Tiny Belgium is packed with surprises, I have happily discovered these last few years. Ghent, 35 miles northwest of Brussels in the province of East Flanders, is one of the best of them.
This lovely city of 225,000 has everything that nearby Bruges boasts: a rich history (it was the seat of the counts of Flanders during the Middle Ages), ancient buildings, grand waterways and great museums -- everything, in fact, except crowds of tourists.
I found this and more on a November visit to Belgium with my wife, Liet. We were staying in Antwerp with family who arranged for a friend, René van Bichelaer, to give us a tour of Ghent. They couldn't have chosen a better guide.
After profitably selling his multimedia/Internet business a couple of years ago, René, who's 60, decided to study art history with no other goal than the enjoyment of learning. He lives in Antwerp but drives the 36 miles to Ghent to attend classes at the university, one of Europe's oldest. He relishes this thrice-weekly journey, he says: His spirits lift just driving into the city.
We soon learned why. René took us first to St. Michael's Bridge, a short span over the narrow River Leie. From this vantage point we beheld the ancient heart of the city, a cluster of towers and spires that offers a time-warp glimpse of the Middle Ages. Ghent was at its zenith then, the center of the European cloth industry. That industry nourished the boom that saw the creation of the city's numerous masterpieces and monuments, including the religious buildings surrounding us.
Straight ahead rose the creamy bulk of St. Bavo's Cathedral, or St.-Baafs-kathedraal, whose origins date to the 10th century. Charles V, who would become one of Europe's mightiest monarchs, was christened here in 1500. Just to our left, majestic St. Nicholas' Church, constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries, reached heavenward, and behind us loomed the 15th century St. Michael's and its former monastery, the 1228 Het Pand.
As proudly as a native son, René led us down the street to the cathedral, home of Jan van Eyck's "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," finished in 1432 and perhaps Belgium's greatest single art treasure.
Along the way we passed the 14th century Belfort, a much modified belfry whose crown of spires dates from the early 20th century. (The information desk of the Belgian tourist office is in its basement.) From the observation platform of the 300-foot-high structure, you can get spectacular views of the city and see the 17th century carillon that showers Ghent with the music of 53 bells on special occasions.
Next to the Belfort, on the large cobbled plein, or square, in front of St. Bavo's, spreads the block-long, multi-dormered Lakenhalle, or Cloth Hall, erected in the 15th century. Ghent's location at the convergence of the Leie and Schelde rivers -- with a canal connecting to Bruges 28 miles away and thus to the sea -- gave it an economic advantage in those days and made it second in size and wealth only to Paris.
Treasures and the 'Lamb'
Knowing that the "Mystic Lamb" awaited us, we entered St. Bavo's with a sense of anticipation and awe.
The vast interior, constructed over six centuries, is overlaid with layers of the past. Its bones are Romanesque and Gothic, but beneath its groined ceiling and behind its pointed arches we found a cacophony of styles, from Baroque to contemporary.
Treasures are everywhere. The pipes of the gorgeous 1523 organ are arranged in a towering crescendo of magnificence. The 18th century white marble and dark oak pulpit halfway down the nave, adorned with cherubs and angels and one of the most splendid I have seen, represents the "triumph of truth over error" and includes the serpent-entwined apple tree in the Garden of Eden.
Occupying much of a transept wall is another Baroque masterwork, Peter Paul Rubens' work depicting St. Bavo's entry into the monastery of Ghent. It is filled with dramatically posed figures who wear the kinds of splendid garments that would have been sewn from fabrics woven in Ghent.
Even the crypt under the main altar holds delights, including early frescoes that belonged to the original church on the site. There we happened upon an open 16th century book in a glass case depicting the scheme for a stained-glass window. Liet, who is Dutch, spotted the escutcheons that were to have been incorporated into the design of the crest of her father's family.
A still bigger thrill awaited us. Upstairs, in a dimly illuminated chapel all its own, is "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb." Light seems to shine forth from the 12 folding panels at the front of the altarpiece, whose crystalline clarity and gem-like colors amazed us.
The five lower panels show the multitudes coming to adore the Lamb of God. They advance solemnly over rich green grass dotted with 42 kinds of wildflowers so accurately portrayed that each can be identified botanically. The seven upper panels include Adam and Eve, Mary, St. John the Baptist, God the Father and two groups of angels singing and playing instruments.
