Flemish street art

Street art seems pretty popular in Flemish Belgium. In Antwerp and Ghent I came across a wide variety, ranging from the stylish, to political, to the vulgar and obscene. One of the joys of viewing street art is the knowledge that tomorrow, or next week, it will be gone, replaced by something else. The lack of permanence makes seeing it exhilarating.

Sometimes this is just irritating. A building near where I lived in London had a really lovely Banksy, the girl releasing a red balloon into the air. The building was bought for redevelopment and, presumably without knowing what it was, they painted over it. A small piece of urban beauty vanished under a coat of emulsion.

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art in Antwerp, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

I like street art with purpose, whether biting social or political satire, or just making the place look a bit more pleasant. I’m less keen on the whole ‘tagging’ form of street art, which I always associate with graffiti. Although I’m not sure I’m qualified to distinguish between the two, or if there’s anything to distinguish between.

Belgium has some internationally renowned street artists. Ghent is home to mysterious muralist ROA, whose work I stumbled upon down a side street just outside the centre of town. ROA seems to be something of a Belgium Banksy, shrouded in secrecy.

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

ROA street art in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Street art on Werregarenstraat in Ghent, Belgium

Elsewhere in Ghent there’s an alleyway devoted to street art not far from the medieval centre. Werregarenstraat is known as ‘Graffiti Street’ by the tourist board – less guerilla art than sanctioned by the state. Ever changing, it’s fun to stroll along and see stylish and amusing paintings. I also found some interesting pieces on my walk to and from Ghent’s train station.

I didn’t come across anything quite like Graffiti Street while in Antwerp, but at a skate park near the docks there is a treasure trove of street art. Some way out of the centre, a lot of skill, effort and paint has gone into turning an ugly multiple lane road bridge into a living, breathing canvas. Enjoy.

Historic Ghent, all day and all of the night

It’s not difficult to see why Ghent has a reputation as a top destination. It’s chock full of beautiful medieval buildings, relaxed squares, excellent restaurants, good museums and several dozen bars stocking hundreds and hundreds of different Belgian beers. It was here I heard the phrase ‘beer tourism’ for the first time. The town is supposed to have some of the best bars in the country. It seemed rude not to try a couple.

Ghent is an architectural ‘moveable feast’. The city has more than its fare share of medieval buildings, particularly around the historic centre of the Graslei harbour. All this fine architecture is the result of Ghent’s stranglehold over the medieval textile trade, which flooded the city with riches. For a time, in the Middle Ages, Ghent was the second largest European city after Paris.

Medieval buildings on the Graslei harbour, Ghent, Belgium

Medieval buildings on the Graslei harbour, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

St. Nicholas' Church, Ghent, Belgium

St. Nicholas’ Church, Ghent, Belgium

Ghent’s wealth and power made it independent, so much so that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, himself born in Ghent, decided to teach the townsfolk a lesson in humility. Not for nothing are the good people of Ghent known as Stroppendragers, or ‘noose wearers’. Charles V’s less than subtle response to Ghent’s refusal to pay tax was to have the most prominent citizens paraded before him, barefoot and wearing nooses.

That the town’s people proudly adopted the name Stroppendragers should tell you a lot about them. That independent spirit lives on and Ghent feels like a town that cares little for what others think of it. The large population of university students adds to that, although in August students are definitely outnumbered by tourists.

After a coffee at one of the restaurants overlooking the Graslei, I headed to the imposing Belfry to get the lay of the land. Constructed in the early 14th Century along with the attached cloth hall, the Belfry is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. At 91 metres in height, and more steps than you’d care to count, the views from the top are spectacular. Luckily, there’s an elevator to take you up.

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

View from the Belfry, Ghent, Belgium

This area is home to an array of extraordinary buildings. Around the Belfry are the giant Stadhuis, with a strange mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture; the beautiful St Bavo’s Cathedral, home to van Eyck’s masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb; and the equally dramatic St. Nicholas’ Church. It’s quite a triptych of buildings.

Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium

Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

Stadhuis, Ghent, Belgium

Stadhuis, Ghent, Belgium

For a bit of contrast to the grand architecture I walked over the river to the narrow cobbled streets of the medieval Patershol district. The buildings may not be so grand but the district is full of beautiful houses, dating back to the 12th Century, some excellent restaurants and well stocked bars. I decided to come back to have dinner here, at night the area is very atmospheric.

Ghent at night, Belgium

Ghent at night, Belgium

Ghent Market Hall and Belfy at night, Belgium

Ghent Market Hall and Belfy at night, Belgium

Market Hall at night, Ghent, Belgium

Market Hall at night, Ghent, Belgium

Shop windows at night, Ghent, Belgium

Shop windows at night, Ghent, Belgium

On my way out of the Patershol I discovered the 12th Century Gravensteen. Castles don’t come much more picturesque than this. Towering over the moat are fairytale turrets guarded by arrow slits; it’s straight out of a Disney film. Remarkable to think that in the 19th Century it was turned into a cotton mill. Adding to the drama, the castle stands in the middle of the town.

