Shh!!! Listen . . .
Ghent is full of confluence. To some, this may be mistaken as confusion. The greys of industrialization are interspersed with the prismatic flowers the horticulturalists are growing. The city is alive, yet no stores are open. Here, you’ll hear Flemish, French, German, English spoken. Here, the 3 rivers get interwoven.
Ghent seems to be the red-headed stepsister to Brussels, Bruge, and Antwerp. She refuses to try on any glass slippers. She will find her own way sans a prince—thank you. That is her defiance. She is unhurried, self-reliant. The flowers overflow their boxes and drape down reaching for the rivers, like the nooses drape off the Stroppendraggers. The Ghent people—forced into public shame, clad in simple, loose shifts and nooses, paraded before their conquerors for that unrelenting, trouble-making defiance—took the symbol up like a royal mantle and strut about the streets now of their own accord. They will not be lorded over. They will drag their nooses and will walk straight and tall, their backs erect like Ghent’s three straight, tall towers—St. Nicholas’, St. Bavo’s, and the Belfry that chimes the hours.
The clarion bells ring out clearly. Sweetly, the bell music fills the air with regular rhythms resounding above the Belfry’s chamber of secrets. In this room the rights and privileges of those self-reliant people of Ghent spent years stored in trunks chained to the floor to be usurped by no one. Perched on the tower, four guardsmen kept careful watch like eagles, blowing trumpets to warn the people should any enemies dare, to breach the town and belfry tower, and the secrets which were kept in there. Atop the tower sat a weathervane in the form of a fearsome dragon—no rooster common, plain, would suit Ghent and its mythic distortion. Once one of the largest European cities, second only in proportion to the metropolis of Paris, Ghent grew up quickly and flourished—the center of the world of textiles.
Belgium is a country of many folk traditions. The above stories float about Ghent like the boats float along the placid surfaces of the many canals. Victor Hugo called it “the Venice of the North.” It is inherently walkable and walking is the best pace with which to soak in the beauty and charm of this little gem. It seems relatively undiscovered by tourists, so you are better able to blend in with the locals. Brett and I did just that with a day of shopping (we had to get some warmer clothing) and eating. The Flemish beef stew was nothing to sneeze at, but the waffles, oh, the waffles. Go up to a sidewalk stand and order a Liege-style waffle. You’ll leggo of those Eggos right away. The sukrewafels are covered with a thin layer of crunchy, caramelized sugar and come with a variety of toppings, but eat them plain—I promise you’ll never miss your Aunt Jemima.
And while we are talking about food . . .
Woman can’t live on chocolate alone . . . but if she could, she’d have to live in Belgium. I visited a gourmet chocolatier’s shop and admitted my ignorance (though not for want of years of trying). The amiable owner fixed me up a variety bag, and I’ve never had such wonderful chocolates in all my life. My favorites were the chocolate noir with the coffee cream filling.
The next day we visited St. Bavo’s cathedral, which (just guess) was under construction, but we got to listen to an audio guide of its treasured polyptych while we carefully scrutinized the Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Evoking iconography from the book of Revelations and innovations in perspective painting, the piece is wonderfully rich. We also explored the famed Belfry tower before going over to the folklore museum.
The Hospice of the Children Alijns has some lore all its own. It began with a feud between two houses that culminated in the murder of 2 of the Alijn family children. As part of their pardon, the murderers were required to build and finance this poor house. The museum bought and renovated the property to house the folk museum, which contains artifacts from the daily lives of the Belgian people through time, from funeral rites (they covered the mirrors to prevent dead relatives from coming back) to mourning wardrobes, from birthing gear (the forceps were popularized here) to leisure habits and school equipment like an abacus. After a warm dranken from the cafe on the courtyard, we made our way to the Castle of the Counts, Gravensteen, with its museum of torture instruments and collection of medieval weaponry. The damp of the castle just added to the chill that these 2 exhibits conjured, and I was happy to be back in the luxurious sunshine of the street headed out to a quick bite before leaving for our numerous connections to Praha, the city of a hundred spires.
Everything in Ghent seemed to have a story behind it—even our hotel, Poortackere, which was a converted monastery dating back to the 1200’s situated at the edge of a port (poort) and a field (ackere). This sense of story in Ghent weaves a tapestry of folklore and tradition that saturates the city and gives it its strong character. When you are in Ghent, you know you are not just in Anywhere, Europe, but you are truly in some place, this place, and Ghent is not a place you’ll readily forget.
We are now in Prague. More to come on the great idea of the artisan later.