Medieval Tourism With Amy, or, the Worst Curated Castle I Have Ever Met

Because I have some kind of nonsensical compulsion that drives me to spend my birthday in places even colder, more northerly, and damper than Geneva,1 I happened to be in Ghent last weekend. And in Ghent I found many delightful things, including sweets shaped like and named after noses, and Troll’s Cave Beer. There’s a pretty spiffy cathedral, St Bavo’s, named after the son of the first Pippinid Mayor of the Palace. I managed to acquire plus-size not-elasticated and not-hideously-expensive trousers in a bright colour, and I baffled Brussels airport once again by bringing brown sugar home in my carry-on (apparently it looks suspicious on the scanner).

But far and above all these many delights of Ghent was the worst curated castle I have ever been in. And I have been to Oxford Castle, which is set up to highlight its history as a Victorian prison, complete with alarmingly cheery re-enactors. And I have been to Pillsbury Castle, which has only one sign when you get there and got Sam and I quite lost in Derbyshire this year. The Gravensteen, built by that charming chappy Phillip of Flanders,2 to whom Chrétien’s Conte du Graal is dedicated, is a most excellent castle cursed with truly appalling curation. My host told me her brother practically foams at the mouth whenever he has to think about it, but I for one greatly enjoyed stomping around the place pointing out all the Wrong Things. A+, totally worth 6 euros, would do again (armed with the original site map next time).

Without further ado, photographic evidence of the Worst Curated Castle I Have Ever Met:

South facade of the Gravensteen: to the west, an annex housing the countess’ apartments; to the east, a partially-restored gallery.

Curation problem #1: there was no portable map, so it was very hard to tell where you were in relation to other things, and even harder to reconstruct from one’s iPhone photos.

What I know about this room is that it was used as an audience chamber by the Ghent city council in the early modern period. I think it’s in the western annexe. Those buildings are marked on a 1779 map as pertaining to the ‘conseil’, so let’s go with that. From what is, as far as I can determine, the one and only article on the place,3 I have determined that someone, at some point, labelled this annex ‘chapelle’ and ‘logis du comtesse’, which makes sense, architecturally speaking. That someone was not a curator at the castle, because we will come to the hilarious mis-labelling in a second.

The upper floors of the donjon (labelled, in English, ‘dungeon’, which is understandable but hilarious) and the annex house a barely-curated collection of early modern torture instruments, with no labels whatsoever. To be fair, apparently the place was used for torture and executions by the Ghent council at some point, but the curation shows no sense whatsoever of periodisation. EVERYTHING ALL HAPPENED AT ONCE, FOREVER.

The view from the top of the castle is spectacular: the river Liéve flows right past the castle, but I think that’s the Liée at a little distance. The top of the keep, labelled ‘platform / plafond’ in the two languages I read (and similar in Dutch, I am told), had clearly been restored at some point – the whole top of the tower was re-done in the early 20th c.

From what I can put together from the terrible signage and the Revue du Nord article, our boy Phillip of Flanders built the main keep around 1180. The keep than has an annex/gallery along the east side, and kitchens at the back, which the article tells me is quite similar to Anglo-Norman castles of this period. I am guessing that they would have been added on after the original building, and the west annex later still: the front of the west annex is mostly restoration, and I have no idea what’s going on with the neo-classical windows, but from the look of the vaulting I’d suggest the west annex is late 13th or 14th century? The counts of Flanders abandoned the place in the 14th century.

From glaring at the 1912 map of the site, I think this shows the west wall of the kitchen annex at the north of the keep. The brickwork parts date to the castle’s tenure as a weaving factory.

And this should be the north wall of the kitchen annex, which doesn’t seem to have been completely restored, and the north wall of the eastern annex/gallery. Note the windows on the keep wall, and compare to…

The eastern annex/gallery thing. What the hell is going on with the neo-classical windows? Something similar appears on the facade of the west annex, and the gatehouse: part of me suspects those of being early modern and this of being an over-exuberant imitation, but I can’t tell for certain.

The gatehouse, viewed from near the west annex.

And now we come to the most egregious example of bad curation in the whole badly-curated place:

Behold, the upper gatehouse. At the end of the room, wooden trapdoors letting down onto the main entry over the moat are still in place. This is clearly a defensive fortification. Yet the signs in both English and Dutch cheerfully informed us this was “originally the chapel of the count”. I must admit I was too busy ranting about how WRONG this is to check whether the French made any more sense. But, having read the article in Revue du Nord, I think I know how this vastly erroneous signage happened. The signs were done by a Dutch speaker (that I could tell – there were other cases, like the chemin du ronde, where the English translation followed the Dutch, wall-walk, instead of the French, which would have been correct). That dutch speaker had access to information in French – probably the 1770s and 1912 plans. These are in French. And perhaps this Dutch-speaker had wobbly French, or couldn’t read the handwriting, and managed to confuse chatelet (fortified tower) with chapelle. I really wish I had scrutinised the French signs in that room, that would tell me if we were dealing with poor translation, or poor transcription.

There is a slight possibility it was later used as a chapel (that cross window is odd), but the 1770s plan shows a chapel for the council (I can’t determine if that was erected after the counts left, or if that’s the chapel belonging to the original annex – either way it’s not restored) between the keep and the west annex, so I doubt it.

In conclusion: the Gravensteen castle is an excellent castle, but only if you ENJOY pointing out all the ways the curators are wrong.

Let us conclude with some nice images of the 11th c foundations under the current keep. Check that arrow-pattern and the thin slab archways. According to my companion in this endeavour I am fun to go to castles with because whenever I see something genuinely old I coo “ooooooh, look at yoooou” at it. Look at yoooou, 11th century archways, look at yoooou!


  1. It is a sad fact that all the people I know outside of Australia who might be induced to pat me, provide me with tea and chocolate, and let me camp on their spare beds: all these people live in higher lattitudes. I need to make friends in Portugal or southern France or something.
  2. When in Flanders, Phillip is known as Phillip of Alsace. Maybe the Flemish don’t want to own up to him?
  3. Marie Henrion, ‘Note sur la restauration du château du Gand’ Revue du Nord 2010/2 (n° 385), p. 383-424.

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