The Belgian town of Gent is the capital of the East Flanders Province, and has a population of about 230,000 people. Located at the confluence of the Scheldt and the Lys, it’s linked to the sea by a canal and has a large harbour. According to archaeologists, the area was first inhabited during the Stone Age. Some say that the name of the city may derive from a Celtic word meaning ‘confluence.’ Two abbeys were founded at the site in the 7th Century, and along with a commercial centre served as the nucleus from which the city grew. Plundered twice by the Vikings in the 9th Century, Ghent eventually recovered from the attacks and flourished from the 11th Century onwards as Europe's second biggest city after Paris.
Gent gained a prominent position during the Middle Ages due to its prosperous woollen textile industry. Flemish cloth was durable and of high quality, and was sold across Europe, all the way to Russia. Trade with England was particularly successful, but went into decline during the Hundred Years War. In the 14th Century, the city came under the control of the Dukes of Burgundy. Charles V, the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, was born in Gent. He had no remorse, however, when it came to punishing the residents of the city after the Revolt of 1539. The king had them walk barefoot with nooses around their necks, which is the origin for the nickname of its citizens – stroppendragers, or ‘noose-bearers’. By that time, however, the importance of Gent was steadily declining.
In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the textile industry in Gent saw a second Renaissance as the first mechanical weaving machine on the continent was introduced. After the Battle at Waterloo, Gent became part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for 15 years, during which time the university was founded and a new canal to the sea was built. The city was the site of the World Exhibition of 1913, in which 30 countries participated.
Contemporary Gent is remarkable for its well-preserved Medieval architecture. Some of the most fascinating buildings can be seen in the area of the old Graslei Harbour. The Belfry at the main square symbolises the still-lingering ancient power of the city and its guilds. The tower is topped with a copper dragon and holds a carillon which consists of 44 bells. The St. Bavo Cathedral, built between the 13th and the 16th Century, is the place where Charles V was baptised. It also houses ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, one of the most remarkable examples of Flemish painting.
The City Hall, situated next to the imposing St. Nicholas’ Church, is an extraordinary mixture of architectural styles. It’s also the place where a peace treaty between Catholics and Protestants was signed in 1576. Another sign of Gent’s fascinating past is the Gravensteen, a Medieval fortress of the Counts of Flanders where you can visit the ominous torture chambers. For the best view of the entire city, take a stroll along St. Michael's Bridge.
The city’s impressive Museum of Fine Arts features an array of interesting works, including masterpieces by Hieronymus Bosch and Flemish masters. Other museums and galleries are devoted to contemporary art, local crafts and the history of the local textile industry.