I’d never thought of Ghent as a must-see attraction along with Paris, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur. For me it’s always been “one of the cities in Belgium” and where my friend, Chris, lives. Now that I’ve been there, I’d say it’s definitely worth a visit.
We arrived by car from Bruges in the evening, and any city after picturesque Bruges would have quite big shoes to fill. Fortunately Ghent has its own appeal, blessed with the right balance of old school charm and contemporary charisma. The SatNav led us on to streets reserved for public transport (oops); this way of zipping through a few landmarks left me with a great first impression of the city.
We had drinks at a jazz bar opposite St. Nicholas’ Church (a breathtaking example of the Scheldt Gothic architectural style) before meeting a friend outside McDonald’s down the street. Whilst stood in front of the church we noticed it was snowing flyers from a group protesting “multi-culturalism”. Not one for politics, we ignored them and went for a buffet dinner at a vegetarian restaurant, Komkommertijd (Cucumber Time) at Reep 14.
The cute name actually refers to the slow season in summer when not much happens because everyone’s on holiday, resulting in the emergence of frivolous stories in the news. In England it refers to the slow season for tailors in the 1800s. Anyway, back to the buffet. The food was good and hearty but for €16 per person it’s not the cheapest. After dinner our three tour guides (only one of them an actual Belgian) showed us a few more landmarks on our walk back to the car — the Castle of Gerald the Devil, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the town hall, the belfry and the hideous new city hall.
Despite its name, the list of residents at the Castle of Gerald the Devil (Geeraard de Duivelsteen) never actually included the devil. Since the 13th century it has been home to knights, monks, students and prisoners. At one point it was both an asylum and a home for orphan boys… because that was the logical thing to do?
Thanks to the freezing cold, we cut our night walk short and returned in the morning to St. Bavo’s Cathedral, where Charles V was baptised. Today it houses a huge number of art pieces including the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Admission to the cathedral is free but it costs €4 to see the Mystic Lamb in the Vijdt chapel — note that the painting has been in restoration since September 2012 and will take about five years…!!! Even if you don’t care for the Mystic Lamb, the cathedral is worth a look. There was a harpist playing live in one of the rooms, adding to the ambience. I’m not sure how often he’s there, but we wondered how he kept his hands warm in that massive building.
About 10 minutes away across the River Leie is the Gravensteen Castle, or the Castle of the Count, built in 1180 by Philip of Alsace. There’s a museum inside with torture instruments — a guillotine! — that were used back in the old days.
Across the street is The Great Butchers’ Hall, dating back to the 1600s when meat halls were indoor market places. Look up and check out the meat hanging from the wooden truss roof.
These dry cured cams are a specialty of Belgium, known as Ganda ham, which can take between nine to fourteen months to produce depending on the size.
Just outside the Hall is a food stall selling chips (or fries if you’re American), other fried goodies and snails! I’d had them a couple of the times before but never as a snack so I knew I had to try them. Don’t worry, we had the Belgian fries too, of course.
It’s uncanny how much they taste and look like seafood — a combination of chewy clams and mussels. Some people find they taste like scallops. Personally I think scallops are sweeter and have a spongier texture.
A short walk along the river will take you to the Graslei and Korenlei, two areas on either side of the water that are some of the most beautiful spots in Ghent.
This medieval port, lined with historical buildings, is the place to be for just about everyone. When you’re surrounded by this much beauty, it’s not hard to see why.
Ghent is such an awesome city. Compact yet so much to see and do. If you get the chance to visit Europe, I wouldn’t miss at least a day trip to Ghent.