The beautiful work has a troubled past. During the Reformation zealous Protestants nearly destroyed it in their eagerness to rid the world of what they deemed objects of idolatry. Emperor Joseph II replaced the panels bearing a naked Adam and Eve with one in which the figures are partly clothed, lest their nudity cause offense. (The originals are back in place, and the substitutes hang toward the front of the church.) Later, the coveted altarpiece was carried off to France by Napoleon, then looted again during World War II by the Nazis.
In 1934 a Belgian absconded with two of the panels and held them for ransom. One, bearing an image of John the Baptist, was eventually returned, but the panel of the Just Judges on horseback was never recovered, and the thief died before the hiding place was discovered. The missing panel has been replaced by a meticulously executed copy, but the mystery lingers.
In daylight once more, we walked across the square -- one side of which is bordered by sidewalk cafes and a theater -- to have a look at City Hall, around the corner. Intended to be Europe's biggest, it was begun in 1518 but not finished until much later.
As time passed, tastes changed and fewer funds were available to lavish on the construction. Whatever constraints may have been imposed on him, the architect of the newer part certainly did not stint on the facade; the building is Renaissance in style, with pairs of pilasters flanking each of the many windows and a grand double staircase ascending royally to the entrance.
The second -- and older -- section of City Hall is a splendid example of the architectural style known as Flamboyant Gothic. It is lacy with stone carving and decorated with saintly figures standing in niches.
Across the street on the corner sits one of the world's oldest hotels, Cour St. Georges, which opened in 1469 in a building erected in 1228 for the guild of the crossbowmen. It has welcomed many historic figures over the years, including Charles V and Napoleon. (We stayed in the recently renovated Poort-Ackere, a former convent, where we slept the sleep of the just in a mini-suite and took our breakfast in what had been the nuns' chapel.)
We wandered down Hoogpoort Street to the 15th century Butchers' Hall, long and impressive like the Lakenhalle, with decorative dormers also running its length, front and back.
We crossed the river again and made our way through the medieval residential district of crooked, narrow streets called the Patershol. It is filled with gabled houses and cozy restaurants and cafes. After languishing for years as a slum, it has once again become a vital part of Ghent, renovated and restored.
We soon came to an arched gateway, all that remains of the Prinsenhof Palace in which Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, was born. Not far away is a handsome survivor of the medieval city's defenses, the 1489 Rabot, consisting of twin round towers crowned by cone-shaped roofs and a gabled central building, all three with wall slits from which archers could launch their arrows.
Returning to the area where we had started our tour, we took a long look at some of the oldest buildings on opposite sides of the Leie, banks referred to as the Graslei (herb quay) and the Korenlei (grain quay). This beautiful area once functioned as the city's chief port. The buildings along the Graslei are particularly handsome -- their facades broad and multi-windowed, their gables ornate. Dating to the 13th to 16th centuries, they belonged to customs officials, grain weighers and boatmen, among others, all driving forces in the Ghent economy of old. To my eye, this assemblage constitutes one of the loveliest of urban profiles.
By now our energies were flagging, so we went to lunch at a nearby restaurant called Waterzooi, where, at René's urging, we started with a genever, or gin (about 400 varieties are available in Belgium), served brimming in shot glasses. It set the fires burning in my belly. I tamped them down with waterzooi, a Belgian dish that is said to have originated in Ghent. It's usually prepared with chicken, leeks, celery, carrots and cream, but mine was based on fish, making for a light and lovely meal.
One more historic gem awaited us, the Gravensteen, or Castle of the Counts, which dates to 1180. It was everything I expected of a medieval fortress -- with stone walls 6 feet thick, turrets, towers and battlements, ringed in part by the moat-like waters of the Leie. Home to the rulers of the long-vanished country of Flanders, one of Europe's most powerful in the Middle Ages, it conveys a complete -- and dreadful -- impression of how harsh life was then, even for the wealthy. The day we were there, blacksmiths in medieval garb were demonstrating their skills, metal ringing against metal.
From the ramparts we had a view over the city, all the towers and spires (among them the 26-story library of the university, home to 2 million books) rising above the red-tile and slate rooftops. In the distance we could see St. Peter's Abbey, which opened in the 7th century and around which university buildings now jostle. In the middle distance the sawtooth gables of the Graslei cast their reflections in the waters of the Leie.
Before our departure the next day, Liet and I would visit several of Ghent's excellent museums, but gazing at the city from the Gravensteen's ramparts, I already knew that the biggest and best of these is Ghent itself.
Dale M. Brown, formerly an editor for Time-Life Books, lives in Alexandria, Va.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times