Our last city of the program! 😢
Gent, the capital of East Flanders and the second largest city of Belgium. It is historically important, being the largest city in Europe after Paris during the Middle Ages. Because it has been lucky enough to remain relatively unscathed during the two world wars, Gent’s historical heritage has remained intact so that we can appreciate them today.
The city has three main towers – the belfry, the tower of the Cathedral, and the tower of Saint Michael’s Church. We started our tour at the square in between the Cathedral and the belfry (housed on the Cloth House).
We continued across the canals to see Saint Michael’s Church, another beautiful Catholic Church that was built in the early gothic style. The style is “early” gothic due to the softly pointed edges – the arches are almost round but pointed at the tip. This style was also seen at the Church of Our Lady in Bruges. I feel like I have learned a great deal regarding architecture on this trip.
Graslei, the walkway along the canal in Gent’s old city center. The houses are so intricate and beautiful and authentic buildings from the Middle Ages. Our tour guide explained that an easy way to tell the difference between “fake medieval” and real medieval is whether or not the bases of the buildings are made of stone. In real medieval structures, actual stone was used. Later, only brick was employed.
Some more canals and a castle later we ended our tour for lunch.
I may have stayed up late the night before working frantically on blogs so I decided to use the lunch hour to find a scenic spot in Gent and take a siesta – I mean, dutje. I found this place next to the canal quite a ways form the city center. Knus!
Sint-Baafskathedraal – Saint Bavo’s Cathedral
Perhaps this is the time to mention that I notice in Dutch (and even more so in German, I think), something descriptive may become a very long word while in English it becomes multiple words. Like Saint Carlo’s Cathedral becomes essentially one word – Sint-Caroluskathedraal and not de kathedraal van Carlolus. To quote an extreme example that I googled, meervoudigepersoonlijkheidsstoornissen means “multiple personality disorders.” It’s like many words squashed into one. Though I suppose this doesn’t matter. But trivia! Now you know the longest word in Dutch.
Where were we? Oh, yes the Cathedral was very nice (I mean, could it be anything but splendid?). We wandered around a bit and It was extremely impressive. It has been some time since I visited the Cathedral in Antwerp but I believe the one in Gent is larger (though Antwerp’s is taller). Again, I noticed many individual altars surrounding the choir that individuals and guilds commissioned. It is nice to see the unique artwork that each one tries to display.
And of course we saw the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. I have developed quite the liking for Jan van Eyck during this program as I also really liked his pieces in the Museum in Bruges. I noticed the way he depicted the red cloth on the central figure (potentially Jesus, potentially God the Father, will we ever know?) is similar to how he depicted the garb on Mother Mary in Madonna with Canon van der Paele. Toon also gave us some details on how medieval artists would traditionally depict John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist which was interesting. Medieval art always takes on a sort of unrealistic look from afar but when you look at the individual expressions and gestures one can see the intricate and realistic details – like the faces of everyone in the painting.
Another major landmark of the city, the Gravensteen is a castle from the 12th century. Naturally much of the original stone has decayed and fallen to ruin but at least the whole base of the castle is original stone from the Middle Ages.
The castle was the “seat” of the Counts of Flanders until the 14th century when it underwent the classic cycling of functions that so many medieval buildings seem to have gone through – prison, courthouse, hospital, factory etc and then eventually left to decay. At the end of the 19th century, the city of Gent rescued the castle – they bought the property and began to renovate it to the splendid beast it is today.
Dinner with our (new) Family
The last part of the day (albeit 4 hours) was tea hosted by wonderful families who lived in Gent. I was pleasantly surprised that we would be split up in very small groups and have a gezelleg evening.
The vegetarian crew was hosted by a nice lady named Hilde who had invited two other guests – Thomas and Ariane (not 100% on that last one’s spelling though he did admit that many thought his name was that of a woman). They all were very interesting and we soon become enthralled in an animated conversation – our inhibitions came down very quickly (perhaps it was the prosecco and wine that flowed freely?). We discussed essentially everything that one should not discuss over dinner – politics, money, and religion. Thomas was originally an American (from Walnut, Minnesota!) and explained his process of becoming a true Belgian even after being here for some 28 years I believe. He had just received his Belgian nationality and works as a professor in Aalst, having studied at the University of Gent. Ariane is a professor at UCR which we visited in Middelburg (he was quite pleased that we were so familiar with his town and university). And Hilde had also worked as an academic in Gent. So we discussed the scandalous and offensive carnivals that take place in Aalst, the treatment of transgender individuals in Belgium, the state of taxation within the EU (and American citizens), the religious nature of the low countries and how “God has left the Netherlands,” the mysteries of life that can (or can’t?) be explained by science. And we related our personal experiences regarding the matters. And of course we talked a bit about where we are from and what the others have done but that actually proved to be only the first few minutes of our conversation. There was never a dull moment and I was quite sad to see the time had flown by. I would have loved to learn more about our hosts – they were truly fascinating.
Oh also the food was great. Yay vegetarians! I haven’t had tofu since China. We also had a typical Flemish type of soup (a vegetable I can’t remember the name of). And naturally, we ate potatoes (and an interesting type of Flemish green beens). For dessert we had the fruits and the chocolates and a unique pudding dish made in Aalst – a poor-man’s medieval dessert traditionally made from the scraps of cakes and cookies.
We said our goodbyes and finally made our way to our 2nd to last train ride of the trip (I still have to go to Brussels to fly out).