Gent in Dutch, Gand in French. I will use the English spelling, Ghent, in this article. The name comes from a word meaning “confluence” and is the merging of the Scheldt and Leie rivers. In the middle ages it was the second largest and powerful city in Europe (behind Paris), and currently it is the second largest city in Belgium (behind Antwerp). Daniël Termont, the Mayor of Ghent, was the first runner up as World Mayor. I.e. he was voted second best mayor in the world!
If you are going to visit Ghent, make sure you do so for at least two days and get the Ghent Tourist Card. This card gives you access to 19 attractions around the city. The attractions by themselves would cost €87, while the card can be purchased for only €30 for 2 days or €35 for 3 days, and also includes all bus and tram transport within the city for those days.
If you really want to have fun in Ghent, come in July for the Festival of Ghent. This music extravaganza is attended by 2 million people each year, making it one of the largest festivals in Europe. Definitely something you don’t want to miss.
But I didn’t know about the tourist card when I arrived, and I missed the festival by 5 months. Despite that, it was two of the most magical days of my journey, and it’s now my favorite city I have traveled to so far. Here’s what I did during the weekend I was there:
I arrived in Ghent at 6 PM on Friday night, using blablacar.com from Brussels for €4. My host was only a ten-minute walk from where my ride dropped me off. The first thing we did was to go for a 5 km run along the canals, as she is training for the New York marathon! I’m glad I was able to give her some running pointers gleaned from the three LA marathons I ran and a little boost of inspiration as well.
After that, the real fun began. She drove me into the center of Ghent. As soon as I saw the Sint-Michielsplein bridge over the River Leie lit up in all its nighttime splendor, I knew I had arrived in my favorite town to date in my journeys. The mixture of Gothic and classic architecture, the waterfront cafes, the several massive churches with their skyscraper towers and the buzzing nightlife matched my idea of the perfect, historic European town.
After a few minutes walking through several of the quaint streets, we headed for an international cuisine restaurant and bar called The Mosquito Coast. WOW! As a vegan, she got the Lebanese falafel salad. I ordered the Mac Marrakech – an enormous lamb burger with a thick slice of tomato, several other vegetables and a delicious, spicy garlic sauce on a whole wheat bun, with couscous and salad on the side. Easily the best meal I’ve had in my travels so far, and it had a lot to compare to.
Next it was on to ‘t Velootje. This is a hole-in-the-wall pub that was actually shut down years ago, so now the proprietor basically lives in the place and invites people in for a drink when they knock. It is chock full of bikes, church artifacts, memorabilia and everything else you might find in an old man’s attic. Maybe not the best drink in town, but a truly one-of-a-kind experience that you have to see when you make it to Ghent. Update: the man has since acquired his license for his establishment, but it’s still the same unique location.
That ended our activities for the night in the center, but I must mention my host before I close out the day. She is quite the traveler herself, and she has published story and photo books for each location she has traveled to. Locations included Namibia, France, Iceland and many more. I had great fun looking through them that night with her. They were absolutely fantastic, included incredible stories and pictures, and were definitely an inspiration for me to follow suit.
I woke up Saturday to walk back to the city center in time to catch the Ghent free walking tour. The tour was great, and I learned some fascinating facts about the town. Here are some of the highlights.
First of all, Belgian beers each have a different glass. Hundreds of them! One glass in particular at the Dulle Griet bar is so famous and coveted that patrons must loan one of their shoes to the bar when ordering a beer in one, just to ensure they don’t run off with it.
There is also a history behind why many photos of European houses have the stair-like appearance on the front of their roofs. They actually are stairs, and were originally built into the house for the chimney sweeps. But they have a secondary purpose, and that was to show wealth. The more “stairs,” the wealthier the tenant of the house.
Ghent is home to the Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) cannon, from which the bar above gets its name. This super cannon is nearly 16 feet long, and its 660 mm cannon ball is sixth-largest on record. However, legend has it that the only time it was ever fired, the shot made it just a couple feet out of the cannon. More recently, the enormous capacity of the cannon has been used several times by college students as an impromptu sleeping location, even if they have to break the glass preventing such.
As mentioned earlier, Ghent was once one of the most prosperous cities in Europe. That ended when King Charles V of Spain came to Ghent to collect taxes for his wars in 1540 with 5000 soldiers. At the time, Ghent was actually part of the Spanish Empire. To make a long story short, the king humiliated the town, abolished the 53 guilds, destroyed two of the landmark churches and essentially stripped Ghent of its, glory, from which it never fully recovered.
Finally, I heard about the Ghent Altarpiece, otherwise known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It is a wonderful work of art on display in Ghent, and it has also been labeled as one of the more prized artworks in the world, not for its monetary worth, but for the fact that it has been the recipient of more crimes, including seven thefts, than most other pieces.
As mentioned, the tour guide recommended several food places to visit. So I visited them. All of them.
