Glide through Ghent’s wealthy past

By canal boat through a me­dieval mas­ter­piece

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - RIVER CRUISING - JU­DITH ELEN

Bel­gium is a small coun­try laced with rivers and canals, its old trad­ing ci­ties threaded with work­ing wa­ter­ways, the relics of their mer­can­tile past.

The an­cient Flem­ish cap­i­tal of Ghent (Gent), north­west of Brus­sels, was sec­ond only to Paris among north­ern Euro­pean ci­ties of the early 1500s. Ghent’s Old City con­gre­gates around the con­flu­ence of the River Scheldt, flow­ing to­wards An­twerp and the North Sea, and its trib­u­tary the Leie (Lys in French), which flows from north­ern France to merge with the Scheldt. From th­ese wa­tery trad­ing routes, a net­work of canals once car­ried pre­cious cargo di­rectly to and from Ghent’s wealthy mer­chant fam­i­lies, load­ing and off-load­ing at canal­side store­houses.

Lack­ing leisurely days and weeks to cruise the Bel­gian coun­try­side, I’ve paid 7 ($11) to take a canal tour with De Boot­jes van Gent; 40 min­utes in an open boat prom­ises a snap­shot of Ghent, mod­ern and me­dieval. In res­i­den­tial back­wa­ters, small row­boats lie tied be­low flights of nar­row stone steps, the oc­ca­sional kayak passes with one or two pad­dlers, ducks float be­neath weep­ing wil­lows, I even spot a small tur­tle swim­ming among aquatic tree roots. Steps lead to cafe bal­conies, where peo­ple lunch or sip cof­fee, half-screened be­hind bright gera­ni­ums.

Sud­denly grey-stone feu­dal walls and tur­rets tower over us. It’s Graven­steen, ris­ing straight from the wa­ter’s edge. Built in 1180 and known as the Cas­tle of the Counts, Graven­steen’s loom­ing pres­ence lures us to make a later land visit. This former res­i­den­tial seat of power, fortress, feu­dal court with dun­geons and tor­ture cham­bers, was saved from de­mo­li­tion in the 19th cen­tury and now opens to the pub­lic, in­clud­ing for wed­dings.

We pass me­dieval St Bavo’s Cathe­dral (where Holy Ro­man Em­peror Charles V was bap­tised in the early 1500s), the Bel­fry and St Ni­cholas’s Church; cap­tain Karel in­ter­sperses his­toric ac­counts with some la­conic ob­ser­va­tions.

Fur­ther along, we drift be­neath the Dark Gate of the Prin­sen­hof, Charles V’s birth­place, now site of a vast Septem­ber flea mar­ket. But we feel we’ve re­ally time-trav­elled when we pass Sint-Michiels­brug (St Michael’s Bridge) and spot wooden carts, gi­ant bales and a me­dieval mar­ket go­ing up on the paved dock. This win­dow on the past is the work of a film com­pany shoot­ing scenes for Em­peror, a film about Charles V. (Graven­steen stars in later scenes.) Ghent, alone in re­belling against Charles back then, is hav­ing the last laugh now, the em­peror spin­ning some cash for the city in­stead of ex­tort­ing it.

Relics of Ghent’s former mer­can­tile glory are equally en­gross­ing, such as houses of wealthy mer­chants, tow­ers to spot their re­turn­ing ships, grain stores and the guild­halls of boat­men, ma­sons, grain mea­sur­ers, fish­mon­gers and hag but­ters (bear­ers of the 15th-cen­tury weapon, hag­but or ar­que­bus). Low bridges, old walls and trail­ing green­ery in the tran­quil back­wa­ters con­trast with the flat-fronted, stepped-gable fa­cades of the cen­tre; in brick or brightly painted, some from the 10th cen­tury, they re­main as wit­nesses to Ghent’s il­lus­tri­ous past, in a city lightly touched by moder­nity.

The vastly pow­er­ful dukes of Bur­gundy, con­nected by mar­riage to lead­ing Ghent fam­i­lies, lived and held court here in the city’s hey­day, build­ing and en­rich­ing. “You don’t need a his­tory book in Ghent,” a walk­ing guide tells me later. “Our his­tory is built into the fa­cades of the build­ings.”

Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Visit Flan­ders and Rail Europe.

His­toric houses on the River Leie, left; De Boot­jes van Gent cruise boats, above

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