'Gentse Feesten': from local funfair to Europe's largest cultural open-air festival
Ghent enjoyed top economic times during the Middle Ages, thanks to the weaving and dying of English wool, together with the staple right acquired by the city on French grain. Many people did very well out of it. However, the religious wars in the late 16th century put a spanner in the works. The wool, flax and linen industry, in Europe's second most important city after Paris, fell into disrepair. It also lost much of its transport network, including its passage to the sea, and its population dropped by half. Meanwhile, Ghent residents apparently just continued to party, keeping up the traditions from centuries before. Joyous entries, processions and other parades all forged a close bond between local inhabitants. In the late 18th century an economic revival took place, which continued in the early 19th century with the arrival of new technology. With such industrialisation in the textile industry, Ghent again became an important textile city. Under Dutch rule it also acquired its own university in 1816 and, ten years later, once again became a sea port, thanks to the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal.
Each Sunday the textile factories would remain empty and the workers would go out indulging themselves at the countless local funfairs and parties, all over the city. On Mondays, however, absence from work was a common occurrence, and a thorn in the side of the influential industrialists and bourgeoisie. They wanted to put an end to the mad growth of this sort of entertainment. That is why, in 1843, Ghent's city council decided to replace all individual folk fairs with one enormous prestigious annual festival, lasting a grand total of four days. This marked the beginnings of Ghent's festival known as the Gentse Feesten.
In its early years, workers had to make do with a folk ball at the Kouter, fireworks at the Coupure, some traditional folk games and some café entertainment. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie were treated to some very fine entertainment: an elite horse race in Sint-Denijs-Westrem, a Venetian serenade and a chic ball in the former casino at the Coupure, some theatre in the Schouwburg and some crossbow shooting by the St. George's Guild. Gradually, many districts became involved with the festivities and their popularity grew among the population. However, after years of repetition and a lack of creativity, things ended up going downhill again. Euphoria after the liberation in 1945 briefly caused a new revival. But, when people began to go away on their holidays, Ghent remained rather empty and it seemed like the Festival would die a death.
That is, until a certain Walter De Buck, a young and progressive Ghent sculptor and bard teamed up with some supporters and managed to get the Gentse Feesten back on the rails again, to become Europe's greatest 10-day cultural open-air festival as it is in anno 2017, full of creative depth and improvisation, featuring free performances from numerous national and international artists, street theatre, exhibitions, children's entertainment, funfair, parades … It is now a city festival, cultural event and folk festival, all rolled into one. And all for free!