The 172nd edition of the Ghent Festival (Ghent, Belgium) started with a bang this year. AA Gent, the local football team, not only became champion in the Belgian professional football league but on Thursday evening, they also won the Belgian Supercup. For the true Gentenaar, those who live here, the party started early!
Through the ages, Ghent has been a city built on the pillars of rebellion and anarchy. It has slowly become a worldly university city that –unlike overly touristy Bruges– still belongs to the locals. It’s one of the most beautiful historic cities in the world. In my opinion. I admit the statement is slightly biased because I was born here. I spent half my childhood summers roaming the streets, climbing the ramparts of the castle, and fantasizing about what it must have been like a thousand years ago.
The Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festival), first held in 1843, is a 10-day affair celebrating the medieval and cultural spirit of the city. Every year in July, the people of Ghent invite the noise and burden of 2 million guests in the house, but they are more than anything active participants.
When the Town Crier announces the party is in progress and wishes everybody a good time, beyond the centuries old facades, a multitude of cultural happenings ignites. Puppeteers string their paper-mache charges, plays are performed in the local dialect, families and children are led on educational but adventurous quests through their own city. Breakfasts of local delicacies like Mastellen (a type of yeast roll with cinnamon), Ganda Ham (salty cured ham) or Gentsche Kop (pork headcheese) are served with vivacious Tierentyn mustard.In Flemish, a festival is a festival, but a party … is a party. Feesten, means ‘to party’. Many a tourist has arrived here unaware of the event, disappointed that much of what they came to discover is hidden behind pop-up structures and stages. But wandering among the quaintest of all that is medieval, it isn’t long before they become seduced by the lively ambiance and decide to stay until the wee hours.
In the evenings, favorite cafes are filled to the brim with visitors and with local people intent on having a good time. I know from working as a waitress at the festival years ago, that some save their pennies year-round just for this purpose. I can’t fault them for it. A ten-day ‘staycation’ in this atmosphere can only feel like a punishment when the weather is cold, and it rains cats and dogs. Part of what makes this festival great, is the people that attend it.
You can always tell when it’s a good year! As dedicated garbage men sweep away evidence of the night before, the city’s cobbles carry the pungent odor of beer and urine. Gross, I know. But in essence it’s the true sign of a successful party.
After sultry summer evenings, an early morning errand can be a real adventure. Some years back, my mother walked by a man peeing into someone’s corridor through the mailbox slot. When she asked him if he could manage okay, he replied a jolly “Yes, m’am no problem!” It was a moment among two native Gentenaars in which he probably found it as normal to do that as my mother wasn’t surprised
The festival has become a mass occasion. It’s organized into minute detail by a small army of people, and each year sees very cool new events by international theater troupes. A few years ago I was lucky to see In-Senso, a magnificent contemporary dance group from France, perform a breathtaking ballet aptly described on their website as ‘aerial poetry’, against the facade of the beautiful Belfry tower. I don’t have good pictures of this blog has several.
My travel tip for a family oriented experience would be first to walk around. But also check the schedule for a unique guided tour of the city, such as a ‘sneukel toer’, a walking tour which will not only bring you to Ghent’s most unique locations but includes the tasting local delicacies along the way. These tours are not free but they are inexpensive. Reservations are recommended. Also interesting is a dinner tour or a boat tour on the river Leie.
If you want to experience medieval heritage as the backdrop for what’s been deemed one of the biggest and coolest cultural festivals in Europe, my advice would be to get out of your shell and meet some fiery locals who can show you the good spots for where to party like a true Gensche Fieste connoisseur.
The best news is that outside of food, drink, fair rides, and cultural stuff like theater events, most of this vibrant street festival, including ten stages of live music is free of charge.
The Ghent Festival, this year from the 17th through the 26th of July.
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