Tuesday the 28th of June
We had not yet had our morning coffee when mum and I stepped on a tram travelling in the direction of Antwerp Central Station. Here, we met with Miemieke and picked up where we left off as per the plans we had constructed the evening prior. We were soon underway to Ghent-Sint-Pieters, ready to make a touristic tour of one of the oldest cities in Europe. The public transport in Europe is both similar and different to the system in Australia. Busses operate as standard, trams are similar to busses yet go underground and are more reliable in respect to schedule, and trains provide the option of first or second class and depart twice and hour with substantial stopping time upon arrival at each station. Apart from a few issues with opening doors (you have to press a button) we made good use of this efficient system.
When our company of three arrived in Ghent, we immediately gravitated to the spired building which, like a beacon, could be seen rising above the town. The Belfort. A decade went into the making of this six story bell-bearing tower, its construction often interrupted due to warfare and a lack of funding. The lowest level, some metres below ground level, contains four armoured statues facing concrete-filled archways which had once acted as entrances into to the belfry. Of the four mannequins only one is an original, and noticeably so due to the weathered quality of its metal chest plate. The architecture is heavy and unrefined, as is to be expected of medieval times, in refreshing contrast with the romantic and renaissance style prominent in Antwerp. The floors above are dedicated to the construction of the tower and science of bell making – it even features a viewing room wherein a spool rotates every fifteen minutes to ring the time-telling tower bells. This mechanisation is like that of a music box with an indented wheel that must be cranked by hand or wound manually every 24 hours. I was surprised to learn the process of clockmaking begins with a false clock sculpted from sand and wax to construct the mould. Then, molten metal is poured into the cast and the product filed to tune. In its glory days, this portion of Ghent was reputed for the metal dragon that stood guard atop the spire of the Belfort. Used to indicate the direction of the wind, this ornament characterised the city and can still be seen as a motif utilised by the surrounding shops and restaurants.
We did not have to walk for more than a minute before we arrived at our next destination. The Sint Niklaas Church was built in honour of Saint Nicholas, a bishop whom gave to the needy to celebrate his birthday, the fifth of December, and became the basis of the Santa Clause legend. This church, neighbouring the Saint Bravo Cathedral and Belfry, comprises the medieval skyline for which Ghent is so well known. Its construction dates back to the early 13th century in the Scheldt Gothic architectural style which channels influence from the nearby canals. The tower, unconventionally located above the crossing of the nave and transepts, is designed to function as a natural lantern when the sun hits an ideal point.
Having thus far visited two of the three historical hubs for which Ghent is renowned, we could not go forth without completing the triad. St Bravo’s Cathedral is an extension of the chapel of St John the Baptist, hence it has undergone many restorative developments to enrich its aesthetic appeal into the grandiose facade on display today. It is a memory of the Middle Ages, when Ghent was one of the most important cities in Western Europe, and the six million euro worth of restorations still underway are aimed at maintaining a genuine front. St Bravo’s Cathedral pertains one other feature which makes it so remarkable – it hosts the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in its private crypt. This coveted masterpiece by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck is a twelve part altarpiece depicting the slaughtering of a lamb attended by prophets, apostles, saints and martyrs. The slaughtering, at the centre of the arrangement, is witnessed by Christ the King, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist rightfully placed above the event. To each side of this righteous conference reside choirs of angels, and bookending this congress reside Adam and Eve holding their bodies as if humbled by their stark nudity. The display was designed in the mid 1420s, and the estimated completion date is 1432. Its narrative is not the only aspect which has made it an endearing painting since it was commissioned by the then-mayor of Ghent. Historians have attempted to attribute the hand of either brother and specific passages of the bible to portions of the painting, to no definitive avail. It remains an artwork admired by students of art and religion, and by all those who see it in the crypt of St Bravo’s Cathedral, due to its intricate detail and artful prose.
It had been an intensive morning, even for a seasoned tourist and amateur appreciator of religious art and architecture. We sat down for lunch at a nearby bistro to replenish our energy and morale for the sight-seeing ahead. Mum and Auntie Mie both opted for shrimp croquettes, whilst I ordered a hearty croque madam bolognese, less finely known as a ham, cheese and fried egg toasted sandwich smothered in bolognese sauce. Despite bursting at the belt after our meals, we could not forego a bag of fresh blackberry sugar pyramids oozing liquid centres from the nearby trolly.
Our final exhibition for the day was the Gravensteen of Ghent. In the tenth century, this fortress was utilised by the Count of Flanders as a medieval bastion consisting of a central wooden building with surrounding fortifications. Within the century, this building was reinforced with stone, and further expansive renovation made the building fit for defending the (then somewhat smaller) town of Ghent. The Gravensteen was reinvented following the fire in 1179 which reduced the once intimidating structure to embers. The modern design that came to replace the old fortress included courtrooms, dungeons and various other features which had not been included in the original residence. The reinvented fortress maintained its administrative function until the 18th century whence numerous rooms were privately sold and the remaining rooms were deemed structurally unsafe. Today, the restored sections of the Gravensteen showcase medieval means of torture and recount the history which I have just put to paper.
HAHA MORE FOOD. For the past two weeks I have repeatedly eaten myself into a state of food coma, but now that I am sitting outside in my favourite cocktail bar close to 9:00pm I realise the Belgians do it differently. Whilst we have been binging our way through european cuisine as soon as a menu item catches our attention in the window display, we ought to be pacing ourselves until evening! The restaurants are packed! Little have i seen this area so busy. Everyone makes full use of the long days, and late nights like this are a luxury. I have also noticed the smoking culture is entirely different from the norm in Australia, where it is legislated that smoking may not take place within four metres of the premises. This caused a momentary outcry from small businesses but did not effect long term levels of clientele loyalty – now I witness non-smokers complain when they catch a whiff of a cigarette. Here, every second person smokes (45% of Belgian youths). There are no regulations as to where they may sit outside a restaurant and even few talking cafes or pubs allow smoking inside! I imagine the same can be said of the Netherlands, particularly Amsterdam, as ‘Coffee Shops’ invite their patrons inside for a beer and joint. Since the university holidays began in Antwerp last Friday, I have seen an immense increase in youths around the city. I could definitely see myself living here.