Bruges: Move over, Ghent’s on the muscle!

Ghent’s Big Three towers, all in a row: St. Nicholas, the Belfry, and St. Bathos

Bruges is everyone’s darling.  One marvels at Brussels’ great square, but everyone falls in love with Bruges (or Brugge, as it’s called in Flemish).  Most non-European travelers never go to Ghent.  And the Ghent citizenry is way too polite to complain about the unfairness of the world’s love affair with Bruges.  But the instantaneous, broad smiles show their whole-hearted approval and agreement if you say, “Ghent is so beautiful, even nicer than Bruges!”  The universal reply is, “We think so!”

We spent a too-short weekend in Ghent, and we hope to return for more.  Ghent is one of Europe’s oldest cities, with a surprising amount of intact medieval buildings, given how much warfare the city has endured. The bottom line: Ghent is simply charming.  Unfortunately, the first full day we were suffering the usual Benelux weather (rain and gloom) so my pictures are not as plentiful or as nice as I’d like.  But first (of course!) a brief history.

The main canal in Ghent

I’ll skip through a few centuries to early medieval times: for a couple hundred years, Ghent was the largest and most important city in Europe, second only to Paris.  The source of its wealth and position was the wool and cloth industry.  Ghent simply was the biggest and best of the times, so much so, they had to import wool from England and Scotland to meet production demand for woven cloth.  The city suffered many setbacks due to its participation in several international wars (and this is prior to the 20th century’s conflicts).  Readers of European history will be familiar with the Hundred Years War, the Revolt of Ghent (against Spain — they lost, badly), the Religious Wars (Catholics vs. Protestants), the War of the Austrian Succession (France vs. Austria), the Napoleonic Wars, and the Rebellion of Belgium (against the then-parent country, the Netherlands), among others, all leading up to the two world wars.  No wonder Belgium tried to stay neutral in the 20th century!

Interestingly, Ghent did play a peace-making role that is a part of U.S. history:  the city was the site of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which marked the end of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain.

City skyline of Ghent showing the “Big Three” towers.

Today, Ghent still has a good deal of business and trade (third largest port in Belgium), but also is known as a university town, with over 50,000 students in residence.  Tourism, for obvious reasons, has become an increasing portion of the economic pie.  The people we did talk to about Ghent vs. Bruges readily acknowledge Bruge’s dominance in tourism, but reflect that may not be so terrible as Ghent is still livable.  More than once it was noted that the historic center of Bruges is like a museum, whereas “people actually live in Ghent.”

On to touristy matters…

A  boat tour on the Leie River.

Despite our best efforts, we found it impossible to see and do everything in under 48 hours.  Just an excuse to return, right?  We did our share of touristy things:  a boat tour, going to the top of the free-standing Belfry, wandering the massive St. Bathos Cathedral.  Regrettably, we were unable to get into the other two beautiful medieval churches, St. Nicholas and St. Michael’s, but their pictures are below.

St. Bathos Cathedral from the Belfry Tower.

St. Nicholas

St. Michael’s Church

One attraction which is a do-not-miss is the exhibition of the van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St. Bathos.  Also known as “The Ghent Alterpiece,” it is regarded as one of, if not the, pivotal painting in the history of art.  Rather than get into a lengthy description of the painting, if interested in details of its several panels, go to  Another interesting blog-piece  discusses the painting’s importance and history:

Among other thefts over the centuries, this incredible piece of work was hijacked by the Nazis in WWII and eventually, miraculously, recovered by a small U.S. Army unit known by the moniker of “the Monuments Men”  and returned to Belgium after the war.  I will be writing about this multi-national group within the U.S. Army at a later date.  What they  accomplished in tracking and recovering Europe’s stolen art was almost superhuman.  The world is forever indebted to their selfless efforts to rescue Europe’s arts repository from certain destruction by the Nazis.  I highly recommend the book, The Monuments Men, by Robert Edsel, if you want to learn the whole story.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece.

