Born in Ghent, Charles V (or Charles Quint in French) was a rather oppressive ruler for the citizens of Ghent. Nonetheless, he was proud of his hometown saying that “Je peux mettre Paris dans mon Gand/gant”, translating to “I can fit Paris in my Ghent (or in my glove)”. This shows both the fact that Charles V was very proud of Ghent and that Ghent was a very large and influential city for that time. If it hadn’t been for Charles V’s crippling taxes, Ghent could have today even rivaled Paris.
Interesting fact, the name of the city likely comes from
ganda, which means “where the rivers meet” in Celtic.
City Tour Graventeen Castle
In 1912, a new Saint Peters Railway station was built in honor of the 1913 World Expo.
The station is filled with many murals on the inside of the train station.
The mural located on the roof of the main entrance
This massive building was built for the 1913 World Expo, which was held in Ghent. The city knew that in order to leave a good impression on the other countries to encourage trade and tourism, they needed to renovate the city. By the 19th century, Ghent had industrialized and was not a very pretty city. As a result, Ghent tore down many houses and buildings in order to rebuild in a more "authentic" and "historic" style. This building was the result of this city renovation and was intended to be the post office of the city. The sheer size of the post office building suggests just how popular and important the city was hoping to become. However, the First World War started a year later and the World Expo as well as increasing tourism were forgotten.
As is evident from this picture, towers were very important for the citizens of Ghent. Towers were very hard and expensive to build. As a result, power was often asserted by the size of one's tower.
The darkest tower in the center of the image belongs to Saint Nicholas' Church (
Sint-Niklaaskerk). The tower and the church were so big and heavy though that they started to sink in the soft ground of Ghent. In order to make the structure more stable and to prevent it from sinking, it was reinforced which lead to the closing of many of the windows. The church was so dark and uninviting that it was used at various times as a farm to store animals and as a stable by Napoleon.
The tower to the right is the city's belfry. It was constructed by and for the people and represented what they could accomplish together if they simply pooled all of their resources. More than a symbol though, the belfry served as a watchtower in case of fire or enemy attack. Given that ninety percent of the houses in Ghent were built out of wood at the time, vigilance was necessary in order to prevent the town from being wiped out by a tiny spark. Even more important than that though, the tower kept the city's bill of rights. It was stored underneath the tower in a vault with six locks. In that vault, the bill of rights could be found in a chest, again secured by six locks. The first thing that the bill of rights specified was that citizens had the right to own property. This was rather revolutionary at the time when everything belonged to the count and nothing belonged to the actual citizens. The second thing that it called for was a right to a trial. This is important because it's easy for a count to condemn someone to death simply because he doesn't like them but it's much harder when he has to convince several other people to agree with him. Finally, the bill of rights specified that the citizens have a right to choose not to pay war taxes. This becomes very important later when Charles V takes control of the city.
Interesting mural off the St. Michael's bridge
In the Middle Ages, Ghent was a very important port town. One of the reasons why the city prospered was because it had the grain rights for Flanders. This meant that any imports of grain had to pass through Ghent and were taxed at the harbor. As a result, the city needed a tax office. Initially, a big tax office was built because they were expecting a lot of traffic. However, the people do not like getting taxed so they burned down the tax building. The government rebuilt it but it got burned down again. So, on the third try, they figured they might as well build a small building because it will soon get destroyed anyway. This little house with the blue molding served as the last tax collector building and has never been burnt down. The building to the left was the grain storage building until it was transformed into a restaurant.
The center of Ghent is mostly pedestrian. By limiting the number of cars in circulation around the center, Ghent has created a very nice atmosphere of terraces and relaxation. During the last ten days of July, there is also a very large free music festival, called the Gentse Feesten. The festival takes place on multiple stages all around town, including on a floating stage in this canal.
Also, note the pink building with the two gold circles on the other bank. That is currently the Marriott Hotel but it wasn't always so.
