Ghent boomed in the Middle Ages when the wool trade made it wealthy. It’s population in the 14th century was around 65,000, a huge population at that time (only Paris was larger, north of the Alps). Our hotel is located in the center of historic Ghent, making a self-guided walking tour of the city easy. Using Rick Steves’ information as a guide (His guides are our go-to source for all of Europe), we meandered along the old streets of the city, taking in the picturesque sites of the city, which still looks much like it did around 1500 A.D. However, due to the extremely popular Ghent Festival going on, it lacked some its usual medieval charm, as the squares are crammed with stages, carnival rides, and food and beverage booths.
From St. Michael’s Bridge, we enjoyed a beautiful panorama of Ghent before proceeding to Korenmarkt Square, on which sits the 13th-century Church of St. Nicholas. It is no wonder that the church was popular with the sailors, since St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors. Unfortunately, this region was at the forefront of the 16th-century iconoclastic movement, in which Protestant reformers destroyed and stripped Catholic Churches of all their beauty. Essentially all the stained glass in Ghent was destroyed.
A few steps away, we found the Belfry, a 14th-century tower originally built to house the parchment record of Ghent’s special privileges bestowed by the counts of Flanders. We walked partway and took an elevator the rest of the way up to the top to gain a panoramic view of the old city.
The jewel of Ghent is found in St. Bavo’s Cathedral. Besides being the church in which the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was baptized, and containing a beautifully carved pulpit and a Rubens altar painting, it hosts the glorious Van Eyck altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. I can’t describe the emotion of standing before this masterpiece, soaking in the all the power of the painting and its theological symbolism. It is an important work, not only for its religious value, but also because it is widely considered to be the first masterpiece done in the new medium of oil. It is a transitional work between medieval art and the Renaissance. The 15′ x 11′ masterpiece was finished in 1432 and survives today only by a number of miracles. It has been stolen many times in its hundreds of years of history. One of those thefts was by Hitler and the Nazis during WW II. If you’ve seen the movie, The Monument Men, you may know that this was one of the priceless works of art rescued by the team of art preservationists and returned to its proper home, St. Bavo.
We finished our walk at the Castle of the Counts, built in 1880 by Philip of Alsace. It was not build to protect the city, but to intimidate the independently-minded citizens of Ghent. We then returned to our hotel room for a little rest before dinner. Our evening meal was marvelous, a four-course menu at the romantic restaurant, Valentijn. Wonderful food, wonderful wine. Afterwards, we wandered around town again, taking in the kaleidoscope of musical styles at the various stages around town. The street performers were amazing as well.
What a wonderful two days in Ghent. Tomorrow, off to Flanders Fields.