Ghent travel notes

Ghent is one of the loveliest small- to mid-sized cities in Europe, perhaps lucky to have never received UNESCO World Heritage status, unlike Bruges.  Ghent was one of the earliest seats of the continental Industrial Revolution, through textiles, and the city core has splendid architecture from late medieval times up through the early 20th century.  It is what Amsterdam should be, but no longer is.

The center is full of interesting, quirky small shops, along the lines of the cliche you do not expect to actually find.  Only rarely are restaurant menus offered in English.  Most of the tourists in the hotel seemed to be Chinese.

Walk around, don’t miss Graffiti Street, and the Ensors and the Roualt in the Fine Arts museum complement the more famous items there.  The Industrie Museum has numerous textile machines from the 18th century onwards; I found it striking how different the 1770 machine was from the 1730 vintage, but how little by 1950 the machines had advanced .

For dining I recommend the Surinamese restaurant Faja Lobi and the Syrian Layali Habab, the mainstream Belgian places seem to be good but no better than good unless you pay a lot of money.

Most of all, you should walk around and ponder why we seem unable (or is it unwilling?) to build such compelling cities these days.


I've often wondered :

In our European cities, what would be the extra cost to build beautifully rather than purely economical/efficient?
For instance, how much extra would it cost to enforce Hausmann design in all new constructions in Paris? 20% ? 50%? 150%?

IMO, worth spending more on.

Do you mean "worth spending more" if you're spending other people's money?

Ultimately it's the tenant paying for it somehow.

I live in an area of the US with mid-level labor costs. If you look at green field development in outlying regions of a growing city, new build cost (wood frame) looks to be about $70/sq foot. Find me anywhere in France you can find even twice that cost. On top of that, I'd bet the overhead to enforce a design is significantly more even than the overhead of the design itself.

Mid sized cities in Spain and Portugal have reasonable dense urban cores without astronomical house prices. But these buildings are just regular apartment buildings. For the same rent, do I really want to pay for a space in Ghent or would I choose somewhere more generic with more living space and in a modern building?

I don't see any viable path to a future in which the people making those design decisions would be promoting beautiful design, as opposed to what architects and bureaucrats always do, which is try to ram soul-deadening dystopian brutalism down our throats. Again.

'Only rarely are restaurant menus offered in English'

Imagine that - that must feel like being a real world traveller, far from the tourist masses. Or like being in a French speaking country.

'I recommend the Surinamese restaurant Faja Lobi and the Syrian Layali Habab'

Or, to be more accurate, you followed the recommendations of two uncredited commenters

Ben Hughes - 'Layali Halab Syrian Restaurant is outstanding'

Robin - 'I can't remember the name of the restaurant but I had some excellent Surinamese food there, and from what I can remember there were several Surinamese options.'

'Most of all, you should walk around and ponder why we seem unable (or is it unwilling?) to build such compelling cities these days.'

Cars. Anybody who has lived in the U.S. and in Europe recognizes that the automobile creates an entirely different framework, in which a city needs to conform to the requirements of the automobile, regardless of what that means in other terms.

And to be pedantic - yes, Ghent is in the Flemish part of Belgium. Which has nothing to do with the relative lack of English in France or Wallonia. Basically, French speakers still seem to think that French is all one needs when in a French speaking area, with grudging exceptions made in connection with grubby commerce in a place like Strasbourg (German is as common as English on a menu) or Paris.

"And to be pedantic" - we have prior's epitaph all set

Gent is wonderful, and is my favorite Central European city along with Freiburg and Luzern. Because of the non-stop focus on Bruxelles and the country's dysfunctional political system, the rest of Belgium tends to be overlooked. However, cities like Antwerpen, Gent and Leuven are great places to visit and live.

Hasselt, not so much in comparison.

I disagree, Gent is OK, it is indeed a nice city, but not extraordinary.

The automobile forever spoiled city planning. If you're a rich trader today, you'll build a McMansion on the outskirts of town in order to impress your guests. The custom of living in a Venetian Palazzo is forever gone due to lack of salubrity, all told.

How funny. I was there just three days ago. What a beautiful little city! I travel a bit and hadn't heard much about Ghent before (everyone does seem to think Bruges is the one to visit). I wandered into St. Bavo's Cathedral and wow! THAT'S a cathedral! (And you can see the altarpiece by Van Eyck altarpiece there.)

