Ghent, Gent, Gand, whatever you call this city, one thing is certain, this city is a great place to visit and quite possibly Europe’s best-kept secret. Travellers heading to Belgium for a short break usually head to Brussels (Belgium’s capital city) or Bruges, which is a small and very charming chocolate box city around 45 minutes from Ghent but judging by most of the people I spoke to about my upcoming trip to Ghent, it would normally be followed by the question “Where’s that?”.
Having already visited Bruges in August 2018 and had a great time, my family and I decided to spend another long weekend in Belgium, this time visiting this beautiful medieval city. As we live in the South East of England, Belgium is such a convenient place to visit as it’s only a short drive to the Channel crossing and around 90 minutes’ drive once we had crossed the English Channel. In total, a 4-hour door to door journey. Not too bad at all.
If you missed my “On Location” post covering a previous trip to Bruges I took in 2018, you can find it here: On Location Photographing Bruges.
What photography equipment did I take to Ghent?
This is a photography blog after all. Not long before heading to Ghent, I had retired my Fujifilm X-T10 and purchased the X-T30 as my lightweight alternative to the XT2 workhorse I tend to use on shoots. On this trip, I took both cameras but I only used the XT2 once during a sunrise shoot and used my X-T30 during the day as I thought it would be a good opportunity to really get to know the camera and put it through its paces. Although I didn’t take all of the gear out with me each day, below is the list of kit I took on the trip:
Fujifilm X-T30 Body
Fujifilm XT2 Body
I mentioned above that I had recently retired my X-T10. In fact, I do still have it and one of my daughters decided to use it as her main camera while we were in Ghent. She shot with the 35mm F2 lens on the camera and came away with some fantastic photos of her own.
A little bit about Ghent
Ghent is a port city in the north-west and Flemish region of Belgium situated about an hour’s drive from Brussels and 45 minutes to Bruges. Dating back to around the 7th Century when it’s first two Abbeys were founded, the city flourished to the point that in the 13th Century, it was Europe’s second-largest city north of the Alps, second only to Paris. Now a university city boasting museums, churches and a charming stretch of river, this city has a great mix of historic and modern cultures.
Instead of documenting our trip chronologically, in this post, I will cover some of the places we visited with some photos and useful information along the way.
Gravensteen Medieval Castle
First up is this charming but brutal looking Gravensteen Castle located along the River Lieve. Also known as the “Castle of the Count”, this 12th century stone castle has all of the usual medieval features you would expect such as a moat, turrets and arrow slits. Built originally as a fortress, over the years it has been used as a courthouse, prison and strangely, even a cotton factory.
If you decide to venture inside the castle, you will find the inside rather bare so I recommend the audio tour. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and a little lengthy so allow extra time as you wander the castle but it is the best way to learn all about its history.
Rooftop views of Ghent from Gravensteen Castle
We visited the roof of the castle which provides some great rooftop views of the city. As you can see below, I used some of the arrow slits to frame some of the city’s other buildings.
Along the River Leie (Lys)
Ghent’s city centre is located along the River Leie and it is such a charming stretch of river and between St Michael’s Bridge and Grasbrug, it is particularly popular with the best of the chocolate box architecture. As we wandered around the city, we really enjoyed walking along both the River Leie and offshoot stretch of water names River Lieve (indeed the names are incredibly similar). Parts of the river had a kind of Amsterdam feel with colourful flower baskets and bikes leaning up against the rails.
Using the Fujifilm X-T30 as a travel camera
As we wandered around, I was glad I chose the Fuji X-T30 as my “walkabout” camera. This small camera that packs quite a punch was equipped with the standard zoom 18-55mm lens which, when combined, felt nice and light whilst capturing some super sharp images. I also had an incredibly light backpack as I decided to only take one other lens with me from the hotel. Using the X-T30 takes so much friction out of the photography process as the tactile controls and manual dials mean I can compose and adjust settings really quickly. With Fujifilm really upping their focus game with this camera, taking photos while walking about was nice and easy and my family didn’t have to stop too often while I was taking photos.
Take a river boat ride in Ghent
Riverboat rides are popular in most cities and in Ghent it is no different. Our 45-minute boat trip took us along both stretches of the river (Leie and Lieve) and as we went along, the guide gave us some really good information about the history of the city. Compared to other cities, the ride was quite inexpensive and if you decide to buy the City Card (which I recommend for adults), you get a boat ride included in the fee.
Saint Michael’s Bridge and Saint Michael's Church
The building of St. Michael’s Church started around 1440 and continued into the 16th century whereby 1566 two levels of the tower were completed. Due to religious conflicts, construction stopped until the 17th Century when in 1623 building restarted to repair and complete the tower. Although a design for the tower was proposed, funds dried up and the tower was never built leaving an odd-looking flat roof where the tower should be. I took a photo of the church from atop the Belfry of Ghent which you can see below showing the church and its flat-roofed tower. To me, it doesn’t look right at all as I am used to these types of religious buildings having impressively tall spires and not at all flat roofs.
