A Visit to the Flemish City of Ghent
It was a bleak morning when we walked into central Ghent, overcast, cloudy, and cool. Restoration has come a bit late to this city and as a result, a lot of newer construction is mixed in among the old. The castle/fort Castle Gravensteen was imposing as were the churches such as St. Bavo Cathedral and the Town Hall. This is a big city with 250,000 residents, once a very significant trading town built on the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers. Today it is still an industrial town, but now the focus is on things like Volvos and steel production.
Soon after we arrived, we came across a street vendor selling a locally favorite candy called Ghent Noses. I had to try one. This multi-flavored, cone-shaped candy is pretty much all sugar. One was plenty. I will stick with chocolate; chocolate shops and lace shops were around every corner.
Along the central part of the riverfront, you can see the beautifully renovated and reconstructed trade houses and warehouses that once supported the town’s thriving economy. I especially loved the two outward facing swans on a restored building. It is said that facing swans (which form a heart) signify free love and when they face away from one another it’s a sign for paid love.
It’s an interesting irony that today the building is a Marriott hotel.
As the day began to brighten, we were continually approached by teenage students trying to ask us questions in Flemish. It turns out they were students from the French-speaking area of Belgium on assignment to practice their Flemish by approaching strangers with a variety of questions. Both French and Flemish are required languages in Belgium. We couldn’t help the students, but I thought it was an excellent language exercise. When in Europe I am always so sorry I am not multi-lingual; in Belgium and the Netherlands, it is not uncommon for residents to speak 4-7 languages. I am constantly impressed.