What surprised me most about the city was that packed into the great oldness of many, many buildings were the lean, clean lines of a thriving hipster existence--a poke restaurant, vegan places, the theatre converted into a massive coffee shop/workspace... Though jarring, it mostly seems to work.

I live in China, grew up in rural Hawaii, and have travelled quite a lot throughout Europe and Asia. I have also wondered, whilst roaming the streets of Paris, why most modern developments elsewhere are really quite ugly. Is it a lack of ambition? Some kind of disdain for the common person? A desperate need to build only to house, without any grand plan for what might become one day?

If you walk the streets of Shanghai, the nicest places are either temples, former imperial properties, or buildings designed by foreigners during colonial times. In Beijing, the alleys are charming, but patched up haphazardly into something hanging onto to survive in modern times. In Hawaii, on the Big Island where I grew up, most buildings apart from those which serve the extremely wealthy, are hideously uninspiring--functional boxes with a roof, and that's about it. (The schools I attended had corrugated tin roofing, and portable buildings were a permanent fixture.)

I've always wondered what was in the mind of European designers to put a face, or flowers, or curls and swirls onto the front of a building, and then inside, even on the ceiling, and why we, in the places where I have lived, never think to design something we might have to look at 50 or 100 years down the line. Something in the process is definitely missing.

'Something in the process is definitely missing.'

In Europe, pride, or a sense of attachment to something larger than oneself, is part of the explanation. Kunstler's Georgraphy of Nowhere touches on this (mainly in the sense that very little built in America for several generations inspires such pride or ttachment), but there is a wonderful German example of this in operation over several generations - the Dresden Frauenkirche.

'Built in the 18th century, the church was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden during World War II. The remaining ruins were left for 50 years as a war memorial, following decisions of local East German leaders. The church was rebuilt after the reunification of Germany, starting in 1994. The reconstruction of its exterior was completed in 2004, and the interior in 2005. The church was reconsecrated on 30 October 2005 with festive services lasting through the Protestant observance of Reformation Day on 31 October. The surrounding Neumarkt square with its many valuable baroque buildings was also reconstructed in 2004.'

And this is why the reconstruction was possible - 'The building vanished from Dresden's skyline, and the blackened stones would lie in wait in a pile in the centre of the city for the next 45 years as Communist rule enveloped what was now East Germany. Shortly after the end of World War II, residents of Dresden had already begun salvaging unique stone fragments from the Church of Our Lady and numbering them for future use in reconstruction. Popular sentiment discouraged the authorities from clearing the ruins away to make a car park. In 1966, the remnants were officially declared a "memorial against war", and state-controlled commemorations were held there on the anniversaries of the destruction of Dresden.'

It is exceeding hard to imagine anyone living in Fairfax City to care that much about any church or public building as being part of the fabric of their city's life. Not to say that buildings are not preserved or restored in Fairfax City, which is obviously much smaller than Dresden.

Looking down over the Nuremberg old town from the castle, the only really obvious difference between the original mediaeval buildings and the postwar reconstructions is that the latter don't have sagging rooflines. Yet.

Mister Cowen, I am living in Brussels, will you be giving any talks or seminars here in Belgium? I have heard your 2012 euro crisis predictions (great stagnation), and would love to hear what are your current thoughts and next predictions for the eurozone.

Most of all, you should walk around and ponder why we seem unable (or is it unwilling?) to build such compelling cities these days.' NIMBYism? Thought you were a YIMBY

Leiden, where I reside at present, is similar to Ghent in the sense you describe. Its roots are a bit less industrial than Ghent, but wandering around town triggers, always and everywhere, the same thoughts.
One commentator put his finger on a key point, which is the baleful dynamic of auto use. It's not so much the architecture as such, as the manner of going about one's business day to day, that the Ghent and Leiden (and Bruges) model both reflect and facilitate. Automobiles are, in effect, an invasive species.
Also consider, as is recounted in Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, that Le Corbusier-obsessed planners in Europe were as answerable for the (shockingly widespread) ruin brought to large areas of many European cities after WW II as the geniuses in the US were for the destruction of so many acres of old, interesting, resilient urban US communities (French planners way more guilty than you would have thought; the Dutch and Belgian [thankfully] less so)

When I lived in Santa Monica, the edge of the Venice Beach was an apparition like the stones and the vases. Surfers back then wore suits to their waists, fisherman fished off the jetty, the sun like the sunflowers in the vases—was less important. There was too much sand behind you. It was Tompkins Square Park without the classical musicians, the enormous oak tree—the light was the same. There silence in those crooked stones, in the frosty waves of Venice Beach twisted logic into a morose abandonment.

