As I sit down to write about our time in Ghent all my fingers want to type are the words “I want to go back…”
We were ready to get to our Airbnb in Ghent after our debacle with leaving Antwerp. Fortunately, we had given ourselves plenty of time to get to the Zuid station in Antwerp, enough time even to ride the metro in the wrong direction for several stops!
As we walked from the train station to our Airbnb in the city center of Ghent, Lauren reiterated to me something she has been telling me for over a week now. She wanted to find some live music and cut a little rug. And just like that, along our walk, we emerged from an alley into a small park where they were setting up a tent and a stage. We wondered what the celebration was for and had great hopes to return to this spot and catch some live music. As a backup we asked our Airbnb host where we might find some live music venues around the city and he gave us a perplexing but satisfying reply “Um literally all over the place…”. Great! Not very descriptive but his answer put us at ease that we could find some live music in this small city.
We were starving so we dropped our packs and headed out to lunch. Again, what luck when on our way we passed by yet another stage being set up and this time it was a much bigger one with some beer and food stands encircling it! After lunch we headed to the tourist info center because Lauren had read that they offer a free map and guide for a do it yourself walking tour of the city. We began to realize there was something going on here…as we passed by at least two more stages and a dozen more beer and food stands on the way to the tourist information center.
Turns out we happened to stumble upon one of the biggest cultural festivals in Europe and on the night that it starts! Our spirits could not be soaring any higher. Since becoming long term travelers, our new favorite word has become FREE and when paired with MUSIC it sounds that much sweeter. After taking a few steps away from the tourist information center we doubled back to ask one more very important question “what are your open container laws here?”. Response was exactly what we had hoped…they got a good laugh out of the question. Once we knew the kickoff of the festival was that night we ran to the closest Albert Heijn (our favorite grocery store here) to get all the party essentials. As we ate dinner and sipped our wijn (dutch for wine) we could hear the start of the festival which sounded like a parade of bag pipes around the city.
Gentse Feesten started in 1843 and has obviously changed significantly over time with the more modern era of the festival including music starting in 1969. Around two million people visit this 10-day festival each year with up to 250,000 people in the city on the “peak” nights of the festival. The festival always begins on the Friday preceding the third Sunday in July and ends on the fourth Sunday.
Ghent is a city known for its medieval architecture and they certainly have an abundance of it all around the city center with 4 gothic towers practically on top of each other. The contrast between the modern sound stages next to the illuminated gothic cathedrals seemed to bring out a primal need to party in everyone like a musical awakening. It was almost like we had gone to a renaissance festival that turned into Woodstock and forgot to change the décor.
We spent a total of 4 nights enjoying Gentse Feesten, two at the start of the festival and another two at the end of the festival with a break in Brugges in the middle. There is an overwhelming amount of entertainment to choose from with this festival. From music choices varying between: jazz, classical, pop, techno, rock, and folk, to performances of comedy, theater, and poetry.
On our first night of the festival we filled our backpack with beers and headed out to for some music, dancing, and adventure. The streets were rivers of people with the currents pulling and pushing past each of the dozen or so stages around the city. Take a look at this map to get an idea for the number of stages and party areas around the city center!
Speaking of flow around the city, they knew how to brace for this party providing street urinals strategically located all over the city and trailer john’s for the ladies. The festival reminded me of a grown-up version of the Van’s Warped Tour I went to every year at Virginia Beach with my best buds in high school.
The first stage we stopped at was Mardi Gras themed which brought out all kinds of colorful characters. This stage ended up being one of our favorites because to start the festivities each night at this stage the band would parade through the streets on their way to the stage.
We danced to several songs here bopping to the New Orleans inspired tunes under the city pavilion. The excitement and energy surrounding this stage reaffirmed my desire to one day visit New Orleans.
Whenever a performance ended we would jump back into the river of people to be carried away to the next stage to our liking. Every stage we came across during the night had a totally different vibe both in the music offered but also resonating from the crowd. Some stages were packed with young people, some with older folks, others with hipsters.
Along our walks between stages we also saw many spontaneous street performances enjoying their ever-changing captive audience. A couple of the more interesting street performances we caught was an all-woman drum line and a band whose drummer used a washing machine for his bass drum.
Many bars and clubs in the city also got into the spirit with free live performances in their venues. Ever since HR-57 in DC closed its doors in 2014 we have been missing our jazz connection, so we decided to seek out some jazz at this festival and were very glad we did! The first jazz club we checked out was not exactly what we were looking for with the average age in the room doubling our ages, so we moved along to our next hope, Mississippi Blues. We caught two different shows at this venue on different nights during the festival. I also found one of my favorite beers on tap at Mississippi Blues, it was a golden blond ale called Keizer Karel Charles Quint by Haacht Brewery. Okay in all honesty Lauren found it and let me try A sip and then selfishly refused my pleas for more! This beer is a large part of the reason we went back to this bar for another concert, I wanted my own Keizer Karel! And I didn’t share.
Aside from the music and drinking which is obviously a big part of the festival, they also have tons of stuff for kids to do. During the day it’s mostly about the kids with street performances, crafts, and there is a square in the city with a small carnival.
The morning following our first night out for the festival we were both a bit hungover and decided to walk about a mile and a half to the outskirts of town to try one of the few vegan friendly places open. The place is called VBOX and had the most delicious waffle sandwiches and shakes! The walk plus the delicious meal was the perfect remedy for our hangovers, but we didn’t go as hard on our second night because we wanted to get up early to tour the city while everyone else slept.
Walking Tour of Ghent
We set out on our walking tour around 7am guided by the map we picked up at the tourist center determined to see the sights before the streets began buzzing again. We were up so early that we actually caught the last song as we walked by the Vlasmarkt stage which has music until 8am. It was pretty hilarious to see the people stumbling around the streets from the night before. We almost saw too much of one guy when he stumbled away from the street urinal and planted a hug on the street barricade. It was also amazing to watch the coordinated cleanup efforts around the city by the streetsweepers, rise away the contrition of the night before.
On our walk around the city we learned much of the city history the most interesting of which revolved around the Gravensteen, the castle of the count. Most castles are built for protection of a city, its ruler, and its people. This castle was built in 1180 not to protect the people of Ghent but rather to express the dominance and power of Count Phillip in response to the increasing influence of the wealthy aristocrats building their luxurious stone houses.
The early wealth of Ghent was owed to primarily to the wool trade which made the merchants of Ghent wealthy, influential, and difficult to rule. In the 1539 the citizens of Ghent revolted in response to higher taxes. The ruler at the time, Charles V, marched an army into the city to quell the rebellion and took it one step further when he humiliated the nobles by forcing them to walk humbly in front of the emperor with a noose around their necks. The stubborn citizens of Ghent took this as a sign of their rebellious nature and to this day proudly call themselves Stroppendragers (noose bearers) and as a symbol of this historic event and even wear nooses in remembrance. We actually saw some people walking around the festival with nooses around their necks.
Aside from the castle there are many other interesting areas of the city including the area of Graslei and Korenli along the banks of the Lye River, the Belfry, St Bravo’s Cathedral, Korenmarkt, St Michael’s Church (both of them), and St James Church. We just loved being surrounded by all of the medieval architecture and the welcoming vibe of this city.