By the time we decided to visit our family in Belgium it was already too costly to take the high speed train from Amsterdam. Not to worry. The cheaper alternative came at the expense of 3-4 hour travel each way and very tight connections but overall it was a very easy and pleasurable trip.
After sight-seeing in Amsterdam one day, we caught a train from Centraal Station and by 8 pm had arrived in Antwerp where we met our family. We spent the night at home in Olen catching up over tapas into the early hours of the night.
The plan was to take the train into Ghent early in the morning but N’ku just couldn’t keep with the schedule.
We arrived in Ghent in the early afternoon. I had been promised beautiful medieval architecture, a festival atmosphere (Gentse Feesten), and Quetzal hot chocolate. I was not disappointed though I can’t say I experienced much of the festival which happened to be one of Europe’s largest street parties and tends to host over 2 million visitors over the course of 10 days. However, I must say that in the few hours we did manage to squeeze into Ghent, we got a lot accomplished without feeling rushed.
These are the highlights <cue Law & Order dun dun sound effect>
Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo’s Cathedral): A gothic cathedral that dates to the 12th century but is built on the site of the older Chapel of St. John the Baptist (942). Emperor Charles V was christened here in 1500. It is home to the Van Eyck brothers’ 1432 polyptych “De aanbidding van het Lam Gods (The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb)” which is also known as The Ghent Alterpiece. For €5, you can purchase an audio tour to learn more about the panels. It is one of the most coveted Christian artwork and has been stolen many times. Even Hitler had it seized. Other treasures spotted on my sprint around the cathedral included a baroque-style organ built in 1623, an impressive pulpit, a crypt full of church paraphernalia, tombs of Bishops, tapestries and frescoes, and countless religious art. This definitely deserves a slower paced tour!
Sint Baafsabdij (St Bavo’s Abbey): Founded by Saint Amand around AD 650, its ruins lie in a quiet oasis right in town. At this point, you may be asking, who is Saint Bavo and why does he have an abbey and a cathedral named after him?
Gravensteen (The Castle of the Counts): Right in the center of town is this impressive medieval castle built in 1180 by Count Philip of Alsace who died in the Holy Land during the Crusades. It is guarded by a knight (a tourist attraction for the children I’m sure) and is surrounded by a moat. Inside, it houses a grim museum of torture devices and other gruesome artifacts. There is a secret dungeon as well as a museum of historical weapons including chain mail, crossbows and swords. Spiraling passageways lead you to amazing views of the rooftops of old Ghent.
Stadhuis (Town Hall): Dates back to 1516 however was constructed by different architects over a period of years thus has a Gothic side and a Renaissance side. Odd!
The Belfry of Ghent (Ghent Belfort): Construction of this 95 meter tall tower dates back to 1313. We did not get to ascend it, but I certainly enjoyed its exterior. The façade is adorned with the ‘Mammelokker’ depicting the Roman legend of Cimon, a prisoner condemned to death by starvation who survives because his daughter, Pero, breastfeeds him daily during her visits. I was also struck by the clock which seemed to be in an odd position.
Sint-Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas’ Church): Right in the center of town it is one of the oldest churches and contributes to the impressive medieval skyline of Ghent along with the Belfry and the Cathedral. We are so used to skyscrapers these days but imagine.
Public open air (male) urinal: I offer this in jest as it was a sight for me to behold. At first, I did not know what these plastic structures were, but I soon saw them in use. They are not as obtrusive as you would think. My cousin demonstrated. He tells me, that particular urinal stunk. 🙂 Incidentally, there were also latrines in the Gravensteen also requiring a demonstration (upper right panel), lol!
Food & Drinks
Drinks and a tasty chocolate pie at Faja Lobi, a Surinamese bed & breakfast and café/restaurant. I could have easily eaten here.
Frozen yoghurt at Moochie where my cousin seriously devoured a Big Moo size concoction. I on the other hand opted for a coconut and Ferrero-Rocher flavoured ice cream cone from elsewhere.
Sampling Ghentse neuzen (Ghent noses) also known as cuberdon from a wooden wagon street stall. It is a purple cone-shaped traditional Flemish sweet that has a sugary crust and a gooey interior and tastes like a berry.
Forgoing the hot chocolate but having a quadruple chocolate shake from Quetzal – there’s more to life than chocolate but not right now. Indeed!
Trying out a jonge Jenever with dinner – a Flemish gin (Fanta in the background, just in case, beats out any orange soda in the US, including American Fanta)
Unlimited spareribs and baked potatoes on a red-checkered clothed table at Amadeus restaurant in the city center. N’ku initially whined about the heaping of nuclear orange coloured butter on her baked potato and discarded it to the side of her plate, only to realize how delicious it was and heap it back into the potato. She went as far as to ask what was in it only to be told “butter and a secret combination of spices”. Lol! She’s not alone in her approval of it. There’s actually a Facebook fan page for the Amadeus potato with 1837 likes so far!
Sadly, we ran out of time for a canal cruise but I can easily see myself in Ghent again. Ghent is brimming with culture and history. It is idyllic, beautiful, cute even, with its medieval churches and castles, and not to forget its party atmosphere.
Furthermore, I got to experience the pure joy of touring a place without any expectations or preconceived notions. This is rare as I’m an avid planner always trying to be in control of things. <sigh>
It was also pleasurable learning more about our cousins and imparting to them family history that they are unawares of. Till the next time. Zeeen!