As another Leiden resident, I feel that I should point out that there was a push from Dutch planners for some of the same auto-oriented redevelopment as elsewhere - but it was pushed back (mostly) by public action.

An important point is that people tend to oppose change. Urban areas that were/are organized in one form tend to stay that way, unless there is a large effort put in to change them.

I think older cities = more beautiful is somewhat a survivorship bias thing. At the time of Ghent there were probably lots of other more ugly places being built, but because they lacked charm they have been since replaced with newer buildings.

Next point to make is that these older cities are also the result of huge inequality, so you could have very rich people able to employ lots of craftsmen in a way that few people could do so today, you have many fewer "billionaire equivalents" today than in the past, when your average merchant could easily employee 40 or 50 people.

Another aspect is that we tend to spread out nice architecture today rather than in the past. If you go to a high end neighborhood in many US towns, you will see many very nice houses. But thanks to cars and better roads they don't need to be all in one very small area, and you are not seeing them as part of a walking tour.

In reality these older cities are nice to visit, but not so convenient for anyone with a modern lifestyle. Nowhere to park, small rooms with limited storage and few bathrooms, not well insulated, noisy and packed with tourists. I speak from experience - I grew up in a house built in 13C in a tourist town - and I am very happy to live now in a modern house.

I think this affinity for the Disneyesque "old city" and disdain for modern cities is more than a little a romanticized. The population of Gnent is about 250,000. How many of them live in the Disney area?

Where is the middle and working class supposed to live? And in what kind of conditions?

Cities were traditionally small because you had to be able to build a wall around the city.

And about an hour one way to work (to field, factory, or office) is the maximum practical distance between worksite and residence.

Given the choice, no one builds a compressed city when other options are available. Revealed preference I suppose.

Disneyesque? I think you're trying to use the derivative thing to describe the original thing. If it looks like Disney is because you don't know other things beyond Disney. Several million people in Europe will just say "it looks like home".

Where is the middle and working class supposed to live? And in what kind of conditions? That's precisely what ChrisA wrote: nowhere to park, small rooms with limited storage and few bathrooms, not well insulated, noisy and packed with the working class lives there =)

Two good posts by ChrisA and Engineer.

Tyler and other lefties will drone on forever about the Loveliness of Old Europe, and grouchily wonder why we can't build the same kind of things today that were built for the rich when there was 16th-century inequality.

I agree with the inequality point.
I don't agree that Tyler is a lefty.

Pretty much everything important is captured in the nice to live in versus nice to visit distinction. Of course building cities to accommodate cars made them much less pleasant for walkers. But do you think people want to walk around every day of their working lives?

I've been living in Gent for most of my life and I think there are very few places in the world which are nicer to live in.

It all depends on your preferences of course.

Gent is a very bike-oriented, quite hipster little city. If you insist on doing everything by car, it's definitely not a convenient place (especially since the 'circulation plan' from 2017 that gives priority to bikes and public transport inside the ring road).
But I always get around by bike and find it lovely.

It's true that houses are not that big and a bit expensive, but for me it's priceless to be able to step out of your door and step in a vibrant city with bars, restaurants, etc within walking distance.

It looks like more and more young people have the same preferences, looking at the steep increase in housing prices in the center the last years.

Just curious, how much is a lot of money for diner and a couple beers? 30, 50, 100 €, more?

Also, the processed meat used for kebab is really bad. If it can be called meat at all. I love meat, but being vegetarian(*) for a day is more appetizing than kebab.

(*) just drink beer, no food.

"Most of all, you should walk around and ponder why we seem unable (or is it unwilling?) to build such compelling cities these days."

Spoken like a planner.

Unable, not unwilling.

I'd flip that. ChrisA above is correct: "In reality these older cities are nice to visit, but not so convenient for anyone with a modern lifestyle. "

Nice place to visit, but...

Like NYC, which i have to visit every so often. I like going, but always a little bit happier leaving.

Was Ghent in the Hanaeatic League? If so, is there any hints of the cultural legacy left? Just curious as I have never been there.

