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A Fabulous Getaway:
Ghent: Jewel of Flanders
A breathtaking journey through time, and one of the hottest towns in Europe. History steeped in every cobblestone, beauty, fun, great food and an enchanting atmosphere are a treat for the entire family
By Simone Zarmati Diament
An hour away from Brussels by train, the flourishing city of Ghent is at the confluence of four rivers. The fresh and earthy smell of river water rises from the rivers and the canals that were built to facilitate trade. Besides being the commercial lifeline of the city, they were coveted as a passage way to Europe by an endless succession of invaders. Every step in this most charming historical city attests to its rich past.
Whether in summer during the ten day Ghent Celebrations held every year in July where the inhabitants go all out with theater performances, concerts, singing, dancing, and drinking, in the Fall, or in winter at Christmas time, this un-touristy city filled with university students, cafes, well priced restaurants and vibrant energy is a treat for the entire family.
What to see
The Belfry (€ 3.00/ students & seniors € 2.50, children under 12 free)
Going up the 252 steps (but there’s also an elevator) of the Belfry is a must: The highest point in town, overlooking the city and topped by a fearsome dragon, the 14th century monument which used to be manned by four soldiers who would warn the burhers of a fire or an enemy invasion is fraught with legends and stories. They say that no one dared approach the belfry lest they be doused with the soldier’s excrements. A prison and a dungeon at times, it gave birth to the legend of the Mammaloken personified by a bas relief of an old man suckling his daughter’s milk. Go in and you will learn all about the ancient art of bell making, bell concerts and chimes, besides having the best bird’s eye view of the city.
The Meat Hall or Groot Vleeshuis, a 14th century meat house on the pillory square is now a market showcasing some of the region’s specialties. Country hams hanging from the rafters, raw-milk cheeses, chocolates and beers are all served at restaurants and cafes under the original wood roof.
Mustard of Ghent Across the pillory square is the Mustard House where Catherine Caesens, the owner, manufactures one of the best mustards in the world like her father and forefathers did before her since 1790. Mustard jars make for great gifts: € 3.70 for 2 jars of great Ghent mustard.
The granary, the oldest building on the canal is now a Belga Queen Restaurant
Saint Bavo’s Cathedral (free entrance) With no less than 22 altars, the cathedral is filled with art treasures including works by Reubens and Hieronymus Bosch . You can see the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck’s famous polyptych “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” painted by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck in 1432.
(€ 3.00/ students & seniors € 2.50, children under 12 free) The astonishingly modern painting, painted on both sides of the canvas, survived 16th century wars of religion, was claimed by the French during the Napoleonic wars, and by Nazi Germany during World War II. It was nearly blown up in a salt mine in Austria where it was hidden. One part of the polyptych, stolen in 1934, is still missing.
Ghent is one of the few cities that has integrated its history to modern life.
It is a university city where a large number of young people live today a hyper modern life with techno music and cyber culture, and still play pranks on the statue of Jakob Van Artevelde (1290-1345).
A Flemish statesman and a brewer by trade, he wove an alliance between all the Flemish towns and stood up to foreign intimidation to trades people in West Flanders. He embodies resistance and rebellion), stealing his sword, hanging yoyos from his finger or dressing him up in most improbable garbs, as students did hundreds of years ago.
It is also a gay-friendly city where over 70 gay couples were married last year.
The placid and fun atmosphere belies the tensions rooted in the tense political situation. An extreme swing to the right in Flanders, democratically elected parties nibbling away at the federal Belgian system shake up the foundations of this relatively young country. Yet, political squabbles vanish before the beauty of the scenery. And history takes over.
Walking, people watching, shopping and eating ranging from Michelin-star restaurants to little eateries and street food vendors, you’ll go from one surprise to another.
The best way to discover Ghent, especially when you have hungry youngsters in town, is through Culinary Walking Tours with multilingual guides and sightseeing through the historical city centre. They offer a wide variety of guided tours ranging from 1.30 hours to 4 hours, from € 10 to € 45 : nibble (cheeses, hams, chocolates, sweets like at Temmerman’s Candy and Sweet Shoppe... and more) dinner, lunch or even a night tour. FOTO 2519, 2520, 2521 They also offer Culinary Walking Tours of Ghent, Brussels, Ostend and Bruges. www.Vizit.be
Beautiful Boat Rides
Boat rides are a most wonderful way to round up your stay in Ghent. Every fifteen minutes or so there’s a boat – open or roofed - with a multilingual guide to make you discover the city from a different perspective.
As your boat glides on the Venice-like canals and under the many bridges, you can see the magnificent Gravensteen Castle or Castle of the Counts built by Philippe of Alsace in 1180, and the elegant façades of historic buildings dipping their foundations in the water, all with a special opening to receive merchandise delivered in the age old way: by waterway.
Exploring by Bike
If coming by train (one hour from Brussels), rent a bike and explore the city and the country side. The advantage is that you can ride to neighboring towns and to the enchanted city of Bruges and leave your bike at the next train station.
Where to Stay:
From four star hotels in medieval buildings refurbished with state-of-the-art modern amenities to waterside little inns: http://www.visitbelgium.com/accommodations.htm#ghent
For More Information: Belgian Tourist Office, (212)758-8130, www.visitbelgium.com.
Photos and Text by Simone Zarmati Diament