene of “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a gathering in true paradise surrounded by notable characters of the time and of the bible, has been coveted throughout history. In the 1930s, two of the panels were stolen. One was returned later, the other has never been found. Featured in the film, Monuments Men, the remaining panels were once obtained by Nazis and recovered years later deep within a salt mine rigged for demolition. Now, the panels take turns resting at the Fine Arts Museum in Ghent, otherwise known as Museum voor Schone Kunsten Gent, or MSK. One of their ongoing exhibitions is to see the restorers at work, gently chipping away at old layers of paint to add new, crisp layers of their own. To see the altarpiece’s original home, don’t forget to explore the astounding St. Bavo’s Cathedral where the Chapel of the Sacrament displays a complete replica.
All in all…
This charming pretzel of art, history, and architecture is an essential stopover on your next trip to this region or any region near Flanders. Experience a sunset boat ride, a delicious meal, or an outdoor concert all while enjoying the company of Ghent’s symbolic protector. You may be able to spot him atop the occasional spire or hiding in plain sight throughout facades; the Golden Dragon.
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Written by Carol Gabbert, Van Zile Travel