Before being a Marriott hotel, this building catered to all of the needs of sailors. After a long trip at sea, need number one was beer. Whenever sailors were looking for good beer, they looked for buildings with a swan on them, indicating that the building is a brewery and sells good beer. The second need sailors had was for women. In order to find a brothel, all that sailors needed to do was look for two swans facing away from each other. This indicated that they could find no strings attached love in the building, aka a brothel. The symbol comes from the inverse of two swans mating for life and making a heart with their necks while looking at each other.
This massive toilet paper roll is located behind the Design Museum of Ghent and it has a pretty cool story of how it came to be. In 1922, the City Council bought the building to set up the Design Museum. For years, the Design Museum kept asking the Ghent City Council for money to expand the museum and to build a toilet. Over and over, the Council kept refusing. So, the Museum got creative: it asked for money for an art installation. The City Council agreed. So the Museum commissioned a giant toilet paper roll to house the Museum's bathrooms. Next to the toilet paper, there used to be a sign that read "de pot op", which means both "go to the bathroom" as well as "go to hell". I wonder which meaning the Museum was referring to...
In 2018, the City Council finally approved the Museum for an expansion, which means that this beautiful piece of art might end up being destroyed.
Across the canal from the Design museum is a square featuring an ornate arch. This arch used to be the entrance to the fishing market at a time when refrigerators were not yet invented. In order to promote the well-being of its citizens, the Ghent City Council needed to make sure that all of the fish being sold at the market was safe to eat and was not rotten. In order to save time from walking from one fish stand to the next, the city allowed the sale of fish only in the courtyard behind this arch. In this way, the city council could easily check all of the fish at the same time and then go about its duties.
Once fridges became available, this fish market was no longer needed. So, the building and courtyard was turned into a car shop and a bowling alley among other things. It has since been restored and now houses the Office of Tourism.
Across the ornate arch is the Grevensteen, built at the beginning of the 12th century on the location of the old city fortification. During the medieval period, cities were starting to become independent and began revolting against the counts. So, while the old city fortification was meant to keep intruders such as the Vikings out, the new Gravensteen was meant to intimidate the residents of Ghent and to show them who is in charge. The people of Ghent being as rebellious as they are, they built their houses closer and closer to the Gravensteen to the point where they were building them right next to the castle. Not only that but they all made it a point to throw out their trash right in front of the castle just to annoy the count.
The Gravensteen remained the House of the Count until the mid-14th century. After that, it was a court and a prison, a mint and a cotton factory. It was even meant to be demolished at some point, but the City bought it back to restore it and have it be one of the main attractions during the 1913 World Expo. Due to all of these different functions, only between fifty and thirty percent of the original building remains. The rest is a reconstruction. Nonetheless, definitely worth a visit in my opinion!
In the spirit of annoying the count, the tanners guild was located right next to the Gravensteen. Given that leather work required urine to soften the animal skin, it smelled quite a bit around the tanners guild, and thus the Gravensteen as well. Due to the smell as well, the area became quite a poor area.
When the Gravensteen became a court, the employees of the court wanted to live near their work to minimize their commute. So they bought out land and houses in order to rebuild with large pretty houses. At that point, this was a rather prominent neighborhood.
Then, when the Gravensteen became a factory, the houses were cut up into smaller houses to house the workers of the factory. During that time, the area was filled with prostitution and crime. Now, the houses are owned by artists who gentrified the area and it is again one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town.
The story goes that this hospital was the result of a love triangle. A pretty girl fell in love with a farmer, but because of her looks, her father wanted to marry her off to a rich man. She refused the rich man over and over again, until he couldn't take it any longer. So one day at church, the rich man brought a knife and stabbed the farmer in the back, killing him. Given how public the killing was, there was no way that the rich man could get out of being tried, despite his economic status. The city was struggling for funds however and was in desperate need of a hospital. As a result, the court sentenced the rich man to paying for a hospital. After that, he was free. Thus, the rich man built the hospital and left town. Unfortunately, the hospital was not very well equipped and did not have any doctors on staff. Instead, the young women of the city were called on to help the sick and the old. The pretty girl on the other hand became a nun. Now, the building is used to depict daily life of the people of Ghent during the 20th century.
