In 1843, the city government of the ancient Belgian city of Ghent decided that there were just too many separate festivities spread across its territory. “Let’s blend them all together in one big municipal party,” they decided, and thus the Gentse Feesten, or “The Feasts of Ghent”, was born.
Little did they then know at the time, but the event would grow to be one of the biggest open-air city festivals in the world, each year welcoming over a million unique visitors in ten days. The way the city combines its ancient architecture and respect for traditions with modern ways of entertainment is unlike anything else in the world.
Feasting in Ghent is a must for any foreigner visiting Belgium in July. And we are happy to guide you through it with these ten suggestions.
Procession of Noose Bearers
To this day, Ghent is home to people who don’t really like to be bossed around or told what to do. King Charles V, a Ghent-born Roman Emperor, already got a taste of that in 1540, having to fight of the Ghent Revolt. To punish the leaders of that revolt, he wanted to put them to shame by making them walk through the city center wearing nothing but a white robe and a noose around their neck.
Unsurprisingly, and very typical for the people of Ghent, they held their chin up high and turned a negative into something positive, a punishment into something honorable. The walk of shame became a symbol for not accepting tyranny.
Therefore, every year to this day, a procession of noose bearers still walks through the city center in the same way they did centuries ago, which is an unmistakable sight to be seen. Furthermore, if you have lived in Ghent your whole life, you get the privilege to wear a noose throughout the entire ten days. So no need to fear, it’s just another day during ‘The Feasts of Ghent’.
With the same respect for tradition, another ancient classic you should attend is the costume ball where bourgeoisie (middle class) mix with people from the proletariat (working class) and have a nice uniting party. Of course, even though this is how it originated back in 1900, it is not really what happens today. These days, it’s just an excuse to wear the kind of outrages outfits that often may be frowned upon for.
Boating the Internal Waters
What better way to discover the medieval center of Ghent than from a boat? Several companies offer several trips throughout the whole year, but during the Feasts, when the city is beautifully decorated, they all up their capacity. Anything from a 15-minute hop on hop off ride to a 2.5-hour beer discovery tour… There’s just no reason not to get on the water.
Celebrate Belgium With Fireworks
Belgium celebrates its national holiday on July 21st, and there is no way Ghent would let that pass without decent fireworks. Although it hasn’t been organized on the actual holiday for a few years now, t20-minuteute spectacle still will let no one leave without at least one massive “wow”. That’s because it is more than just fireworks. It is a full visual experience, accompanied by laser- and other lights and enlivened with some of Belgium’s finest live music. And for whatever reason, it just never rains on this particular evening.
Circus and Arts in Public Space
Spread all across Ghent, visitors of the Feasts will see artist performing the most diverse acts in the most diverse settings. On one corner, you will find some of the best living statues or magicians in the world, whereas on the next corner, you will find Ghent’s finest breakdance crew or some acrobat performing the most frightening stunts – swallowing swords or juggling fire and chainsaws, anyone?
If this all sounds a tad too amateurish for you, the Feasts of Ghent are also home to somewhat more professional street theaters, such as MiramirO, specialized in organizing public space theaters. However, you have to be open to some experimental stuff. For example, one of their acts in 2015 was a dance performance of a man with a construction crane… Exactly.
And please allow us to also advise a visit to the International Puppetbuskerfestival, where some of the world’s best puppetry players gather. Because, as you must know when you visit Ghent, it is the city of Pierke Pierlala – Google the guy!
Coziness at Baudelopark or Vlasmarkt
During the Feasts, Ghent lives and breathes brotherhood, reconciliation and friendship. Be ready for long, possibly drunk talks with friends from back in the day, or with people you have never met in your life. There are two specific spots you would want to visit if this sounds somewhat appealing to you: Baudelopark and Vlasmarkt. Bring your own stuff, or buy your food and drinks in one of many trucks, listen to live folk music or listen to dj’s, and stay up until at least 5 A.M.. You can’t call your Feasts a success if you haven’t seen the sun rise at least once.
Bizarness at Bataclan
Bataclan is probably the most bizarre thing you can see in Ghent. Therefore, you must. Be prepared for things that just don’t make sense. Some examples? Last year, you could visit an exhibition of relics of art objects that were left unused while making pieces of art. Or an exhibition of spaceships that never made it to space*.
Another thing you could have volunteered to do, is perform in the last mobile peep show in Belgium, or you could spend the night in a glass container in the middle of Bataclan. And a few years ago, people could have a talk with a guy who tried – and eventually failed – to break the world record of being buried alive.
* The authenticity of these objects is subject to interpretation.
Cheering For Buffalos
A true inhabitant of Ghent, is a Buffalo. A what? It’s the nickname of the soccer team, who happened to win last year’s national football competition. So let it be no surprise that when the team is presented, a yearly tradition that takes place during the Feasts on the city’s largest square, it is an blue white ocean of partying people. Suddenly, everyone is a Buffalo.
Party at Polé Polé, KLANKFEST or Ghent Jazz
Of course, when you’re looking for real parties, the Feasts of Ghent have a few other things to offer too. For example, if you are into cocktails and exotic, afro-latino dancing music, Polé Polé is where you should be going. And, honestly, when the weather is right, who isn’t into cocktails and exotic music?
One of the most ancient areas of the center of Ghent is decorated with a variety of colorful lights and you can sip your beverage at bars and on terraces that actually seem to be floating above the river water. You will feel like you’re a Puerto Rican in no time.
But if you are not up for that, because you are more of a beats kind of person, there’s no need to flee the city. Just go to the nine day long successor of what was once known as the legendary 10 Days Off festival; KLANKFEST. Non stop head-banging and sweats in a concert hall called Vooruit – “not for pussies”, as they announced last year’s debut.
And if you find you are too
old mature for things like that, you can always slow it down at the ancient Bijloke-site, for some Ghent Jazz. Not just your average jazz festival, but luring some major artists to perform year after year. For example, over the past years, artists such as Toots Thielemans, BB King, Elvis Costello, Trixie Whitley and Norah Jones took the stage.
Want to close it all off with midnight bumper car rides and donuts? Why not. Go to the fair on the Friday Market.
So there you have it. 10 reasons why you should visit The Feasts of Ghent. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning again and again throughout your lifetime.
All photos by Stad Gent and used with permission.