Built-in 1910, the neo-gothic St. Michael’s Bridge is probably the most popular bridge in Ghent. Providing great views of this beautiful stretch of river as well as an iconic view of Ghent’s three towers, it’s arguably the best vantage point in the city. I cover the three towers further on in this blog.
St. Nicholas' Church (Sint-Niklaaskerk)
I mentioned above that Ghent has three towers that dominate the city skyline and St. Nicholas’ Church has one of them. This is the first church we ventured into as when we travel, we like to experience both the external and internal architectural details historic buildings like this have to offer. It was also a good opportunity to put my X-T30 through its low-light paces. More on that below.
In the early 13th century, the building of this gothic church was started and continued throughout the remainder of the century. It also houses an impressive and quite famous organ built by the French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. There is a photo of the organ below and although I wasn’t aware at the time of its importance, I certainly remember how striking it was when I saw it at the time.
While wandering inside the church photographing the ornate details and impressive architecture, it gave me an opportunity to test the low-light capabilities of the X-T30 camera. Using both the optical stabilisation in the XF18-55 lens and increasing the ISO, I was able to keep my shutter speed high enough to avoid blur whilst handholding the camera and retaining enough quality in the image. I would regularly up the ISO to 1600 or even 3200 and the photos still had low noise levels and were really quite good.
Belfry of Ghent (Het Belfort van Gent)
The second of the “Three Towers” I will feature in this article is the Belfry of Ghent which is the middle of the three towers in the photo below. It’s a 91-meter tall medieval tower constructed in the 14th century. Over the years, the Belfry was used as a lookout tower and more famously, the city’s bell tower that kept time for the locals for many years.
We climbed the tower, well, I say we climbed but we got the lift when we were about halfway up due to some little legs getting tired. As we climbed there were a few rooms to both rest and learn about the tower’s history. I took a few photos of the bells as we climbed but the real treat was when we arrived at the top of the tower. The views! You can take some great rooftop photos of the city including a nice view of the St. Nicholas' Church from the rear which you can see in one of the photos below.
One word of warning. It is single file around the top of the bell tower so there is not a lot of time to take photos before you feel compelled to move forward to avoid holding other people up. If you want to spend some time up there, you may have to walk around the top a few times to get all the shots you want.
Saint Bavo Cathedral (Sint Baafskathedraal)
Last but not least of the Three Towers is Saint Bavo’s Cathedral which stands just two metres shorter than the Belfry of Ghent I wrote about in the previous chapter. Although construction began on this gothic church in 1274, subsequent construction projects took place throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.
Personally, I thought this church has the most impressive interior of those we visited. The ceiling and alter alone are just beautiful. I really enjoyed walking around playing with the tactile knobs and dials on my X-T30 camera locking in the settings needed to take pictures in the low light conditions. Again, I was really happy with how this powerful little camera performed.
..and finally, the beer, trams and chocolate!
No visit to Ghent could be complete without visiting the many chocolate shops and drinking the local beer. We had some frequent pit-stops as we wandered around and the local beer went down a treat. If you ever visit Ghent, try the Leffe Blond. It’s my favourite and can also be purchased in the major UK supermarkets in the craft beer aisle.
As far as our kids were concerned, visiting the chocolate shops was probably their favourite part of the trip. They liked to wander into the shop in hope that they would be handing out samples. Of course, once we had tried every type of chocolate on offer, we had to buy some!! It was delicious!
While in the chocolate shops, I opened up the aperture on the camera as far as I could which allowed me to capture sharp images handheld in the low light and provided some nice bokeh too!
Getting around on the trams is super easy and, in my opinion, more comfortable than the buses and taxis. It’s also free to travel on public transport when you purchase a Ghent Citycard making it both convenient and cheap!
I’m really pleased I took my Fujifilm X-T30, as this small, lightweight powerhouse of a camera never missed a beat and took some great quality photos. That coupled with the analogue buttons and dials I find so useful when changing settings on the fly, I was able to focus on taking photos rather than constantly fiddling with the camera’s menu. Battery life seems to improve as mirrorless camera technology moves forward and I was able to last almost all day on a single charge but I had a few spares just in case.
Why you should visit Ghent
Hopefully, you got a good taste of what Ghent has to offer from this article but it’s by no means complete. In the few days, we had to spend in this city, we saw and did enough to feel satisfied we had gotten under the skin of the city and didn’t leave feeling we missed out but there were, however, many other places to visit I didn’t cover such as the art museums and city parks but this time round we didn’t have enough time to get to them all. Maybe that’s a good excuse for another visit in the not too distant future!
On a final note, I mentioned earlier in this article, I had my Fujifilm XT2 with me while in Ghent and used it for an early morning sunrise shoot which I will be sharing soon in a followup post in the next couple of weeks so stay tuned for that. Alternatively, signup to be notified of all website updates here.