A Medieval Highlight in the Low Countries
Gorgeous, medieval Ghent lies at the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers, and was for a time during the Middle Ages, one of Europe's richest cities. Considered by many the spiritual heart of Flanders, Ghent has a large university, ancient churches, canals and waterways and a famous (yet controversial) castle.
The defining building of Ghent is the Gravensteen, or "Castle of the Count." Built in 1180 by count Philip of Alsace, the castle served as the seat of the Count of Flanders until they abandoned it in the 14th century. The castle was then used as a courthouse, a prison and even a torture chamber. At the end of the 19th century, the downtrodden castle was scheduled to be demolished before the city of Ghent, in 1885, bought it and started a renovation project. The walls and dungeon were restored to their original condition, and the structure is still partly surrounded by the moat. Despite arguements that the castle lacks authenticity, travelers come in droves.
Nearly as old and just as beautiful, the Graslei is a Ghent's medieval harbor, lined with 12th -17th century buildings. This "Herb Quay" on the right bank of the Lys lies between the Gras Bridge and St. Michael's Bridge, and helped establish Ghent as a wealthy port city. Today, the Graslei is a modern meeting place, its restored warehouses occupied by restaurants, shops and art galleries.
To see the city from up high, climb the 250-foot-high belfry of Ghent that is topped by a dragon and symbolizes the power of Ghent's medieval guilds. Through the centuries, it has served not only as a bell tower to announce the time but also signal for warnings. The bell even has a name: Roland, and has become almost a person to the people of Belgium. Longfellow even referred to Roland in one of his poems: "Till the bell of Ghent responded o'er lagoon and dike of sand, I am Roland! I am Roland! there is victory in the land!" It's only fitting then that he is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ghent is the gateway to more Medieval beauty in Flanders. Bruges, just 20 minutes away, is home to its own UNESCO Heritage Site Belfry and a center for delicate lace. See what sparkles in Antwerp, center of the diamond trade, and be there in 45 minutes. For more riches, stare at yachts in the "North Port" of Oostende, less than an hour away. Craving waffles on the Grand Place? Be in Brussels in a half hour. All with a Eurail Benelux Pass.
Getting to Ghent is just as easy as getting around Ghent. Its city center is the largest car-free area in Belgium. You won't hear exhaust pipes or the honking of horns. Just the sound of locals chatting away among the Medieval quays and streets, and Roland keeping track of your precious time in this Flanders capital.
Contributed by: Sarah, Telephone Travel Consultant. Lived and traveled all over the world.