If New York is ‘so good they named it twice’, what does that say about Ghent? Or Gant, as the French call it? Or Gent, if you’re Dutch?* This thrice-named town may have a tourist infestation at this time of year, but it’s an historic and fascinating place with much to recommend it. Compact enough to explore on foot over a couple of days, it’s large enough to feel like you’ve seen only part of what the town has to offer.
Not for nothing is Ghent referred to as “the pearl between Brussels and Bruges“. One of the nicest things about the old city is that much of it is pedestrianised. You can wander narrow lanes, stumble across pretty, restaurant-filled squares and stroll alongside ancient canals without fear of being mown down. Bikes and trams have replaced cars, the result makes for a far more pleasant experience.
The Europe-wide Monday closure of museums remains one of the Universe’s great mysteries. It meant that when I arrived on Sunday there were a couple of places that would be closed the next day that I wanted to visit. I walked from the train station through Citadel Park to the former Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter, which sits on one side of the vast Sint Pietersplein square.
Once the wealthiest and largest Abbey in Flanders, Sint Pietersabdij and the attached Sint Pieterskerk, is hugely impressive. Founded in the 7th Century, the Abbey flourished for centuries before the Reformation and subsequent religious wars tore Flanders apart. It acquired land, property and power, and a reputation for indulgent monks living in opulence.
Visitors are issued a handheld video tour narrated by the ghost of a former monk. It’s as odd as it sounds, and not just because the monk’s name is ‘Alison’, or that he goes on and on about how devastated he is over the death of a young monk with whom he was ‘friends’. I was thinking the obvious when Alison revealed that he was just one of the many monks who had a mistress living in the Abbey. Who knew?
As my guidebook put it, Alison is the “tangential musings of a ghost monk guide in a medieval love triangle.” I also learned that the monks considered milk a health risk, and drank wine instead. Nice work if you can get it.
The Abbey’s importance reflected the wealth and importance of Ghent. It grew until the 18th Century when catastrophe struck in the form of the French Revolution. The Revolutionary army occupied the Abbey, evicted the monks, and confiscated anything of value, including the well stocked wine cellar (a particular blow to Alison). In 1796 the Abbey was abolished.
I ventured into Ghent’s historic centre and spent a leisurely hour over some delicious mussels in white wine sauce, and then headed to the MIAT textile museum to discover Ghent’s history as a cloth manufacturing centre. It isn’t entirely obvious today, but Ghent was once a major industrial city full of wool, flax and cotton mills.
The excellent MIAT is suitably housed in a former 19th Century mill. Fine woollen cloth made medieval Ghent wealthy, its products were in such demand Flemish traders had to import wool from England and Scotland. Which might explain the ‘Scottish Pub’ I came across. It definitely explains all the medieval guild buildings dotted around the town.
In the 19th Century it was flax and cotton that brought Ghent wealth. The museum is full of machines that once drove the economy, and explains the impact industrialisation had on the town. Ghent was the first city in Flanders to experience the Industrial Revolution after factory owner, Lieven Bauwens, smuggled a Spinning Jenny out of England. The original machine can still be seen.
Ghent hardly fits the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ stereotype, and today it’s hard to guess at this history as you walk around. Tourism has replaced cloth manufacturing, the industrial past is barely recognisable in the medieval centre. Many of the ancient buildings that were once converted into mills in the 19th Century, have been transformed again into restaurants and gift shops.
*As a side note, there are seven US States that have a town called Ghent. I thought this a bit odd, then I remembered that the peace treaty ending the War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom was signed on Christmas Eve 1814 in Ghent.