Last September, my wife, Kim, and I took our youngest son to Belgium for his first international trip. We planned our stay around the well-known cities of Brugges and Brussels until a friend of mine mentioned the medieval city of Ghent.

My friend knew I liked European castles and told me that one of the great ones was located in the city center of Ghent. Being history buffs, we never pass up a castle, so we did some research and decided to add an extra night to our tour.

We landed in Brussels and boarded an easily accessible and affordable train to Ghent, and the ride took only an hour. Even though all three of us were sleepy after the red-eye flight, we were eager to see the spectacular city and castle we read so much about. After checking our bags at the hotel, we went exploring.

Ghent, with the Leie River meandering through its streets, is a quiet, picturesque city with most of its late Gothic and Renaissance buildings still intact.

We took a scenic boat ride through the city center and saw water lapping gently against centuries-old buildings, huge weeping willows dragging their branches along the banks and swans adorning the waterway, grudgingly moving out of the way to avoid the passing tourist boats.

We have visited European castles before, but Gravensteen Castle was by far the most impressive and visually interesting. Known in Dutch as the "Castle of the Counts," Gravensteen, partially surrounded by the calm, flowing river, towers above the adjacent buildings.

Built in the 12th century by Philip of Alsace after returning from the Crusades, the castle has been utilized in many different capacities. The ruling counts vacated it in the 14th century because of its oppressive architecture. It later became a court, prison and venue for public executions as well as a cotton mill and a money mint.

Walking through the well-preserved rooms, we could feel the dismal atmosphere that drove the counts away. I turned quickly more than once, believing I'd see the ghost of a guard or an executioner employing the guillotine, which is still on display.

In addition to the eerie underground chambers, the castle also houses two museums. The first is in the armory, and there we saw full suits of armor and a display of some of the most impressive medieval weapons I've ever encountered. Pikes, swords and matchlock rifles are labeled as well as a striking handmade crossbow.

The second museum consisted of the torture devices once used in the castle with full explanations of how they worked (it's not for the faint of heart). The portcullis fascinated us as well as the archer's arrow loops and even the privy niches in the outer walls that emptied into the river below.

The view from the battlement walls was amazing. The castle is tall enough to look down on most of the buildings in the city with the exception of the three bell towers not more than a few blocks away.

Although there is an elevator for those who don't want to walk, we hiked the stairs of the 91-meter-high Belfry tower, which was well worth the inevitable exercise it took us to get to the top.

In addition to the obvious grandeur of this very real castle, there were two other things that made the visit special for us. First, we could walk through it at our own pace. All we needed to do was follow the posted numbers in order to see everything without having to be pushed along. Second, and this was a first for me, we were allowed to take pictures of anything we wanted to both inside and out.

Ghent is truly a treat for the avid tourist. The Flemish people are incredibly friendly, and the aura of the city is as charming and vibrant as its colorful past.

Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline who has traveled extensively with his children. In his spare time he writes fiction novels based on places he has seen with his kids and wife.

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