Last weekend I was fortunate enough to come across a great last-minute city break deal to a little place in Belgium that I had never though to visit before. A quick Google told me that I would be heading to what was once the second largest city in Europe after Paris, full of perfectly preserved architecture and works of art from the heydays of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, more artisan Belgian beers than you could ever get through, and a growing reputation as one of Europe’s new foodie favourites. How had this little corner of Flanders escaped my notice until now?
A wonderfully peaceful and easy Eurostar trip brings you into Brussels – Midi/Zuid station, where you simply wander over to the next platform for a 30 minute transfer to Ghent. Why did I not know how close it is?
My hotel turned out to be one of the oldest in the city, a former coaching house with the original courtyard intact, which once hosted Johann Strauss during a major European orchestra tour in 1883. The Hotel de Flandres, charming as it is, has one particular advantage; it’s location just seconds away from Ghent’s historic centre of picturesque facades, canal-side beer houses and imposing cathedrals.
For such a small, walkable (or cycle-able in this case – bicycles rule the cobble streets here) city, there is an incredible array of fascinating museums, art galleries, taverns and top-class restaurants. I particularly enjoyed the Museum of Design with some often bizarre household furniture and objects on display from throughout the centuries, and the magnificent Saint Bartholemew’s Cathedral which houses the breath-taking altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It almost puts the Louvre and the Mona Lisa to shame!
Over four days I tried to work my way through as many of the 250 choices of local beers as possible, including at the infamous Herberg de Dulle Griet, where one must make a rather unusual deposit when ordering the house beer, Kwak, due to the very special glassware. Ask for this 1.2 litre house speciality which comes in a huge test tube held by a wooden rack, and the bar tender will demand your right shoe which is then placed in a basket and winched up to the ceiling for the evening!
The art of eating and drinking seems to be at the heart of this wonderfully quirky little city, and the large student population from the university has no doubt helped Ghent to lure away visitors from its nearby rival Bruges with a convivial nightlife. Ghent is known for music and there are often bands and singers playing in the streets until late and, together with the myriad choice of bars and the Belgian penchant for languages, the result is often friendly groupings of tourists and locals chatting and dancing over a beer or one of the many flavours of local Jenever, or Dutch Gin.
In restaurants the emphasis is on high quality ingredients and there is an even mix of regional cuisine, such as Vlaamse stoofkarbonaden (also known as stoverij), a Flemish beef stew made with beer, and foreign fare with a large number of Thai restaurants and quite a few quirky, American-style rib joints. Between meals it’s all about Belgian frites and waffles, which were invented in Ghent, and come with chocolate sauce, ice cream and little flags!
I have not had time to cover half of what I experienced in the gorgeous Ghent, but I will say that if you are a foodie/art-lover/history buff looking for somewhere a bit off the beaten track, I’d have a hard time thinking of a better recommendation.