"Grim" is the word that springs to mind when you first see this fortress, crouching like a gray stone lion over the city and clearly designed by the counts of Flanders, whose seat it was, to send a message to rebellion-inclined Gentenaars. The burghers of Ghent looked on their hometown as an independent city-state, on the model of Florence, not as a mere component of some blue blood's realm, and they were often in arms against the authority the castle was intended to uphold. The outcome was invariably defeat for them, but that didn't stop them from coming back for more whenever they felt the big wheel was trampling on their rights. It's safe to say that the castle's very appearance did much to instill the awe and fear necessary to keep the people of Ghent in line.

It was built by Philip of Alsace, count of Flanders, shortly after he returned from the Crusades in 1180 with images of similar crusader castles in Syria fixed firmly in his mind. According to local legend -- supported by Gallo-Roman artifacts uncovered in excavations -- the count built on foundations originally laid down by Count Baldwin Iron Arm in the 800s. If the castle's walls, 2m (6 ft.) thick, battlements, and turrets failed to intimidate attackers, the count could always turn to a well-equipped torture chamber inside. You can view relics of that chamber -- a small guillotine with an authentic original blade, spiked iron collars, racks, branding irons, thumb screws, and a special kind of pitchfork designed to make certain that people being burned at the stake stayed in the flames -- in a small museum in the castle, along with weapons and suits of armor. On a happier note, if you climb to the ramparts of the high building in the center, the donjon, your reward is a great view of Ghent's rooftops and towers.