This red cannon is yet another sign of the resistance of the Ghent people. In 1447, Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy proposed an indirect tax on salt. Despising taxes, especially one that taxes an indispensable good during a time with no refrigerators, the citizens of Ghent refused. Instead, they laid siege on neighboring cities to prevent the Duke from reaching and taking Ghent. Unfortunately, the Duke had more men and more artillery. So, for the Battle of Oudenaarde, the citizens of Ghent stole this canon from Mons, painted it red and called it the
Crazy woman. They rested it on the city wall and attempted to scare the Duke's army. Initially, it worked. At the sight of the huge cannon and at the stories of a crazy women who could be some type of witch, the Duke's army were hesitant to attack. However, when the Ghent army attempted to fire the 300 kilogram bullet, it just flopped in front of the cannon without doing any damage. As a result, Ghent lost the battle and the Duke of Burgundy was able to simply walk in to the city. Nevertheless, this cannon reminds the people of Ghent the fight that they have in them. Today, the hole of the canon is sealed off as the fire department was often called to pull out a hungover student who had gotten stuck while looking for a place to sleep last night off.
One of the oldest squares in Ghent is the Vrijdagmarkt (i.e. Friday Market). Because the land in Ghent was not good for farming, the main product that people of Ghent made was wool from sheep. As a result, the city specialized in cloth and textile and sold their goods on this market.
In the middle of the square is a local hero: Jacob Van Artevelde. Jacob Van Artevelde came from a wealthy commercial family. Therefore, he knew that Ghent needed to preserve good relations with England if it wanted its economy to continue to prosper. So, during the Hundred Year War between France and England, Ghent as well as other Flemish cities tried to stay out of the conflict. This neutrality could only last for so long however. Thus, in the end, Ghent decided to support England to make sure that the city's trade doesn't suffer. Jacob Van Artevelde has an outstretched arm toward England to show the bond that they share. This bond is highlighted by the fact that England was the only country to recognize Ghent's independence from the Netherlands.
To the right of the statue of Jacob Van Artevelde is a white building with a tower. This tower was called the tower of shame for a very simple reason. On every market day, the sellers were required to put up a sample of their product on the base of the tower. It was then analyzed for quality and craftsmanship. If it did not pass the test, the sample was let to hang from the top of the tower. Because all of the samples had logos on them, it was clear whose product was being shamed. As a result, shoppers avoided that merchant. This was one way used to promote the quality of Ghent wool.
This Saint Jacob's Church is one of the many that lead believers to Santiago de Compostela to complete their pilgrimage. Because people couldn't speak multiple languages or even read in their own language, believers hoping to go on a pilgrimage simply had to go to their church and ask their priest to write a letter. This letter was written in Latin since that was the language of religion and priests around the world. Then, all the pilgrim needed to do was go from church to church showing their letter. It essentially served as a type of passport. The churches would then give the pilgrim housing, food and beer on their trip.
This see shell is located in front of every church on the way to Santiago de Compostela, showing the way.
Sint-Jacobskerk (i.e. Saint Jacob's Church) at night
The square right next to St. Jacob's Church is named after Walter De Buck. Sculptor and singer, De Buck is the one to have started the tradition of free street and bar concerts in this square, making it one of the most popular places to go out at night. Additionally, De Buck is the one who started the Gentse Feesten (i.e. the music festival in Ghent at the end of July).
Werregarenstraat is the dedicated street for graffiti in the city. In order to preserve the authentic feel of the city and the buildings, the Ghent City Council dedicated a street to graffiti where anyone can come draw at any time. Every couple of years, the City Council get the street repainted in white to create a fresh canvas and to let the graffiti flow again. It seems to be rather effective as there is very minimal graffiti in Ghent.
The Saint Bavo’s Cathedral originated from the chapel of Saint John the Baptist, built in 942. This religious building was consistently being rebuilt, especially during the Middle Ages (i.e. Ghent's Golden Age), as the city was quite wealthy and could afford it. The exterior of the cathedral today is more or less as it was during the 16th century when the renovations ceased due to oppression and negative economic effects caused by Charles V. The Cathedral's bell tower is the last of the three important towers of Ghent (along with the aforementioned St. Nicholas Church tower and the Belfry).
