Ghent (Gent in Flemish and Gand in French) has some of the most famous medieval architecture in Europe. It’s largely from the 16th century when the city prospered from its location at the junction of the Schelde and Leie rivers and the vast trade in textiles that came its way.
Flemish, which mildly diverges from Dutch, came to dominate by virtue of the Frank invasion in the late 4th century, thereby replacing the Celtic language. The first church dated from 650 CE. The cloth trade started to grow dramatically in the 14th century, aided by nearby sheep production and trade with both England and Scotland, from whom it purchased wool. As a result it became the largest city north of Paris, with about 65,000 residents. The 80 years war devastated the city, which revived in the 18th and 19th again as a result of the textile industry. The introduction of mechanical weaving was a great boon.
St Bevo Cathedral, Gravensteen Castle, the Belfry, Cloth Hall (Unesco World Heritage site) and the merchants’ houses in the area create a stunning image of the city at its height. Saint-Jacob’s church, Saint-Nicolas’ church, Saint Michael’s church and St. Stefanus are important additions to the town’s architectural treasures. There are three beguinages, also Unesco structures. Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Museum of Fine Arts) and one of a number of very good museusms, has a fine collection of Flemish masters. Some of the buildings along the old port have been rebuilt over the centuries. The changes made sometimes included the facade, so not all of those buildings are as they were originally.
There is a Marriott Hotel in town center. On its historically protected facade there are two swan carvings facing away from one another. The Marriott asked to change their orientation so that they faced one another, symbolic of a couple’s love. The city put a 1 million euro price tag on the change, too steep a price for the hotel after paying 6 million for the right to add a modern structure behind the facade, so the swans remain as they were, symbols of sex outside of marriage. However they refuse to rent rooms by the hour.
We stayed in Portus Ganda, very close to the center, by foot no more than about 15 minutes, and it’s along an attractive route that takes you near the 13th century Castle of the Devil Gerard. This has been a knights’ residence, an arsenal, a monastery, a school and a seminary, as well as once housing the mentally ill (17th century), a home for orphans, and finally as a prison. It was built to protect Portus Ganda.
The 13th century building was named after the Geeraard Vilain (1210-1270), second son of the fifteenth viscount of Ghent, Zeger III. Vilain’s was commonly called “Geeraard de Duivel” (“Geerard the Devil”), because of his dark complexion and hair.
We went by train to Bruges, a very popular tourist destination and an important port until the 15th century. Then the Zwin silted up so commerce transferred largely to Antwerp. Unlike Antwerp it was not bombed during the wars of the 20th centuries, and its appearance is closer to the original than Ghent, per the walking tour we took in that city. It must be so as the entire historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city dates at least as far back as the mid 9th century, gaining a city charter in the 12th century. Bruges had good connections with the Hanseatic league. Innovative traders adopted shared risk strategies from the Italians, and between these two main factors the city prospered. It became a major trader with Genoa which linked it with the Mediterranean trade. In 1309 a stock exchange opened, perhaps the first anywhere.
By the end of the 19th century Brugge was already a tourist destination. Before covid, some 8 million visited each year. The beguinage is still occupied and is perhaps the least touristy place in the old town. The port of Zeebrudge, built in 1907, is now a modern port, one of the most modern in Europe.
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), the Church of Our Lady, is 116 meters high, making it the world’s second tallest brick tower. It houses Micelangelo’s Madonna and Child, shipped here during his lifetime. The World Heritage Belfy with its 47 bells dates to the 13th-century. There is a full-time carillonneur, who performs often. Bruges is still known for its lace, chocolates and, of course, its beer. There are a half dozen or so local brews.
Lokeren was our next stop after bidding farewell my daughter and younger of my two granddaughters. Their visit was a long time in the planning, complicated by covid testing requirements (one each before departure, two each for the return flight). I will long remember their time here.
Lokeren is a small town to the north of Ghent on a small historical canal. You are taken through a series of hand operated bridges by a single operator who rides from bridge to bridge in her car. This takes about two hours and is done twice a day. We had to wait for the next morning’s run. It was just us through the curvy narrow canal that took us to the municipal marina on one side of the canal at the end of the navigable section. A friendly couple engaged the assistance of the harbor master to take us to a gas station. We put in 135 liters using two 20 liter jerry cans. Finding fuel for boats in Belgium is a challenge, as is finding a chandelry. Friends arrived a day or two later for a week’s journey.
Archaeological discoveries show settlement dating to Neolithic period 12,000 years ago. Written records first appear in 1114. It’s economy was based on agriculture and flax until well into the last century. It has a pleasant main square. While we were there a kermis (a fair with rides and food treats such as cotton candy) was just setting up in the square. There are concerts on the agenda for the following week but we were long gone.
We took our guests to Ghent for a short visit before heading south to Dienze so we could go to Flanders Fields American Cemetary, a somber visit. Belgians here and elsewhere in battle zones honor the lives of American and the other foreign soldiers who gave their lives to liberate the country.
On the way back we stopped a bus headed to the train station after about a 15 minute walk as we thought we had just missed the bus (it passed us about 10 minutes later). We were on the wrong side of the road but she stopped in response to my flagging her. We boarded but the bus brakes and the passenger doors locked. We were stuck for about 15 minutes. Apparently I pushed the emergency button versus the open button, as the door did not open for us. She had to call for assistance. She said afterwards this had never happened to her. I wonder if the problem occurred before I pushed anything, and certainly if you push an emergency door button the brakes and doors should not jam as they did- we had to board by the front door.
Next came Kortrijk, another small important town. It is on the Leie River just 25 kilometers from the French city Lille and not far from Wallonie, the French speaking portion of Belgium. It was a town in the Roman empire, with written references circa 5th century. The buildings from its Golden Age largely remain with us. City Hall is a prime example.
Here we bid farewell to our good friends, good travelers. We ventured south towards Wallonie, the French speaking part of the country, the French border never far away.