One summer afternoon in 2005 my husband and I strolled along the Graslei, the east bank of the river Leie in the historic heart of Ghent. To our right were the old medieval warehouse buildings with their distinctive stepped gables. Behind them the three famous towers of Ghent stood sentry over the city – St. Baaf’s Cathedral, the Belfry, and St. Nicholas Church. Directly ahead loomed the grim Gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts of Flanders. But across the river on the Korenlei was an incongruous sight, an enormous construction crane towering over the historic buildings of the old grain port. We learned from my cousins who live in Ghent that a Marriott hotel was under construction there. Not surprisingly it was a controversial project and not popular with Ghent residents. The city, however, had imposed strict conditions on Marriott to maintain the historic facade on the waterfront.
The Ghent Marriott opened in 2007 and when we visited my Flemish family again in 2009 we decided to stay there. We would judge for ourselves if the company had kept their promise to blend into the historic city. It was to be the first of many visits as we fell in love with the hotel and its brilliant blend of old and new architecture. Arriving by car the entrance to the hotel is an unassuming forecourt in a narrow side street. A revolving door leads into the lobby, a soaring modern atrium where a jumble of old Ghent rooftops can be seen through a multistory curved glass wall. A stunning sight, but the real magic begins when you step out the door on the other side of the lobby, straight onto the cobbled stones of the Korenlei with its panoramic view of Graslei and the towers beyond.
That first night in 2009 when we stepped out there to see the beautiful buildings sparkling with lights my son-in-law, on his first visit to Ghent, was speechless with awe. “I told you so,” said my daughter. She had been promising him he would fall in love with the city just as she had on her first visit when she was nine. And perhaps most impressive was that when we looked back at the building we had just left, you would never know it was a modern hotel. The old facade was preserved intact. The modest Marriott sign was small enough that when viewed from the opposite bank it barely registered. Marriott had kept its promise to Ghent.
But the hotel is just one example of the harmony of old and new in Ghent, a vibrant modern city quite unlike the “preserved in amber” feel of Bruges with its hordes of tourists. Exploring the old city you often come upon medieval buildings repurposed in surprising ways or juxtaposed comfortably with modern architecture. One of the most beautiful old buildings is the Masons Guild House on Sint-Niklaasstraat. Dancing figures leap through the air at the roofline while below a sign identifies it as the O’Tacos restaurant, a French fast food chain. (If you’re wondering about French tacos, they are apparently filled with french fries). The modern restaurant is grafted onto the side of the old building leaving the facade untouched.
Inside the old Vleeshuis, the butcher’s hall, a sleek all glass cafe has been added on one side. The design doesn’t obstruct the view of the interior roof and walls as you walk through the hall or sit in the cafe, and it’s a lovely place to stop for coffee, beer, or chocolate.
Each time I’ve taken a boat trip on the Leie I look out for the Art Deco style house glimpsed through the trees. It lives in perfect harmony with the step gabled houses on either side. This is my dream house if I could live in Ghent.
The new City Pavilion venue sitting in the square in front of the Belfry takes a bit of getting used to with its asymmetrical shape and bulky concrete legs. The design by Robbrecht en Daem and Marie-José Van Hee was first derided as a “sheep shed” and provoked a reprimand from UNESCO because they were not consulted. But the building is more charming when you stand inside where light filters through hundreds of tiny windows. On our recent visit a pianist played under the canopy so I can attest to the excellent acoustics.
This year we visited my elderly aunt and uncle in their new assisted living retirement home, a masterly repurposing of an old convent. Many of the original buildings were demolished and replaced with handsome brick low rise apartments around a central courtyard. But the old convent chapel was remodeled into a combination chapel and community meeting room complete with a bar. The downstairs open space serves as a refectory and an upper gallery holds two open sitting rooms. Residents can reserve the space for events so we had a family party here, also enjoying the use of an outdoor patio and a lawn for the children to run around.
I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast with my great-grandmother’s convent retirement home, a city facility for the poor. We used to visit her there when I was a child in the 1950’s. She lived in a large high-ceilinged hall with beds ranged around the walls, no privacy at all. And most memorable, in the center of the room there was a large wooden chair rather like a throne raised on a dais. It was the communal toilet! But she always seemed content. She wore a floor length black dress and kept a red paisley handkerchief tucked up her sleeve to wipe her nose after she took snuff. She was a relic of the old Ghent and could never have imagined the modern city of her descendants.