One of the other stand-out attractions in Ghent is the Gravensteen Castle, commonly referred to as the Ghent Castle, built in 1180.  Small and compact as castles go, it is quite simple, and beautiful in its simplicity.  An audio guide provided a pretty good tour of the castle and its rooms. It sits smack in the center of Ghent, with streetcars running just meters in front, as you can see below.

Gravensteen Castle

Onto more touristy matters.  the old Fish Market across from the castle now sports a half dozen cafes and a spanking new tourist office that is amazing, using 21st century technology combined with plain old good “people” service.  In the middle of the tourist center is a huge table with an enormous interactive computer “tablet” as its surface.  You begin by selecting your language, one of about 8-10, then proceed from there, answering questions about your specific interests, receiving suggestions and information on different sights in the city.  Very cool. (BTW, we were about the 990th-plus American visitors to the center since its opening in March, 2012.)

The archway leads to the old fish market and today’s brand new Tourist Office. Over the portal is a statue of Neptune.

Ghent sports over a dozen of museums; in addition to everything else we did, we managed to get to two:  The STAM, or City Museum of Ghent, which was outstanding, and the House of Alijn (Huis van Alijn).  I highly recommend both, but here are some observations on the Alijn.

The House of Alijn claims to be a museum of “the culture of everyday life.”  Beginning with the latter portion of the 19th century, the museum has exhibits which explain and showcase the artifacts of all of Belgian life’s major events:   baptism, marriage, pregnancy and birth, death, and a lot odd in between, such as the exhibit artifact below:

Grandma’s enema potion?

Additionally, many delightful rooms recreate the different types of work Belgians performed in the late 1900s-early 20th century — grocery, barber shop, pharmacy, etc. — along with the period furniture, implements and tools. Another series of rooms present tableaus of Belgian home life from the 50s through 80s.  In between is an exhibit on the circus, and a table with dozens of volumes of old photographs.  In a separate building, an entire two rooms are devoted to wedding pictures and customs from the 1890s through the 1970s.  In the midst of all the wedding displays stood a 1950s Rockola jukebox, and, yes, you could punch the buttons and select old 45s to play.  Which we did.

The background of the museum is unusual.  In a mid-14th century feud between two aristocratic families, members of the Rijm contingent ambushed and murdered two brothers of the Alijn family.  The Rijm family was pardoned this dastardly deed only if they funded and maintained an almshouse or orphanage for the poor; hence began the House of Alijn. By the 1940s, the property came under the city of Ghent, and was eventually turned into a museum; the current incarnation is definitely a must for those who like their history a tad idyosyncratic.

Inner courtyard of the House of Alijn, now a cafe. Originally the cottages seen here were built to house the poor, sick and elderly of Ghent, in penance for a cowardly crime.

I’ll end with several photos representing a mix of historic Ghent, as well as  new and even quirky aspects of life.  Here was an interesting sight outside the old town hall, our first morning in Ghent:

The Marriage Bus — how practical!

Ghent town hall on a Saturday, with wedding parties gathered to await their turn inside.

Since this isn’t a bicycle built for two, I’m assuming the bride and groom get the bus, and these decorative bikes are the ride for a couple of celebrants.

Nice building, lousy signage. Too bad there’s a McDonald’s now on (nearly) every major square of Europe.

And some random photos…

This poor, somewhat battered dragon sat atop the bell tower for years as mascot to the city. The dragon was removed to preserve it, and now rests in the belfry museum.

Ghent used to be part of the Netherlands, hence the lion is a commonly found symbol.

A 12th century commode in the castle. No fun on a winter morn!

One of several interesting art exhibits in the side chapels of St. Bathos.

Another view of Gravensteen Castle.

The main canal in Ghent, where outdoor cafes abound.

Night view of the canal and cafes, from opposite direction. From Wikipedia.