Gentse Feesten (in Ghent dialect Gense Fieste “The Ghent Festival”) is a music and theatre festival in the city of Ghent (map).
After more than 175 years of existence, the Ghent Festivities have become one of the best festivals in Europe. Four international festivals take place there over a period of ten days, with free music on 10 squares, children’s entertainment at various different locations in the city and hundreds of indoor and outdoor activities.
The last day (always a Sunday) is known as de dag van de lege portemonnees (“the day of the empty wallets”) alluding to the fact that many people have spent their last penny at the festival and is seen by the people of Ghent as “their” day while visitors leave.
The first Gentse Feesten was held in 1843, about 400 people attended. In the beginning the festival consisted of one stage near the Saint Jacobs Church. Since the late eighties the festival has grown now covers the whole inner city of Ghent. Although the festival has become a mass event, it has retained some of the rebellious and anarchistic atmosphere of the early days.
About 2 million visitors attend the festival every year, making it one of the biggest cultural and popular festivals in Europe. The number of visitors on top nights surpasses 250,000. In a 2005 ranking by localfestivities.com, the Gentse Feesten was called the third biggest city festival in Europe, preceded by the Fallas in Valencia and the Oktoberfest in Munich.
A tradition every year is a procession of what are called the de stroppendragers (literally “the noose carriers”) where a number of Ghent citizens make a solemn procession with a noose around their necks that begins and ends at the medieval Gravensteen castle (map) where the nooses are thrown into a fire.
During recent years there are a number of side festivals that have chosen Gentse Feesten as an opportunity to hold separate, specialised events – some free, some ticketed. They include three international events: Miramiro, formerly known as the International Street Theatre Festival; the International Puppetbuskersfestival which is, you guessed it, an event by puppeteers; and Boomtown Festival is a pop music festival with both international and local acts.
The center of Ghent is quite small, so you can walk around on foot. However, the main station (Gent Sint-Pieters, map) is not in the city center, but takes a walk of about half an hour. The best option is to take the tram, which takes you directly to the center in 10 to 15 minutes.