Belgium is my favorite European country.
I have several reasons and Ghent/Gent is one of them.
I thought the city was really charming in a sense that its surroundings reminded me so much of the fairy tales I read in my elementary years and I watched on television and the big screen via Walt Disney.
But for a strange reason, the kind of fairy tale that Gent made me remember was one of the antitheses of a Walt Disney reinterpretation. And yes, I am talking about Shrek and Fiona. Perhaps, this is because one significant memory I have about the historic city of Gent is the Castle of the Counts. While several contradicting narratives are told about its origin, one thing is constant: it was a place of torture. Remember, Lord Farquaad in Shrek? I mean, the Farquaad in the reimagined version at the Universal Studios in Singapore. My imagination was really playful that 2018 summer visit in Gent: the narrator in the audio guide was really as if the vertically-challenged antagonist of the animated film.
True enough, the castle boasts a unique and huge collection of torture equipment. It was Count Philip of Alsace’s bastion of power. The transformation of the castle into a torture chamber was a testament that Count Philip wanted everyone to know that he was in-charage, that he was “the boss!”
A Latin inscription above the castle entrance states that Count Philip (1168-1191) built the castle in 1180.
But other sources cite that the castle was originally built in the 9th century by Count Baldwin II. According to some, the castle was built to prevent attacks from invaders. Nonetheless, Baldwin II did not see the completion of his castle. It was his son, Arnulf I, who continued with this work and built a fortress at the confluence of the Rivers Leie and Scheldt on the site of the present castle.
The structure was originally made of wood with a main building of two floors and an adjacent grain store. According to the an online source, this soon became the new hub for trade and industry in the region. Ghent developed into the biggest city of the brand-new Flanders.
As the audio guide mentioned even the pantry, a place where food are commonly stored, was used as a storage room of torture equipment. I remember vividly how the curator enabled us, the visitors, to experience how the former courtroom was also used to execute even the pettiest of all the criminals.
The castle was never a permanent residence. According to the audio guide, Gent was not the favorite city of the Count (Philip and his family). He had a misplaced paranoia – fearing the people of Gent were always ready to commit rebellious actions and that they were allies of the Count’s enemies. Perhaps, this is the reason why the castle eventually became an administrative center and the justice hall – to indict whoever the Count felt was an enemy of the state.
Beginning 14th century, it was the epicentre of justice in Flanders. Another online source notes that the Council of Flanders, which, among other things, was authorised to judge serious crimes and lese-majesty and served as the court of appeal, established itself there. In the seventeenth century, there were four different courts in operation in the castle.
From 1907, the Castle of the Counts was open to the public. The World Exhibition in 1913 launched the building’s reputation as Ghent’s biggest tourist attraction. What seems to be so peculiar with this once-upon-a-time a terrible place to visit is that today it is a popular place to get married, at least for the locals.
About my tour, I remember passing through underground dungeons and labyrinths and gave me goosebumps and chills. The audio tour was narrating the stories of the prisoners and how they were tortured by the castle guards. The images were so vivid that I could not help but see the torturers and the tortured on the exact places where they met their deaths. Even the chapel underground was transformed into a torture hall, which for me, was really, really horrific. There were tears in my eyes and for a strange reason, I heard an outcast singing “I thought we all were the children of God.” I could not stand the horror. I had to go out.
Continuing my tour, I found myself enjoying the rooftop of the castle. It was my favorite part.
After climbing narrow the stairwells, the fresh air greeted me and led me to one of the best views of the city. It was fun to look through the small stone windows and see the best panoramic view of Gent.
After my castle tour, the town square, the canals, the stores, the abbeys, the passersby, and everything about the city center enabled me to discern a different kind of contemporary, that which entangled a medieval emblem with the playfulness of postmodernity. I intend to talk about this in a future post.