I may be painting Ghent as little more than an open museum, but that would be unfair. This is a town with a pulse, actually a thumping heart, and on a warm summer night the streets buzz with activity. There are good restaurants and more bars and cafes than you can shake a stick at, my guidebook claimed over 280, several had live music.

Discovering the glories of Ghent

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.

Vrijdagmarkt, Ghent, Belgium

Vrijdagmarkt, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

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.

Sint Pietersabdij, Ghent, Belgium

Sint Pietersabdij, Ghent, Belgium

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.

Pink Flamingos Bar, Ghent, Belgium

Pink Flamingos Bar, Ghent, Belgium

Messing about on the river, Ghent, Belgium

Messing about on the river, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Canals, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol, Ghent, Belgium

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.

MIAT, Ghent, Belgium

MIAT, Ghent, Belgium

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.

Pink Flamingos Bar, Ghent, Belgium

Pink Flamingos Bar, Ghent, Belgium


*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.

Gallivanting in Ghent

What to say about Ghent? There’s no doubt it’s a lovely place, but maybe I was expecting too much after reading so many glowing reviews and blog posts extolling its virtues. It’s not as if I didn’t enjoy myself, I did. It’s just that Ghent is mobbed by tourists. Big unwieldy packs of day-tripping tour groups rampage through its medieval centre.

As I type, I’m speeding across northern Belgium towards the Netherlands. There is a spectacular sunset illuminating the late evening sky with oranges and pinks, all of which makes me feel warmer towards this part of Belgium. Still, I’m shocked by the commercialism of Ghent. I should probably never go to Bruges.

St. Pieters station, Ghent, Belgium

St. Pieters station, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Houses on a canal, Ghent, Belgium

Houses on a canal, Ghent, Belgium

For the record, tourists are not “surprisingly thin on the ground”, and Ghent is most definitely not “Bruges without the tourists”. Whatever the Lonely Planet guide might say. I knew there’d be tourists. It’s August. In Europe. But it’s as if the town has prostrated itself to the idol of mass tourism.

The town seems overwhelmed. I certainly was. Tourism brings in a lot of money, but still Ghent feels a bit shabby. It’s rare to see so much litter, dog crap and general uncleanliness in a town in the Netherlands. Move out of the centre, and the town feels dilapidated. Roads and pavements are in bad shape. There are far too many drunks.

Sint-Michielskerk, Ghent, Belgium

Sint-Michielskerk, Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Detail from the Stadhuis, Ghent, Belgium

Detail from the Stadhuis, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

A defining moment came when I walked into the cathedral. A spectacular building in its own right, it’s most famous for housing Van Eyke’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This enormous altar piece comprises several panels depicting biblical scenes and two wondrous pictures of Adam and Eve. It’s Van Eyke’s  great masterpiece, something of extraordinary artistic value.

'Graffeti' on the house windows of newlyweds, Ghent, Belgium

‘Graffeti’ on the house windows of newlyweds, Ghent, Belgium

'Graffeti' on the house windows of newlyweds, Ghent, Belgium

‘Graffeti’ on the house windows of newlyweds, Ghent, Belgium

Sint-Michielskerk, Ghent, Belgium

Sint-Michielskerk, Ghent, Belgium

Probably best then to keep it in a really small room because hardly anyone will want to take a look. Why not charge people who do €4 to squeeze uncomfortably into the really small room, jostling with approximately 42 other people (I counted) to glimpse the painting. Most of your fellow sufferers will be listening (at top volume) to audio tapes which, collectively, makes a sound that can only be described as ‘tortured cat’.

Who wants to be sardined into a room listing to the disembodied tinny soundtrack of dozens of audio tracks? Seriously, save yourself the pointlessness of trying to see a masterpiece and take a look online. Alternatively, should the ecclesiastic authorities be reading this, limit the number of people allowed to visit at any given time and, when the room is already full, don’t allow another tour group inside.

Interior of Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium

Interior of Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium

Harp player in Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium

Harp player in Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium

House, Ghent, Belgium

House, Ghent, Belgium

I don’t want to go on because there is much that is wonderful about Ghent, but I confess to some disappointment. It’s probably a town best enjoyed in the autumn or spring, when there’s more chance of bad weather but less chance of becoming infuriated by the crassness of it all.

I arrived at Ghent’s lovely Sint Pieters Station late on a Sunday morning after a slow start from Antwerp. The sky was overcast, the weather humid and airless. The walls of my not inexpensive hotel seemed infested with mosquitoes – there’s a problem with mosquitoes in this part of Europe right now. I added insecticide to my mental list of items to buy.

Vrijdagmarkt, Ghent, Belgium

Vrijdagmarkt, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol district, Ghent, Belgium

Patershol district, Ghent, Belgium

The Castle of Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

The Castle of Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium

Houses on a canal, Ghent, Belgium

Houses on a canal, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

The Medieval harbour of Graslei, Ghent, Belgium

Outside my hotel was a canal. I followed it towards the centre and was suddenly at the city’s famous St. Michael’s Bridge, which offers fabulous views over the picturesque Graslei, the town’s medieval port. The Graslei is lined by beautiful ancient buildings, and is also home to numerous restaurants with tables overlooking the water. This is the heart of the ancient city, and the perfect place to to start exploring…