Ghent: Brussel’s Sprout

     travel101

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN GAFENCU MAGAZINE, JULY 2015

Belgium is a country few boast about visiting. If pushed, travellers may admit to a mini-break in Brussels or Bruges. Quietly and steadily, however, one of its cities is emerging as a number one travel destination for the cool and the hip. Ghent.

The pride of East Flanders, Ghent has been the recipient of such accolades as “the best European City you’ve never thought of visiting” and “one of the most beautiful places you’ve never heard of.” If that’s damning the place with faint praise, then rejoice. You don’t want everybody rushing there at once now, do you?

The fourth largest city in Belgium (population: 250,000), Ghent has pulled off the truly amazing feat of preserving its historical medieval heart while grafting on some serious 21st century commercial, cultural and social soul. The city positively basks in its own laidback groove, while trying to give the distinct impression that its success is no big deal. You feel that, swan-like, the good burghers of the city must be paddling like hell underneath the scenes to bring it all together. Their calm exterior, however, gives little indication that this is the case.

While its huge student population certainly contributes to this unmistakeable air of confidence and vitality, Ghent works on so many other levels and clearly delights in “Doing its Own Thing.” Lord Mayor Daniel Termont, for instance, regularly takes to the main square, addressing the locals and encouraging them to call him on his mobile if they have any issues. It’s not a policy you’re likely to see catch on any time soon among career-politicians in other cities, but Termont has been at it for years and it speaks volumes about the way Ghentians do things. It’s small wonder, then, that their mayor has been voted the best in Europe.

For such a relatively new entry to the list of “must-visit” metropolises, it’s instructive to learn that Ghent was once the largest city in Europe. While that was way back in the 13th century, the trappings of grandeur and the wealth created by its cloth trade in the Middle Ages endure to this day.

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The Belfry, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church are hard to miss as you stroll around the city and represent an impressive haul for the city when it comes to bragging its way onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Narrow cobbled streets, the imposing Gravensteen Castle, the Cloth Hall, the old Fish Market, the Castle of Gerard the Devil (no, really), guildhalls galore – the list of medieval marvels is seemingly never ending.

Start out from St Michael’s Bridge and just keep wandering until you’ve ticked off the vibrant Graslei and Korenlei port areas. You should also take in the shopping delights of Volderstraat and Veldstraat. The centre isn’t that large, but it may be worth feigning footweariness in order to justify a boat trip. This will give you something of a different – almost a backstage – view of the city. You’ll probably get a historical tour commentary thrown in. And, if you’re lucky, maybe even some drinks along the way.

Be prepared to negotiate the intricate network of canals that intersect the two rivers (Scheldt and Leie) that Ghent is built around. There used to be many more canals, with the city once rivalling Amsterdam, at least until they were reclaimed as its urban sprawl expanded. These waterways, though, continue to provide a vital commercial lifeline for the city.

Despite the fact that the North Sea is around 15 miles away, Ghent boasts the third largest harbour in Belgium, linked to the coast via the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal. Its subsequent trade has considerably increased Ghent’s affluence and its status as an important commercial centre.

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Another – more recent – addition to Ghent’s allure came courtesy of a certain George Clooney, with his 2014 film, The Monuments Men, partly set in the city. The movie saw George and his crew set off in pursuit of a number of Dutch “Old Masters” paintings plundered by the Nazis during WWII, with the Ghent Altarpiece topping their must-get-back list.  Painted by brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck in the early 15th century, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (to give it its full name) was pre-plundered by Napoleon a century before. Who knew dictators had such a thing about early Flemish polyptych panel paintings?

As interesting a 12-section religious work as you are ever likely to see, it’s nothing compared to the saga of its missing panel – a tale told by a special exhibition in Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. The panel went walkabout in 1934, and was ultimately put up for ransom for some one million Belgian francs. On his deathbed, Arsene Goedertier, a stockbroker by trade, confessed to knowing the whereabouts of the panel. Sadly, he croaked before parting with the requisite GPS data.

Needless to say, the panel is still missing, though many believe it’s actually hidden somewhere in the church. It’s a good mystery and you can’t help but wonder if the Ghent Tourist Board came up with it as a creative way of attracting visitors. Their version of the Turin Shroud or The Three Secrets of Fátima perhaps?

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Staunchly Catholic, Ghent, together with much of the low countries, was subject to the Iconoclastic Fury during the mid-sixteenth century. Although it may sound like a prototype punk band, it’s actually an apt description of the rampaging Protestant reformers who advanced their cause by destroying Catholic art and images – the ISIS of their day, no less. No sign of George Clooney to the rescue back then. Or now, for that matter.

