Glide through Ghent’s wealthy past
By canal boat through a medieval masterpiece
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