I visited Bruges and Ghent on the same trip, and while I found some similarities, I definitely found them to have different characters. Bruges might be described as the queenly grandmother, with ageless grace and beauty. Ghent would be more like the crusty old grandfather, who sat in the rocking chair and told parables with the standard tired opening, "Shonny, whennnnnnn I was your age...".
Although Ghent has been given an attractive face-lift, it differed from Bruges in that it had not sought complete reinvention. It kept its old character intact, and thereby offered a more untouched picture of Flanders' past. Also, while Bruges appeared designed for tourists, Ghent was Flanders' true commerical center.
The attractions were well-concentrated in the old city, in the form of the "Three Towers", which I captured in the first photograph. In the foreground is St. Nicholas' Church, just behind it was the Belfry, or Belfort, and finally in the distance was St. Bavo's Cathedral. Each of the three towers had its own square with shops and/or museums. St. Bavo's Cathedral housed the city tourist information center, and the Van Eyck monument nearby provided a wonderful picture opportunity if only the sun cooperated. Not readily visible but near the Cathedral was the extraordinary Lakenhalle, a large traditional market building with a mural on its upper facade that housed a modern restaurant. The interior of St. Bavo's Cathedral was also impressive. It was renovated after probable war damage (all the original stained windows were gone), so the sculptures and pulpit looked new. The Belfort, shown better in the second photograph, served as both a tower and museum. Visitors could climb it to get a grand view of the city. To its right was the Stadhuis with its very flambuoyant facade. Both were accessible for a small fee.
I found that many of Ghent's other attractions were lined up along the canals running just to the west of the three towers. Ghent's oldest and most impressive bridge is pictured in the third photograph. This was the St. Michael's Bridge (St. Michaelshelling). The massive structure on the right is the St. Michaelskerk, and partly obscured beyond it is the former Dominican abbey called 'Het Pand'.
The canal was called the Leie (LYE-yuh), which served as the main artery running through the downtown. Following the Leie on both sides were sidewalks containing cafés and restaurants, the most impressive of which were the Granlei and Kraanlei, both to the north of St. Michael's. The Granlei resembled an old-style harbor area with large windowed-brick buildings that looked like old store houses.
When I passed from the Granlei to the Kraanlei, something caught my ei. (ok, ok, bad joke). It was a building on the left that looked like a medieval castle but was curiously surrounded by condos. Well, it turned out that it was indeed a medieval castle known as the Het Gravensteen (or the "Castle of the Counts"). Shown in the fourth photograph, Het Gravensteen was a 12th Century castle left only partially restored and converted to a museum. It's moat (or at least part of it) remained. The museum was in three parts -- a hall containing an impressive array of antique weaponry, an exhibit hall of ancient torture techniques, and access to the towers, providing yet another impressive view of the city. All this was only for a few Euro. I definitely found it worth the price of admission!
Following the outstanding city walkabout map, I found plenty of other interesting historic sights. The Old Butcher's House (the Vleeshuis) was near the castle. It's been left largely unrestored (except for the construction of a market on one side of the interior). There's also the impressive and imposing Palace of Justice further to the south, St. Peter's Abbey to the northeast, and the Korenmarkt, whose reverse is shown in the fifth photograph.
If shopping is your thing, I would suggest not venturing too far away from the Leie. The Veldstraat was a wonderful shopping district just one block to the east that provided both antiques and the latest fashion. The Veldstraat was also a great place to get an authentic Belgian waffle with the fixings of your choice, or perhaps a bagful of Belgian chocolates! I also found Ghent loaded with wonderful restaurants offering the best of several cuisines. At a wonderful traditional Belgian restaurant in the west part of town, I enjoyed a potful of Belgian mussels steamed in the sauce of my choice alongside pate with cranberries.
Ghent was also famed for museums. The tourist brochures liked to refer to the "Seven Great Museums" (but those are only seven of many) -- the Museum of Fine Arts and S.M.A.K. (Contemporary Art), both located in the southern part of the city near the train station; the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design near the Castle; the Industrial and Textile Museum in the northeast quadrant of the city; the Alijn House (an art musuem) on the Kraanlei; the School Museum at St. Peter's Abbey; and the Bijloke Museum, sited at the former Bijloke Abbey.
"Shonnnnny, when I was your age," I didn't pass up opportunities to visit grand ol' places that harken back to the grand ol' days. So listen to voice of your old grandfather, and pay a visit to Ghent. That old man is still very much alive and kicking.
Trip Taken 17-18 March 2002 -- Last Updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin