Saturday, December 31, 2005


Yesterday my ass froze off.

Okay, almost. Still, it was so god-dam-COLD that either W must be held responsible, or else I have become a pussy those Kyoto folks are completely nuts. We spent a couple of hours in Gent, the capital of the province of East Flanders, for some end-of-the-year-bookshopping. Gent, in Anglosaxon literature referred to as Ghent, is one of the core historical cities of Flanders. Archeological finds demonstrate that the place, at the confluence of the Schelde (Scheldt) and Leie (Lys) rivers, was already inhabited during the Stone Age. In Roman Times it was an important agricultural settlement. But its Golden Age really was in medieval times between 1100 and 1500. Ironically, its historical demise began with the birth within its walls of that pivotal political figure of the Renaissance, Charles V, the Habsburg Emperor, and indeed, the square where he was born is called to this day the Prinsenhof, or Prince's Court.

Peace Treaty of GhentGent, or Ghent if you like that better, has also an American link! Indeed, it was here that the Treaty of Ghent was signed, which concluded the 1812-1814 War between the young United States of America and Great Britain. The leader of the American delegation was the later President John Quincy Adams, who while on the spot seems to have had other interests beyond burying the battleaxe with the Brits. Unlike Jefferson in Paris however, Adams seems to have been a good boy. He was a great aficionado of plants and flowers and frequently visited the Plantentuin, the city’s botanic garden. Once or twice a week he accompanied the friends he had made here to theatre plays by the Rhetorica society. On mondays, the plays in the Hall at the Parnassusberg were performed in Flemish (keep in mind that the bourgeois language in Ghent was French, Flemish was for peasants - note by MFBB), and Adams somehow bungled in on one occasion. It was no success. He wrote to is wife: "I did not understand anything and fell asleep. Thereafter I withdrew." Sigh, us Flemings have always had a hard time finding appreciation for our mother tongue, fighting the Frogs since well before 1302 and the Krauts already prior to 1288 and so on. Well, at least Adams did not withdraw from the negotiations.

Old Carthusian MonasteryThe American delegation stayed at Hotel Lovendeghem in the Veldstraat, the British one in a Carthusian monastery on Meerghem. It was also in this monastery that on Christmas Eve 1814, after nearly four months of negotiations, the treaty was finally signed. There are identical commemoration plaques on the façades of both buildings. I will be glad to show them to you should you ever happen to be in Ghent for touristic purposes or for signing a treaty of your own. Anyway, the hotel is a shop now, the monastery a funny farm (Psychiatric Institution Sint Jan de Deo). It’s a mad, mad world.

Please allow me to ramble on before you fall asleep. Below you see some photos I had the occasion to shoot despite continued tugging from two females intent on spending money. Mine of course, Mu Ha Ha Ha.

The row of houses on the pic below is arguably Gent's most famous street: the Graslei. The slumped forward building in roman style, the third from the right, is called "Het Spijker", literally The Nail. It dates from 1200 and was used to stock grains which were transported through Ghent (via the Leie River, Lys in English). Its façade with the brick stairs is the oldest one of its kind in the world. For a very brief period the building was even a Calvinist University! The central building, seemingly just below the clock tower, is the Guild House of the Free Masons, mind you, the fellas who put bricks on each other, not the ones you first thought of. The building looks old but isn’t. It is a reconstruction from 1912 in Brabantine Gothic. Virtually every building along the Graslei is noteworthy, you will find a brief description here.

Graslei, Ghent

Another famous sight in Ghent: below, to the left, you see the old Postal Office(now a shopping mall), in the centre the Sint-Niklaaskerk (Saint Nicholas Church), built, from the beginning of the 13th century on, in so-called Scheldt Gothic. Interesting to note is that from the very beginning this church suffered from stability problems due to architectural or construction faults. Throughout its history it was the subject of renovations, a series of important ones starting in late 19th century when the situation had become critical, not to say dangerous. The current renovation effort was started in 1960 (!) and was only in full swing by the time yours truly in vain tried to impress hot females in Ghent student clubs. In the mid-eighties, that was. In 1992 transept and choir were made accessible to the public, right now the ship is being renovated. More pics and info here.

And another must-see when passing through Ghent: the Gravensteen, a medieval water castle smack in the middle of the Old City. Originally built by Philip from Alsace, Count of Flanders, in 1180. Residence of the Counts of Flanders until the fourteenth century, after which it was first used for making coins and then, more notorious, as a prison. Don’t miss the torture chamber!!! OK, I know the fancy tools on display there will be regarded by your average Gitmo Guard specialized in Eminem and Christina Aguilera tapes with some degree of disdain, but still it is worth a peek. Visit the armory too.

When I started this post it was 2005. And I am finishing it now after watching Wedding Crashers with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson on dvd, all the while quietly slipping into 2006. I'd say the first 3/4 were quite entertaining, but the last quarter sucked. I am talking about the movie, with the year it was rather the other way round. Oh well. I can imagine there are worse means to say a year goodbye. An especially vile year at that, imho.

Anyway, I'd like to wish the readers of DowneastBlog - those of good will, mind you - and their loved ones a HEARTFELT HAPPY AND SUCCESSFUL 2006!!!


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