intoHistory, geschiedenis beleven in authentieke logies
Styles of every period abound in Ghent, making the town a joy to explore. Hotel Verhaegen, a 18th-century residence and its garden will delight architecture buffs. Restored twelve years ago, this ‘hôtel particulier’ is a jewel to be cherished and a place where one can gladly relax after a long walk. Harmoniously composed by two aesthetes, beauty and peace reign in the centre of this ‘city of art’.
The interior façade of the rich house preserved its 18th century character. The garden is also listed as a historic monument. © Hotel Verhaegen
Indeed, this mansion stood on a quay in front of a canal until the end of the 19th century! Constructed in the Middle ages, the canal at Oude Houtlei Street served the town as a form of protection insurance, both civil and commercial. Ghent was the capital of the County of Flanders and was situated on the Paris to Cologne road. Two rivers, the Scheldt and its affluent, the Leie, flowed out to the sea giving access to international trade, and thus realized the people of Ghent’s dreams of prosperity. The town’s artisans proved their skills with imported English wool and the fineness of their work made the fortune of many merchants. Little by little, the town was filled with the best architects and artists that we so admire today – talent, beautiful works of art, and a universal magic.
A pavilion overlooking the Leie river bears witness to the18th-century taste for chinoiserie. © minervaboten.be
Later, under the Austrian rule of Maria-Theresa and Joseph II, Ghent was a major player in the development of trade with the Far East and the importation of new and exotic products to Europe such as tea, porcelain, and spices. Thanks to the cutting of the canal of ‘Coupure‘ between 1751 and 1753, the city became the indispensable trade hub between France and the United Provinces of the Netherlands. From its address in Oude Houtlei, the house would have seen the unloading of precious wallpapers and exotic silks destined for the noble residences in the quarter.
18th-century wallpaper was shipped from China via the canal that ran alongside the street. © Jan De Wilde
Built at the beginning of the 18th century, for Count d’Hane Steenhuyse, the residence was remodelled fifty years later to reflect the ‘Ghent rococo’ mood of the city’s stately mansions. The entrance hall floor is laid with beautiful black and white marble paving – archetypal Baroque and Rococo colours for this region.
Double doors open on to the drawing room decorated with Chinese wallpaper depicting exotic birds against a background of plants and delicate foliage. Up until the beginning of the 19th century, oriental wallpapers were imported to Ghent by the Ostend Company in competition with the renowned East India Company. After a long sea voyage, the rolls of paper would be mounted in place, fixed to a wooden frame, and backed with linen.
The master of the house is depicted at the centre of the hustle and bustle of dock activities. © Jan De Wilde
The dining room is particularly eye-catching with its large panels painted by Pieter-Norbert van Reysschoot. The master of the house and his wife are depicted in idealized scenes of the daily lives of peasants, fishermen, and merchants – displayed under a diffuse, golden light.
Paintings by Pieter-Norbert van Reysschoot enliven the walls of the dining room. © Jan De Wilde
In keeping with the spirit of the house, the original window panes were restored, not replaced. © Jan De Wilde
From the window, you can admire the door of the annexe whose light and exuberant wrought iron décor is a perfect example of the Rococo style – between a fan and a large shell, the craftsmanship is exceptional.
Today, the hotel Verhaegen is the property of Jan Rosseel and Marc Vergauwe, two interior architects, and owners of the Neoo Selon Neo design company. The two architects respectfully restored the house using traditional techniques and materials, but it is their sensitivity to the prolific creativity of the past and modern innovation that puts Hotel Verhaegen in a class of its own. Old mouldings and 18th century proportions in the guest rooms and drawing rooms have been blended harmoniously and pleasingly with the contemporary accents of modern upholstery, carpets, furniture, and decorative items
The Empire salon, cleverly variegated. © Jan De Wilde
In the city centre, whose population includes some 70,000 students, priority is given to pedestrians, which allows for many different walks that plunge us into all the great periods since the Middle Ages. Witnesses to each era make the discovery of Ghent as surprising and as amusing as it is fascinating. In the same street as the hotel, the former Franciscan Church of the Poor Clares is now home to a social restaurant (at noon on weekdays) and to cultural events such as wine-tasting and concerts.
Imagine the ships unloading precious products from oversea… © Russell Bowling
Just a step away, in the heart of this ‘city of art’, the Church of St Nicholas built in blue limestone of Hainaut, the belfry and St Bavo’s Cathedral await you – symbols of the power of Ghent’s medieval bourgeoisie. The van Eyck brothers painted the magnificent altarpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb for one of the cathedral’s ambulatory chapels.
Ghent’s skyline in the Middle Ages. Detail from the Mystic Lamb altarpiece. © Guido Deseijn
A few centuries after the van Eyck brothers, Rubens painted the ‘Conversion of St Bavo’ for the cathedral.
After the eighty years war, which in the 16th and 17th centuries devastated the region, the course of life once again prioritized the Ghent canals. Trade with the Far East flourished anew. The magnificent façades of sumptuous mansions still tell the story of that luxurious period.
Hotel Falligan, a contemporary of the Verhaegen mansion, is now home to an art gallery and restaurant. © gentdekuip.com
Other discoveries to make are the Hôtel de Coninck, now the Design museum, the Hotel Falligan on Kouter Square, and the Hotel d’Hane-Steenhuyse, contemporaries of Hotel Verhaegen, and majestic reflections of French Rococo and Austrian Baroque.
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B&B Hotel Verhaegen
Jan Rosseel and Marc Vergauwe
Oude Houtlei 110
Tel +32 (0)9 265 07 60
Fax +32 (0)9 221 69 69
Hôtel Verhaegen’s own website
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