A medieval, little Belgian town filled with incredible history, art, and architecture.
When we were planning our visit to Belgium over the Christmas holidays, we knew we had to make time for Ghent (also known as Gent). It is less than an hour away from Brussels and is often overlooked for the neighboring, more popular Bruges. Bruges is of course simply amazing and we as well are absolutely in love with the city but Ghent is a Belgian gem you don’t want to miss if you are in Belgium and have a few hours to spare. The crowds are lesser, there is no insane queue to go up to the Belfry, and it has pretty canals too. While there are some striking similarities between Ghent and Bruges, they couldn’t be more different.
And, Ghent, like Antwerp is an architectural marvel, although in different styles. Antwerp being a much bigger city has mostly contemporary styles whereas Ghent is full of older, medieval buildings. But both cities, Bruges, most of Belgium, and parts of the Netherlands all have the same distinctive crow-stepped gable style.
We got to Ghent as early as we could (considering the late risers we are) and it was a short, pretty train ride. We passed by a bit of the Belgian countryside which is nice but not as mind-blowing as the Swiss countryside or even the German countryside but appealing nevertheless.
Our first stop was the Gravensteen or the Castle of the Counts. Much to our dismay, it was closed. Not sure why we were surprised considering it was the day of Christmas Eve. Although some of our plans are spontaneous, we are usually prepared at least in terms of checking out opening hours etc. but it was Christmas and let’s just say the Belgian beer and the Christmas spirit got the better of us. There were many others like us who went to the castle door, read the notice, and left disappointed. We felt bad that we’d missed it as it has a pretty cool torture chamber that we were intrigued about and wanted to see. But, we realized this would happen during our holiday as we were traveling during Christmas after all. Lifting our spirits, we headed over to the Belfry.
Like the famous Bruges Belfry, Ghent has its own Belfry too. What’s cool about the one in Ghent is that it has an elevator to take you up to the top so you don’t have to struggle like poor Ken (from the movie ‘In Bruges’) to climb up those winding stairs like you’d have to in Bruges. You can also get off the elevator at each level to check out their awesome bell collection and take a look at the intricate workings of the bell tower.
The first level is the secrecy room which as the name suggests served as a hiding ground for valuable records which were kept in heavy, chained trunks. This place also served as a hideout for some of the Germans during WW II.
The construction of the Belfry is said to have started in 1313 and finished in 1380, when the first dragon was placed atop the tower. A few centuries later, the dragon was made to spit fire during big events – ah, this would have been a pretty cool spectacle. Many a dragon went on the tower and were brought down weather-beaten. You’ll find one of these former dragons at the second level.
Also, at the second level is the Roland bell – the rockstar bell of the Ghent Belfry, which was installed originally as an alarm bell and then became an hourly bell. This bell kept the show going until the carillon (a musical instrument comprising of multiple bells to produce a melody) was built in the 17th century. The original Roland was melted to be used as bell metal for the new carillon. A new Roland came about soon after.
In the next level, you’ll find many of the older bells of the Belfry – they range from little bells to massive heavy-lifters.
In the same level, just a few steps higher, you will find this antique music box with 17600 holes in it!!
The bells sound for about 5 minutes and the entire mechanism is fascinating to watch. You can go up one more level to the see the actual bell room with all the 54 bells in action with the hammers pounding on them as the levers attached to the drum below are moving. It’s quite a riveting show! The Belfry not only served as a bell tower to announce the time and issue warnings of imminent danger but also served as a watchtower keeping an eye out for approaching enemies and offering some great views of the city.
We then headed on to the St Bavo’s Cathedral or Sint-Baafs Cathedral.
The cathedral is most renowned for its 15th century altarpiece – the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – a masterpiece from the Van Eyck brothers. It’s amazing that the painting survived all those fires, wars, and thefts and it felt wonderful to be able to admire this brilliant piece of work. The piece has 12 front panels and each of them has a religious significance. The painting is a polyptych and has a beautiful closed view of the back panels as well. You cannot take any pictures of the original piece however you will find a smaller copy further down the cathedral.
The interiors of the gothic cathedral are were quite impressive as well displaying other art works including one of Peter Paul Rubens. We had seen some of his stunning work already in Antwerp and he definitely seemed to be revered in the Flemish region.
Now all this excitement had gotten us very thirsty and it was time to make a beer-stop. The Christmas market was still open and in spite of it being the eve of Christmas, both locals and tourists flocked the stalls.
Boy, were we pleased to see the beers in the Christmas market! Only in Belgium did we find awesome beer in the Christmas markets. It was so good to drink La Chouffe on tap. So fresh and bursting with flavor! And since it is so close to Bruges, we had some of the local Brugge beers too. We had still not visited Bruges – we’d been saving the best of Belgium for the last.. and we knew we just had to get there soon. Steve had visited Bruges before; he’d had the beers and had already set high expectations for me and I was pleased with the little I’d had in Gent. Gent has some lovely local breweries and beer bars.. we had time to visit just one as most of them were either closed or soon closing. Luckily the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant was still open but just for a bit. It’s located right in the city centre with the backdrop of the canals for a view and has a great collection of Belgian brews. Being Christmas eve and all, they were shutting down early and we had time for just one beer. If you do have time, you should also check out the t’Dreupelkot which is located right next door and the Gruut Brewery (these guys brew their beers with herbs instead of hops and being hop lovers, this one majorly piqued our curiosity but we have to wait for our next trip to Ghent to explore this one).
We spent the next hour or so just walking around the city, taking in its beauty and indulging in some local bites.
Our final stop was the Graslei and Korenlei. This was the most loved and popular spot in Ghent. With its historical buildings, quaint little cafes, and people kayaking down the Leie river – Graslei and Korenlei have a delightful rustic, romantic charm to it.
Some of the buildings in the Graslei date back several centuries and have been heavily renovated over the years. This place would surely be a different scene in summer – sprawling with people on the riverbanks.
We look forward to going back to Ghent in summer. We just could not get enough of this charming little city – a day is just too short a time to explore this incredible, historic Belgian city.
And, yet, sometimes in just a day, you experience so much beauty that you are filled with a deep sense of gratitude and contentment for all that life brings your way.