First on the list was the Souplounge. I got the paprika (sweet bell pepper) soup fully loaded with toppings: mozzarella, belletjes, croutons, kaas & groentjes naar keuze. I don’t even know what most of those words mean, but it was delicious. There were also tomato, carrot and chicory (spicy) soups. A regular (which is huge) with an apple and two buns was only €4, or you can get the groot (large) for €5. The atmosphere inside was also really nice, and they even had a second-floor dining area overlooking the canal. A great place to relax and pull out the laptop.
Next was another snack of frites (fries). Not particularly anything special about them, except that they were from fresh, not frozen, potatoes. They did taste a little better than average, but I’d had a lot of frites over the past couple weeks in Belgium.
Then I went for dessert. Yup, completely forgot about dinner that day simply having too much fun exploring the town. Dessert was a Belgian waffle. But as I mentioned in my post on Brussels, there are two types of Belgian waffles. This time I had the Liege waffle with whip cream and a little chocolate sauce. Much better than the Brussels variety. From what I gathered, Brussels waffles are the primarily type in Brussels itself, while the rest of Belgium mainly serves the Liege type.
Finally I left to go to my second host, this one more on the outskirts of the city. But I didn’t stay there long. Within minutes we were headed back into town on a couple bikes to attend a “house leaving” party. A friend of my host was moving out and threw a going-away party. I will never say no to a party invitation, and it was the seventh party a host has invited me to on CouchSurfing. Quite fun, good music and yet again met some new friends.
On Sunday, I started to explore the city a little more in depth. That was when I found out about the travel card – just a little too late. Most of the attractions are €4-10 each without it. But not all. I explored St. Nicholas Church and the crypts beneath. I visited several art galleries around town. And I went to Chocolato. They serve hot chocolate there, and forget what I said in my post on Brussels about their hot chocolate. This place is simply tops. Here’s what I said about them on TripAdvisor: “I’m going to keep this review short and simple. Not quite sure what to say about my experience here. Quite easily the best hot chocolate I have ever had, but I’m afraid it will spoil every cup of chocolate I drink hereafter, knowing how inferior it is to this place. The price is great, the selection is excellent, the experience (with the water to wash out your mouth first and chocolate chips to finish up) is amazing, and the chocolate itself will leave you warm and fuzzy inside.”
Another place I went to was the Marriott in the center. It happened to be converted from an old house of prostitution. But that’s only the facade on the canal. Walk inside and you’ll think you’ve just stepped into a luxury hotel in a big city. Huge glass walls, fancy modern bar, etc. It’s so funny to find something like that existing in this town. Not that I would want to stay there personally. Kinda spoils the whole experience.
I also need to mention Bubbles of Home, simply because it’s the most creative soap store that I’ve ever seen. Maybe there are more like then, but not that I’ve walked into. This place had so many different flavors of soap, it was incredible. There were berry flavors, herbs and exotic extracts (like lavender, verbena and sandalwood), rejuvenating soaps (like rosemary, argan oil and Dead Sea mud soap) and just about everything else. The bars of soap were highly concentrated and would last for months. But the best part was that none of the products were made with parfum or alcohol! Now that’s my kind of soap. I’ll definitely be purchasing a couple bars myself the next time I go to Ghent with a little more change in my pocket.
On my way to dinner later on, I saw a spectacle which is a great example of life in the town. While walking next to the canal, I suddenly heard the “I Wanna Be Like You” song from Disney’s The Jungle Book playing loudly from an open window a couple stories above the water. Then a man jumped up on the window sill and started dancing just like Baloo. He had quite an audience by the end of the song. It was one of those things that you just had to be there for.
Finally I made it to dinner. I went to the final restaurant on my list: Amadeus and their “All You Can Eat Ribs.” There are two in town, and I picked the one in the fancy Patershol district. Their menu: spare ribs and jacket potatoes. As much of them as you can handle. I arrived just a couple minutes after they opened and already the place was packed. Dinner was served a few minutes later. A foot-long strip of wonderfully marinated ribs and a jacket potato covered in a special curry and herb butter sauce, with a salad on the side. Every few minutes a waiter would come around with more racks of ribs. And more. And more. And more potatoes too. They were just too good to stop eating. But stop eating I finally did, at least of the ribs. That was when I saw the diners to my left served a wonderful looking desert, so I asked for one myself. A coupe dame blanche. Translate that to vanilla ice cream and whipped cream with a rich chocolate fondue to drizzle over it. Wow. But then the diners to my right were served their desert and when the waiter told me it was the Irish coffee, it didn’t take long for me to ask for one of those too. Double wow! I can honestly say that my weekend in Ghent had some of the best meals I’ve had in my travels. Not the cheapest place to eat, but boy was it worth it.
My glutton satiated, I headed home for bed. Too bad the Irish coffee kept me from actual sleep until 5 AM. But I was still fully satisfied with the weekend.
The next morning I got up to grab my train back to Brussels…then a bus to Paris…and another bus to Toulouse…and another train to Cahors…and another bus to Touzac, high in the French Pyrenees…but that’s the next story.
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for Ghent. Not that I want to see the town flooded with tourists, but it really is a place that everyone needs to travel to once. Or twice. I know I will be back. The Festival of Ghent is definitely calling to me. And I left too many friends behind that I need to see again. Someday.