During your stay you’re going to see signs welcoming you to Ghent, Gent or even Gand. Don’t worry. It’s all the same place. They’re just the Flemish, Dutch and French variants of the city’s name, with one-time territorial claims lingering long in this part of the world. Belgium – only established as an independent country in 1830 – has suffered at the hands of a succession of imperial powers (The Netherlands, France and Germany). Before that, Imperial Flanders was a fief of the Holy Roman Empire for three centuries. Charles V of the House of Hapsburg – also the King of Spain – was actually born in Ghent.

Of course, the English had to get their oar in as well. In 1340, Edward III of England declared himself King of France, choosing Ghent’s Friday Market Square to break the news to the locals. To underline his point, he unfurled a new livery that sneakily incorporated the arms of France quartered with those of England.

Edward’s son, John of Gaunt, was actually born in Ghent (Ghent-Gaunt) but, rumour has it, he was actually sired by a Flemish butcher during one of Edward’s absences fighting the French, clearly no respecters of annexation-by-heraldry. John, father of England’s future King Henry IV, is perhaps best remembered from Shakespeare’s Richard II, where he gets to deliver some of the Bard’s best lines, notably: “This royal throne of kings; this scepter’d isle.” Such sentiments take on an altogether different resonance when you consider that the next century’s worth of Plantagenet monarchs may well have descended from a Ghent sausage merchant.

For those seeking further historic insights, the impressive STAM museum, housed in the former Bijloke Abbey, will give you an in-depth chronological rundown of the city over the centuries. This particular institution is definitely worth an extended visit, if only to stand on the gigantic hi-res aerial photograph of the city that dominates an entire exhibition room. It’s like being Icarus – or in a latter-day stealth craft – as you hover above the world’s largest Google Earth image. Be careful not to tread on local residents on their hands and knees muttering: “Does that look like a 15th century polyptych to you?”

All this geography, history (and talk of sausages) will obviously inspire hunger in even the most abstemious of travellers, so where and what to eat as you contemplate the loinage of the English Royal Family? It would no doubt meet with Edward III’s approval that, these days, Ghent is considered the vegetarian capital of Europe.

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Indeed, Thursdays here are deemed “Veggie Day’” with the locals forswearing meat on a weekly basis to pursue a healthier way of life. Having said that, on the remaining six days of the week you’ll be feasting on Waterzooi (a creamy stew made with chicken), Stoverij meat stew or Hoofdvlak, a jellied brawn made from a boiled pig’s head. If that doesn’t appeal then fresh fish is in plentiful supply, courtesy of Ghent’s proximity to the coast.

In terms of other delights, Ghent’s Tierenteyn mustard is fiery without being eye-watering and, for those with a sweet tooth, Cuberdons are a popular cone-shaped jellied sweet that are, reputedly, good for hangovers. That hangover will almost certainly have been induced by drinking Genever, the local juniper flavoured gin that comes in distinctive clay bottles. As you’d expect from Belgium, there is plenty of beer and chocolate on offer too.

In terms of other delights, Ghent’s Tierenteyn mustard is fiery without being eye-watering and, for those with a sweet tooth, Cuberdons are a popular cone-shaped jellied sweet that are, reputedly, good for hangovers. That hangover will almost certainly have been induced by drinking Genever, the local juniper flavoured gin that comes in distinctive clay bottles. As you’d expect from Belgium, there is plenty of beer and chocolate on offer too.

In terms of other delights, Ghent’s Tierenteyn mustard is fiery without being eye-watering and, for those with a sweet tooth, Cuberdons are a popular cone-shaped jellied sweet that are, reputedly, good for hangovers. That hangover will almost certainly have been induced by drinking Genever, the local juniper flavoured gin that comes in distinctive clay bottles. As you’d expect from Belgium, there is plenty of beer and chocolate on offer too.

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If you’ve not ruined your appetite with grazing and are up for a restaurant meal, then you’ll be truly spoilt for choice. There’s the usual “international” suspects – French, Greek, Italian, Thai and Chinese – but it’s worth making the effort and experimenting with one of the Flemish eateries (mainly mussels, frites and mayo-free). Ghent is fast earning a reputation as a fine dining paradise so, if you’re a self-confessed foodie (and many visitors are), check out a number of its more upmarket restaurants notably Volta, J.e.f, De Vitrine and Naturell.

And after dinner? Well, the Ghent nightlife is best described as jazzy – with syncopation and improv clearly ruling here after dark. For live music, try Pub Hot Club De Gand, but don’t forget your shades.

Ghent’s love of a good time extends to its festivals. Gentse Feesteneach, the annual July music and theatre fiesta lasts 10 days – with the last day known as ‘the day of the empty wallets” – and attracts around two million visitors. Depending on when you visit your trip may coincide with the Film Fest, the Odegand musical happening along the canals, the street “food truck” festival or with Ghent Floralies, the flower and plant show. The city even has an electronic dance (“Ten Days Off”) festival. Oh, and there’s a jazz festival too, but you probably guessed that.