Ghent, Fetchingly Flemish (2003)

Ghent, Fetchingly Flemish (2003)

It was a rainy morning in November when I boarded a train from Brussels Zuid to Ghent St.Pieters, just half an hour away.  Ghent not being on the usual tourist map – that honour goes to Bruges, the lace-making, adjacent Belgian town which is a mandatory stop on all tour itineraries to the region – I had no clue what to expect.  I may never have gone to Ghent had it not been for an invitation to speak in a seminar at the University of Ghent.   Unschooled in history, I was blissfully ignorant of the historic significance of this picturesque town, smugly assuming it would be a dull university town exuding quiet scholarship.

Ghent turned out to be fetchingly different, with a charm all its own. A quintessential Flanders town, Ghent has a distinctive architecture and distinguished history.  The trip turned out to be a crash course for me – in Flemish history, art, architecture, culture and cuisine. And how presumptuous of me to assume Ghent would be a quiet and unpretentious town tucked away in a quaint corner of Belgium!  From the minute you land, the town literally clamours for your attention. Trams trundle noisily through the cobbled streets. Then there are cyclists galore, tinkling their bells and swishing past.

Every now and then, the steamers sound their foghorns.  Yes, Ghent is located at the confluence of two rivers – Scheldt and Leie and the name Ghent itself is derived from the Celtic word Ganda which means confluence.  And there is a steady stream of riverine traffic. As if to soothe your stressed out auditory nerves, church bells peal melodiously from time to time. Considering that Ghent has more churches per square mile than most other towns in this part of the world,  that makes for a constant jingle in the background.  On the whole, Ghent sounded like a city of – well you guessed it – sounds! 

But there’s more to Ghent than decibels. Until as late as the 13th century, Ghent rubbed shoulders with Paris and Rome, as one of the biggest and most important cities in Europe.  In fact, it was bigger than London, Cologne or Moscow and had more than its share of churches, chapels and cathedrals. There’s an interesting story about how Ghent converted to Christianity.  Amandus, a missionary French nobleman landed in Ghent around 629 AD. Legend has it that he managed to bring back to life, a criminal who had been executed by hanging in the town square. This so impressed the townsfolk that they soon destroyed their shrines of pagan worship and promptly embraced Christianity. Then Amandus went about establishing two grand Abbeys – St.Baafs (also called St.Bavo) and St.Pieters, which to this day remain Ghent’s star attractions, although they have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years.

But I do not know any of this as I wander around the town, marveling at its unique architecture and cursing the dull grey November weather that takes the sheen off sight-seeing. I saunter into a church where I propose to spend the next hour or two till the weather brightens. Fortunately, the souvenir stall inside the church is open and I get myself a pocket book on Ghent’s history to educate myself. I learn that Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor was born in Ghent. He was so fond of the city that he wanted to protect it against the maurading Vikings. A full-fledged fleet was parked in the river Scheldt just to repulse the Norse attacks, but as we know, Vikings are not so easily deterred, certainly not by the Ghent navy that was no match for their magnificient sail boats.  They came in droves and sacked the city through and through – many times between 851 and 879 AD. They even plundered St.Baafs and St.Pieters and razed both the abbeys to the ground.  In fact, the pillaging Norsemen had all but wiped Ghent off the map of Europe.  

But thanks to its Flemish resilience, Ghent rose once again, like a Phoenix from the ashes. A flourishing woolen cloth trade kept the city’s coffers ringing. The streets were once more abuzz with activity –  corn trade, weavers’ looms, auction houses, cloth mills, etc. A very powerful guild of merchants emerged, determined to revive the city’s fortunes as well as their own. Churches were re-built, the city was fortified against invasion, the market square became the centre of frantic activity.  In fact, in the 14th and 15th centuries, Ghent was a vibrant centre of crafts and trades. The artisans and aldermen were organized in guilds which also doubled as political parties fighting for civil rights. The streets were organized according to trades – so you had a mill street, a seamstress street, a weavers’ street, smiths’ street etc each complete with its own deity and chapel. Ghent was also known for its numerous processions – religious festivities that often degenerated into raucous and chaotic street brawls. Mercifully now processions are mostly tourist events. 

The church I have stumbled into is St.Baafs Cathedral, the oldest and grandest of all the Ghent churches. Emperor Charles V was christened in this cathedral in 1500 AD. I am invariably struck by the serenity inside European churches. Their compelling antiquity, the stately naves, the dazzling stained glass windows, the imposing pulpit, the serrated columns majestically rising all the way to the vaulted roof, the forest of flickering candles casting wobbly shadows at the altar, the faint smell of incense and above all, the roaring, deafening silence.  St.Baafs has all of these and more. The slate-grey rain-washed steeples in Gothic style stake out a striking silhouette against the dull sky. The altarpiece is a triptych oil on canvas depicting Adoration of the Mystic Lamb attributed to the Van Eyck brothers.  

