I used to travel with an international group of friends. It was the same bunch I met in Madrid in 2005, and then organized the Eastern European Adventure I wrote about. One of the gang, a charming Flemish blond, invited me to visit her hometown. Maybe because of her I decided to visit Ghent two times, first in 2007 and later in 2010? Perhaps it was because we are talking about one of the richest medieval towns in Western Europe with an enormous heritage still standing intact? Could it be the 10 day festival that attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year that inspired me? Anyhow I do not tend to re-visit certain place, unless there is a good reason to do so.
Gentse Feesten or Ghent Festival is not a typical music festival. It is more of an artistic 10 day event. During that time the city converts itself into a giant stage where numerous performances take place on specially built stages or anywhere on the street. Most of the events are related to music and theater, sometimes even mixed. The biggest musical event takes place on both sides of the river Leie including Graslei and Korelei streets. The festival has grown considerably during the years and even though it has become fairly touristic; it still keeps a small town feel. Nevertheless many locals look forward to the final day literally called ‘the day of the empty pockets’, since most of the tourists leave.
Ghent is a city with a glorious past. During the Middle Ages thanks to the wool industry it flourished and was probably the largest city in northern Europe after Paris. The outstanding and meticulously preserved Old town is home to a one thousand year old fortress and hundreds of medieval houses and churches. In recent decades most streets in the area were closed to traffic, thus in the meantime many cool, cafes, bars and shops opened. Practically all of central Ghent has artistic and historic value.
The historical axe starts at the Saint Bavo Cathedral, which houses the famous Ghent Altarpiece made by Van Eyck brothers. The route continues along the Sint-Baafsplein where the Belfry of Ghent, the tallest in Belgium, overlooks the city. Behind the Bell tower the gothic St Nicholas’s Church completes the axe. Next to the river, the Old Graslei Harbor impresses with its splendid gothic, renaissance and baroque architecture. On the peninsula between the Leie and Lieve rivers the monumental Gravensteen Castle used to serve as the seat of Flemish counts, a courthouse and a prison.
Owner of an enormous architectural heritage Ghent wasn’t converted into a city museum. On the contrary, it is a wonderful city full of life. Several rivers and canals majestically intersect the beautiful medieval core that’s lined with cobbled streets and squares. The thriving cultural life gives an international flare to this middle size city. At the same time, the locals are known for their modern views and tolerant attitude. Together they form a city with a village charm and cosmopolitan spirit, something difficult to find in any other part of the world.