Tuesday, December 24, 2013


The Graslei at night.
With its film and music festivals, Ghent has become a hip Belgian town to visit during the summer and autumn months. But in winter, this Flemish city has an allure all its own, with festive lights reflecting off the many canals, monuments that one can view without being elbowed by crowds of tourists, and atypical exhibitions mounted just for the season.

The lights around the “three-tower” historical centre are at their most striking in winter, decorating the façade of the medieval buildings on the Graslei, for instance. At night, and especially in the early morning, this old port takes on an added charm, as the colours mirrored in the waters of the Leie make visitors feel like they’re in a famous Flemish painting.

A short distance away, one can find the three buildings that many people travel to Ghent to see: the imposing St Bavo’s Cathedral, the 95-metre-high Belfry with its shiny copper dragon, and the gothic Saint Nicholas Church.

The Cathedral houses many art treasures but is best known for “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, a 12-panel altarpiece (and masterpiece) painted in 1432 by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The work features astounding details of religious iconography and tells a multi-faceted story of the birth of Christ.

Houses along the Leie
The painting has also seen some turbulent times, having been carted off during various conflicts and even damaged by fire. One panel, “The Just Judges”, is still missing after being stolen in 1934; in its place is a reproduction by another artist.

Ghent town officials launched new restoration work on the altarpiece last September, and this is scheduled to last at least five years. In the meantime, St Bavo’s Cathedral is still displaying two-thirds of the original work, while black-and-white replicas stand in for the panels being restored.

After seeing “The Adoration”, one can climb the stairs to the top of the Belfry for a view of the city that inspired the Van Eycks. The Belfry, one of the tallest bell towers in the world, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the dragon on top of the tower is said to be a symbol of “Ghent’s independence”. The dragon has been there since 1380, “watching over the city”, as Ghent experienced invasions, mercantile bustle, rebellions, wars and liberation.

Inside St. Nicholas' Church
From the Belfry, one can admire St. Nicholas’ Church, built in Tournai bluestone in what’s known as the Scheldt Gothic style, named after the region’s Scheldt river. Now considered an architectural gem, particularly because of its grand tower above the crossing of the nave and transept, the church was almost turned into a grain hall during the French Revolution, when all of the city's churches were closed to religious services. Despite being looted, the building survived, however, and has undergone periodic renovation and refurbishing since then.

Down from the Belfry, one can venture inside St. Nicholas’ to hear its organ and see its shiny, elaborate interior after more than 30 years of restoration work.

A different perspective of the city comes from St Michaels Bridge (Sint Michielshelling) with the river stretching in both directions and the three towers of the city lined up as if for the perfect photo.  Then it’s time to explore Ghent’s quirky medieval streets, calm and quiet in winter.

Like most of Belgium, the city gets its fair share of rain. Yet, when one least expects it, there will be a sun-filled day, with the light glinting off the tops of the gable roofs and being reflected in the water of the city’s myriad canals. 

The Castle of the Counts
The streets north of the Graslei lead to the daunting Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen), where one can view dungeons and a torture museum, or just imagine time-travelling back to the 12th century when the castle was built by  Philip I, Count of Flanders. In winter, with the early falling of dusk, the castle seems even more imposing than in the summer months when the daylight lasts until late evening.

Ghent is also the birthplace of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who was born there in 1500. His statue can be found a few streets away from the Gravensteen, on the Prinsenhof Plein. He seems to have had surprisingly short legs.

He would probably have ridden through the Patershol, the medieval centre of Ghent, with its narrow well-preserved houses along the cobblestone streets. One can now rent a bike (no horses) from the Tourist Office, but the buildings are best admired as one strolls leisurely through the area, remembering to speak in a low voice. Many of the houses bear signs asking visitors to be quiet because “the residents are sleeping”. Revelers during the summer no doubt create quite a ruckus.

The Graslei in the early morning.
The visitors expected for January’s Ghent Light Festival should be less noisy, as only sounds of awe tend to accompany the sight of the city being made into "a living light exhibition”, as the organizers describe it.

Last year the Festival simulated the burning of the Belfry, through the play of lights, and in January 2015, for the third edition of the festival, visitors can expect to feel the same kind of childish excitement brought on by a good fireworks show, as "artistic illumination" makes Ghent sparkle. - L. McKenzie & J.M. De Clercq