Gent (also called Ghent in English, Gand in French) originated at the confluence of the rivers Leie and Schelde. It is said that Gent is the child of Leie (personified as Lise) and Schelde (personified as Scaldus). These two figures have become symbols of the city and often appear on civic buildings, such as the old fish market, the Vismijn. The city’s early anchors were two 7th-century abbeys, Sint-Pieter (St. Peter) and Sint-Baafs (St. Bavo), and the 9th-century castle of Gravensteen.
Although set far from the coast, the settlement was still open to foreign marauders, such as Viking raiders who maneuvered canoes along the shallow inland rivers to raid the town’s treasures. Baldwin of the Iron Arm, the region’s first ruler, built a castle to protect his burgeoning kingdom; thus, Gent became the seat of the counts of Flanders. In the 13th century, Gent and Brugge were joined by canal, and 100 years later Gent had attracted more than 5,000 textile workers.
Wealthy burghers were loyal to the counts of Flanders in the early Middle Ages and owed allegiance to the kings of France. However, the weavers were dependent on wool shipments from England, France’s enemy in the Hundred Years’ War. In 1302, at the crux of the conflict between nations, the weavers took up arms against the French and defeated them in a battle that, to this day, is vividly recalled by Flemish patriots.
In 1448 the people of Gent refused to pay a salt tax imposed by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. For five years their militia stood firm against Philip’s troops, and when they were finally overwhelmed, 16,000 townspeople perished. Gent continued to rebel, again and again, against perceived injustices. The emperor himself, Charles V, who was born in Gent, was not immune to their wrath. He responded by razing the St. Bavo Abbey, tearing down the ancient city gates and walls, and suppressing the rights of Gent’s citizens. Religious fervor was added to this volatile mixture when the Calvinist iconoclasts proclaimed the city a republic in 1577, only to be overthrown by Spanish forces seven years later. In the 18th century, French armies marched on Gent on four different occasions. This did little to dampen the conflict between French and Flemish speakers in the city.
Gent was rescued from economic oblivion by a daring young merchant named Lieven Bauwens, who, at the end of the 18th century, smuggled a spinning mule out of Britain in a reversal of what had happened hundreds of years earlier, when Flemish weavers emigrated to England. Bauwens’s risky exploit, at a time when industrial spying was punishable by death, provided the foundation for a cotton textile industry that employed 160,000 workers a century later.
To facilitate textile exports, in 1822 a new canal was built to link Gent’s inland port with the North Sea at Terneuzen, and Gent again became a major trade center. Today the canal is still vital to modern industrial development, including the automobile assembly plant that uses the canal to transport huge car carriers. Thus, while the city of Brugge emerged as a tourist center renowned for its cultural sights, Gent transformed its historic center into a commercial area of almost 400,000 residents. The Leie’s nickname, the Golden River, took on an unfortunate tinge as it came to reflect the color of the river’s chemical pollutants. Things have much improved in the last 10 years; the Leie has been cleaned up, tourism is booming, and the city’s prestigious university attracts students from all over the world. This influx of international young people gives Gent an especially vibrant, energetic feel—the city may be historic, but it isn’t locked into the past.
Getting around Gent has recently gotten easier as the city has formally established neighborhood names for the various historic areas in the city center. You’ll find neighborhood signposts and sightseeing brochures (in several languages, including English) as you explore. The designated neighborhoods are generally named for a major landmark and include: Gravensteen, also known as Patershol (around the namesake castle, bounded by Kraanlei, Lange Steenstraat, and Geldmunt); Oud Begijnhof, northwest of the Gravensteen; Minnemeers, around the Museum voor Industriele Archeologie en Textiel; Vrijdagmarkt; Portus Ganda, around the quays on the Leie, east of the center; Torenrij, the area around Sint-Michielsbrug; Kouter, covering the streets around its namesake square; Klein Begijnhof; Bijloke; Sint-Pietersplein, around the train station; and Citadelpark.
One of the nicest neighborhoods to explore is the Gravensteen area, once the residential quarter for the textile workers from the Gravensteen. Its layout is medieval but its spirit is modern—the streets are now crammed with chic cafés and restaurants. It’s the in place to live for well-off young couples.
Gent is also pursuing a few major water-based projects. More of the city’s waterways are being opened to the public, after several decades spent covered up or built over. A new public marina in Portus Ganda area opened in April 2005. This large marina in the eastern part of the city has a dock for up to 80 boats. It’s accessible by canal, so Gent can now be reached by pleasure craft from other Belgian cities as well as Holland, France, and the United Kingdom.
Gent’s old town has been almost totally restored to its original form, and it now has the largest pedestrian area in Flanders. You’ll have to walk along cobblestone streets and pavements, which can be tricky if you wear high-heeled shoes or open sandals. The city center looks like a puzzle piece, surrounded as it is by the river Leie, its tributaries, and canals. Although many people live and work in this area, most reside in neighboring quarters.
Gent Restaurant Reviews
In Gent, high-class establishments stand next to modest brasseries where you can enjoy just a drink or a snack. Although many serve food all day long, it’s safer to respect regular lunch and dinner hours, which are noon to 2 and 6 to 9. Regional specialties include waterzooi (traditional Flemish stew, usually with chicken or seafood) and paling in’t groen (eel in a green-herb sauce). A 16% service charge and a 19% V.A.T. are always included in the tab. Although tipping is not unknown, you don’t need to leave a tip unless you receive exceptional service. Rounding up the bill is sufficient.
Gent Hotel Reviews
Bustling Gent’s accommodations are often sleek and modern, and there are several stylish hotels in historic buildings. However, hotels generally target weekend and short-term guests. The tourist office can help you make reservations for some of the inns and B&Bs in Gent as well as in the surrounding countryside. These quirky, moderately priced places are often in historic buildings, and usually include a hearty Belgian breakfast: bread, cereal, cold cuts, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and fruit. Half-board meal plans are also frequently available.
Check the “What’s On” and “Other Towns” sections of the Bulletin to find schedules of the latest art shows and cultural events. You can find issues of the Bulletin in local newsstands and bookstores.
As in most Belgian towns, nightlife in Gent centers around grazing and drinking and talking with friends through the wee hours. The student population generates a much busier, more varied nightlife than you’ll find in Brugge or other towns in Flanders. The area around Oude Beestenmarkt and Vlasmarkt, near Portus Ganda, is mainly where young people gather for dancing and partying.
There are special dance nights, several gay bars, and lots of gay and lesbian organizations providing help and advice. The tourist office even provides a gay and lesbian city map. You can get more information at Casa Rosa
Langemunt and Veldstraat are the major shopping streets, while the smart fashion boutiques cluster along Voldersstraat. Gent also has several exclusive shopping galleries where fancy boutiques are surrounded by upscale cafés and restaurants; try the Bourdon Arcade (Gouden Leeuwplein) and Braempoort, between Brabantdam and Vlaanderenstraat.