Ghent, Belgium

Tuesday: 12 May 2009

The spring rain is incredibly familiar across the many countries that make up Western Europe.  Steady and light upon the streets of Belgium; still it does not discourage a day’s exploration but almost seems as if once I step outside the rain ceased to exist.  The day becomes more beautiful now that I have stepped outside and the day has begun.  Alex and I boarded a train to Bruxelles to drop off our bags and then set out for the city of Ghent.  This is first Belgian city I have been able to actually explore; to see the true style of this small country a piece at a time.  And what a city!  Given that Ghent embraces early Flemish architecture and contains the medieval feel of Belgium’s historic past, it is definitely a city worth seeing.  I am particularly keyed up to be here since one of my close friends, Natasha Ghent-Rodriguez, is a descendent from this striking Belgian town.

As we arrived in the train station in Ghent we saw a sign indicating the centre was about 1.5 kilometers north, therefore we took a tram into the city centre to get a better grasp on our bearings.  The square in the very heart of the city centre was bare with simply a statue of a single bronze leaf hitting the ground.  It was as if it fell from an enormous tree and being the first to descend to the ground below; lost and isolated from the others that are still intact.  The Vlaamse Opera house, petite cafes and glorious churches outline the streets of Ghent.  An artist lines his nude pictures along the windows of his gallery with the figure of women, the sensuality in every curve and brush stroke of paint.  Depiction of beauty and open acceptance of nudity in this European city may be seen as reskay to the minds of conservative Americans.

Before proceeding through the streets for further exploration we stopped in a small eatery to grab a bite; I indulged in a tomato, mozzarella and pesto panin.  It was absolutely delightful!

In another square, known as Sint Baafsplein, the long-standing Belfry has some of the best views of the city.  This old guard tower stretches above the city with a clock visible for the public to see.  The Belfry was constructed in the 14th century as a medieval fortress and now contains six floors of records and treasures detailing its history.  Of particular interest is the clock mechanism on the fifth floor which is there to control the bells on the floor above.  It is wound daily by a crank to ensure the melody can be heard throughout the streets of Ghent.  On the sixth floor are the bells themselves: 54 chiming bells that play a melody every 15 minutes.  The melody is changed every year around Easter as a ritual that the town has held for numerous years.   A visit to this tower provided a historical depiction of the township throughout its existence.  Unbelievable views of the city below, from the terraces that line each side of the tower, giving a wonderful idea of what the city presently looks like with its aerial views and picturesque streets that lead to distant castles, churches and homes to those who reside in the area.  The medieval symbol of the city is illustrated on the stone flooring in one of the lower levels of the Belfry.  The image of a princess surrounded by a picket fence and then guarded by a lion; symbolic of the city itself.  Supposedly this was a representation of the independence the city had from other municipalities and it gave people the assurance that the city was guarded and protected by those who watched over it from the top of the Belfry.  During this time, guard towers were essential due to the fact that cities were initially constructed entirely out of wood.  Outside entities could effortlessly attack, pillage and burn everything to the ground if there was no one to warn the people of the potential dangers.  Throughout advancements in architecture, technology and other improvements in the engineering of homes and buildings, wood structures were replaced with stone or metal.  The Belfry was not as imperative for the protection of developing cities but remained in those that it had already become part of the town.

And after our tour of the Belfry we followed the roads leading to the Ghent family fortress known as Gravensteen Castle.  We then returned to the train station to embark on to the city of Bruxelles where we would be staying with Thomas and his girlfriend who were both studying abroad at the University of Florida with Alex.

Ghent leading to Brussels Central Station and eventually arriving at Brussels Nord….

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