So Ghent apparently hasn’t gotten the memo that September is here and it’s time to cool off – we woke up to blue skies and an already warm sun. Today we wanted to do a Rick Steves walking tour where we download his guidebook and follow the tour he outlines, with plenty of stops for photos and beers.
We breakfasted on croissants and coffee in one of the many old squares and then popped into a mustard shop next door – the shop’s recipe is heavy on horseradish and the mustard is put together in the cool basement and pumped into a barrel on the shop floor, where they put it in whatever sized jar you’d like.
We started our walk in the Korenmarkt Square where you can see Ghent’s “three main buildings” – church of St Nicholas, the belfry, and St. Bavo’s Cathedral.
We first peeked down at the St Michael’s bridge, which offers stunning views of a lot of the old town. This used to be the bustling city centre at the confluence of 2 rivers, a fish market and a nearby meat hall.
We headed back over to St Nicholas church and strolled around inside. I’ve been in many a European church on my sojourns and this one was sadly nothing to write home about. It was built mostly in the 13th century and was stripped of the fancy catholic accoutrements by the Calvinists during the Reformations (they also destroyed almost all of the medieval glass in the city).
Leaving the church we took a look at the Mason’s Guildhouse with its 6 dancers, only discovers in the 1970s after having been hidden behind a wall for ages.
We crossed the street to the City Market Hall, a newer wooden roof structure with panels missing for the light to shine through.
We continued on to the Belfry, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of belfries of East Flanders. On the hour the carillon plays the anthem of Ghent and the dragon sits atop is to represent defence.
Leaving the cloth hall of the belfry (Pa climbed all the stairs to the top – Ma and I did not) we walked into St. Bavo’s Square, where stands St. Bavo’s Cathedral. The square houses a few restaurants, a theatre and a statue representing Dutch revival in a once French controlled area. We took a quick sneak into a nearby chocolate shop Chocolatier Van Hoorebeke and just HAD to purchase a few samples (I had caramel and creme caramel and they were UNBELIEVABLE).
We turned to St Bavo’s Cathedral, a gothic church that houses a very often stolen alter piece of Jan van Eyck – The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The piece was finished in 1432 and is important in the art world as it is one representing the more humanist style of the Renaissance. The piece was stolen many times throughout history, most notably by Hitler and recovered by the “monuments men”. It’s made up of 12 panels, one of which was stolen by a local and never recovered. The thief who took the panel essentially on his deathbed said “you’ll never find it”. It’s been replaced by a very accurate replica. We paid out 4€ and went in for a look – it was a very “Mona Lisa”-like experience, with people crowded around, elbow to elbow and all the tall people in the front. We badgered our way up to catch a glimpse. Impressive in size, but otherwise I felt very little.
The cathedral itself is very large, and feels like it’s been stuffed with a hodgepodge of different catholic trinkets and things.
After the Cathedral we decided to take a beer and frites break on the square.
We walked towards the area of Hoogeport, where the old city hall sits, dating from the 16th century.
We then took a step back into the 21st century and turned down Werregarenstraat, also known as “Graffiti Street”. Belgian police have, instead of busting people on graffiti altogether, designated this long alley to street artists who can paint without getting in trouble.
We then decided to take another beer break in a square dedicated to a Ghent wool trader. The square also houses the House of the People, headquarters for the area’s socialist movement (Belgium is apparently very left-leaning).
Our walking tour ended in the Patershol area where our hotel is, so we decided we wanted to do one of my favourite things – take a boat tour!
On the 45 minute tour we learned a little more about local trade, history, beer and Ghent University, with 75,000 students enrolled. Ghent, like Delft, is a university town so there’s always a bunch of young people hanging about.
Another building we learned about is the “Castle of the Counts”, or Castle Gravensteen. The Castle was built in 1180 to intimidate the locals against any sort of rebellion, and was only conquered twice – the second time being in 1949 when the city hiked the price of beer which enraged the local student body, so the students overtook the castle and pelted surrounding police and fire crew with potatoes and onions. The students were never arrested because the locals sided with them and the price of beer was brought back to normal.
For dinner we went to a frites place that’s locally famous – Peter’s – a little hut attached to the old meat hall. Peter double fries his frites in ox fat and has a variety of toppings (I stuck with mayonnaise). It was fucking delicious. After a quick ice cream for dessert, we slowly wandered back to the Patershol for the night.