Castle Chronicles: Gravensteen Castle

The castle was mentioned briefly in my previous post about Ghent because I felt it needed its own post as do all the castles we have visited. The Castle of the Counts makes seven castles visited at the time of our travel to the city, and one of our favorites. We were able to meander a majority of the well-kept structure before the wind and rain from storm Eunice blew in.

View of the castle from the bridge crossing the river

A history.

As mentioned in my previous post, the castle was held many jobs. It was first erected at the end of the 9th century as a wooden fortress by the Counts of Flanders – specifically Arnuf I, the son of Count Baldwin II, who had also used the site for a defensive structure. The home of the structure lies at the confluence of the River Lys (or Leie) and the River Scheldt. The structures were built on a site that had already been in use since the time of the Romans.

This original wooden structure was what is known as a “motte and bailey”. The main purpose of this sort of building is to provide quick and easy defenses. First, soil and stone are piled into a mound (the “motte”), then the fort is erected on top (the “bailey”). These structures were popular throughout Europe at the time of its creation – even assisting William the Conquerer in his defeat of England because they were quick to build, but damn near impossible to breach.

Arnuf’s main wooden structure was square with two floors. Outbuildings included a grain store. Eventually, the building burned down sometime around 1176 with Philip of Alsace, the Count of Flanders, using the same site in 1180 to build the castle that stands today.

The castle of Philip was built of Tournai limestone and thought to be influenced by the castles seen during his time crusading in the Holy Land. The castle served as both a residence and citadel meant to intimidate the burghers of Ghent. Wooden outbuildings were built to house the counts yields. He died in the Holy Land during a crusade.

A view of one of the rivers from the castle

Eventually, the castle gained a moat with water from the Lys, an embankment, as well as a stone wall that enclosed it. Sint-Veerleplein is the name of the gatehouse that gives entrance to the inner bailey. There is a dedication stone that says: This castle was built in the year 1180 by Philip, Count of Flanders and of Vermadois, son of Count Theodoric and Sibylla. Unfortunately, I didn’t grab a photo of the gatehouse, or the dedication stone, as the doorway was busy with both people and bicycle traffic. The castle also houses 24 watchtowers.

While the castle was a residence, the Counts did not often stay. Mostly, the castle was administrative, a court of law, and prison. Prisoners were held in underground cells where they were sometimes tortured.

In the 18th century, the castle become home of something new: an industrial complex. After the castle was auctioned off, architect Jean-Denis Brismaille and industrialist Ferdinand Jan Heyndrickx converted the building into cotton mills, mental construction workshops, and built onsite housing for worker’s and their families. The became known as Cité Hulin.

The 19th century saw the castle bought back by the Belgian government and Ghent city council with plans to restore it. This job was given to Josef De Waele who gave the castle a romantic Gothic restoration that was popular in Ghent at the time. The castle was then reopened to the public in 1907 where it has remained one of Ghent’s largest tourist attractions.


Tristan and I made the Castle of the Counts our first stop upon our arrival to Ghent. We stood before the gatehouse, looked up the gray stones and smiled. We got our tickets, left the audio guide behind (Tristan has some kind of aversion to any kind of audioguide), and began following the numbers of the tour to begin.

It was easy to follow the wall around, passing through turrets, peering between the stones and through arrow holes and windows. The view down the river was especially delightful. The sweet aromas of pastries and savories blew in on the gusts of Storm Eunice.

We giggled as one of the alcoves in the wall opened into a well preserved medieval toilet. The hole dropped straight down into the river. And there was a sign posted discouraging anyone from actually using it.

My favorite was the views from the top of the castle. I always enjoy these old city skylines seen from high.

After the rain chasing us from the roof, we explored the inner buildings of the castle, then made our way into the gift shop for our usual magnet. We took our cue to leave while there was a break in the rain to go find lunch. I hope you enjoy the photo’s!


Sources: HistoryHit.com (and again), HistorischeHeHuizen.stadt.gent, visit.gent.de, Wikipedia

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