Like other Belgian cities, Ghent doesn’t quite wear its heart on its sleeve. When you arrive you have to navigate the bustling streets and cobblestones, and while no one view shows all Ghent has to offer, every turn has the potential to astound. But perhaps the most striking scene in the city can be found on the small Sint-Veerleplein, when you’re looking up at the medieval Gravensteen.
Medieval castles were meant to be imposing things, and this one definitely got that right. Its massive gates and battlements soar above most other buildings in the historic center, and there is a palpable sense of past in its that seeps into the castle’s surroundings.
Gravensteen, or the Castle of the Counts, is the jewel in Ghent’s historical crown. First built by Arnulf I, Count of Flanders, Gravensteen has been keeping watch over this spot on the Leie River for over 800 years. The original wooden bastion was rebuilt with stone in the 11th Century, when it was infused with a little bit of luxury and a lot of local power. Unfortunately, this castle burnt down in 1176, but Count Philip of Alsace made sure that its next incarnation – built three years later – would be jaw-dropping. The central keep is over 100 feet high, and its battlements offer a view of the whole of Ghent.
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But with the glory of expansion and reinvention, Gravensteen also saw an increasingly violent turn of events. It became the seat of justice, but was used to subjugate, torture and imprison personal enemies of the counts, and it even became the local seat of the Inquisition. By the 19th Century, it had become synonymous with feudal injustice and cruelty, and it was almost demolished to make way for roads and housing.
Someone, however, saw the value of history in the majesty of this building, and the City of Ghent, together with the Belgian State, decided to reincarnate Gravensteen as a historic landmark.
Their efforts were well worth it. In a city soaked in history, Gravensteen stands as the pinnacle of medieval memory. It has become the city’s biggest tourist attraction, and it’s easy to see why. With soaring battlements, cool stone chambers and an imposing torture museum, Gravensteen has a lot to offer any kind of tourist.
Apart from experiencing the building and its network of stone passageways, its prison pit, and its breath-taking roof, visitors can see pristine examples of medieval weaponry and armor in what used to be the main keep. This is one of the most impressive collections of arms in Flanders, complete with ivory and mother-of-pearl inlaid pistols, maces, crossbows and rapiers. There are also reconstructed residential rooms so that you can see how medieval Belgians lived and how the area was governed.
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To satisfy those with a more gory turn-of-mind, but also to give voice to the castle’s violent history, Gravensteen houses a collection of torture instruments actually used through the ages. The museum of judicial objects features a guillotine, thumb screws, and a rack – all examples of instruments used in the castle to obtain “justice” between the 14th and 18th centuries.
If that’s not particularly to your taste, the views from the roof of the keep make any visit well worth the effort. From here, you can look out on Ghent, which is even more beautiful seen from above. You can watch tourists milling around in the squares below, eating ice-creams or enjoying the city’s numerous beer bars.
If you only visit one attraction in Ghent, Gravensteen should be it. The castle gives a brilliant overview of the area’s history, and it is by far the most fun and interesting site to explore. You can climb the battlements and sneak around the basement, or just enjoy a picnic in the castle courtyard.
The castle is open every day, except recognized public holidays. The 10 euro ticket includes a movie guide, and allows access for the entire day. Specials are available for CityCard Gent holders, and access is free for visitors up to 19 years old.