10 March 2015

My last look at Ghent took me to museums and gardens

My last day in Ghent, a Tuesday, had to be a part-day as I was booked on the eurostar to catch at 6pm and that meant being back in Brussels around 5pm to allow time for the connection, a cup of coffee and some contingency.

That still left me with quite a few hours to play with and rather than wander the streets again I thought that I would go and see some things and I started with the City Museum (STAM). I chose this as I have generally found city museums (i.e. those that tell the history of the city) to be interesting and not too large to be daunting.

The museum was just the other side of the waterway that I had walked along on my first day in Ghent so it was both a short walk and easy to find.

I did, however, fail to find anything that looked like a decent cafe for my breakfast so I was delighted to find one at the museum itself. The section of the modern building with tables and chairs in the picture below was the cafe/restaurant and the rest of the new building and the old one behind it were part of the museum.

There was some sun that day, unlike the day before, and so it was good to get a table next to the large window overlooking the water. It reminded me, obviously, of the canteen at West Burton Power Station.

There was a set route through the museum and the first room was dedicated to a large model and satellite photograph of the city. The photograph was on the floor (it was all of the floor and part of one wall too) and I had to put on overshoes before going into the room.

The model was in the centre of the room and showed the city centre. The photograph started where the model ended and showed the rest of the city and its immediate environs.

The tall building half way down the left side of the model is the one that I photographed in its half demolished state. Rabot is just to the right of it and the castle is in the direction of 2 o'clock just before the small triangle of water. The heart of the old city is in the middle near the top and is distinguished by several tall buildings and the open spaces around them.

In contract, the section of the photograph that I have chosen shows the docks and is heavily industrial.

I like models and I like maps so I spent a lot of time in this room. A good start.

One thing that consistently confused me was that maps of Ghent were show with west at the top and I referred to my own map several times just to check this again (and again). The unusual orientation of the maps made some sense as the layout of the city best suited a landscape view and there may have been a historical reason for the choice; maps have not always had north at the top.

The rooms were laid out chronologically and each room had its own digital map of that period with options to zoom in and read details of the landmarks.

Ghent had an interesting political history having been part of many empires and countries, Belgium gained its independence as recently as 1830. Its importance waxed and waned too and there was something of a highpoint in 1500 when Charles V, who became Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, was born there.

Most of the exhibits covered the social side of history and showed how people lived. One room that I especially liked had hundreds of posters from the early twentieth century.  I could have chosen to share one of the Marx Brothers or something in the constructivist style but the beauty of art nouveaux won the day.

The museum seemed small, just fourteen modest rooms, with not much on display but this was deceptive and it took me a long time to get around it all, and I even deliberately avoided the separate exhibition that was on.

Part of the reason that it took so long to get around was because there were videos to watch and things to play with (as well as the interactive maps). One of my favourite toys was the virtual tour of an exhibition site. It covered a large area and the virtual tour went well beyond the gates. I had a happy time navigating out and then trying to find my way back to the centre again.

I was tempted to play with the Lego on the way out too but I was running short on time for the rough plan I had for the day. The next stage in that plan was to return to the museum cafe for a late lunch and a rest.

After lunch I walked east across the city to Citadelpark because I like parks and I had not been to one in Ghent yet.

I entered at the north-west corner and walked anti-clockwise, which was something of a mistake as the museum of modern art (S.M.A.K.) that I was looking for  was just a short distance away walking clockwise. I walked all the way around the park, which was a good thing to do, and then decided that I did not have enough time to see another museum, especially one that charged a noticeable entrance fee. If it had been free I would gave gone in for half an hour or so.

Instead I went to the botanical gardens situated next to the park on its south-east corner.

The botanical gardens were very modest when compared to Kew, as most botanical gardens that I have been to are, which was fine as I did not have that much time left before catching my train. It did have some nice greenhouses to walk through and so that is what I did.

It almost felt as if I was not meant to be there, despite all the welcoming signs saying the opposite, as there were so few people there and almost everybody else that I saw was working there. The advantage of the quietness was that I was able to take lots of photographs without having to worry about people spoiling them with their colourful clothes, something that is a persistent problem in Kew.

From the gardens it was a short walk back to Ghent station, via my hotel to collect my bag. The travel from there was easy and uneventful, not least because I had bought a eurostar ticket to/from any Belgian station. I even had time for one last coffee in the rather lovely cafe in Ghent station (the one next to Starbucks).

Ghent had surprised me and in a good way. I had thought that it might struggle to entertain me for the best part of four days and that I might have to seek pleasures in Antwerp but Ghent delivered the goods.

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