From a 12th Century castle to a quaint waterfront promenade, Flemish Primitive paintings to the 14th Century Belfort, Ghent offers a visitor a clutch of opportunities to stop and stare

Running a finger through the list of places I would like to visit in Belgium beyond Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges for sometime, I finally tick on Ghent. Though placed right in the middle of these three big brother cities of Belgium, Ghent often has to give in to their popularity among tourists. For me, what tilted the case for Ghent is certainly Gravensteen, a 12th Century castle of a Flemish count, once used as a court house and torture chamber for prisoners. Having grown up on fairytales that over and over again talk of counts and their castles with high walls, you can’t blame me much for the choice!

Getting off at Ghent’s St. Pietersstattion after a 45 minute train ride from Brussels, I am headed towards the heart of the city, looking for this castle from the Middle Ages which once served as the seat of the reigning Counts of Flanders. One tram stop before its popular market area, Korenmarkt, stands an imposing Gravensteen with a covered gateway leading to its ticket counter. At 10 Euros for a ticket to tour the castle, it is not too cheap for an Indian tourist on a budget trip but never mind when you are chased by a childhood charm! The best part is, the castle has a museum of torture instruments used on prisoners by the City of Ghent besides a display of arms used those days.

Clambering up the rather dark and steep stairs, I take a stop at a hall which has the display of the swords, guns and an array of other war gears used by the counts then. Walking up and down, I finally end up in a corridor that has a replica of a Guillotine leading to the torture museum. And what a terrifying experience that hall has to offer a visitor! What particularly catches my eye are the small iron clamps and braces — for the hands, for the forefingers, a crown made of iron nails, blades used in Guillotine, all used to force prisoners for confessions to crime and punishment thereafter.

Also worth noting is an artist’s representation of how mentally challenged used to be tied to their beds, their hands and legs kept in chains in Europe of those days. The mentally unstable were considered criminals then.

The present castle was built by Fillips of Alsasse, a count of Flanders, between 1157 and 1191. The count was said to have taken part in one of the crusades and died during the siege of Akko in present-day Israel. Right above the entrance to the castle, there is an opening in the form of a cross, an indication that he had already taken part in a crusade when the castle was constructed.

The City of Ghent took control of the castle in 1885 to renovate it. Once surrounded by a moat, only a bit of it exists today.

My next stop at Ghent is yet another must-do on my list — the 14th Century Belfort. I aim to climb it. The top view from Belfort offers some spectacular view of the city, its tramways, the beautiful rooftops in many shades of brown and grey but scaling up the Belfort is no easy task by stairs. Though it has a lift for visitors, the real thrill lies in stepping up from the nearly 300 stairs but being placed in the round Gothic clock tower, they become too narrow for comfort at times. Visitors pulling each other up in the stairway are a common sight. The sound of the giant bells ringing suddenly in an enclosed area makes my heart go faster.

Seeking an open area, I walk up through the old city stadius to the waterfront promenade by River Leie, the Graslei. The sight of motor boats ferrying people on the waterways from the bridge over the river near St. Michielsburg is as much a beautiful picture postcard as it is about the quaintness of Ghent, a reason why a spot of tourists put the city on their itinerary. The promenade is dotted with fabulous restaurants and sublime chocolate shops. Nearby is St. Baafskathedraal where I join the queue to take a peek at the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, one of the earliest-known oil paintings (dated 1432) by Flemish Primitive artist Jan Van Eyck. A rather lavish representation of medieval religious thinking, the art piece is not to be missed!

Taking the train back to Brussels after gallivanting through the lanes of Ghent through the day — stopping here to try out a waffle, staring there to take note of the possibilities with chocolates, I think of Gravensteen and smile at the fact that I am a commoner not in the age of counts and castles. Childhood charms can rest now!

Fingerprinting likely for Indians visiting the Schengen area from 2015

From June 2015, Indians applying for a Schengen visa are likely to be asked for fingerprints. Cecilia Malmstrom, European Commission’s Commissioner for Home Affairs, addressing participants at a recent seminar on EU’s new visa policy proposals in Brussels, said the process of fingerprinting would begin in India a month after it starts in China. The fingerprint will be valid for the next five years after which, the Swedish politician added, “it would have to be taken again.” After the process begins, those who would apply for a visa for Europe would have to be personally present unlike now, and thereafter need not do so for the next five years. The period taken to issue a Schengen visa would lessen for those whose fingerprints are already in the system.

According to statistics made available at the seminar organised by the European Journalist Centre, 5,22,106 visas were applied from India between 2009 and 2013 out of which 6.2 per cent is the refusal rate. According to the office of Malmstrom, about 15,000 Indians are illegal immigrants in the Schengen area as of now. Besides security issues, the process of taking five-yearly fingerprints is hoped to address this issue as well.