January 15, 2011


This is the second post about my Belgian adventures during the Christmas vacation. Last Thursday, I went to Gent. 

Gent is a city in Flanders, about a 40-minute train ride northwest from Brussels. Like most of the cities here, it has been inhabited for over 1000 years with a long and complex story of rises and falls, successes and declines, buildings and plunderings. During the middle ages, it thrived-- it was one of the biggest cities in Europe, second only to Paris.

Many of the buildings from that time period remain, so I headed there to see what I could find.


Getting off the train, I headed through the train station that looked rather medieval in itself (well, not really--it was built in 1912, but still...), with low arches underneath the tracks. 

I got out of the station to find a square court, completely full of bikes. There were tons--it was pretty cool.  Flat Flanders and its fiets...  

I circled around this square a few times, trying to figure out how to get into the city center (the train station is maybe 2 km south of the main part of the city). The first thing I noticed was the complete and total lack of French, and therefore the lack of a language I could understand. Everything here was in Dutch-- not at all like the signs in Brussels written in two languages. I wandered around the square, looking at the tram maps and trying to figure out where I was supposed to find the tram stop to go to the centrum. I finally found a sign that said something along the lines of wil u narr het centrum? and it told me to take tram 1.

That seemed logical, so I got on. 

And, with the help of another exchange student I happened to be sitting next to on the tram, I got off at the right stop. 

After a three-minute-or-so walk, I came upon this cathedral, Sint Baafskathedraal (thank you Wikipedia, on the spelling), known as St. Bavo's cathedral in English. 


An amazing building, it has sat in the same spot (albeit in different forms--sometimes getting expanded, sometimes getting plundered by reformers) for over 1000 years. 

I went inside, but respected the posted request to not take pictures. 

Across the cathedral was the belfry ("belltower" in more popular English), which has been around since the 1300s. 

I decided to check it out.  

Going up the stairs, I found myself in a high, arched stone room. In it were the old dragons that had lived on the top of the tower. If you click on the image above, you may be able to see the current dragon perched on the top of the tower. The one pictured below is about 150 years old. 

I went up the elevator (I couldn't find the stairs), and the in next room I found was the drum for the carillion. Each little black nub on this drum pulled a lever which rang a bell overhead--similar to the principle of a music box. Every 15 minutes or so it would play a song. 

Up a few more stairs and I was on the higest accessible level, 

with a gorgeous view of the city. 


I was intrigued by the other church I saw, so I headed back down the steps to check it out. 

I stopped for a second to look at some of the old bells

And to capure an interesting perspective through a tiny window  

and to get another picture of the belfry,

and of some statues of jesters on one of the roofs. 

Finally, I got inside the church (Sint-Niklaaskerk), and was breathtaken, as I usually am whenever I enter one. 

After a little while exploring inside, wondering how many tons of stone were in the building, I entered back onto the street, and crossed the bridge over the river: 

Ghent was built on the intersection of two rivers, the Scheldt and the Lys, which has made it a capital for merchants and traders--they built many of the beautiful buildings on the just facing the river. 

I decided to play a classic tourist and take a on a canal boat tour-- mainly because it was freezing cold and I wanted someplace enclosed. So I joined the group of people on the glass-covered boat, and heard narration in three languages (Dutch, French, and English) as the boat idled slowly up and down the river.

 The three towers--St. Nicholas' Church, the belfry, and St. Bavo's Cathedral, viewed from the canal. Very picturesque, I thought...

They were quite pretty-- I got a good view of the buildings and some of the other boats from a nice perspective.  

This, according to the tour guide, was the only remaining building in Gent with a wooden façade. She pointed out how it was built with overhanging levels to keep the rain from destroying the wood. 

The castle. In the keep, according to the tour guide, there was a very well equipped (and well-used) torture chamber, used in the middle ages. 

After the boat tour, I hung out a little bit longer around town, taking in the setting. Some of the buildings were really cool, radiating a sense of old richess. 

There were lots of other things I wanted to see, including a folklore museum and the place where the Treaty of Ghent was signed to end the War of 1812,  but it was starting to get dark and my hands were freezing, so I decided they could wait another day. So I found tram 1 and took it back to the train station, getting there (luckily) in time for the next train back to Brussel-Suid. 


It had been a pretty cool day. 

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