What’s on: Ghent’s big party turns 175

Summary

As the Gentse Feesten makes the city’s dragon breathe flame for the 175th anniversary edition, exhibitions draw summer visitors to Antwerp and the coast

Gentse Feesten

In the summer of 1843, Ghent authorities put their foot down. At the behest of the captains of industry, city fathers quashed festive gatherings on Sundays. It seems that many neighbourhoods held a big feast every Sunday – sometimes the only day the working class had off. But in the summer months they became so ubiquitous and so, well, drunken that absenteeism in the factories on Monday mornings was extraordinarily high.

Knowing this decision would not exactly go down well with the proletariat, the city threw a big party, promising they would do so every summer. They supplied the food and beer, and the community promised to be good the rest of the year. The city was true to its word, and, 175 years later, the Gentse Feesten is still Ghent’s biggest party of the year.

Now the largest combination music and theatre festival in the world, the annual 10-day bash takes over the entire city. Though visitors have to pay for their own food and beer now, most of the rest is free. Every square becomes a stage, with music throughout the day and night. There’s an organised open-air street theatre festival, and local theatres all present special programmes. The Polé world music stage – spanning the canal – is a colourful, raucous hub. Fringe events include tours, fireworks, boat trips and readings. And, special for this anniversary edition: the bronze dragon atop the city’s Belfry will spew fire once again. 13-22 July, across Ghent

Jan Fabre triptych

To which Belgian artist would you give carte-blanche in bringing the concept of Renaissance altarpieces into the present day? Neither classical music centre Amuz nor the City of Antwerp are known for being faint-of-heart, so they went with hometown boy Jan Fabre. He has brought his jewel scarabs to the party, creating three monumental works on the altar of the former Augustinian church using the insects’ glittering luminescent wing casings. They are temporary replacements for the works by Jordaens, Van Dyck and Rubens that used to hang in this same space, and Fabre has retold their stories in a contemporary context. The results, part of Antwerp’s ongoing Baroque festival, are nothing short of eye-popping. Until 10 December, Amuz, Kammenstraat 81, Antwerp (Because the venue isn’t usually open outside of concerts, viewing times are rather inconvenient. Check the hours carefully)

Cartoon Festival Knokke-Heist

If your Dutch is advanced enough to comprehend irony, then this annual festival in Flanders’ northernmost coastal resort is definitely worth a look. The theme this year is Groeten uit… or Hello from…, putting travel and holidays in the spotlight. Ten Belgian cartoonists were asked to create new work, which are shown along with previously published work by local cartoonists. The family-friendly event has kids’ activities, too, and it’s all free to access at the “cartoon pavilion” on the promenade. Until 2 September, Heldenplein, Knokke-Heist

Gentse Feesten

Gentse Feesten is a free 10-day music and street theatre festival every July in the city of Ghent. Next to multiple outdoors stages in squares across the city centre, it is home to a Puppet Buskers festival and techno festival Ten Days Off.
Biggest - The Gentse Feesten is the largest combined music and theatre festival in the world.
All day - Gentse Feesten doesn’t shut down. With only occasional midday lulls, the festivities go on day and night.
Commandments - In 2012, the non-profit Feestbaarheidskader (Festability Panel) answered neighbourhood complaints about noise and rowdy behaviour with an amusing, but stern, 10 Commandments for visitors.
1 843

first edition

765 000

square metres of surface area

2

million visitors