By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author
From the year 1000 to about 1500, Ghent, Belgium, was said to be one of the most important cities in Europe. It was larger than London, and only Paris was larger in size.
The city was ruled by rich merchant families, from whence came its great wealth. Today, Ghent is still a town rich in history, color and great food and beer. It also helps visitors that as many as 120 new location signposts have been installed to guide tourists to the most important spots in town.
(left) The three towers of Ghent
Walking near the city center, you’re bound to discover features of the city that will amuse or interest you. Stolling along a street not far from Ghent’s impressive Castle of the Counts, I run across a small shop sign that reads, “The Fallen Angels.” The shop is devoted to old things. I like old things.
I hesitate to go in, perhaps not wanting to become one of those things the proprietor’s shingle suggests, but the more I study the front window, the more I determine it’s not only safe to walk in, but intriguing. Intriguing because of all the things that owner Isabelle Steel has gathered over the last 30 years or so for her re-sale shop.
“I started collecting things when I was 16 years old,” she explains. “My father was a painter,” she says, in helping to decipher how she came to appreciate colorful images.
PACKED WITH IMAGERY
Her very small, quaint shop is packed with imagery in the old kitchen tins, the religious paintings, the thousands of postcards, the picture albums from as early as 1886, the old manufacturer catalogs, and the posters, dolls, toys and trains that pack the place.
Two floors of “fallen angels” material line the walls, the drawers, the flat surfaces of the shop. There is no more room for additional fallen angels. Every cabinet, every inch on the wall has been crammed with attention-getting merchandise.
A sign on the second floor, which is like a small mezzanine and a few steps up from the main floor, reads, “Not more than 3 persons on second floor.” If it could even hold that. Isabelle’s website reads, “For those who require a little bit of nostalgia, this is the place to visit. Here you will find old postcards, devotion cards, old dolls, bears, old toys, tin cookie jars, etc…”
A talkative, friendly person, Isabelle makes customers feel at home in her store, chatting up her goods and keeping an ear to customer conversation that would lead her to a big “fallen angels” find in the future. “A number of my buying customers have something to sell, as well,” she says.
Isabelle and her daughter Ganesha have shops next to each other. Isabelle’s shop has been open for 23 years, and her daughter’s re-sale shop about five years.
Both shops are located in de Jan Breydelstraat nr. 29-31, next to the Castle of the Counts and the Korenmarkt. The Design Museum of Ghent is also located on the same street. For more information, go to www.the-fallen-angels.com.
BELGIAN HARD CANDY ANYONE?
There’s more to Belgian confectionery than chocolate—delicious though it is. For traditional Flemish candy, visit Temmerman (Kraanlei 79)–about eight generations of family members have been making this hard candy. Most popular item is the “cuberdon,” or raspberry nose (red nose filled with sugar), but the tiny shop is stuffed with more than 600 other varieties of sweet stuff. Other goodies include wippers (butter caramel with vanilla sugar), mokken (biscuit with anise) and katrienspekken (hard candy treated with baked sugar).
Another speciality shop is Tierenteyn-Verlent (Groentenmarkt 3, www.tierenteyn-verlent.be), which sells natural mustard made to a centuries-old recipe, and therein lies a tale: The first great evolution in making mustard took place in the region of Dijon where a farmer tried to crush the mustard seeds with a stone. This didn’t work because there was too much oil in the seeds that prevented the machine from working. He poured a bucket of water on the seeds and found out that mustard seeds had to be wet instead of dry to crush them.
This information was brought to Ghent by a soldier of Napoleon’s army who was discussing the mustard principle with an inhabitant of Ghent, Petrus Tierenteyn, who overheard this and decided to start making mustard himself. But instead of yellow seeds used in France, he used dark ones, like in most Germanic countries.
The shop was opened in 1790, and the first products they sold were herbs and groceries. In 1842 Petrus installed a steam-powered machine to give power to the mustard mill. From that time, the shop has been owned by the same family.
