I spent the last 3 days in the Belgium city of Ghent having secured a bargain return trip on the Eurostar from London and taken advantage of near empty hotels almost giving their rooms away.
I always love going on the Eurostar and not just because I hate flying. It’s just such fun to go on a train from London and disappear in a tunnel under the sea and arrive just a few hours later in a foreign capital. We’d seen the beautiful spires of Ghent on a similar weekend away we made to Brugge a few years earlier but we hadn’t quite expected just what an amazing city Ghent is or how we could be there just over 4 hours from leaving our house. I’ve had plenty of times when I haven’t got across London in the car in that time!
Belgium is a very small country but with very friendly people who all seem to be able to speak almost perfect English. Like other neighbouring cities, Ghent has a long history of trade with both England and Scotland, especially in the wool trade which secured its wealth and great status and led to the building of its many fine abbeys, cathedrals and churches. Thankfully it escaped major damage during occupation in the world wars and its off-peak season combined with sub-zero temperatures meant that we pretty much had the city to ourselves.
We stayed in the Riverside Hotel and got the luck of the draw with our room backing onto a river across from which sat a number of chilled looking jazz lounges. We made a promise that we would check out these smooth bars out on saturday night.
We had really come for Ghent for the city streets, rivers and canals and the fantastic looking churches. Ghent also has trams and a magnificent castle as well as many bustling shopping areas and several markets. Though we were out for several hours on Friday, it was mostly just to explore and get our bearings as well as checking out some of the local delicacies. Like many other areas of life, Belgian supermarkets stock a curious mixture of British, French and German goodies and we bought enough of the non-familiar foods to sustain us on our trip.
Ghent is full of beautiful squares, some very small and intimate and others vast and inspiring to look at. Our hotel was near one of the largest, Vridgagmarkt Square which was bordered by antique shops, bars and restaurants and two incredible looking old Socialist buildings in one corner, the like of which I have rarely seen anyway else. In the middle of the square is a statue of Jacob van Artevelde and for the last 500 years or so his arm has been stretching out to England where during the 100 year war between England and France, he sided with the English not least because of lucrative wool trade between East Anglia and what is now Belgium. His decision brought wealth and prosperity to Ghent but also led to his death in a series of popular uprisings against his rather dictatorial rule.
Wherever you are in Ghent, you’re not far from a magnificent church of some kind. We came across St James Church on our way to the hotel and we visited it each day of our stay. Some of the church dates to the Romanesque period but much of it has been added to through the ages and the interior is full of dark marble and granite decorated with ornate little chapels and magnificent works of art, so typical of Catholic Flemish churches across the region. As I do these days on every holiday, I lit a candle for my mother and was glad to see it there 2 days later albeit all burnt out.
There was so much to see and experience that we didn’t go inside the magnificent Gravensteen Castle but it did look a good castle from the public areas we went to. Nearby in another small square there were some traditional sweets known as the Red Noses of Ghent. Apparently the residents of the city used to be quite found of their beer, something still apparent in the number of pubs, bars and Belgian beer shops on ever street corner. The excess alcohol would make the skin on their faces and particularly noses turn red. We bought a freshly made batch and took them home with us!
In between visiting various shops selling local specialities of chocolate, lace and tapestries, we also visited just a few more of their magnificent churches. I believe there are 24 Roman Catholic and just 2 Anglican churches in the historic city centre, a disparity no doubt caused by the Spanish occupation just a few centuries ago. In one church we were lucky enough to witness the church organist practicing so we sat with a dozen other people and enjoyed a free concert for a good half hour if not more.
Ghent also has its famous Book Tower which looks rather like a church steeple but filled with millions of books. We didn’t get to see that except from a distance but there were so many fine buildings that we didn’t feel it was a particular loss. We must have walked for around 8 hours on Saturday, occasionally basking in the bright sunshine despite the sub-zero temperature in a way that only those of us from cold countries can appreciate. There was often a cold wind along the rivers and canals and blasting round the squares and the fact that it snowed a little each night meant we had to watch our footing on the miles of cobble-stone streets.
After returning to our hotel for an hour or so, we then headed out to see Ghent at night. At the end of January, Ghent hosts an annual light festival where its magnificent buildings are all lit up with lasers, coloured lights and holograms. I can imagine just how amazing it must look as it looked out of this world even in the normal night lighting. We were out for another good 2 hours exploring narrow lanes and big squares, peering in at all the traditional shops and very plush looking brassieres before at last we found ourselves at the little jazz lounge opposite from our hotel window where we spent the evening listening to music and sampling some Belgian Blonde beers.
The next day it was time to pack our bags which took all of about 30 seconds. We had several hours before our train back to Brussels and then on to London so we did some more exploring. We came across a flea market outside St James Church so were happily diverted for an hour so. There were many things we would have bought if our house were more suited for antiques. A number of fantastic bronze statues that looked like they would be at home on Titanic, some old Flemish paintings and chez long that we could barely lift let alone carry on the train! There was also a fine number of WW1 memorabilia including some pointy German helmets and a number of swords and rifles.
Less tasteful to my eyes were the large number of Nazi era daggers, emblems, clothing and the like. With their distinctive style and ominous history, it wouldn’t be anything I would be interested in owning. But then what can I say, the first time I went to Berlin I bought myself a Communist Russian tank commanders hat which is actually still probably the warmest piece of clothing I have ever had and would have been perfect for the weekend in Ghent.
Instead I came away with an antique Barometer which gives the temperature, humidity and air pressure on three different dials. I’ve always wanted one but a new one in the U.K. can easily cost £200. 8 Euros for this one seemed like a real bargain even if it didn’t work… happily I can confirm that it does work perfectly and most of the spending money we took with us is now all ready for our next trip.
I hope I get to visit Belgium very soon, having visited the country 4 or 5 times, it is a wonderful place to visit and often overlooked. Whether you go to Brussels, Ghent, Brugge, Ypres or one of the smaller towns, it would make for a great trip.