Additionally, it house the
Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. To get a detailed description and an up close view of the artwork, check out the page. Google Art
In construction over many years, the Town Hall of Ghent is in gothic (right) and renaissance (left) styles. This building tells yet another story of Ghent's resistance to their oppressive rulers. The figure under the open Belgium flag is Charles V. Charles V was heir to the Spanish crown through his maternal side and heir to the Holy Roman Empire on his paternal side. Given the vast lands that he had to protect, Charles V was always in multiple wars at the same time. Wars that needed to be financed somehow. In order to finance those wars in part, in 1539, Charles V tried to levy taxes on the nobles of Ghent. The leaders of Ghent refused to accept the tax. So Charles V marched in with thirty thousand soldiers and took the city. Twenty five of the leaders of the revolt were executed while the rest of the nobles and the participants were humiliated by being forced to parade in the street barefoot and with a noose around their neck. The people of Ghent now wear this noose proudly every year to show their rebellious nature and the pride in their ancestors. In the end, as a result of this tax, the nobles (aka the business owners) went bankrupt and the economy tanked, leading to the end of Ghent's Golden Age.
This Square is named after Émile Braun, the mayor of Ghent during the 1913 World Expo. Because of his dedication to beautifying the city, in 2012, the city wanted to create something in his honor. So they installed this pavilion. The idea was to draw inspiration from medieval architecture and to create something with modern materials. In the end, a lot of people joke that it simply looks like a barn. Nonetheless, it is very practical for markets and performances as they can be held even if the weather is rainy.
The city pavilion from another angle, with a view on the greens and café under the square.
This Holy Food Market used to be a church. It has since been re-purposed as a market where you could try international food.
The inside of the Holy Food Market
Count Philip of Alsace built his castle only about a hundred years after the first fireplace was invented. Before that, houses used fire pits with holes in the ceiling to attempt to get rid of some of the smoke. Having a fireplace in his castle was quite the luxury at the time.
When Philip and Elizabeth were married, they were only 16 years old. They were married as a political move to get more land. There is no evidence to suggest that the two ever loved each other and they never had any children. It is believed that this is Elizabeth's room, about one-third the size of Philip's room.
There were a multitude of corporal punishments carried out in this castle over the medieval period.
Some of the punishments included (1) having your tongue pierced with an iron peg if you spoke ill of the sovereign and (2) being boiled alive in a cauldron for counterfeiting coins.
With the French Revolution, all of this changed. The counts and rulers began to favor equality so they simply reached for the guillotine whenever someone was due for punishment.
Sometimes criminals (or people the count didn't like) were punished by being thrown in the dungeon and forgotten with the rats down there for some time.
These flags represent some of the punishments (aka atrocities) that occurred in this castle. The first one is of an executioner getting the cauldron warm to boil a man to death. The next one is of an event in 1640 where an executioner managed to chop off seventeen heads at the same time. The one after that is of a man getting his head chopped off because of a conflict with the Protestants. And the one after that is of a Catholic getting his head chopped off and put on a spike only to have it fall on the head of one of the Calvinists who put it there, causing some serious injuries to the Calvinist and enacting posthumous revenge.
The final room of the castle has a cross marked on the wall to signal the fact that Philip has gone on a crusade. Philip's first crusade was in 1177 while he was still married to Elizabeth. His second crusade was in 1190, shortly after marrying his second wife, Matilda of Portugal.
Some believe that Count Philip went on the crusades to atone for his sins, one of which was killing Elizabeth's lover in 1175. They believe that he wanted to be clear of his sins in order to be able to father a child. Nevertheless, Philip never made it back from his second crusade, dying of an epidemic that was going through the camp.
The basement is where all of the torturing occurred. Here are just some of the tools used.
From the top of the castle, you can take advantage of this gorgeous bird's eye view of the city with the three famous towers poking through the top of the skyline and with the ornate arch to the fish market at the bottom.