Ghent (Gent), the capital town of Oost-Vlaanderen (East Flanders) province, is often considered a poor relation of Bruges in tourism terms, with historical monuments and townscapes that are not quite as pretty as those in its sister city to the north, and therefore only to be visited if there is time after seeing Bruges. From a tourist's point of view, there is some truth in this -- but not too much. Life moves faster in Ghent, an important port and industrial center, and it compensates for its less precious appearance with a vigorous social and cultural scene.

This magnificent old city at the confluence of the Leie (Lys) and Scheldt (Schelde) rivers, 48km (30 miles) northwest of Brussels and 46km (28 miles) southeast of Bruges, has always been a pivotal point for Flanders. For a time during the Middle Ages, this was one of the richest cities in Europe north of the Alps. Ghent was the seat of the counts of Flanders, who built their great castle here in 1180, but local fortifications predate their reign, going back to the 900s.

Hands-on rule began very early on in Ghent, and the common people -- skilled weavers and craftsmen -- never learned to live with it. During the Middle Ages, Ghent became as great a manufacturing center as Bruges was a trading center, but it never lacked for turmoil. The artisans rebelled not only against an exploitative nobility but even fought amongst themselves, guild against guild. Over the centuries the people of Ghent clashed with the counts of Flanders, the counts of Burgundy, the king of France, the king of Spain, their rivals in Bruges, and . . . well, anyone else who tried to take power over the town.

The fact that they so seldom prevailed for any length of time did not deter them in the least: With each new conquest, they'd settle down for a spell, begin to seethe with indignation, finally reach a boiling point, and then take to the warpath all over again. Small wonder, then, that in 1815 it was Maurice de Broglie, a bishop of Ghent, who sparked the fire of indignation against the rule of Dutch Protestants, a fire that in 1830 would burst into the flame of national independence for Belgium.

After a long history of economic ups and downs, Ghent today (pop. 220,000) has emerged once more as a major industrial center. Its medieval treasures are preserved, not as dry, showcase relics, but as living parts of the city. And to lighten what could be the overpowering grayness of industrialization, there are flowers everywhere, creating oases of color as a constant reminder that this is also the heart of a prosperous horticultural industry. In short, Ghent is a busy, lively city, whose reminders of the past are as comfortable in the present as a pair of well-broken-in shoes.