8 insider’s fun facts you probably did not know about Ghent

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

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1. The spitting fire dragon on the belfry [for real!]

Lots of stories surround the fire spitting dragon which has been protecting Ghent from the top of its belfry since 1377.

According to the legend, one thing is certain: one night, the people of Ghent stole it from the top of the Saint Donatian’s Cathedral in the rival city of Bruges to place it on top of their belfry. How did the massive fire spitting dragon end up in Bruges? Some say it was stolen from Constantinople by the people of Bruges. Others say the Count of Flanders Baldwin IX who was coronated first Emperor of the Roman Empire in Hagia Sophia after conquering Constantinople in 1204 would have taken it from that cathedral (initially, the dragon would have been donated to Hagia Sophia by a Norwegian King). Baldwin IX would have given it to the city of Biervliet (in today’s Netherlands) to honour the courage of its people during this fourth crusade. The people of Bruges would have then stolen it from Biervliet.
The reality is less exotic. The documents of the city, including its important privileges guaranteeing profitable trade, were traditionally kept safe at the highest and best protected place in town: the belfry. And what could protect them better than a fire spitting dragon?

Beware though: if the legends are bogus and the city of Ghent simply had the dragon made, it does spit fire! But only for big occasions. It started in 1500 during the baptism of the Ghent-born Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, then in 1626 for the birth of a princess, later in 1700 when Philip V ascended the throne of Spain that was controlling the region, and in 1819 when the king of the Netherlands William II visited. Recently, in 2018 the dragon spat fire again to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Gentse Feesten (a popular summer festival in Ghent).

When will it spit fire next?

2. The impressive medieval Gravensteen Castle was taken only once… by students rebelling against the increase of the price of beer!

No army has ever managed to conquer the medieval castle of Gravensteen with its deterrent moat, thick walls and watchtowers but from a group of students who marched in on November 16, 1949. The only guard on duty was locked up by the students who then barricaded the door with a large cart full of fruits. Banners were hung from its towers: the beer price had to be lowered back to 3 Franks as it had just gone up to 4 Franks a glass. Nothing much happened for the first hours until two police officers biked by and got hit with some ripe fruits. More cops and firefighters were sent to the scene and suffered the same fate in a rain of ripe fruits! The occupation only lasted for a few hours, until the firefighters put a ladder up and sneaked into the castle. The occupants were arrested. Each year, students from Ghent commemorate this day by marching into the castle and drinking a lot of beer while dancing on its walls!

3. It took more than 350 years to build the canal between the two rival cities of Ghent and Bruges…

… for only 40 kilometers (25 miles) in a flat landscape.

Bruges started to flourish in the 12th century and became a huge trading hub thanks to its connection to the sea. However, the natural waterway to the North Sea that had been opened in 1134 by a violent storm, started to silt up, questioning Bruges’ prominence.

In 1270, a canal connecting Bruges to Ghent started being dug, but soon the people of Ghent feared that this waterway would dry out their own connection to the sea, closing their own lucrative trade route.

Legend has it that the people of Bruges were digging hard during the day, and, at night, the people of Ghent would shovel the sand back into the canal! The reality may be even worse: in 1379, after digging for more than a century (!), the people of Bruges were getting very close to their rival city. The people of Ghent panicked and rebelled fiercely resulting in casualties. Bruges paused its works for a few years. When it was about to resume, the Count of Bruges imposed new trading rules impacting Ghent negatively: in the wake of the Holy Blood Procession festivities, as the Bruges’ soldiers were still drunk, the people of Ghent marched on Bruges – the Battle of Beverhoutsveld (according to the legend of the fire spitting dragon, this is when it would have been stolen from Bruges). The Count of Bruges could just escape, and he decided it was wiser to not continue the canal…

It is only in 1613 that Ghent and Bruges agreed mutually on building the waterway. Ghent had also lost its sea access to the Dutch during the 80 Years’ War (1568-1648). In 1625, the canal that gives both Ghent and Bruges sea access via Oostende is finally opened, after 355 years of digging! It is still in use today.

4. The highest tower of the Low Lands, or is it?

Competing against Bruges and its modern medieval architecture of nation houses and civic buildings, Ghent that was also a vibrant trading city had to show off too… In 1440, the church of Saint Michael started being built. It was to be crowned by the highest tower of the Low Lands culminating at 134 meters (400 feet), way higher than the belfry of Bruges! The construction works were making progress financed mostly by the guild of the beer brewers (knowing that water was unsafe to drink back then, you can imagine that beer brewing was a very lucrative business). In 1528, it looked pretty much like today, with its stocky flat tower…

In fact, the tower was never truly completed: the 1566 iconoclasm paused all construction works. The brewers’ guild even offered insurrectionists free beer to distract them on their destructive path and save the interior of the church. In 1568, the 80 Years’ War opposing the Spaniards to the Dutch for their independence started and greatly impacted trade, to the point that Ghent went into decline, and even the beer stopped flowing… The church remained as it was. Only in 1825, did they call it a day and roofed the flat tower at a humiliating height of only 24 meters (75 ft). 385 years after starting… Even the Ghent-Bruges canal was done faster!

