AND SOME FREE–ASSOCIATION
“Here hides one of Europe’s finest panoramas of water, spires and centuries-old grand houses. And it seems the Belgians forgot to tell anyone.” — The Lonely Planet
by Kelly Sargent
GO TO Ghent. Don't stay where we stayed.
You've heard the saying, "It's not the elevation; it's the relief." Relief, as in the difference from one level to the next — an aphorism cited as an entirely rational basis for fear of heights or flying. It is, after all, the drop, not the height that will kill you.
And that's what's wrong with the Charme Hotel Hancelot. It was the difference between what we were led to believe existed versus what it actually is. The photos on their website make it look amazing! And it could be, but it isn't. It's sad and shabby.
It was no doubt a once-grand residence. Our guess is that whoever bought the building ran out of money to properly restore and rehabilitate it and are trying to cash flow it. What work has been done is shoddy. I had a sinking feeling when we walked up to the front door with it's dings and scratches and chipped paint.
I'm reluctant to show you a picture of our room because you'll inevitably think, "C'mon!! It's gorgeous!" But let me just say this: if as much care had been put into the property as was given over to making the photographs, we wouldn't have been disappointed.
The parquet floor in our room groaned and screamed wherever and whenever we walked. The fabric whatever-you-call-it on the wall behind the bed is ripped. One of the window drapes has detached itself from the rod part way along and hangs forlornly. The mattress was awful; the bed pillows are so over-stuffed and hard that our necks are still strained.
The radiator is in such dire need of being bled that it popped and cracked all night long. The space heater provided for our use stopped working after about 15 seconds and wouldn't go again. We were looking forward to using the advertised and pictured-on-the-website sauna. Out of commission.
But the worst thing of all was the utter and complete lack of soundproofing. The din of people talking and clomping as they tromped up and down the two wooden staircases — one that led to our room in the front, and one in back — was sleep-interuptingly loud. Exponentially worse: we could hear all of the bodily functions (and I do mean all) of the guy staying next door.
The only thing they did well was provide a generous, high-quality buffet breakfast. I think they want to make this a wonderful place, but it isn't, and to advertise it as such is dishonest.
Sorry. I had to get that off my chest because it was such a disappointment. And so I repeat: definitely go to Ghent. Definitely do not stay at Charme Hotel Hancelot.
But on to the wonders of Ghent. It's a medieval dream. Even though we were there three nights, we only had one day to explore Ghent itself because we had other day-trip destinations planned. It wasn't nearly enough time, but we still managed to take so many photographs that I'm going to split Ghent into multiple posts.
This first post is devoted solely to Saint Bavo's Cathedral . . . that and, apparently, complaining about where we stayed.
This 292-feet-tall Gothic cathedral was built on the site of the former Chapel of Saint John the Baptist and consecrated in 942. Some traces of the original structure remain. A hundred years later it was expanded in the Romanesque style, and from the 14th through the 16th centuries, nearly constant Gothic-style expansion occurred. Construction was considered complete in 1569.
Here's an interesting tidbit about Saint Bavo's. If you saw the 2014 movie The Monuments Men, you may remember that the semi-historical, but highly-fictionalized plot centers around a group of World War II Allied soldiers who have been given the task of finding and saving pieces of art before the Nazis plundered them.
One of them was a large, 12-panel altarpiece called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, painted in 1432 by brothers Hubrecht (Hubert) and Jan van Eyck. Considered a masterpiece of European art and one of the world's treasures, it was one of the first painted altar pieces in North and Western Europe. Until then, altar pieces were woodcuts.
The real history of the altar piece is more intrigue-rich than the fakey movie. The panels that make up what is popularly known as The Lamb of God were endangered during outbreaks of iconoclasm and some were damaged by fire. At times panels were sold. A number of panels were taken by the German occupying forces during World War I, but were later returned to Saint Bavo's Cathedral.
In 1934 two panels were stolen. The Saint John the Baptist panel was returned soon after, but The Just Judges panel is still missing. In 1945, the altarpiece was returned from Germany after spending much of World War II hidden in a salt mine which greatly damaged the paint and varnish. The Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken produced a copy of The Just Judges, as part of an overall restoration effort. (Thanks Wikipedia for background that I couldn't memorize from the audio tour we took.)
This revered altar piece resides in the Vyd Chapel in Saint Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, and we got to see it in person.
Before I take you on a tour, I'd like to say that although Saint Bavo's is a breathtaking masterpiece, I never enter any edifice such as this one is without being cognizant of two things: first that so much bloodshed has occurred in the name of religion and secondly, that magnificent structures of this era, perhaps all eras, have inevitably been built on the backs, and at the expense, of the poor.
Paul Bridson and Kelly Sargent
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