GHENT: things to see

Belfry, Linen Hall, churches, Lamb of God, Steen, Beguinage


In 630, St Amandus chose the spot where the rivers Lys and Scheldt converge, to found the St Bavo's Abbey, that was followed around 660 by the St Peter's Abbey. Around 850 and 880, the Normans destroyed the entire city, and settled for a long time along the Scheldt. For protection, a garrison (castrum) was established at the site of the current Gravensteen (castle of the count). Several villages later fused together into one big city : Ghent !

After 1000, for more than five hundred years Ghent became the largest city in the Netherlands, and one of Europe's major cities. Ghent was larger than London or Cologne, and outside of Italy, only Paris was larger ! In 1180, the city acquired very specific privileges of the then Count of Flanders, Philip of Alsace, and after his return from the Crusades he built the Gravensteen.

In the 13th century, the town had about 60,000 inhabitants. Until the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, wealthy families ruled the city. Because they usually sided with the French king against the Count of Flanders, they were given the sobriquet "Leliaert", originating from the lily on the French coat of arms. After the crafts and the guilds gained more political power, Ghent obtained a more democratic government.

During the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between England and France, Ghent resolutely chose the side of England, because its economy was closely linked to the English wool trade, and the British threatened to block imports of raw materials. As a matter of fact, on January 26, 1340, Jacob Van Artevelde welcomed King Edward III of England in Ghent ! However, in 1345 the city was forced to give up its alliance with England, and to recognize again the king of France.

For many centuries Ghent was the most important city of the Netherlands for cloth, flax and cotton. In the 19th century, it was the largest flax producer of Western Europe, and also the first industrialized city in the mainland, also called "the Manchester" of the mainland !

On February 24, 1500, Emperor Charles V was born in Hof Ter Walle, later called Prinsenhof (Prince garden). He once mockingly compared Ghent and Paris : "Je mettrai Paris dans mon Gant" (French for "I will put Paris in my glove" - the French word "glove" sounding exactly like Ghent).... However, Ghent stubbornly adhered to its privileges, and in 1537 it even refused to accept the new royal edicts of its own Prince child. In 1540, Emperor Charles V had to personally bring his hometown back into line ! He made an end to the power of the guilds, and forced the city regents to ask for forgiveness, barefoot, in sackcloth, and with a noose around the neck. People from Ghent therefore still wear the nickname "noose carriers" ! Ghent lost all its privileges, the Bell Roelandt was removed from the Belfry, and the city was downrated to a secondary provincial status.

Ghent : Van Artevelde - socialist movementGhent played a key role in the rise of Calvinism. Antwerp was already a stronghold, and between 1577 and 1584, in Ghent a Calvinist Republic was established ! However, after 1584, most Calvinists emigrated to the northern Netherlands. The population halved, and furthermore the city lost its passage to the sea, which created a period of decline.

After 1750, Ghent once more became the largest city in Belgium, and remained so until the famine of 1845. In 1795, it was the first mainland city that mechanized its linen and cotton industry, especially when around 1785 Lieven Bauwens smuggled a spinning machine, the "Mule Jenny", and trained personnel from England to Ghent. He was sentenced to death by the British, but Ghent became one of the first industrial cities of Europe ! By 1826, Ghent once more became a sea port, thanks to the canal Ghent-Terneuzen.

Even in 1830, Ghent would sail its own course, since during the struggle for Belgian independence, the Ghent residents sided with the Netherlands ! Because of the strong industrialization, Ghent is also the first city where modern trade unions were established, and where the socialist movement was founded !

Ghent city

Just the extraordinary panorama of the Ghent inner city and the picturesque canals make a visit more than worthwhile. The Graslei and Korenlei (Grass and Grain canal), and the equally picturesque St Michael's Bridge are just the beginning of a most remarkable exploration !

Between 1313 and 1380 the Belfry was built, the symbol of the city's independence, and the bell tower was equipped with the legendary Bell Roelandt. The Belfry is the middle tower of the famous row of towers, along with the St Bavo Cathedral and St Nicholas Church.

Next to the Belfry stands the Cloth Hall. Built in a Brabant Gothic style, this building praises the industry, to which the city owes so much. In the corner of the Cloth Hall is a former warden's house. The facade is adorned with the "Mammelokker", which portrays the legend of Simon, who was sentenced to death by starvation. He was however saved by his daughter, who surreptitiously fed him every day with her "Mamme"...

Ghent : inner city Ghent : canals
inner city
Ghent canals
Ghent : Grass and Grain canal Ghent : St Michaels bridge
Grass and Grain canal
St Michaels bridge
Ghent : Belfry and Cloth Hall Ghent : the Mammelokke
Belfry and Cloth Hall
the "Mammelokke"...

The St Bavo Cathedral was built between 1450 and 1600. Because the church was rebuilt several times, it shows a rather diverging set of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture. The interior is decorated with simply priceless paintings and statues, including the extraordinary altarpiece "The Lamb of God", a polyptych with 24 panels, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1432.

Quite a few small rivers and channels divide the city of Ghent into several small islands, that are connected by approximately two hundred bridges ! Two major canals connect the Ghent waterways with the sea. A first channel leads to Terneuzen on the river Scheldt, and a second one links Ghent to Bruges and Ostend.

In 1180, the imposing Gravensteen (Count's Stone) was built by the then Count of Flanders, Philip of Alsace. Another "Steen" (literally "brick") or house, dating from the 1200's, is the house of Geeraard de Duivel (Gerard the devil). The origin of this name is unclear, since he supposedly was a merchant, but in the 14th century the house was bought by the city, and since then it has been used as a residence for the knights, an armory, a convent, a school, a seminary, an institution, a home, and a prison... After 1910, the State Archives occupied the building.

Ghent : St Bavo cathedral
Ghent : the lamb of God
St Bavo cathedral
The lamb of God
Ghent : the Gravensteen
Ghent : the Devil Stone
The Gravensteen
The Devil Stone

The "Patershol" (Monk's shack) is one of the oldest areas of Ghent, and in fact a truly medieval maze ! Three hundred years ago, this quarter was covered with the stately homes of the judiciary, but they were followed by the smaller homes of manual workers. However, by 1900 the factories moved to the suburbs, and so the Patershol became the lodging of the poorest and a district of bars, boarding houses and brothels ! Since 1980 the district has recovered however, and many of the some 100 listed buildings have been fully restored. Numerous restaurants flocked to the place, and the small streets certainly invite you to a pleasant walk, followed by an equally nice dinner !

The city of Ghent also counts many beguinages! The "Klein Begijnhof" (Small Beguinage) is a city convent, that is more than 750 years old ! Unfortunately, the budget lacks to fully restore the convent, and some parts of it have fallen into disrepair. The "Groot Begijnhof" (Large Beguinage) in St Amandsberg is "more modern", and only dates from 1873... Its concept is some of a medieval walled city, but in less than two years time, they built 80 houses, 14 convents, a Large House, an infirmary, a chapel of St Anthony of Padua, and a church ! The Old Beguinage in St Elizabeth is another urban beguinage.

Ghent : Patershol Ghent : Klein Begijnhof
Klein Begijnhof
Ghent : Groot Begijnhof
Ghent : Oud Begijnhof
Groot Begijnhof
Oud Begijnhof
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