It took only 25 minutes from Brugge by train before we found ourselves in the heart of historic Ghent.
The Rest of Gent/Ghent
Belgium’s official name is The Kingdom of Belgium. It is divided into 3 regions. Brussels is one region by itself and the other two regions are Flanders and Wallonia, each subdivided into 5 provinces. We are based in Brugge in the West Flanders province and are visiting Ghent in the East Flanders province and both provinces are in the Flanders Region. Ghent (spelled Gent in Flemish) has the 3rd largest population in Belgium, 262,000; more than doubling that of Brugge.
The two rivers Leie and Schelde meet in this walkable city with pretty canals lined by crow-stepped gable buildings. The native language is Flemish/Dutch but everyone we encountered also spoke English.
You may have noticed that, like a handful of other country’s flags, the Belgium and German flags are often confused because, coincidentally, they use the same colors. Belgium’s flag has vertical red, yellow and black stripes whereas the German flag uses black, red and yellow horizontal stripes.
One interesting morsel of history we learned was that The Treaty of Ghent, negotiated in this city and adopted on Christmas Eve 1814, formally ended the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States.
The first stop of our day was the towering 292′ (89m) tall Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. Construction of the gothic Cathedral began in 1274 on the site of a older Chapel of St. John the Baptist, 894 CE. The Cathedral claims to have amongst its reliquaries, the head of Saint John the Baptist.
We met a lovely couple in Brugge and over a cup of coffee they encouraged us to visit Ghent, and specifically to check out the famous Ghent alterpiece in the Cathedral.
The talented Belgian artist, Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert painted the alterpiece. The ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’. It is considered Van Eyck’s masterpiece and one of Belgium’s most important works. Unfortunately the lowermost left panel known as The Just Judges, was stolen in 1934. Although it has not been recovered, a copy of it has inserted.
Next stop was to the massive medieval Gravensteen Castle. First mentioned as far back as the reign of Arnulf I (890-965). That earlier fortification was made of wood and burnt to the ground. The dedication stone on one castle wall dates the current castle from 1180. Inside is a large central tower or keep, a residence and various smaller buildings. These are surrounded by a fortified, oval-shaped enclosure lined with 24 small watchtowers. There is also a moat, fed by the Leie River.
This striking castle was restored between 1893 and 1903. The commanding presence of Gravensteen is now a museum and city landmark, and if you are lucky, you may even see an old knight still protecting the castle.
GUM – Ghent University Museum
GUM is a university science museum with 4 floors of exhibits. There was an extensive temporary exhibition about reproductive organs and there were a couple of groups of university students lead by their professors who were using the exhibits as teaching opportunities.
We also saw the usual animal skeletons, collections of insects and butterflies and interesting old science tools and equipment. This photo below is a sphygmograph, which was an instrument that produced a line recording the strength and rate of a person’s pulse. It was used in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s.
There is a popular local Ghent candy we tried called a cuberdon. They are also known as ‘neuzekes’ (‘little noses’) because they have a similar shape to a human nose. They are cone-shaped, dark purple, jelly-filled candies, traditionally made with a gum arabic candy crust with a soft, raspberry-flavored inside filling. Today they come in a variety of colors and flavors, but we tried the traditional flavor. Cuberdons have only a 3 week shelf life before the inside begins to crystallize so we were happy to sample it in Ghent.
Ghent is a cyclist’s dream. It has nearly 250 miles (400 km) of cycle paths and more than 700 one-way streets, where bikes are allowed to go against the traffic. More cyclists means a higher demand for bicycle parking stations. The 17,000 parking spots at Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station may need to be expanded for a third time. Here is a view of Ghent that we saw as we departed on the evening train.
On a separate day we hopped a train in Brugge and headed west to explore along the Atlantic coast. Our first stop was in the village of Zeebrugge, the port and subdivision of Brugge. The Brugge-Zeebrugge Canal was built between 1896 and 1907 to connect Brugge to the North Sea. The original natural channel had silted up in the early 1800’s so this manmade version was needed to restore Brugge’s access as an ocean port. The canal is 7.5 miles (12 km) long and has two large locks which link Zeebrugge to Brugge.
Zeebrugge is Belgium’s most important fishing port and the wholesale fish market located there is one of the largest in Europe. It is a small seafront resort with hotels and cafés as well as a passenger terminal with ferries to the United Kingdom.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the harbor before needing a cup of coffee. We passed the pretty little Church of Sint-Donaas and a local resident recommended we peek around the back and check out the World War I cemetery. There are 175 German gravestones and 30 British gravestones with 20 graves as yet, unidentified.
After locating a café and ordering our coffee we began chatting with a local couple next to us, who suggested we visit Blankenberge. So we hopped on the local tram and off we went. We were able to buy tickets on board with a tap of our phone. Within minutes we had arrived in the lively beach town of Blankenberge, located on the North Sea coast.
In our Prague blog called City of 100 Spires we first encountered David Černý, the Czech sculptor and his peculiar baby installations. We found 3 of the babies again climbing buildings in Blankenberge. As mentioned in the earlier blog, the babies are cute until you see their unusual barcode faces.
Before the First World War, Blankenberge was an exclusive holiday resort frequently attended by Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. They were planning to travel again to Blankenberge after their last official engagement in Sarajevo in 1914. However it was their assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 that sparked a series of events that led to World War I.
In World War II Blankenberge formed part of the Atlantic Wall defences constructed by the German forces. Blankenberge was liberated on September 9, 1944 by the armored regiment of the Canadian Army, the Manitoba Dragoons.
After World War II Blankenberge became a popular holiday destination for all citizens. There is a wide beach with a seawall and promenade. The town is below the sea wall so that one ascends steps to reach the sea from the town.
This Flemish country ought to be on your travel radar. We are thoroughly enjoying our travels within the country and look forward to returning.
Proost from these Genenaars,
Ted + Julia