In Ghent’s medieval Groot Vleeshuis Butcher’s Hall (Groentenmarkt 7) next to the River Leie, large wooden beams on the interior of the roof show the strength of the building, and from these beams hang Ghent’s special Ganda hams…they look good enough to eat, and you can sample their ham and other specialties in this old hall. There is no fee to walk in, and the building is wheelchair accessible. The Butcher’s Hall is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The hall contains a restaurant called the Promotiecentrum voor Oost-Vlaamse Streekproducten where you can sample East Flemish dishes.
If you’re at Butcher’s Hall, you’re also at the heart of this city of 250,000, and during warm weather, many of the thousands of local university students gather around the Graslei and Korenlei, the old trading harbor, which is now filled with tour boats. In many scenes of Europe, this view along the river, showing many of the old trading houses of the free boatmen and the grain harvesters, is a classic. Another good viewing area of this scene is from St. Michael’s Bridge.
MORE TO SEE
Other top views of Ghent include the Castle of the Counts, an imposing fortress built in 1180. The Gravensteen (the Dutch name for the Castle of the Counts) was built by the counts of Flanders who had castles built in the principal cities of their rule. Because they had to maintain law and order, they moved continuously from city to city and thus had a castle in cities where they wanted to stay for a while. The castle in Ghent is the only one that survived the centuries more or less intact.
The Gravensteen was constructed by Fillips of Alsasse, who was the count of Flanders between 1157 and 1191. He took part in one of the crusades and died during the siege of Akko in the Holy Land. The opening in the form of a cross, above the main entrance gate, proves that he had taken part in a crusade when the castle was built. Next to the castle lies the Veerleplein (Veerle Square), the place where public executions took place.
Another attraction is St. Bavo’s Cathedral in the historic center, the oldest parish church. Astonishingly, it features 22 altars, and the rococo pulpit is a combination of beautiful marble and oak. At the Old Belfry, a dragon scans the horizon, and is perhaps one of the most impressive belfry towers in Flanders. Together with the St. Nicholas tower and the cathedral tower, it dominates the medieval center of the city. The architects were Jan van Aelst and Filips van Beergine. The tower was completed in 1338, when the bells were rung for King Edward II. At the top corners of the towers stone soldiers keep watch (they are copies and only one original is preserved elsewhere).
THE TOWN HALL
The Town Hall at Botermarkt 1 features a rather flamboyant style of Gothic architecture on one side, and a more reserved Renaissance style on the other side. Inside, the same form holds true, with many different styles from different years.
Other attractions in Ghent include the Castle of Gerald the Devil, a 13th century fortress which has been used as a knight’s house, an arsenal, a monastery, a school and a bishop’s seminary. In 1623 it was even a house for the mentally ill.
And if you have a bit more time, visit the House of Alijn, a former house of worship, the Carmelite Friary (which has been restored) and Church, and the Augustine Monastery, founded in 1296.
Don shakes hands with the mayor of Ghent, Daniel Termont, at the opening of the new Gruut Brewery
A new brewery just opened in Ghent as well, with European Traveler a guest on opening night, along with Ghent Mayor Daniel Termont. The Gruut Brewery at Grote Huidevettershoek 10, offers tastes of their delicious beer at the bar within the brewery confines. Mayor Termont is justifiably proud of finding space for the new establishment in his growing city.
Where to stay while in Ghent? I stayed at the very convenient Marriott Hotel at Korenlei 10, right in the heart of the historic center and next to the river. It’s next to all the attractions. The hotel features 138 rooms and 12 suites. The glass dome with the large bar-lounge Poppi serves as a cozy meeting place. The hotel’s restaurant is the Korenhuis.
Ghent is a city of surprises. Only Ghent residents may know about the “graffiti street,” but that’s another surprise in this city you won’t want to miss.
For more information, go to www.visitgent.be or www.visitflanders.us.