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Visiting the Graslei, Ghent, Belgium: partly Medieval, riverside street which more than once changed its name

Updated on August 24, 2013
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
The Graslei, Ghent
The Graslei, Ghent | Source
Panorama of Ghent, Belgium
Panorama of Ghent, Belgium | Source
Graslei / Korenlei, Ghent, c.1912/1913
Graslei / Korenlei, Ghent, c.1912/1913 | Source

Overlooking the historic Leie river (don't call it the Lys!)

This riverside street and former guild base in Ghent, Belgium, has changed its name more than once. There are various reasons for this.

In recent years it has been known as the Graslei, which in Dutch literally means the grass quay, indicating the vegetable crops which used to be landed here for market. Many of these vegetables would arrive by river from France, and partly for this reason and also because of the presence of many Francophones in the city of Ghent (Dutch: Gent) the street used to be know also officially by a French name: Marché aux herbes.

However (and this is Belgium for you) there came a time when, despite the historical associations with French-speaking traders and the presence of many Francophones in the city, Flemish politicians decided that the street could not be known officially as Marché aux herbes. Ethnolinguistic purity (and the 'ethno-' bit does tend tactfully to be dropped) demanded that henceforth only a Dutch equivalent of the name could be cited officially, or otherwise regarded as its 'real' name.

So far, so 'good'.

Except that Graslei is not what it was traditionally called. In fact, it was known by more than one name: both Korenlei (literally, corn quai in Dutch) and Tusschen Brugghen (literally, between bridges, in archaic Dutch) were current.

Oh well, The more the merrier.

Then there is the river that it overlooks. Formerly, when one was allowed to refer officially to the Marché aux herbes, the historic river, which the picturesque row of merchants' houses overlooks, might sometimes also be referred to as the Lys. This is also the French form of the river's name. But no longer; it must be Leie, the Dutch form, and Leie alone.

Well, fine.

So does this mean that the form Lys is now archaic and out of usage? Well, no, not really; only in most of East Flanders province is the form Lys not used; it is actually alive and well, both in France and in a recognized Francophone part of Belgium past which the river flows.

Interestingly, the Leie / Lys flows between the towns of Wervik and Wervicq-Sud; one is in Belgium's West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen) province and the other is in France's Nord department; one town is officially Dutch speaking in its entirety, while the other is officially French-speaking, again, in its entirely. Thus also, exactly halfway across the bridge which links the two towns, the river flowing underneath changes its spelling officially: from Leie to Lys if one travels southwards, and vice-versa if one travels north.

The existing, gabled frontages of the buildings at the Graslei differ in age, some of them by several centuries. The oldest building dates from the 12th century and is known as the Spijker, where grain used to be stored.

The Graslei is in Ghent, in East Flanders (Dutch: Oost-Vlaanderen) province in Begium's Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest).

August 23, 2013

Also worth seeing

In Ghent itself, other sights include the Gravensteen castle, the ornate Old Post Office Building, St. Bavo's Cathedral.

Bruges (Dutch: Brugge ; distance: 48 kilometres) has numerous fine buildings, many of them Medieval, and, similarly to Ghent, constitutes another architectural gem of Flanders.

...

How to get there: Brussels National Airport (Brussel-Nationaal-Luchthaven) , Belgium, where car hire is available, is the nearest large international airport to Ghent (distance: 67 kilometres). Brussels Airlines flies from New York (JFK) to Brussels National. The Belgian railroad company NMBS / SNCB maintains a service between Brussels and Ghent. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. It is advisable to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

Map location of Ghent, East Flanders province, Belgium
Map location of Ghent, East Flanders province, Belgium | Source

Also worth seeing

In Ghent itself, other sights include the Gravensteen castle, the ornate Old Post Office Building, St. Bavo's Cathedral.

Bruges (Dutch: Brugge ; distance: 48 kilometres) has numerous fine buildings, many of them Medieval, and, similarly to Ghent, constitutes another architectural gem of Flanders.

...

How to get there: Brussels National Airport (Brussel-Nationaal-Luchthaven) , Belgium, where car hire is available, is the nearest large international airport to Ghent (distance: 67 kilometres). Brussels Airlines flies from New York (JFK) to Brussels National. The Belgian railroad company NMBS / SNCB maintains a service between Brussels and Ghent. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. It is advisable to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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