The Belfry of Ghent
My friend had come to visit me at Ghent and It was the fifth day into her visit and we decided to do something cultural. The Belfry of Ghent which I walk by almost everyday in the beautiful Medieval part of Ghent. I never bothered going in before, Now, It was time.
I wrote an email asking for a guided tour to the address given on their website and I got a prompt reply within 30 minutes saying that it should be fine. We were on time and we had to pay 2 euros each ( cheaper for less than 25) and 3 euros for the tour (Which is definitely worth it!).
Our Guide was very welcoming, she started explaining how the building was built-in the 14th century and how the parts of the Belfry evolved over time from being merely a watch tower to a symbol of cultural richness.
The bottom of the tower today is filled with modern photographs and souvenirs to purchase. We entered a chamber downstairs which had 4 statues on the floor below and our Guide explained that it represented the 4 watchmen who guarded the tower and the city in the process, The oldest original statue is the one on the bottom right and the rest are replicas made for the museum. The guide went on to explain that the guards had to watch over the four corners of the fort and had to take a bucket along with them as they couldn’t leave the watch to use the toilet, This lead to them throwing the filled buckets down the tower which gave them the more popular name ‘’ Shit heads ‘’ (Something similar to what I heard in Edinburgh).
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This particular chamber was used to safe guard treasures or valuables, which the germans apparently plundered during the world wars. We took the stairs to enter the chamber of Dragons, These dragons were mainly for show and extravaganza, She said that there have been three dragons and two of them can blow fire like a true dragon ( It looked convincing! ).
They had to carry the dragon all the way to the top without a lift and just using manual pulleys, it felt like this dragon thing was quite important to them. I never knew about Charles the fifth before, but the people of Ghent apparently have a love hate relationship with him. Though he was born to Spanish parents, he was born right here in Ghent (They are proud of it!), he waged more wars and increased the taxes in the city for the extra money, which did not go down with a lot of people and they started revolting.
When Charles came back to Ghent, the perpetrators were insulted by him by making them wear hangman nooses around their necks. Which is something the present day Ghent relates to and you find a lot of references in the city even today, Including the Gentse strop beer and the guide told me that the people identify themselves by wearing nooses around their necks during their annual festival ‘’Gentse feesten’’ (My post on Gentse feesten ).
The Dragons used to blow fire whenever Charles visited the city and was a symbol of richness and grandeur. Moving on, we took the lift to the next floor filled with bells, from the 14th century. it was a museum of bells, these bells had their own story of why they failed and why they remain in the Museum and not on the top. The biggest surprise came to me when the guide showed us a group of bells used by the Mozart himself when he visited Ghent along with his father to a chapel in Ghent which is kept in the floor of the Belfry of Ghent.
If you look to your left, you cannot miss the huge Roland bell, the third of it’s name and it plays every 15 minutes or so, Apparently, the previous Roland was defected due to a failure with an electric hammer that rings the bell. The Guide seemed to be oozing with information and she warned us that the Roland could deaf a human ear, if it was rung at full force, for example if the king visited the city at that moment, the Bell would be rung by both the hammers on the sides and also it’s fully swinging motion would have got us deaf ( It did not happen, Ofcourse! )
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The Roland Bell in action.
The Roland bell has to be reset every few hours (26 hours or so), the tradition was to reset the bells exactly after every 26 hours, which is still practiced today. The person who does it now apparently is over 60 years old (will retire soon) and he sometimes forgets to reset the bells and has to be reminded often. The next person who takes over this job is apparently going to just reset the bells everyday at a fixed hour. This is probably the end of the tradition (Woah!).
The chamber where the bells are connected is only open for guided tours (Highly Recommended!), We entered the chamber to climb to the small chamber where the bell instrument chamber was present. The guide gave us a brief idea about the bell players, She went on to say that the last bell player was spotted and recruited by an American school, after which he moved to the states, starting a school teaching children to play bells.
The new Bell player at the Belfry is known to be much more innovative and modern in the sense that he likes to mix instruments and conduct various interactive concerts for the people of Ghent. I remember visiting Ghent a year ago and witnessing one such concerts where he used bagpipes and bells, the Guide was quick to comment that I was lucky to watch that as it is one of his special shows of the year (Lucky me! ). Looks like he uses webcam to interact with his audience and take suggestions, especially from children (including Disney songs). By the time she finished these stories, I was already curious to touch the bell playing instrument and I was allowed.
When I got to play a note for the City 😀
So basically, I played a note for the city of Ghent haha! As we exited the room, we were surrounded by beautiful views through the clock works on all four sides of the Belfry. The Guide had more stories about Ghent and it’s history right from the Viking’s period. She was explaining how Ghent was the second biggest city after Paris during the medieval period and a major player in Europe for trade. In olden days probably around the 14-15th century fire was a big problem and the rich built their houses in stones and stones were extremely expensive giving rise to the term ‘’Stone rich’’ for the richer part of the society. She explained how the Austrian queen in the 17th century ordered the whole city to be rebuilt in stone to avoid fire accidents, the guillotine used by the french (You can find and learn more about them at the Torture museum in the city) and How the Austrians got so pissed at the bells being played continuously that they had to fire at the Belfry of Ghent and this Cannon ball actually passed through a bell (You can see this hole even today).
Mia – Gorki played at the Belfry of Ghent
As the Belfry plays a song every 15 minutes, it was time to experience a song right from inside the Belfry we observed this for a couple of minutes, It was quite a nice experience and not too loud. She added that the song played was a famous song Mia of a recently deceased Rock player of Ghent called Luc De Vos. I was feeling like i know a lot more than Ghent than the past five months already. On our way back we went to the top where you get to see the city of Ghent from the top and it was beautiful and scary at the same time (I am a bit scared of heights! ). The stories of Ghent never stopped while we clicked some pictures from the top, As we overlooked the St. Nicholas Church, she added that the church was present from the 13th century, which was used as the watch tower before the Belfry of Ghent and as the Belfry was built, the watchmen moved to the Belfry as they considered it was natural to move into a building meant for safety of the city. She also talked about the strong men from Ghent, who were taken to participate as Gladiators and that the Vikings invaded Ghent multiple times and It was Baldwin who defeated the Vikings and was named as the Iron arm. Apparently he was invited by the king himself personally and was the count of the city thereafter, He lived in a wooden castle like structure which is today’s Gravensteen (Made of stone). Filled with stories from the past and imagining the events, this incredible structure must have seen during it’s time is something to be experienced. It’s amazing how this one structure saw two world wars, raids, rebellions and still manages to stand today as one of the more significant buildings of Ghent and Belgium on the whole.
I almost forgot, During the world war one, The germans used Zeppelins (Balloons that drop bombs) to bombard London and they did wreck most of the city, when one of these zeppelins were getting back to base, a British fighter aircraft followed it and when it was right above Ghent, He tried bombarding the Zeppelin using 5 bombs, out of which 4 hit the city and one hit the Zeppelin and it hit the ground. The Guide explained that this was the first Zeppelin to fall ever and the people came out of their homes and believed that fireballs were sent from the sky. It must have been quite a sight and the city celebrated after apparently.
Well story time is over, we walked back 366 steps to get back to level zero and got back to the modern-day Ghent with an Ice cream (Which I probably made up now, Ice cream would have been nice ).
Alright, Do visit the Belfry of Ghent and Do go on the Guided tour, it’s worth it.
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