Great times in Ghent!
Ghent, with its criss-crossing waterways and canals and magnificent old gabled buildings, is not only picture box pretty but has the distinction of being a real city, with a strong character of its own – a place where real people live, work and play.
With many landmarks and some fantastic shopping to occupy you in the day, Ghent is a fascinating place to visit and as dusk falls it really comes alive with its theatres, concert halls, cinemas, nightclubs and bars.
Most visitors to Ghent start off on St Michael’s bridge trying to take the perfect picture of the city’s three landmark towers and the bustling waterfront before making their way to the massive cathedral of St Bavo. Its huge underground crypts with their frescos are magnificent but it is the painting, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by the van Eyck brothers that draws the crowds. Painted in 1420-32 it is a huge work containing some 240 characters and an exquisitely painted landscape showing 42 species of plants and flowers.
Even higher than the cathedral tower is that of the Belfry topped with a dragon – a symbol of the wealth and power of the 14th century guilds. It is a handy landmark as the Tourist Information Office can be found in the basement.
Other examples of the power of the guilds can be seen down at the Korenlei and the Graslei quays, Ghent’s oldest harbour, in the form of the superb gabled houses. On a clear, sunny day these former guildhalls are reflected in the calm waters beneath, turning the scene into a photographer’s paradise. If one of the buildings appears to be leaning, don’t be too concerned. It is the 800-year-old Grain Weighers’ House and was built that way to facilitate raising sacks of grain.
Ghent has one of the most brooding castles imaginable. Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders, built it in the 12th century. In its time, it has also been a cloth mill and a jail. Most areas of the much restored castle are open to be public but what most people remember is the gruesome torture museum and the fantastic view out over the city from the top of the keep.
With museums ranging from art and design to psychiatry it is just as well that it is possible to buy a three-day museum card giving access to 15 of the most important museums and monuments. And for fans of Lewis Carroll’s work there will soon be the opportunity to view the original manuscript of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ which will be displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts from October to January as part of the British Vision exhibition.
Ghent is also a fascinating place for foodie shoppers and a good starting point is probably the Groot Vleeshuis where beneath the medieval wooden roof of the old meat market you can enjoy a meal and then shop for some of the local specialities in the enticing deli. If you see waterzooi on the menu – try it. It is a comforting dish, almost a soup-stew made with leeks, carrots, celery, potatoes and parsley with either chicken or fish as the protein.
Flanders is famous for chocolates and Ghent offers some of the best. Chocolate aficionados have been known to travel miles to Luc Van Hoorebeke’s shop close to the cathedral – you can actually watch chocolates being made thanks to the glass shop floor over the basement kitchen. Having indulged in Luc’s shop sweetie lovers often make their way round to Temmermans sweet shop (on the Kraanlei) for a selection of his treats.
And then there is mustard. On the Groentenmarkt is a tiny shop – Tierentyn. You can buy all sorts of preserves here but it is most famous for its mustard, perhaps to accompany the locally produced Ganda ham. Fresh mustard is made on a regular daily basis and jars can be filled to order to take home. Taste cautiously; some of the mustard is so hot it can bring tears to the eyes.
Should you be in need of something to drink after all the tastings make for the bar at the end of a tiny alley off the market square. Don’t ask for one of the delicious amber brews of Flanders beer for this bar sells only jenever - some 200 varieties of this gin-like spirit. Apart from buying in jenever from other producers, the owner, Pol Rysenaer also makes his own delicious concoctions infused with fruit or nuts. The fruit varieties are exceedingly Moorish but with some genever at 40% proof there can be a high price to be paid for overindulgence.
Ghent has some pretty lively markets too ranging from flea markets, crafts, flowers, produce, birds and animals. There is always something going on in Ghent – music, exhibitions and all kind of events including a film festival but the one to really look out for over the coming months is the Christmas market which takes place from 7th to 24th December. With wooden huts selling typical Ghent and Flemish Christmas items such as decorations, candles, cards and gifts as well as places to buy food and drink, this is an event not to be missed and the live choir performances and ice rink truly add to the Christmas spirit.
To book your trip or to find out more information on Ghent or Flanders in general go to www.visitflanders.co.uk.
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