What do you do when you have a three day weekend? Lazying about on the couch was insanely tempting, but we are in Europa after all. Time is of the essence, they say – our time must be utilized! Taken advantage of! Never wasted! So, off Tristan and I went on a 4 hour drive back to Belgium.
We’d decided that we really enjoyed ourselves in Brussels. The people were kind, the sights were beautiful, and the food delicious. We considered going back, but decided that we wanted to visit some place new. Our friend had recommended Ghent multiple times – so much so that whenever I ask her for travel recommendations, she always asks me why, since I never listen to her. Off to Ghent we went.
A short history.
The confluence of two rivers: the Lys (or Leie) and the Scheldt, have likely given Ghent its name. The Flemish word ‘Gent’ is said to derive from the Celtic word ‘Ganda’, which means: confluence. But this meeting of the two rivers has also given life to this area of Belgium. (visitflanders.com)
Much of Ghent remained intact following both World Wars, and because of the minimal damage, we are able to enjoy the 1400 year history. This long history began in prehistoric times, thrived during the Roman times, and up to St. Amandus choosing the site to build an abbey in the Middle Ages.
During the time the Gravensteen (more on the castle later) castle was built, Ghent was a thriving and important trade city due to both the cloth trade and its convenient place on the Lys and Scheldt. Ghent has also been the birthplace of royalty, has been ruled by merchants much like Brussels, seen decline in trade, tensions between Catholics and Protestants, benefited from the industrial explosion of the 19th century, and once saw itself as part of the French empire.
Today, the city is populated by rich architectural history intermingled with modern buildings, numerous universities, and an abundance of art.
Brussels and Ghent, and I would assume much of Belgium in general, is a mix of French and Dutch influences. Once ruled by the French, one bears witness to the language, architecture, and cuisine left behind. However, one also bears witness to the imprints left by the Dutch. I found it particularly impressive that while Brussels remains predominately French, only 45 minutes down the road, Ghent is predominately Dutch.
The bouncing intonations of the Dutch language can be heard along the streets, in the the stores, and seen on billboards and signs. Bicycles seemingly outnumber cars, claiming the roads as the main mode of transportation. University students bustle from one historic building to another, speaking to each other in a variety of languages as this city is a popular college town.
Tristan and I began our time in Ghent by visiting the Castle of the Counts, or Gravensteen Castle. This well-kept castle is wedged between a couple of streets and the river Lys. Born in the 12th century, the castle was the home of the Counts of Flanders who replaced the wooden structure upon an already existing settlement with an imposing stone structure. The site of the castle dates back to the time of the Romans.
Over the years, the castle has had many duties. Once a medieval keep, it has also been a court, mint, and a cotton factory. Now, it’s an exceptional piece of the past for us to explore with its collection of medieval torture instruments, well preserved medieval toilets, and beautiful views of Ghent from the top of the castle.
When we first arrived, it was a beautiful sunny day. The air was a bit chilly, but walking around always warms us up. We stopped for a waffle and coffee/hot chocolate before we adventured to the castle. By the time we were finished inside the castle, the clouds from incoming storm Eunice had begun to fill the sky. I’d wrongly thought we’d missed the storm, but the rest of our weekend was filled with rain and severe winds.
Tristan and I have grown to not mind a bit of rain. Here in Europe, things tend to carry on rain or shine, so we carried on. But the wind… it was something else. Our umbrellas constantly flipped inside out, pelting the rain into our faces. We stepped into little cafes and stores often for respite, and whittled down our original itinerary.
We made a point to visit particular places we had interest in versus meandering as we usually do. There was a sweet little “wizards” shop that sold Harry Potter paraphernalia – complete with a cabinet under the stairs.
There’s an alley in Ghent called Werregarenstraatje where you will find the main canvas of street artists of the city. According to the Visit Ghent website, the city is “street art friendly” – there are even guided tours of it! Tristan absolutely loves the street art in Europe. Much of it has a message, and if not, either blends with the scenery or is actually pleasant to look at. Even in the wind and rain, we spent quite a bit of time observing the art.
We ventured to the Stadshal after enjoying a warm latte and hot chocolate, in between bursts of rain. By the time we reached the building, the wind had picked up, blowing in another gust of rainfall. We stood underneath the building, fighting our umbrellas and laughing with the others seeking shelter as umbrellas flipped inside out or flew across the ground.
The Stadshal is a modern structure surrounded by old architecture. It stands out in its uniqueness, but somehow also fits in with the vibe of the city.
The rest of our visit included a delicious Irish breakfast at Patrick Foley’s Irish Pub, an incredible amount of waffles and other sweets, a comfortable and unique stay in an old Abbey turned hotel, and a wet and windy last walk along the river.