GHENT – OMG! Van Eyck Was Here.
In 2020, Ghent is honoring its greatest Flemish Master, Jan Van Eyck. Over one hundred events had been planned to celebrate the year till the pandemic came to stir the culinary & cultural pot.
With restaurants and bars closed in the entire country, Belgium, till November 15th ’20, the outdoor “OMG! Seven Senses tour” offered a welcome escape.
My mom & I took the train from Aarschot to Ghent via Leuven and arrived just in time at the meeting point from where to start the tour.
This unique sensory walking tour starts in the Council Cellar, located directly underneath the Belfry and forms the basement for the Cloth Hall. This is the place where we pick up our map. In times of corona we love the fact one can make the tour at his/her own pace. Make a choice from the different locations and create our own tour. Or make it easy on ourselves and follow the route that is suggested. We opt for a combination of the two. At each of the locations, we’re promised to enjoy a sensory experience and to be welcomed by a guide, who will tell us all we need to know about the location and the experience.
First Stop: the Achtersikkel
It’s 13:15h when we leave the Council Cellar and head for our first stop, the ‘Achtersikkel’.
The Achtersikkel (Biezekapelstraat), together with the Grote Sikkel (Hoogpoort) and the Kleine Sikkel (Hoogpoort), are part of a “stone” belonging to the patrician family “Van der Zickelen”. Sources go back to 1290.
Due to an inheritance in 1531, the building was split up, whereby the Achtersikkel served as a refugee house after it had been purchased by the Abbey of Eename in 1573. Subsequently, it was sold as a national property in 1797 and housed the Masonic Lodge since 1848. Between 1900 and 1908 the building underwent a thorough renovation after which the music conservatory was housed there.
Over the years, the Achtersikkel has undergone various expansions. For example, the round stair tower in sand-lime stone ( see photo above ) was built in the 15th century together with the adjacent chapel. The eight-sided belvédère in Renaissance style was founded in 1566. During the 16th century, the sand and brick style wing with the stone arcade was added. The tower room was even equipped with a lift for goods. The four points of the compass can be admired through the windows.
We are promised a ‘tough climb’ up the narrow staircase whilst listening to ancient music on the lowest levels to the noises of modern daily life once we reach the top of the tower. The view is breathtaking even on an ordinary grey typical Belgian Autumn day. Our guide tells us the water well, the tower and the use of red brick are a sign of the wealth of the family Van der Zickelen.
Upon leaving the building (which I had never seen before), we turn left to reach the Hoogpoort in search of the 15 ‘hidden’ figures by Spanish artist Isaac Cordal.
Isaac Cordal was inspired for his figurines by Adam and Eve. The distance that separates them on the Mystic Lamb intrigued him. A distance that he believes is reflected in today’s society, a patriarchy disguised as an unrecognizable paradise.
Cordal thought about what our lives would be like if we were descended from Lilith – the first wife of Adam according to mythology – instead of Eve. The Spanish artist wanted to create a representation of Adam and Eve that is related to the passage of time. To show how they age, how sin evolved (the apple turned into a smartphone) with virtual reality as a confirmation of that distance. Left to their own devices in the urban jungle.
Did he know covid-19 would further divide us?
We stroll to the Schepenhuisstraat to meet another ‘Adam’, standing above the one & only cat adoption cafe in Ghent.
What is a cat café? The cat café concept originated in Japan. People in Japan often live in high-rise apartment blocks where pets are’t permitted. That’s why someone came up with the unique idea to open a café filled with free-roaming cats for those who couldn’t have their own at home.
By allowing visitors to ‘rent’ time with a cat, cat cafés give everyone the chance to enjoy kitty cuddles and playtime. The idea inspired the people behind DreamCATchers . It’s a wonderful place where, in times of non-covid, go for coffee & quality cat time.
With a heart for wood, Belgian artist Stefaan De Crook, alias Strook, did a dual anonymous ‘Portrait of a Human Being’ partly made with the wood that has been recovered during the restoration of the Saint Baafs cathedral.
The Seven Senses Tour ends with a 30 – minute boat ride. I am so happy to have the same boat guide as 5 years ago when I visited Ghent with my daughter ahead of our departure from Belgium. On the rear facade of the Kuiperskaai 14, the Argentinian Francisco Diaz Scotto, better known as Pastel, painted this colorful work , ‘Pilgrims Pot‘, a clear reference to the landscapes and floral splendor on the Ghent Altarpiece.
Wherever I go, Argentina never seems far away.
If hunger where a sense, I plead guilty. With all bars & restaurants closed in times of covid, my mom had brought her sandwiches & cheese. Not even half way our tour, we couldn’t ‘land’ better than on the white wooden bench outside of Mie & Vie, a vegan lunch place with an eye for ecology and health. With bread forbidden food for me, I was in heaven with my hummus & quinoa salad overlooking the picturesque Serpentsstraat with its wonderful & unique boutiques. A shopping street I highly recommend.
The Saturday Market on the Friday market square !
This is surrealism at its best. Vendors are wrapping up their merchandise at the end of the Saturday market held at … the Friday Market square, or “Vrijdagmarkt”. Leaving the market on our left we reach the St. Jacobs church for more surreal art. More sinn and Adam & Eve from a different artist on display here.
This is not your ordinary visit to a city. The experience exceeds by far mine & my mom’s expectations and little do we know the best is still to come.
Our next stop is the ‘Groot Vleeshuis’ in Ghent, a former covered market and guild house. Meat sales were centralized in meat halls or meat houses in the Middle Ages to control meat sales. The home sale of meat was prohibited. Every medieval city had one or more meat houses.
Our guide draws our attention to the huge boat shaped ceiling of this immense building. And indeed, the wooden construction has been built by boat makers. The reconstruction had to be done during the 40 days of Fasting, the only period when meat consumption was forbidden.
The ‘Groot Vleeshuis’ houses a Gothic mural in the chapel, dated 1448, commissioned by Jacob de Ketelboetere. This mural had been hidden for centuries until it was discovered ‘by accident’ during a renovation.
Ghent is better than a postcard !
With bars & restaurants closed all over the country, we are delighted with so much life in this modern medieval city. The absence of loud Americans, superficial Asian tourists, or mass tourism in general is the best prescription for an authentic ‘Ghent experience’. Maybe after covid, we’ll never have this chance again.
The historical centre is so well kept, the shop windows eye-teasing. I realize how much of a social being we really are. We stumble upon a tiny little store still selling ‘old sweets’, many I recall from my childhood.
None of this would be possible in ‘normal’ times. We’re only eight in a boat that normally carries well over 25 passengers. Stores are open but nearly empty, there is life on the streets but one can breath.
The Seven Senses Tour is a true feast for the senses: Smell, touch, taste, hearing, sight, enhancing your sixth sense and movement: all seven are covered on the tour!
You’ll need good walking shoes and an umbrella. We luckily escaped the rain and had it been so, nothing could have destroyed this amazing day!
Van Eyck year extended til spring 2021
The corona crisis has also hit the Van Eyck year hard. Many events and activities unfortunately have been suspended or postponed. The theme year ‘OMG! Van Eyck was here’ is therefore extended by six months.
To avoid losing the program that should have made 2020 a festive year, the Van Eyck year is extended until June 24, 2021 with the Saint John’s Day as the closing event. This gives you the opportunity to still enjoy the many fantastic projects and activities as planned.
And even when the Van Eyck year will be over, Ghent gives you a thousand & more reasons to come & visit. And maybe, hopefully, you’ll find some inspiration here.
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