Belgium Part III: Ghent -The Real Belgian Fairy Tale
Friday evening we arrived into the fairy tale village of Ghent. Ghent, also called “The historic heart of Flanders” and “Europe’s best kept secret”, is a really small town; less than 260,000 residents. A large portion of the population (about 70,000 people in fact) are students, which leaves the city feeling lively and dynamic. The rich history of the city, that dates back to the medieval times in the 11th century combines with this youthful, progressive population to create a fascinating and almost tangible mix of old and new.
We hopped on the tram from the main train station, Gint-Sint-Pieters Station to our Airbnb in Rabot, which was also coincidentally in the Turkish neighborhood of town (Just like where we ended up in Brussels!). Our Airbnb was a private room in an artist’s apartment. Our host was Reintje, a sassy middle-aged Belgium lady who teaches local dance classes and complains about her husband ditching her for a “younger, prettier” woman. Her apartment has lots of hanging plants, mosaic tile art and a cage of two fat parakeets that are free to fly around the kitchen whenever they please.
That night when we got in, Reintje showed us a map to the city and we went off to find dinner and explore. The city was dark and quiet, the Christmas lights were strung up on the restaurants and houses. It felt like we had entered a magical Christmas wonderland.
Nicole and I didn’t know what to expect and it was already dark, so we had some trouble finding our way around. But thankfully we were warmly welcomed by a few Ghentians, who showed us the way when they noticed that we holding the map upside down in the middle of the street. We wandered around the canals, saw the stone castle (The Travesteen) and got sushi for dinner near the old bell tower.
The next morning we had breakfast in the Airbnb, walked through Ghent for a bit and then headed off to Bruges for an easy day trip.
~~~ Just like the post about Brussels, if you prefer follow our travels chronologically you should read the blog about Bruges now.~~~
If not, feel free to keep on scrolling!
The bulk of our adventures in Ghent happened when we returned from Bruges. That night we took the train back and got dinner closer to Gint-Sint-Pieters Station, and then walked to a bar that our host highly recommended, called the Hot Club. Its a small, moody bar tucked behind a long mysterious brick alleyway with live music and an outdoor terrace full of small intimate tables with candles and plants. I got to try a favorite local beer!
The next day we woke up early and took advantage of our full day in the city! Breakfast in the Airbnb again, and off to check out some churches, museums, shops and markets. We wandered around on that quiet Sunday morning, feeling like we really were part of the city. I enjoyed the little artistic details of the city, the absurd amount of bikes, the painted windows, and the hidden, top-notch restaurants. It reminded me somewhat of Sevilla in the respect.
While we meandered into the downtown we couldn’t resist the temptation of the local candies in a fancy street vendor in the one of the main plazas. The most popular regional treat is called a “cuberdon” (or neuzeke), small bite sized sugary drops filled with ungodly sweet raspberry gel inside. To be honest, these little sugar noses were not my favorite; I preferred the marshmallows covered in a thin chocolate shell and powdered sugar. (You can see them below in the white cartons next to the purple cuberdons).
After grabbing our sweets we climbed up the Bell Tower, the Het Belfort van Gent or the Belfry, a proud monument of the city’s independence. On top of the tower is a small statue of a dragon, the symbol of the city. The alarm of the Belfry has been protecting the citizens of Ghent for centuries.
We climbed up the hundreds of stone stairs, read about the historical significance of the building and enjoyed checking out the old bells. As if that isn’t enough, at the top we got an amazing 360° view of the city!
After that we decided to grab a mid-morning waffle to munch on while we wandered around before joining a free walking tour of the city.
The tour guide showed us the main monuments of the city and talked about the importance of trade in the history of Ghent’s growth and architecture. The city first saw the light of day in 630, and because Ghent was built among canals and rivers, the marshy landscape was not good for growing crops. But thanks to strong European trading roots of mostly grain and wool, Ghent grew to be one of the most important cities. At one point Ghent grew so much that it was second in size to Paris!
We also learned about the old stone castle, situated in the middle of the downtown called the Travesteen, also known as the Castle of the Counts. The castle was first built in wood to protect the residents during the Roman occupation. After an attack from the Vikings in the Middle Ages the castle was fortified in stone. Fun fact! In 1949 the Ghent students protested in the castle about the increasing prices of beer – haha!
While we did learn a lot and got to check out some great scenic spots of the city, it was too cold to stand and listen for another hour and a half. So we ditched the tour early to go grab a delicious lunch at a small, hipster pizza place near the castle called Otomat.
After lunch we went to go see St. Nicholas’ Church, right next to the Belfry. The inside of the church is peaceful and beautiful; the massive stone columns and the stained glass were really incredible. You could feel that the church was very old – over 700 years old in fact!
There was part of the church building had been sectioned off from the main cathedral and converted into a space for local pop-up antique markets. We stumbled upon the market randomly, but really enjoyed checking out the vintage dresses, jewelry and old records, and we thought what a cool way to reuse an empty space in the middle of a city!
If there is one thing that I learned about the local population, is that they are so proud of their city and they want to maintain old roots while also embracing new modern ideas. (Like the market in the church!) Because the city is so small, the people of Ghent are very practical and useful with the space that they have. For example, they tuck the christmas market (ferris wheel and all) next to the old, stone butcher hall. And for god sake they have even experimented with the genius idea of combining a laundromat and a café and turned it into a hip hangout called WasBar. Genius!
Overall I was extremely impressed with Ghent, and left the city already thinking of when I could return. I couldn’t have asked for anything more in Belgium. While it was chilly during our visit, Ghent was incredibly charming during December. But it leaves me curious to what the city would be like during the summer…
Who knows! Maybe I’ll just have to come back and see for myself!