The castles and palaces of the Low Countries are extremely numerous, and no place in Europe has less standardized architectural styles than this region. Influenced by the French, Germans, English and Scandinavians, Benelux enjoys a wide variety of some of the most beautiful castles in Europe. If there is one stylistic factor common to region was the tendency to build castles in the middle of lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. There are many such water castles throughout the Low Countries, the most dramatic of which is Gravensteen Castle in Ghent, Belgium. Gravensteen, one of the oldest intact castles in Belgium, is an integral part of the history and skyline of Ghent, and one of the most visited sites in the Low Countries.
After the death of Charlemagne, Belgium and the other Low Countries were incorporated into the short-lived Central Kingdom. Soon afterwards this kingdom collapsed, and most of the local area broke apart into a succession of tiny feudal states nominally under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire and France. Ghent, the region’s largest city and capital of the province of Flanders, soon became a local power and eventually chief city of the region. Located in the geographic heart of Northern Europe, neutral Ghent became a major trading center for the Germans, French and English. By the 11th century it was one of the largest cities on the continent.
Ghent was the seat of the County of Flanders, but it lacked an aristocratic residence that reflected the region’s political importance and wealth. When Count Philip returned to Ghent from the Second Crusade, he immediately set about rectifying the situation. Adapting the architectural style of the castles he had become familiar with in the deserts of the Holy Land to the watery landscape of Belgium, he designed and built Gravensteen Castle towards the end of the 12th century.
Gravensteen remained the residence of the Counts of Flanders for the next two centuries. When they moved out in the 14th century, the practical citizens of Ghent put the castle to good use. For years it housed governmental offices as well as the city’s court and prison. Ghent and Gravensteen were ravaged during the Thirty Year’s War, at which time the castle was abandoned and frequently used as a stone quarry. Later, during the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution, Ghent became one of Europe’s chief manufacturing centers. Desparate for space, Gravensteen Castle got a reprieve when it was pressed into service as a textile factory.
By the 1800s, Gravensteen had been substantially reduced due to years of war and neglect. However, the good citizens of Ghent again came to their castle’s rescue. Shortly before it was to be demolished, what was left of the castle was publicly acquired and subsequently fully restored. Even sections that were long gone, including substantial portions of the keep, were replaced. It is now only threatened by the hordes of tourists who visit every year.
Gravensteen Castle is one of Europe’s most traditional castles in appearance. Fairly compact, Gravensteen is built on a small piece of land that juts out into the Leie Canal, giving the castle the appearance that it is floating on water. The outer walls are the castle’s most unique feature. Unlike most castles, whose walls tend to be of the flat curtain type with round or square towers placed at intervals, Gravensteen’s walls have exterior supports, with turrets not rising from the water but jutting out over it.
Entrance to the castle is through the heavily fortified gatehouse. Strangely, the main gate opens directly onto one of the city’s sidewalks, almost as if it were just a run-of-the-mill city building. This is extremely rare, considering that normally the main gate would be protected by a moat and drawbridge. Inside the gate is a traditional courtyard that provides access to the castle’s inner precincts. The interior of the castle is well preserved. However, this mostly dates from the 19th century rebuilding. Nevertheless the attempt was good, and most of the interior rooms appear today as they would have during the Middle Ages if the Counts of Flanders had had access to modern architects. Gravensteen’s historical highlight is its dungeon and torture chamber.
Gravensteen Castle is located on the edge of Ghent’s Old City, about 30 miles west of Brussels. It is open daily except on December 24, 25, 31 and January 1. From April to September the castle is open from 9:00am-6:00pm; and from October to March from 9:00am-5:00pm. Admission is E6.00 for adults (discounts for students, senior citizens and handicapped). Children 12 and under are free. Web: www.gravensteengent.be (official website).
Highlights among castles in the Low Countries are the watertop structures of Bouchot Castle, Ooidonk Castle, Crupet Castle and Wijnendale Castle, to name a few. Also of particular interest is Modave Castle, which has an architectural split personality. Built on the edge of a heavily forested landfall, the front of Modave appears like a Renaissance Era Chateau of the Loire. From the rear, it appears more like a medieval mountaintop fortress. Belgium is also home to Fort Eben Emael, considered the strongest fortress in Europe at the outset of World War II. It capitulated to a Nazi airborne assault in just over a day. Also nearby are Beersel Castle, Bouillon Castle, Doornenburg Castle and the grimly named Muiderslot.