No, it was never part of the Hanseatic league. I am not a 100% sure why though, since it was one of the biggest cities in Northern Europe in the 13th and 14th century.

Ghent was an imperial capital and the birthplace of Charles V. Just count the number of cathedrals to get a sense of its wealth.

The Hanseatic cities were all about trade and leery of political involvement from the Holy Roman Empire. They would not have welcomed a Trojan Horse like Ghent into their midst.

Compact urban areas are a pain to live in with regard to most day to day activities. A few days outside of a hotel in Manhattan will prove this. Double parking to unload more than a few bags of groceries, lack of access to low cost shopping, high cost of all utilities and other services. Yes you are conveniently located for restaurants and Duane Reade Drug stores, but that's about it.

Well, I don't know why builders make the decisions they do, but as to public amenities and planning of the sort to make my city more like the places people escape to on their vacations, well ... 75% of our city budget is claimed by public safety (overwhelmingly - under-policed?) and social services. If you throw in the schools, which are not under municipal governance, and county taxes - mostly courts and more public safety - then that would cover about 98% of the public budget. There is some revenue coming in from our city-owned convention center - but said center itself has a budget approx. 3x our little parks and pools department. There's also a hotel-occupancy tax, which can specifically be used only to "promote tourism" and promote the aforesaid convention center. (It's not a bad-looking building from the outside; for the inside, picture an empty Walmart.)

Anyhoo, the local variety of urbanists are keen on growth and very much frown on talk of aesthetics, but I don't think the latter is much of a threat to their vision, when you look at where our local funds go ...

To give them credit, those urbanists, while they reliably decry greenspace and express contempt for such things as our mild local effort to preserve heritage trees in this arid region, do advocate for narrower roads, which would indeed be more attractive, and for pedestrian/bike-oriented improvements. Unfortunately, their strong desire for more people to move here from abroad will probably not relieve either the number of automobiles on the roads, the number of car lanes, or the astonishing sum that goes to police and fire departments, some of which might be spent on creative ways to retrofit our post-war-booming city to reflect some of the charms of older places.

For dining I recommend the Surinamese restaurant Faja Lobi and the Syrian Layali Habab,

LOL at going to Ghent to eat the Surinamese and Syrian food. Might as well stay put in the imperial capital.

Any way, that sorta gets at why we can't have compelling cities any more. "Diversity" is not really about diversity.

This actually made me smile.

I'm not sure if I get your point. Are you saying that one should only eat waffles and endive?

Most governments in developing countries don't have many choices when it comes to accepting capital. As such, mall developers prevail, often buying the land underneath the shopping mall. Roads, parking, aesthetics, etc. are all new ideas to foreign capital, though practices may be changing. For example, Cebu's Tomas Osmena has done an admirable job creating sustainable growth while allowing mall influence. (His Facebook account is amazing--you should check it out.)

In developed cities, one question to ask is which country colonized it and how it viewed the city in its "collection." For example, Puebla city in Mexico was once seen as a permanent part of a new French Empire and is therefore highly developed and livable. Puebla's building designs are similar to the ones I've seen in Tunisia and Morocco, but French elites and investors must not have seen Northern Africa as a place to which they wanted to re-locate; as a result, less investment was deployed compared to parts of Mexico, and it shows.

Additionally, in places where colonizers were pushed back, even if only initially, such as in Carthage, Tunisia, development is buttressed by mansions where domestic elites lived. Victorious invaders do not tend to destroy beautiful homes, and domestic leaders tend to want to live in grand places, so former capitals are also favored in development due to having residents with substantial assets and the talent they attracted. There's obviously much more to say about this topic, but my point is that history matters when evaluating the reasons behind current modes of city planning and economic development.

Ghent is indeed a lovely city, despite the fact that menus in English are actually common (it's an increasingly prominent tourist destination, especially since Bruges has gotten a reputation as too touristy, so travelers who see themselves as savvy as coming to Ghent instead. And as someone above has mentioned, it's undergoing a bit of a gentrification and become a destination city for the young, so in the future your experience there will likely be different.

Your disparaging comparison to Amsterdam, though, is a culturally/historically illiterate bit of snark. I now live in Amsterdam, and it's amazing to me that, despite the constant onslaught of tourists, it is an incredibly livable city that has done an extraordinary job of preserving it's culture, honoring it's incredible history, all while having a vital and thriving economy.

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