Surrounded by a moat, the Castle of the Counts of Flanders resembles an enormous battleship steaming down the sedate Lieve Canal. From its windswept battlements there's a splendid view over the rooftops of old Gent. There has been a fortress on this site for centuries. The Gravensteen, modeled after a Crusader's castle in modern-day Syria, was built in 1180 by the Count of Flanders on top of an existing fortress, and has been rebuilt several times since then—most recently in the 19th century to reflect what the Victorians thought a medieval castle should look like. Above the entrance is an opening in the shape of a cross, which symbolizes the count's participation in the Crusades, resulting in his death in the Holy Land.
Today's brooding castle has little in common with the original fortress, which was built by Baldwin of the Iron Arm to discourage marauding Norsemen. Its purpose, too, changed from protection to oppression as the conflict deepened between feudal lords and unruly townspeople. Rulers entertained and feasted here throughout the Middle Ages, and the Council of Flanders, the highest court in the land, met in chambers here for more than 500 years. At various times the castle has also been used as a mint, a prison, and a cotton mill. It was here, too, that the country's first "spinning mule" was installed after being spirited away from England; soon the castle's chambers echoed with the clattering of looms, and Gent became a textile center to rival Manchester.