5. Have you noticed the “Mammelokker” statue of an old man sucking a young woman’s breast?

One of Ghent’s favourite legends might make you frown a bit when you observe the statue on the wall of the former jailer’s house around which the story revolves.

A citizen of Ghent had committed a terrible crime for which he got the death penalty by starvation. He was locked up without any food. After she kept begging to see her dying father, the judge allowed his daughter to visit him, at the condition that she would not bring any food. She visited him every day. To everyone’s surprise, the inmate was still alive after a month. The warden was puzzled and spied on them: he found out that she was breast feeding her father. The judge was so touched by how the daughter kept her father alive that he waved the sentence and freed the man.

Even though every person of Ghent knows this legend, it is actually based on the story of Cimon and Pero of the Greco-Roman mythology, and inspired painters such as Peter Paul Rubens.

6. The people from Ghent are called the Noose Bearers

The city of Ghent is in a severe economic recession in the 16th century (remember: the church tower is at a stand-still). In 1537, another imperial war imposes greater taxes which the inhabitants refuse to pay. Mad, the emperor Charles V decides to personally put things in order in his birth town as he is fed up with the disobedient stubborn people of Ghent who dare defying his authority. In 1540, he enters the city, followed by numerous prominent figures and an army of more than 5,000 soldiers. Locals fear for the worst… Ghent is declared guilty of treachery, mutiny and disloyalty: 25 leaders of the rebellion are beheaded, Ghent is downgraded to an ordinary provincial town, its privileges are revoked, all property of the city is confiscated and Ghent is heavily fined. But this does not seem sufficient to the emperor who wants to not only severely punish but also humiliate the inhabitants of Ghent. On May 3, 1540, a procession of inhabitants departs from the town hall towards the residence of Charles V at the Prinsenhof: they have to walk barefooted, dressed in a white tabard wearing a noose around their necks. Once at the Prinsenhof, they have to kneel in front of the emperor and beg for his mercy. Ever since that day, the people of Ghent have been nicknamed the noose bearers. Today a statue of a noose bearer stares teasingly at the Prinsenhof to remind the people of Ghent of their rebellious heritage.

7. Ghent is the largest university town of Flanders.

Ghent is by far the largest student town of Flanders with about 75,000 students for 250,000 inhabitants. With roots in the 16th century during the Calvinist insurrection, in 1817 King William I of the Netherlands founded the Ghent University. When Belgium became independent the Ghent University became the first Dutch-speaking university of the country as before that, lectures were given in French. The presence of the students makes Ghent a very lively town with a great nightlife!

8. The industrial revolution on mainland Europe started in Ghent!

The First Industrial Revolution started in the United Kingdom, fuelled by the mechanical power of steam engines in the 18th century. The competition was fierce between nations as being ahead in the race for technical innovations guaranteed power and wealth.

The Ghent-born Lieven Bauwens (1769-1822), son of a wealthy tanner, was an ambitious engineer and industrial spy. With Ghent’s glorious textile past, he knew that the British technology would kick start its city’s industrial age. But the British were no fools and their technology was carefully protected: machines could not be exported, it was forbidden for their engineers to work abroad, and the punishment for betraying was the death penalty… Still, the resourceful Lieven Bauwens used a business he had previously set up in the UK to trade colonial goods to smuggle an entire mule-jenny spinning machine parts by parts to his birth town. He also convinced some British engineers to cross the channel to operate the machines, train workers and develop the technology further. The British condemned Bauwens to death for such a theft and confiscated all his possessions on the island, but Bauwens never returned. Instead, he started cotton factories in Paris and Ghent, being the initiator of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and was even named mayor of Ghent by Napoleon.

Today, Lieven Bauwens remains a controversial figure. For some, early in his life, he enriched himself being the leather supplier of the army of Napoleon who was seen as the invader before turning into an unscrupulous industrial spy and patron of industry; for many he is simply a Belgian hero.

Travel tips:

  • To help you plan your trip make sure to check out Visit Ghent!
  • To appreciate Ghent to the fullest, get a City Card which gives you access to all the museums, public transport and some other attractions.
  • For a comfortable stay in style a stone’s throw away from the heart of Ghent, with a spa to recover from your day exploring the city and an excellent service, we warmly recommend the 4-star Pillows Grand Boutique Hotel Reylof.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

For more around Bruges & Ghent, click on these images:

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