While there’s a certain amount of urban grittiness, the heart of Ghent, Belgium, still looks much like it did circa 1500. It is still home to the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the most famous works in European art history.
Rick Steves’ Europe
Once one of Belgium’s medieval powerhouses, Ghent — about 30 minutes away from Brussels and Bruges — oozes with cobbles and charm. But it’s also a living place —- home to one of Belgium’s biggest universities. While there’s a certain amount of urban grittiness, the heart of Ghent still looks much like it did circa 1500, when this was one of Europe’s greatest cities: bristling with skyscraping towers, rich with art, and thronged with upscale citizens.
Ghent is very walkable, so let’s stroll through the old town in this very Flemish city, where the native language is Dutch but everyone speaks English.
We’ll start in a square called Korenmarkt (Grain Market), the center of historic Ghent. By the 14th century, Ghent’s population was around 65,000 (north of the Alps, only Paris was larger). Two-thirds of the city’s population were textile workers, making Ghent arguably Europe’s first industrial city. With its wealth, Ghent became a proud city of soaring towers.
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Near the square is St. Michael’s Bridge, which provides Ghent’s best 360-degree panorama. The waterway under your feet — now plied by tourist-laden boats — was the city’s busy harbor. Lining the embankment are several ornately decorated guild houses — meeting halls for the town’s boatmen, grain traders, and weighers.
Now let’s turn around and head away from the river. Beyond a medieval church stands the big, wooden roof of the market hall. Just a few years ago, this space was no more than an ugly parking lot. Now there’s a new public square, partially sheltered by a modern twin-gabled roof meant to evoke the rooftops of medieval Ghent. While many residents embrace the market hall, some find its modern style jarring (it’s been called the “Sheep Shed” and the “Hall of Shame”).
Next door is the Belfry. Although most of this tower has stood here since the 14th century, the Neo-Gothic top spire (from the gargoyles up) was added when Ghent proudly hosted a World’s Fair in 1913. Visitors enjoy ascending the Belfry for a decent, if not stunning, view over town.
On the other side of the Belfry is St. Bavo’s Square and Ghent’s top sight — St. Bavo’s Cathedral. This vast Gothic oyster houses the pearl of Flemish painting — the “Ghent Altarpiece,” also known as the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.” Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s work has been called the most influential painting in European art. It was the first masterpiece done in the new medium of oil, and the first to portray the stark realism of the everyday world.
Hubert began the painting, but after his death, his better-known younger brother Jan picked up the brush and completed his vision in 1432, taking a colossal stride in Northern European art from medieval stiffness to Renaissance humanism.
The work is monumental: 15 feet wide and 11 feet tall, composed of a dozen separate panels, depicting hundreds of figures, and weighing more than a ton. Its central panel shows pilgrims gathered to honor to the Lamb of God (representing Jesus), while other panels depict the Annunciation, Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. It challenges visitors with its complex symbolism, multitude of rich details, and sheer scale, but it rewards those willing to invest the time to take it all in.
It’s a miracle the Ghent Altarpiece has survived for six centuries. It’s been the victim of a half-dozen art thefts — perhaps the most stolen painting in existence — even Hitler claimed it as war booty. In 1934, someone broke into St. Bavo’s and stole the “Just Judges” panel. More than 80 years later, the panel has yet to turn up. What you see here is a top-notch copy, and the theft remains Belgium’s greatest unsolved art mystery.
Now let’s leave the church and walk north until we hit the main street of medieval Ghent — Hoogpoort. We’re headed for the castle at the end of this street — the Castle of the Counts.
Built in 1180, this rough-stone fortress was designed not to protect the people of Ghent, but to intimidate the city’s independence-minded citizens. You get a real feel for the medieval world as you twist through its towers and ramble over its ramparts. It has all the parts of a typical castle: courtyard and keep, throne room, chapel, 18-foot-deep dungeon, and high walls. Inside, there are displays of authentic swords and suits of armor, along with a reconstructed guillotine that was last used in 1861.
Our walk is complete. Ghent is the kind of town that you can visit for a few hours, and find yourself wishing you had a few days. While not “undiscovered,” it is certainly underrated. Like sampling a flavorful praline in a Belgian chocolate shop, that first enticing taste just leaves you wanting more. Go ahead, it’s OK — buy a whole box.
If you go
SLEEPING: Hotel Harmony is a family-run boutique hotel with 40 contemporary chic rooms (splurge, hotel-harmony.be). Erasmus Hotel offers 12 well-maintained rooms in a creaky 400-year-old building (moderate, erasmushotel.be).
EATING: De Acht Zaligheden (“The Eight Beatitudes”) serves regional dishes with innovative presentation (Oudburg 4, tel. 329-224-3197). Balls and Glory is a small Belgian chain that specializes in gigantic meatballs (Jakobijnenstraat 6, mobile 0486-678-776).
GETTING AROUND: Ghent’s historic core appealingly compact; you can walk from one end to the other in about 15 minutes.