Of all the cities in Belgium, it’s hard to trump GHENT, a vital, vibrant metropolis whose booming restaurant and bar scene wends its way across a charming cityscape, a network of narrow canals overseen by dozens of antique brick houses. If Bruges is a tourist industry with a town attached, Ghent is the reverse – a proudly Flemish city which, with a population of 240,000, is now Belgium’s third largest conurbation. Evidence of Ghent’s medieval pomp is to be found in a string of superb Gothic buildings including St-Baafskathedraal, whose principal treasure is Jan van Eyck’s remarkable Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the world’s most important paintings. Supporting the cathedral are the likes of St-Niklaaskerk, with its soaring arches and pencil-thin turrets; the forbidding castle of the counts of Flanders, Het Gravensteen; and the delightful medieval guildhouses of the Graslei. These central attractions are supplemented by a trio of outlying museums: S.M.A.K, a Museum of Contemporary Art; STAM, which explores the city’s history; and the fine art of the Museum voor Schone Kunsten.
The principal seat of the counts of Flanders and one of the largest towns in western Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Ghent was once at the heart of the Flemish cloth trade. By 1350, the city boasted a population of fifty thousand, of whom no fewer than five thousand were directly involved in the industry, a prodigious concentration of labour in a predominantly rural Europe. Like Bruges, Ghent prospered throughout the Middle Ages, but it also suffered from endemic disputes between the count and his nobles (who supported France) and the cloth-reliant citizens (to whom friendship with England was vital).
The relative decline of the cloth trade in the early sixteenth century did little to ease the underlying tension, as the people of Ghent were still resentful of their ruling class, from whom they were now separated by language – French against Flemish – and religion – Catholic against Protestant. Adapting to the new economic situation, the town’s merchants switched from industry to trade, exporting surplus grain from France, only to find their efforts frustrated by an interminable series of wars in which their rulers were involved. The catalyst for conflict was usually taxation: long before the Revolt of the Netherlands, Ghent’s merchants and artisans found it hard to stomach the financial dictates of their rulers – the Habsburgs after 1482 – and time and again they rose in revolt only to be crushed and punished. In 1540, for example, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V lost patience and stormed the town, abolishing its privileges, filling in the moat and building a new castle at the city’s expense. Later, in 1584, with the Netherlands well on the way to independence from Habsburg Spain, Philip II’s armies captured Ghent. It was a crucial engagement: thereafter Ghent proved to be too far south to be included in the United Provinces and was reluctantly pressed into the Spanish Netherlands. Many of its citizens fled north, and those who didn’t may well have regretted their decision when the Inquisition arrived and the Dutch forced the Habsburgs to close the River Scheldt, Ghent’s economic lifeline, as the price of peace in 1648.
In the centuries that followed, Ghent slipped into a slow decline from which it only emerged during the industrial boom of the nineteenth century. In optimistic mood, the medieval merchants had built the city’s walls a fair distance from the town centre to allow Ghent to expand, but the expected growth had never taken place until now. Within the space of twenty years, these empty districts filled up with factories, whose belching chimneys encrusted the old city with soot and grime, a disagreeable measure of the city’s economic revival. Indeed, its entrepreneurial mayor, Emille Braun, even managed to get the Great Exhibition, showing the best in contemporary design and goods, staged here in 1913.
Ghent remains an industrial city, but in the last twenty years it has benefited from an extraordinarily ambitious programme of restoration and refurbishment, thanks to which the string of fine Gothic buildings that dot the ancient centre have been returned to their original glory.