Arriving in Gent, I headed straight to the tourist office for a map and information about a city tour. I had found online that there was to be one at 4pm, but I also knew the website was dated and was not sure if the information was accurate. In the Gent tourist office for the first time, someone in Belgium actually chose to speak to me in German rather than English. She told me that there were no more tours today but gave me a map with a self guided tour. All of the information I have about the city came from that map. As a disclaimer, because my map is in German, it is possible that I will not know the common English name of an edifice, but I will do my best!
The Gent tourist office is located in the former fish market, which opened in 1689. This structure is extremely unique as it is topped by a figure of Neptune.
Across from the former fish market is the Gravensteen (Grafenburg) castle. This castle was currently under renovation but was still admitting tourists within. Had I time, I would have visited the interior.
I walked through town and around the canals. Like Brugge it is possible to take a boat ride on the canals, but today I chose to go by foot. I arrived in an area of the canal flanked on either side by two streets: Korenlei and Graslei. Dating back to the 11th century, this was the site of the first trade harbor in Gent. Today this area is flanked by gorgeous buildings, many guide books call this the most beautiful city view in all of Europe. They may be right.
From there I walked over the St. Michael's Bridge, past the St. Michaels and St. Nicholas churches and to the Emile Braun square. This area was filled with the stalls of the Christmas market and alive with scents and sounds. The Gent market was unique in the fact that many of the vendors were offering samples. I was able to try a number of different cheeses as well as some nougat. Some of the cheeses were so creamy and amazing. It was a really nice market and had some items that were quite unique compared to what I had seen in Brussels, Antwerp and Brugge.
Gent is a city where one must look up, down and all around - not just straight ahead. This house on the St. NIklaas street for example is topped with 6 dancing devils, called in German "die Moriskentänzer".
One aspect of Gent that really excited me was the chance to see the famous Gent Altar. Having recently watched the movie "The Monuments Men", this altar held a greater significance than it might have otherwise done for me. The altar is currently housed in the St. Baafs Cathedral. I went into the cathedral at 4:28pm. I was exactly 28 minutes too late to see the altar. There was a replica of the altar that I was able to see. (Well it was in a closed chamber, but the walls were columns and I could peer through). In the movie, all panels of the altar are recovered. However, in real life, one panel disappeared in 1934 and they are still searching for it. It is currently undergoing restoration. The cathedral itself is full of other amazing pieces of art. All over the place hang signs forbidding photography in the cathedral. I saw a number of people ignoring this, however I chose to follow it.
From the cathedral I continued through the city coming to the city hall. The city hall really stood out as its structure and style differed greatly from buildings around it.
As I continued to walk through town, the sun began to set and I got to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the city.
I continued walking through Gent, headed to the Vrijdagmarkt. In the middle of the square is a statue of Jacob van Artevelde, who kept Gent neutral during the 100 years war. Nearby stands an orange-red canon. It has stood in exactly that spot for 425 years and has never been shot. The red color is original.