Ghent (Gent in Dutch, Gand in French, once Gaunt in English, pop. 230,000) is Belgium's second largest municipality and fourth largest agglomeration after Brussels, Antwerp and Liege.
Ghent's main tourist attractions are its medieval castle ("Gravesteen"), St. Bavo's Cathedral and 15th century architecture.
Ghent was the 4th largest European city in the 13th century, with a population of 65,000. Ghent was also the birthplace of Charles V of Habsburg (Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain), and of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (see History of England).
The region of Ghent was settled since the Stone Age and seems to have been inhabited continuously since at least Celtic and Roman times.
The name Ghent comes from the Celtic word 'ganda', which means 'confluence' (i.e. that of the Scheldt and Lys Rivers).
Around 406/407, a Germanic tribe known as the Salian Franks invaded the region and settled in the Leie and Scheldt valleys permanently.
Two important abbeys, St. Peter (625-650) and St. Bavo (650), developed from the 7th century. The abbeys had become important enough by 800 for Einhard, Charlemagne's biographer, to be appointed abbot of both abbeys.
The legend of King Arthur is also connected to Ghent's history. Around 950, Abbot Dunstan of Glastonbury fled to Flanders and found refuge in Ghent, where he left a few manuscripts related to the legend. Two centuries later, Count Philip of Alsace handed a mysterious manuscript to the famous court poet Chrétien de Troyes, who used it to write his Perceval ou le conte del Grael, which would immortalize the names of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
In the late Middle Ages, Ghent was the most important cloth manufacturing and trading city in Europe, importing wool from England and exporting finished luxury cloth all over Europe, from the Baltic Sea, Germany and France to Spain, Portugal and even North Africa. It is estimated that between 1100 and 1400, approximately 60% of Ghent's households earned a living from the wool sorting , washing, spinning, bleaching, weaving, fulling and trading industry. Some forty merchant families kept an economic, financial and political monopoly over the city.
In 1180, Count Philip of Alsace built the 'Gravensteen' ("Castle of the Counts") to maintain control over those rich families.
From the 13th to the 15th century, Ghent was the second largest European city after Paris outside Italy. The Van Eyck brothers painted some of their masterpieces in Ghent, and humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam praised the city in 1517 for its outstanding intellectual level, home to many distinguished scholars.
The Reformation divided Ghent between Protestants and Catholics, and the former suffered heavily under the relentless Inquisition of the Spanish rulers.
Between 1600 and 1660, a Catholic revival movement supervised by bishop Antoon Triest undertook to repair dozens of destroyed or badly damaged monasteries, convents, churches, beguinages, chapels and almshouses. The newly arrived Jesuits brought with them Baroque architecture.
Ghent traders fitted out ships to China and India in 1714-1715. The Theatre of St Sebastian opened in 1715 and acted as an opera for the city's aristocracy and bourgeoisie.
A peaceful and prosperous age commenced in 1740 with the reign of Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa. Sugar refineries, inning mills, bleach works, dye houses and cotton-printing shops all developed during that period.
The mechanisation of the textile industry came around 1800, just as the modern liberties inherited from the French Revolution changed the lives of the masses. Ghent introduced spinning and weaving machines and steam engines from England and soon became known as 'the Manchester of the continent'.
From 1800 to 1930, large textile factories were one of Ghent's most striking characteristic. The city's population tripled from 1815 to 1930. Ghent held the World Exhibition in 1913.
Although Ghent is a Flemish city, the influence of French language persisted until quite recently. The only Belgian Nobel Prize winner for literature, the Ghent author Maurice Maeterlinck, wrote in French, and some will say that the bourgeois and upper-class families are still heard speaking French together in the streets of Ghent.
For a more detailed history of Gand in English, please refer to Gand city's official website.
Ghent has too many historical buildings to describe them all in detail. The most interesting are the Renaissance-style Stadhuis (town hall), the 14th century Belfort (belfry), the guild houses along the Graslei and the Korenlei embankments and the neo-classical Assembly Hall of the University (Aula).
Ghent's famous Castle of the Counts dates from the late 12th century (one of the oldest castles in Belgium). It is a typical medieval fortress, with a dungeon surrounded by high crenellated walls and towers as well as a moat.
A virtual visit is available on the official website.
The castle is open daily from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (until 5:00 pm from October to March). It is closed on 24, 25 and 31 December and 1 January.
Admission is 6 € for adults, 3 € for groups of min. 15 persons, 1.20 € for people over 55 or under 25, and is free for children under 13 and citizens of Ghent. Tickets are available up to 45 minutes before closing time
Trams 1, 10, 11, 12, 13, 40, 42 and buses 3, 17, 38, 39 all stop near the castle.
St. Bavo's Cathedral
Founded as a chapel in 942, St. Bavo (Sint Baafs in Dutch) is the oldest religious institution in Ghent.
A first church was built in the 11th century, then a new Romanesque one in the mid-12th century, and finally the present Gothic structure, constructed in three phases, between the early 14th and 16th century.
St. Bavo's Church was elevated to a cathedral in 1561. The cathedral has numerous works of art, including the the world famous multi-section painting The Mystic Lamb (1432) by Jan van Eyck, Entry of St. Bavo into the Monastery (1623) by Rubens, and a sumptuous rococo pulpit by Laurent Delvaux dating from 1745.
The history of Van Eyck's Mystic Lamb is worth mentioning here. The painting depicting the Christ's death on one panel and Adam and Eve on another, was almost destroyed by the Calvinists in the 16th century. Prude Austrian Emperor Joseph II was shocked at the nudity of the original ancestors and made them replace by a clad version. The painting was taken to Paris during the French Revolution, then stolen by the Germans during WWII, who concealed it in an Austrian salt mine, until it was eventually returned to Ghent.
The cathedral is open daily from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm (from 1:00 pm on Sundays), and closes 1 hour earlier from November to March. It is closed on 1 january and mornings on Ecclesiastical holidays. Admission is free.
Ghent has about 20 museums. The most interesting are probably the Museum of Fine Arts, the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K.) or the Design Museum. Please check Ghent city's official website for a complete listing.
How to get there
Ghent is about halfway between Brussels and Bruges, or Antwerp and Lille (France), and can easily be reached by train from any of these cities. The fastest train connect it to Bruges in 35min, Brussels in 30min, Antwerp in 50min and Lille in 45min.
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