I have always loved the rich histories of the European cities I’ve traveled to; this is largely due to the fact that given the short tenure of America’s existence, “old” where I come from doesn’t mean quite the same as it does here.
So I was surprised when I arrived in Ghent and found out just how old it is, which is really really old. As in Middle Ages old. Of course, the Middle Ages cover a span of many many centuries, but Ghent first got started back around the 4th and 5th centuries, suffered some destruction and plundering at the hands of the Vikings, and then began to reestablish itself as a city–and one bigger than Cologne, London, or even Moscow, at that–in the 11th century. In short.
Gravensteen itself dates back to the end of the 12th century, or more specifically, 1180. During the Crusades, Philip I, Count of Flanders, fought in the Second Crusade (1145-1149), and while he failed to impose his religion on all the peoples of the world, he did manage to take something from it: architectural inspiration. As a result, Gravensteen was built on the site of a former castle.
The facade of this building is intense, as its basically a giant medieval castle against the backdrop of a city that also has a lot of buildings in an old style, but many others that are more modern. It was used as the seat of the various counts for years and years (until the 14th century), then turned into a courthouse and then a prison.
Eventually it began to fall into disrepair, which is when Ghent stepped up (in 1885) and decided to renovate it. Of course, the natives in Ghent will tell you all the updates mean its not all that authentic, but still, it is admittedly an impressive site to behold.
Visitors can now walk through on a tour of the castle, both inside and out. In addition to an overview of the history, it also houses a torture museum, which is partly cool and partly strange. Overall, the place held a bit of a kitsch-y resemblance to Medieval Times, but it was still cool to check out. And the views over the city are, hands-down, some of the best.