Hi, it’s Libby again. We took a hiatus the last couple of days, resting up from a marvellous three days in Ghent, Belgium, before hitting the road again tomorrow for a quick trip to Le Touquet.
In planning our trip to the north of France last winter, I happened to read one of the New York Times’ “36 Hours” travel series touting the charms of Ghent (see here) as one of Europe’s best kept secrets. It oohed and aahed over this overlooked Flemish city’s canals, spires, cobblestone streets and some of Belgium’s best food and historic architecture and design.
It sounded like a must-see spot, so I booked a nice B&B and a car to get us there. We ended up cancelling the car and took a train instead, via Lille and Courtrai (Kortrijk in Flemish). Once there, we hopped on the number 4 local tram which took us to our accommodation in the old town. To be honest, the trip from the train station on the tram through workaday Ghent did not reveal any of the promised treasures. But once inside the old city, WOW!
Ghent is a city of 260,000 inhabitants, of whom 70,000 are students. It lies at the confluence of the rivers Lys and Scheldt and derives its name from the Celtic word for confluence. Ghent was once one of Europe’s two largest cities, after Paris, due to its burgeoning wool trade. In the 1500s, however, the people of Ghent rebelled against Emperor Charles the 5th as they were unwilling to pay his taxes. The emperor arrived in Ghent to restore order and revoked Ghent’s rights and privileges. The punishment and humiliation of its dignitaries were so severe that Ghent lost its leading position in Europe. Some regard that as a fortunate event, as Ghent was able to retain a smaller city atmosphere and matching civic pride.
I took a two and a half hour free walking tour and was introduced to a bevy of Ghent’s architectural and other delights, for example:
– the tour started just outside of a youth hostel on St. Michael’s bridge which spans the river Lys. Whichever way you look, you see picture-postcard views of three medieval towers, St. Nicholas church, the Belfry, and St. Bavo’s Cathedral.
The bridge itself is an early 20th century construct, having been erected as part of the 1913 World’s Fair which took place in Ghent that year. The gothic cathedral, on the other hand, dates back to the 16th century and stands on the site of two previous churches dating, respectively, from the 10th and 12th centuries. The Belfry is a 91 metre edifice; adorned on its top is the “Dragon of Ghent”, the city’s symbol. St. Nicholas’ Church predates them all, having been constructed in the 12th century.
– a 16th century gothic town hall where local Ghent citizens can enter only to marry and work;
– the Castle of the Counts, a medieval castle that was occupied only once – in the 1940s by drunken students protesting a proposed increase in beer prices (!);
– on either side of the river Lys, the quays of Graslei and Korenlei boast several outstanding buildings, formerly used as grain warehouses, one of which leans forward (on purpose) to make it easier to hoist up the sacks of grain which passed through this inland port.
Another building, now the Marriott’s signature hotel, once housed a brothel, where sailors spent many an evening. The golden swans facing away from one another on the hotel facade signify its earlier purpose.
– Ghent displays its civic pride in a multitude of ways. It carefully uplights its squares and historic buildings, making an evening stroll through the city’s fairytale setting the height of romance.
Amongst the vibrant squares we visited was the Vrijdagmarkt, where a lively Friday morning market (produce, prepared foods, baked goods and clothes) took place. We had breakfast and coffee on this square and noticed the locals having early morning beers on the terraces of some of the restaurants.
Also on this square, we were introduced to the renowned Dulle Griet pub, with a wonderful old Flemish interior, where no less than 500 different beers are available, including, for a price, the award-winning, Westvleteren Trappist beers. We watched as others imbibed the house beer from a large bootshaped “stirrup” glass – patrons are required to give up a shoe when ordering one of these beers in order to avoid the glass being purloined as a souvenir. The shoe is hoisted up to the ceiling in a cage and returned to the patron after the beer is consumed.
In the centre of the square stands a statue of one of the city’s most prominent entrepreneurs, Jacob Van Artevelde, who was responsible for developing the lucrative wool trade and who became a city hero. Around the corner from this most romantic square, an artisan chocolate shop sells its handmade, delicious Belgian chocolates. I bought 6 pieces for under 5 Euros!
– our tour guide also pointed out that Ghent was not only known for its beer and chocolates, but also for its frites. He inspired us by indicating the location of his three favourite “frites” places and carefully warned us not to call them “French Fries” as the locals would take offence. While you can have them with mayonnaise, they are also served as a main course with Flemish stews and other meals as an accompaniment. Yum!
– amongst the beer, frites and chocolate outlets lies a fantastic store specializing in vintage and new wallpaper. Apparently, the White House orders its wallpaper from this store, and it is widely known in Ghent. It had no name I could see on its front door, but its windows were replete with the most beautiful wallpaper I had ever seen. The prices were set out clearly in the window and when I asked, I was told the price was per roll. Some of the most beautiful ones were only 24 Euros per roll!
– I didn’t even mention other sites that were pointed out to us – Graffiti Street, an alleyway reserved for Ghent’s many graffiti artists. (As a result, one hardly sees graffiti on any other street in the city.) Or, the new open-concept city pavilion, or Ghent’s Design Museum across from which we had a light dinner one night, or the brand new De Krook library, an irregularly layered steel and glass edifice representing the new architectural face of Ghent, but whose windows symbolically reflect the old cathedral.
Other squares we visited included the Groentenmarkt where vendors sell the famous cuberdons, or “noses of Ghent”, a cone-shaped Belgian candy. That square also features a “food truck” selling the most delicious oysters I ever had and glasses of champagne or chilled white wine.
Another square, the Korenmarket, is surrounded by many beautiful buildings, often housing excellent restaurants, including one called “du Progres” where Gary enjoyed a filet of chicken with mushroom sauce. Gary noticed that the chicken had whiter flesh than our chickens, ditto the famed Licques chicken in France. Perhaps it was the famous poulet fermier or even the aforesaid chicken from Licques.
On our way back from that delightful dinner, we popped into the local genever-only bar, in a picturesque setting right on the banks of the canal, right beside the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, another of Ghent’s historic beer pubs. This genever specialty cafe specializes in 215 genever flavours, ranging from classic Dutch-style gin to exotic gins flavoured with vanilla, coconut and cactus.
Finally, no description of our trip to Ghent would be complete without mention of our hour long tour threading through the rivers and canals of Ghent in a long slim, open air boat. Fantastic!
How can you tell we fell in love with Ghent? It was hard not to.
So, with this lengthy post I am signing off and returning the pen to Gary. We’re back to Paris this Saturday and then home to Toronto on the 5th. It’s been a great journey and I’ve really enjoyed sharing it with you. Hope you enjoyed it too!
Until the next trip, a bientot!