Ghent/Gent, Belgium – torture and trade inspire gothic arts

An hour or so west from Brussels by road lies Ghent, important and prosperous medieval market city and now university town with historic center.  There are several places here I wanted to visit, and these would consume most of a day.

Being flat land and closer to the North sea, this area has a changeable, cool humid climate with plenty of clouds and rain. It’s also part of the Flanders region so the area is culturally and linguistically Flemish. In Flemish the city is called Gent and I will spell it both ways. As we crossed the Scheldt to enter the city limits, the sky covered with clouds, looming gloomily over the gothic architecture ahead.

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A man plays sheep stomach bagpipe sitting in front of Cathedral St Nicholas, adding to the ambience

The grey sky and the grey pointy towers reflect in the dark water,  as a man sits on a stoop playing bagpipe made from sheep’s stomach. Locals cross bridges on bicycles as tourists stand in the square. Dancing devils adorn the ornate step roof of a tall guild house. The narrow streets wind and their names are unfamiliar. The bell tolls. People move quickly and freely, and a tram goes through. On the stone streets of the square, I envision the intense marketplace here 800 years ago, fast-paced, crowded, crazy, full of grain and textiles, desperation, bad smells, and coins.

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Dancing devils (Morisken dancers) sculpted by Walter De Buck on top of the Metselaarshuis (Masons guild house)
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Groot Vleeshuis Meat house built in early 1400s in Flemish Gothic style on the left, along the Leie.

GRAVENSTEEN, the castle of the counts, looms eerily beyond the guild houses, surrounded by the moat of water. From the late 1100s the count, threatened by the guilds and their wealth and autonomy, built this imposing stone fortress to dominate and torture the townspeople.

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The castle was abandoned and restored starting in the late 1800s. They do not hide the history here. Inside the castle is a torture room, full of pain tools under glass, pictures, even mannequins tied, restrained, funneled.

Looking outside the high small window, a boat floats down the river in the rain and everyone holds rainbow umbrellas.20170331_142942

There is also a good weapons collection in the castle and a costumed knight character carrying a sword. They do not hide the history here, they are open to it and it enriches the arts.

Following the streets,  we pass the Belfort and its high tower and melodic bells. Inside there are historic paintings and a modern exhibit, but we did not climb the tower.

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Picture of city sites circa 1524, mural inside the Belfort

On the next block is St Bavo cathedral, home of the painting “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” by Jan van Eyck and his brother,  set in sculpture outside the church. The church had closed for the day when we arrived.

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In the market square we ate waffles, the Belgian special served hot on the cool rainy day.20170331_151356

There is a graffiti street but it was under construction and we could not access the better street art.20170331_155152

Before leaving we visit Consouling Store, a record shop and coffee shop in the east of the center, recommended by a local friend. They also run a record label,  Consouling records,  and they sell used and new music. I get a cd by Current 93, whose apocalyptic folk music is hard to find in the states and feels so appropriate here.

The cd “baalstorm, sing omega” has a standing stone on the cover, serendipitous to places i will go later in this journey.

Music sample: “with flowers in the garden of fires” by Current 93 https://youtu.be/cZFXnOiGFlk

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The ancient and modern seem to mix well in Gent, the first experience for me in a medieval era town. I recommend for anyone who visits nearby Brugge to also come here.

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Arianna,  31 March 2017

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