When you’re already in an architectural gem of a city in Belgium and the guidebook says, “Ghent is just like Bruges…except without the crowds,” then you have no choice but to go and see if that’s true. With a train departing several times each hour to make the 25-minute journey, it was an easy decision to make. If you read last Sunday’s post you’ll know that we spent a delightful week in Bruges so with the opportunity to see another destination included in articles entitled “11 Reasons to visit Ghent over Bruges” and “Ghent or Bruges: Which city is for you?” we wanted to make the comparison.
High on the list of everyone’s must-see attractions is the St. Bino Cathedral not only for its exterior but for the art treasures inside, the most famous of which is the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It’s one of the world’s oldest oil paintings and since its creation in the 15th century it’s been stolen at least 13 times including by the troops of Napoleon and Hitler. It was even featured in the opening scene of the movie The Monuments Men when priests were attempting to hide it from the invading Nazis. The entrance fee of 4 euros, that includes an audio tour, helps with the cost of renovation that the altarpiece is currently undergoing. The ticket window sign that says, “Closed from 1 PM to 2 PM” means that the side panels of the giant painting are pivoted inwards to cover the main painting but then expose the painted backsides. We simply walked behind the painting to view the backside and avoided having to wait for that one-hour period.
When you exit the cathedral and look across the plaza of Sint-Baafsplein you can’t miss the 91-meter (300 feet) tall Belfry bell tower that was begun in 1300. It’s been restored to its original style as has the adjoining Cloth Hall, the meeting place for wool traders from the middle of the 1400s until its conversion to a prison called the Mammelokker (Suckling) in the 18th century. Legend says that a prisoner was sentenced to death by starvation but was secretly fed by his daughter during her visits, eventually earning her father’s release.
On the other side of the Belfry and Cloth Hall is the 13th century St. Nicholas church that dominates the Korenmarkt square but graciously shares the space with many former guild houses that now provide ornate locations for restaurants and cafés. We just kept walking in the same direction towards the equally massive Gothic St. Michael’s church that took us across the similarly-named bridge from which we could see all of the spires of the landmarks we had just visited. While on that side of the Korenlei Canal we had the chance to admire the facades of many fine mansions, often dating to the 14th century, that line the waterway.
With time running short we headed back towards the train station with two stops still on our list. The initial part of the Town Hall, modeled after the same building in Bruges, allowed the council to meet there starting in 1482. Extensive expansion plans were soon begun but had to be abandoned in 1539 because of wars of religion. Interestingly, the two rooms that were completed were Peace Hall and the Marriage Chapel.
I normally think of a castle being high on a hill overlooking the town below, but the moated fortress Gravensteen has been right in the heart of the city since 1200 when it served a military purpose for the Counts of Flanders. It remained their headquarters for centuries until it was sold to become a cotton mill with housing for the workers. It’s now been restored to the Middle Ages time period and can be toured for 7.50 euros.
So, will it be Ghent or Bruges? Luckily we didn’t have to choose. The two cities offer amazing architecture, picturesque canals, decadent chocolate, and delicious beer. We’ll take both!
Language notes: Belgium has 3 official languages: Dutch, French, and German but English was the language we heard spoken throughout our stay. Signs, however, were typically written in Dutch so it was important to know for today’s trip that the Ghent train station is labeled “Gent” and to get our TGV back to France we had to change at “Brussel Zuid” although our ticket showed the French name “Bruxelles Midi”.