Ghent’s fabled Belfry dominates the skyline.  Rising majestically upwards, its crown seems to be lost in the clouds. I make my way to Lakenhalle, the 15th century cloth hall from which a glass elevator will ferry me all the way up to take a closer look. The view from the top is heady – a forest of gabled roofs punctuated by piercing steeples. I suspect our viewing ledge would wobble if the bell began to ring – it is too massive and too close. I beat a hasty retreat before the hour to watch the bells sway from the safety of the ground.

The square has colourful stalls and I make a beeline for the one selling hot waffles dripping with honey. Waffles are a quintessential Belgian delicacy, but my vote is for the exquisite Belgian chocolates that melt in your mouth.  I stroll along the canal which runs right through the town. Even the banks of the canal are not free from the ubiquitous cyclists although they also have to weave through some anglers squatting on the banks patiently holding their fishing tackles.  

St.Michiels Bridge is a good starting point to explore Graslei and Korenlei, the two main quays that symbolize all that is aesthetic about Ghent.  As you approach the bridge, you’re struck by the reflection of Graslei – Flemish for herbs and vegetable street – in the still waters of the canal. The view from Korenlei –Flemish for wheat street – is even better. From here you get a stunning view of the trio – St.Nicholas, the Belfry and St.Baafs Cathedral looming across your line of vision. On the right is the St.Michiels church. The architecture of the houses in Korenlei and Graslei are striking and unlike anything I have seen elsewhere. I see some resemblance to the gorgeous houses in Lila’s Torg in the Swedish port city of Malmo, but the buildings here are much more ornamental. Particularly attractive is the façade of a building which I later learn, used to be the Guild House of Free Sailors. Many of these Guild Houses along the Graslei were built during the Renaissance era.  Among them are the Post Office (1910), the House of Free Boatmen (1531), the House of Grainweighers (1698), the tiny Custom House (1682), the Grain warehouse (1200), and the House of Masons (1527).

The grain warehouse from 1200 is one of the oldest commercial buildings in Belgium. As I linger in front of the buildings, I wonder who lives in these picturesque houses. Later, I strike up a conversation with  a bookstall attendant who tells me these original guild buildings now double as offices and even shops. What a pleasant shopping experience it must be, just to browse around here. 

There are also two castles in Ghent, the Gravensteen – Castle of the Counts – which unfortunatlely, is shrouded in a scaffolding this day and the Castle of Gerald Duivel Steen or the Castle of Gerald the Devil which serves as the city’s archives now. Both these castles seem to have a gory reputation and house a variety of torture instruments. Next day, I make my way to St.Nicholas Church, equally ancient as St.Baafs. It was built over thirty years in the early part of the 13the century. I learn that the style of St.Nicholas is called the Scheldt Gothic – quite different from the Brabantine Gothic style because of the use of blue grey stones from Tournai region of Belgium.

My guidebook also tells me that St.Nicholas is the patron-saint of traders. It describes how this church was the target of attack when Lutheran reformers stormed into the city in the 16th century. They were against idol worship and went about systematically destroying churches in Ghent and elsewhere. Again during the French revolution, when protesters tried to burn down this  church, it transformed itself into a horses’ stable and became quite inconspicuous and thus escaped total destruction.  It was rebuilt in the 19th century. 

My seminar takes place in Het Pand, the former Dominican Monastery that exudes quiet grandeur.  Built in the 13th century, it is now the cultural centre of the University of Ghent. For five hundred years Het Pand served as a religious institution, first under Dominicans, followed by Calvinists who also had to give it up after the French Revolution.  By late 18th century Het Pand lost its religious character. In 1963 it was sold to the University of Ghent which restored this building’s architectural splendour.  From Johann Albrecht, Professor at the university and the seminar organizer, I come to know that the treaty that officially ended the war between Britain and the United States – Treaty of Ghent, 1814 – was signed in this historic city.  He advises me to visit the various museums, but I prefer to stroll along the town’s quaint streets and imagine life as it used to be in medieval times. If only the trams didn’t make such a racket, I might even have succeeded in my visualization. 

The weather seems to have cleared up on Sunday. I decide to take a cruise around town and head towards the quay. There are only a handful of tourists and I find myself a seat at a vantage point from which I can soak in the sights as well as the sunshine. The sidewalk cafes – that quintessential European institution – are doing brisk business and the streets are crowded with students and families. There is a festive atmosphere about town. The cruise takes me around the beautiful town giving me a tantalizing peep into a medieval past. I would have liked to have lingered longer, but I have a flight to catch. So I reluctantly take my leave of this dreamy little town.

(Published in Frontline dated 10th Feb 2006