Have you heard about the city of Ghent? It’s a rather small city in Belgium (in the Flemish part called Flanders) used to be known for its textile industry and is now home to a large university and medical services centers. It’s also quite picturesque as many Flemish towns are (most notably Brugge) with narrow streets, lively suqares, and plenty of beer.
For ten days every year the city of Ghent turns from just another small and beautiful city to an all out party, drawing massive crowds from all over Belgium and beyond. During last July we had the fortune to stay at an apartment in the middle of Ghent during the time of the festival known as the Ghentse Feesten. The festival takes place right inside the urban setting of Ghent transforming the city in a profound way. We arrived a few days early and saw the transformation taking place. A complete festival city was built inside the original city with plenty of music stages and food and drink booths.
This festival has a tradition of more than 150 years, but reached its current size about twenty years ago. It consists of several independent mini-festivals, most of them are centered around free music stages with a coherent line (world music, rock, etc.). The actual money to support the festivities comes from the beer and food consumed in the booths that are spread all over the place. The organizations that pull everything together are pretty small and the only corporate involvement is found in the beers billboards. Most of the activities start around noon and last till around 1 am, but some of the music stages keep playing till 5 am (!), when the sun is already up again.
Besides the free parts, other events that charge cover fees also take place during the days of Ghentse Feesten such as the Gent Jazz Festival. All this commotion draws a large number of street performers which add their touch to the general revelry. The festival area takes over about one quarter of the inner city of Ghent shutting down most of the vehicular access to that part of the city and also interfering with public transit access. This helps to make the festival area a huge pedestrian gathering gournds and also allows for extensive make over of the city utilities. For example, bus stops that are decommissioned during the festival days can be turned to small drink booth:
The huge crowds present an opportunity for the small businesses in Ghent, many of which change their hours to accomodate the hours of the festival. Instead of closing down at 6 pm, many of the businesses stay open till much later, which is quite unusual in Belgium.
The festival itself is very Flemish (with French translation, being the other language of Belgium) and the crowds are mostly local , making it somewhat difficult for non-Flemish speakers to figure out everything that’s going on. There are also plenty of activities for children and elderly, making this festival and all-ages event.
In conclusion – with it’s Flemish spirit and beautiful city setting this festival turns a small town into a major happening, providing income to many tourist related and retail businesses in Ghent. In addition, it caters to all ages and boosts local pride in the city itself. I truly recommend visiting this festival if you can , and probably many small cities can learn a few lessons from the city of Ghent and the incorporation of a big city festival into the city fabric.