Sunday, September 1, 2013

Gilded Ghent

I hosted a long-awaited visitor last week-- my mom! I've been waiting for her to come to Europe for the past two years, and she's been waiting to cross the big pond for much longer. I gave her a whirlwind tour of some of my favorite places in The Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium. We had a wonderful time and the weather was on its best behavior. I only wish she could have stayed longer but I'm grateful for the time we had together, and for being able to celebrate her birthday with her for the first time in three years!

Out of all of the cities we visited, the only one I hadn't been to yet was Ghent in Belgium. It seems as if Ghent always comes up in a discussion regarding Bruges. You tell someone, "Oh, I just got back from Bruges! It was lovely!" If they have been to Ghent, their response might be, "Bruges? Well, sure, Bruges is nice but Ghent is where you should really go!"

I do love Bruges but I'd just visited for the second time a few months ago so I decided to take Mom somewhere neither of us had been. Ghent offered the possibility of new adventures and I was also ready to settle the 'Ghent vs. Bruges' debate once and for all.

We took the train from Maastricht early one morning. Once we arrived, we hailed a taxi that drove us to our hotel: the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof. It's one of those artsy/designy/deco-ish places with garish animal-print covered chairs, wacky chandeliers, and color-blocked carpet that has the special power to make you feel dizzy and get you lost in never-ending corridors. It was sort of like being on the set of Beetlejuice. I loved it. The price was right (for a Monday night) and the location was perfect. All of the staff were kind and the room was large by European standards. I think the fares rise significantly during the weekend but if you find yourself in Ghent during an off-day, it's a great choice.

After we checked in to the hotel, we set off to find out what makes Ghent so special (and more special than Bruges, according to some). Our first view of Ghent, from St. Michael's Bridge, wasn't disappointing.

After a quick lunch of Flemish beef stew, we decided to visit Gravensteen Castle, or Castle of the Counts. I was really excited to visit a castle that's still so intact, and right in the center of a bustling city. The foreboding facade made me feel small and vulnerable as we approached. Gravensteen was built in 1180 with all of the amenities necessary in the Middle Ages.

Gravensteen Castle

The MTV Cribs episode would go something like this:
"Hi, I'm Count Philip of Alsace. Welcome to my crib. Don't mind the screams from the dungeons- ha ha! To the left is the gatehouse, which also served as a temporary prison. And here's the torture chamber, an obligatory addition to any medieval crib. This is the banquet hall where the countess and me hang out and host parties. And these are the toilets, should the need arise. Do you want to see what's in my fridge or would you rather tour the underground prison first?"

Master Bathroom

Throne Room
I really enjoyed the views of Ghent from the battlements of Gravensteen. It was easy to imagine myself back in the Middle Ages, knights and maidens wandering around the endless corridors. The size of the castle was what really struck me the most. It was obviously a very powerful stronghold in its time. 

After our time travel, we strolled through the Patershol quarter, an important area of the city during the Middle Ages that has experienced a renaissance during the past 30 years. It's a lovely, quiet district that is now mainly residential and boasts a few Michelin-starred restaurants.

Back in the city center, the Castle of Gerald the Devil is a must-see for architecture aficionados. It was constructed in the 13th century by a villain named Gerald. He was called "the devil" because of his dark appearance. The castle has worn many hats over the centuries. It's been a knights' residence, monastery, orphanage, school, fire station, and madhouse-- and that's just to name a few. Today, the Castle of Gerald the Devil is home to the State Archives. 
We also visited Saint Bavo's Cathedral. It dates back to the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist in 942. The church underwent rebuilding during the 14th to 16th centuries. What we see today is very close to the way it looked in the mid-16th century. Restoration of the tower began this past May. It's projected to take five years. It was a little disappointing that the facade was covered in scaffolding but I suppose centuries-old cathedrals need some serious repairs every few decades.

Saint Bavo's Cathedral
The major draw for tourists to Saint Bravo's Cathedral is housed in a tiny chapel off to the side. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is an altarpiece painted in 1432 by the famous Van Eyck brothers. Jan van Eyck is considered one of the best Northern European painters of the 15th century. He paired up with his older brother, Hubert, to create the masterpiece some regard as the first great oil painting. We paid a few Euros to see the painting in all its glory. The altarpiece dominated the tiny chapel and throngs of hushed tourists gazed upon it in awed silence. It's all original, except for the 'Just Judges' panel that was stolen in 1934. NPR has a very good article regarding the piece: Is This the World's Most Coveted Painting? 

Van Eyck Bros. Monument
We visited the Design Museum the next morning before we left for Brussels. It mainly offers 20th century and modern-day exhibitions. The focus is on furniture and home accessories. I think it's probably a young design student's dream. Everything from porcelain and china to vases and chandeliers are displayed in the airy interior of the museum. It's nothing you would expect to see housed inside an 18th century building. My favorite collection was in the basement, an exhibition of sheet music illustrated by Peter de Greef. He was a Belgian designer of musical scores between the 1920's and 50's. 

I thought Ghent was lovely. I don't really know a way to compare or contrast it with Bruges. It's more fun and interesting to visit a new place without having expectations or opinions about it based upon somewhere else. Both cites are charming and picturesque in their own ways.

I think, if you're in the position to be judging Bruges and Ghent against each other, you are a very fortunate person because you've been able to walk along the canal-lined streets of both beautiful cities. Savor it, world traveler. You're luckier than most.