Gent, my favorite city
The city of Ghent first saw the light of day in 630, when the missionary bishop St Amand chose the confluence of the rivers Scheldt and Lys as the perfect place to found St Bavo’ s Abbey (the older name of Ghent, Ganda, is derived from the Celtic word for ‘confluence’). What follows is the rich history of a proud and rebellious city that continues to attract visitors from all over the world. Here, culture is a festive experience and festivities are a form of culture.
In the Middle Ages, idiosyncratic Ghent grew into one of the most important cities in Western Europe. The marshy landscape was not suitable for traditional agriculture but lent itself very well to rearing sheep. Thans to the wool trade, Ghent grew so much that it was second in size only to Paris.
Merchants ruled the country and until the 14th century. Ghent’s wealth lay in the hands of around forty rich merchant families. These merchants preferred the French king to the Count of Flanders, very much against the will of the headstrong trades and guilds, which demanded more and more rights and privileges. Cloth merchant Jacob van Artvelde ( the ‘wise’ man) led the Ghent uprising against the French oppressor, who banned the city from trading with English weavers. Although he succeeded in the mission, Van Artevelde was murdered at his home by fellow citizens several years later during riots among the guilds.
Difficult times followed for Flanders, and Ghent lost its leading position in Europe. However, the people of Ghent continued to rebel against anyone who tried to oppress them, even against their very own Emperor Charles V (born in 1500). As they were unwilling to pay his taxes, the emperor himself returned to his city of birth to restore order (1540). Ghent lost all of its rights and privileges. The Roeland Bell, which symbolises Ghent’s independence , was removed from the Belfry and St Bavo’ s Abbey and the city gates were demolished. The punishment was harsh and the humiliation even worse, as dozens of the city’s dignitaries were forced to kneel before the emperor with nooses around their necks, barefooted and dressed in hair shirts.
Ghent bent under the strain, but never craked: the term ‘noose bearers’ (stroppendragers) was adopted as a badge of pride and the residents steadfastly continued to rebel against their sovereigns and oppressors. In the 16th century, Calvinist insurgents established the Ghent Republic and the first Ghent University was also founded during the same period. The city lost its port ( the lifeline connecting Ghent with the sea) several times over the years, first as it silted up and later (why else?) as a reprisal for its rebellious nature. Ghent always managed to regain contact with the sea, however, either by digging canals or by forging new alliances.
In the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution came across the Channel from England, it was this same courage and cunning which mage Ghent the first industrialised city in Europe (‘ the Manchester of the European Mainland’). Entrepreneur Lieven Bauwens smuggled an English spinning mule into the city piece by piece, laying the foundations of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Ghent reclaimed its leading position but remained a city of troublemakers: as a protest against the impoverished conditions in which labourers lived and worked in the 19th century, the first modern trade unions and socialist movements were founded in Ghent, with the Vooruit building as their beating heart. The 1913 World Fair gave Ghent a facelift, demonstrating the city’s modernity and passionate belief in progress to the outside world. Ghent was ambitious.
Its World Fair was to surpass those of Brussels and Antwerp: Buildings were renovated, the new Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station was constructed and squares were built or refurbished. The rise of the city came to a halt during the two world wars and the Great Depression, and Ghent bent under the strain of the Allies’ final offensive. It soon regained its strength, however, as befits its status: it acquired a fourth tower in the form of the Booktower and in the second half of the compact, authentic city you are visiting today.
The historic heart of Flanders’ , ‘a city of all times’ , ‘the medieval Manhattan’ and ‘Europe’s best-kept secret’ : the nicknames Ghent has acquired over the years are as colourful as the city itself. Wander through the city centre and you will immediately understand the numerous tourist awards and international praise. Nowhere else can you switch so quickly from the 14th to the 21st century (and back!), without ever having the feeling that something isn’t quite right.
The Lys and the Scheldt, which made Ghent so powerful in the past, are still embraced today. Along Graslei and Korenlei, where barges docked and were unloaded in the Middle Ages, you can now enjoy the hustle and bustle and the many welcoming cafés with terraces. You can even moor your boat in the heart of the city, at Portus Ganda.
Ghent has the largest student population in Belgium, with over 70.000 students who help make the city lively and dynamic. In the historical city centre, the university and colleges are renovating buildings such as Pand and the Booktower or constructing new xampus such as Kantienberg and Ufo.
Even today, the noose bearers are still rebellious provocateurs who remain passionate about love and art. Ghent has grown into an internationally renowned cultural centre with perspectives that are constantly being updated and expanded. The city has a fantastic infrastructure and splendid heritage, offering everything from bandstands, public stages and a wonderfully diverse network of cafés to prestigious, age-old art centres and concert halls. Ghent is the home of dozens of large and small festivals in all disciplines, from the Ghent Festivities and Film Fest Gent to the Gent Jazz Festival, the World Soundtrack Awards and the Ghent Festival of Flanders. it therefore comes as no surprise that UNESCO has recognised Ghent as ‘Creative City of Music’.
Citadelpark, which was opened for the 1913 World Fair, now houses the world-famous Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K.) the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) and the International Convention Center Ghent (ICC). The former cotton mill, which now houses the Museum on Industry, La bour and Textile (MIAT), showcases a well-known sppining machine, Mule Jenny. In the 13th-century hospital that houses the Ghent City Museum (STAM) you can see the history of Ghent come to life. In addition, Design museum Gent provides a forum for functional design. Ghent led the way in Europe by switching to gas lighting as early as 1827, and the city was just as pioneering in 2011 with its first Light Festival.
All that beauty may have whetted your appetite, but there’s plenty more on offer than the historic Ghent waterzooi (stew), cuberdons (or neuzekes) and Tierenteyn mustard. You will always find something to your taste as Ghent is the veggie capital of Europe ( of the world, according to local residents, of course) and its young rock-‘n’-roll chefs are making waves on the international food scene. For more details go here.