Belgium // Flanders //

Het Gravensteen

From the Design Museum, it’s a short hop to Het Gravensteen, the castle of the counts of Flanders, which looks sinister enough to have been lifted from a Bosch painting. Its cold, dark walls and unyielding turrets were first raised in 1180 as much to intimidate the town’s unruly citizens as to protect them and, considering the castle has been used for all sorts of purposes since then (even a cotton mill), it has survived in remarkably good nick. The imposing gateway comprises a deep-arched, heavily fortified tunnel leading to a large courtyard, which is framed by protective battlements complete with wooden flaps, ancient arrow slits and apertures for boiling oil and water.

Overlooking the courtyard are the castle’s two main buildings: the count’s residence on the left and the keep on the right, the latter riddled with narrow, interconnected staircases set within the thickness of the walls. A self-guided tour takes you through this labyrinth, the first highlight being a room full of medieval military hardware, from suits of armour, pikes, swords, daggers and early pistols through to a pair of exquisitely crafted sixteenth-century crossbows. Beyond, and also of interest, is a gruesome collection of instruments of torture; a particularly dank, underground dungeon (or oubliette); and the counts’ vaulted council chamber. It’s also possible to walk along most of the castle’s encircling wall, from where there are pleasing views over the city centre.